Understanding Your Suffering with the 5 Kleshas
One of the most useful things I learned in my yoga teacher training was the concept of the 5 kleshas, or root causes of suffering, or hindrances.
Ever since I learned about the kleshas, from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, I have used them in both my personal life and to help understand the world around me. I take comfort in identifying and naming something before trying to figure out how to fix it or put up with it.
Understanding the kleshas
Here are the 5 kleshas as I understood them from my yoga teacher training with Three Trees Yoga:
- Avidya (ignorance)
- Asmita (ego or I am-ness)
- Raga (desire or attachment)
- Dvesa (aversion)
- Abhinivesha (fear of death or change)
Throughout this blog post, I will also include the translation and interpretations of Ravi Ravindra from his book The Wisdom of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
Before Patanjali goes into the kleshas, he says in verse 2.2 “Yoga is for cultivating Samadhi and for weakening the hindrances (kleshas).” Samadhi, the last of the eight limbs of yoga, is about the spiritual ecstasy that comes from practicing things like ethics, asana, and meditation. I want to start there because it reminds us of the greater purpose of yoga.
"Avidya is the cause of all the others, whether dormant, attenuated, intermittent, or fully active." Sutra 2.4
"Avidya is seeing the transient as eternal, the impure as pure, dissatisfaction as pleasure, the Non-Self as Self." Sutra 2.5
The idea is that ignorance is what causes the other forms of suffering in the kleshas. I like to think of this first klesha as the big picture cause for suffering. We are all in pain because we lack knowledge. Sometimes it's the little things, like not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow... Other times, it's the bigger things like not knowing who we are, or why we are here that ends up bothering us.
Ravindra says "...the root cause of all of these kleshas is ignorance. This is so according to all the sages in India: the basic source of our human predicament is ignorance of our own true nature and of the nature of the cosmos. Everything else follows from this." (p. 60-61)
Asmita (Ego or I am-ness)
"Asmita is the misidentification of the power of seeing with what is seen." Sutra 2.6
According to Ravindra, asmita is translated to "the sense of a separate self." To me, this says ego all over it. It's easy to get hurt when you are coming from a place of "I" and forget that there is interconnection in the world. I have a wonderful teacher and mentor who says "We forget that when we hurt others, we are actually hurting ourselves."
I think it's also harmful when we forget to look at our true selves, at our souls and act from that place. Whereas avidya is about the big picture, I like to think of asmita as being more about the individual.
Raga (Desire or Attachment)
"Raga arises from dwelling on pleasant experiences." Sutra 2.7
Raga can also be translated into attraction.
I personally think that this klesha is the easiest to identify. We are all so prone to desire, and it's quite human. But attachment can also hurt us in many ways. Whether we are attaching ourselves to expectations, people, or habits... It can be harmful when we begin to rely on what we think makes us happy.
I like to think of raga as the danger of loving something too much. After all, too much of a good thing, can be bad.
"Dvesha arises from clinging to unpleasant experiences." Sutra 2.8
Dvesha is the flip side of raga. Whereas raga is about the danger of loving something too much, dvesha is about hating something too much.
Here's something interesting Ravindra has to say about dvesha, that I believe speaks to the way our brains are wired to overemphasize negative things:
"Moments of humiliation or situations in which we were ridiculed or made to feel small come back to us much more frequently and with a larger emotional force than the moments in which we were admired or looked up to. Experiences of suffering, especially psychological suffering, create deep grooves in our psyche, drawing attention to themselves quite mechanically and frequently." (p. 63)
Abhinivesha (Fear of death or change)
“Abhinivesha is the automatic tendency for continuity; it overwhelms even the wise." Sutra 2.9
Finally, we reach the last klesha. It's simple really, it's the dreaded end. Death. Whether metaphorically or literally, change is hard. It's much easier to cling to dear life, or wherever the current takes us (status quo). But that causes suffering, because then you are simply in denial of the unknown.
Life is dynamic and everything is impermanent, and to think otherwise is foolish.
Ravindra says, "Dying daily is a spiritual practice--a regaining of a sort of innocence, which is quite different from ignorance, akin to openness and humility. It is an active unknowing; not achieved but needing to be renewed again and again. All serious meditation is a practice of dying to the ordinary self." (p. 64)
How to Deal with the Kleshas
Although I will gladly sit and identify all the kleshas I recognize inside of me (they come up while I meditate often), it's not productive unless I do it with acceptance and self-compassion.
If you'd like to explore the role of the kleshas in your life, here's a journaling exercise for each of the kleshas.
- What comes to mind when you think of that particular klesha?
- Have you ever struggled with that klesha, whether from your thoughts or being around others? When?
- How could you ease that klesha? How can you change the story you tell yourself? What does the opposite of it look like to you?
As I strive to understand my suffering with the kleshas, I make sure to do it without judgment because the truth is, all humans suffer. Looking at my kleshas is a way to detach from my suffering and see who I truly am underneath my vritti (mind chatter).
I leave you this week with one final quote from Ravindra.
"Vrittis are a result of human conditioning--which varies from person to person--but the kleshas are a result of the human condition to which we are all subject. Efforts to be free of both the vrittis and the kleshas require a sacrifice of our smallness and of our attachment to the way we are. What is needed is a dying to the old self, in order to allow a new birth, a spiritual birth." (p. 65)