kleshas: the five afflictions

Thursday, February 11, 2016

As practicing yogis we will inevitably come up against difficulties in our lives. Sometimes they are related to practice (here's a post I wrote about that--> Obstacles to Practice) Sometimes they are challenges just associated with being a human in the world.
Which is challenging. Seriously.

What creates these difficulties?
In the yogic philosophy, the klesha(s) are five afflictions are the root causes of why we suffer as human beings. The kleshas are at the heart of life's bumps in the road. They are innate to all of us as humans, as we all experience difficulties and subsequent suffering.

Nicholai Bachman calls the kleshas "arguably the most challenging aspects of ourselves to confront, yet the most liberating after they are weakened and eventually removed." (The Yoga Sutras Workbook, pg. 82)
They tend to come up consistently when difficulties arise. So, on top of whatever trial we are experiencing, it may be exacerbated by the onset of a klesha and a deep emotional reaction as a result.

The 5 Klesha(s) 

1. Avidya (ignorance)
Avidya is root the klesha and it is said that all the other afflictions are caused by avidya. It's translated as unclear seeing, ignorance, not-seeing and lack of awareness. I personally prefer to think of it as "unclear seeing" because it suggests that it may be something that we just don't fully understand yet and also gives us the opportunity to eventually see things clearly.
Avidya may result from an inability to see things for what they are or from avoiding the reality of things as they are. Avidya happens when we see things as permanent, despite the impermanence of all things. Richard Freeman, yogi and yogic philosopher says, "This basic misidentification of the temporary as the permanent, of the happy as the unhappy, of the pure as the impure, this confusion generates all sorts of miseries." (The Mirror of Yoga, pg. 168) The antidote to avidya is to try and understand things as they clearly are. In interactions with others, try to understand their perspective. When you have emotions, feel them for what they are. If there is something that you don't understand, avoid talking about it as though you understand it. And if it interests you, try to learn more about it in order to fully form an opinion. 

2. Asmita (egoism)
Asmita is the ego issue and is sometimes translated as "i-ness." Asmita happens when we see ourselves as the epicenter of the universe.  It creates a separation of ourselves from the rest of humanity, as though we are somehow different having a completely unique experience. This may be related to feelings of superiority or feeling misunderstood. Often in asmita, we hold ourselves to different standards than we would others or feel that we can play by different rules. The antidote to asmita is to remember that we're a tiny blip in the grand scheme, but an integral piece in the order of the cosmos. We can work with feelings of ego by treating all humans as equal and valid and trying to imagine ourselves in other people's positions. What if we were all on giant universal team trying to work together harmoniously?


3. Raga (clinging to past pleasure)
Raga happens when we cling to our desires. When something feels good or makes us feel good, we want to perpetuate that feeling. We get attached to "good feels" and try to make them continue. Sometimes we do this to our detriment. Addiction disorders may arise from raga. 
The antidote to raga is acceptance that nothing is permanent and that the world is ever-changing in a constant state of flux. To work with raga we can begin to recognize when we are pursuing feelings of pleasure and joy, based on a past experience of the same feelings. We can work to try to feel emotions and experiences as they arise in each moment.

4. Dvesha (clinging to past pain)
Dvesha is the opposite klesha to raga and translates as clinging to past suffering. Dvesha happens when we are unable to accept experiences for what they were and are attached to their effect upon us. This may occur as a result of asmita or ego, and a feeling that no one could understand our particular situation. Dvesha may also arise when we become attached to something as permanent, which is impermanent and ultimately changes. In dvesha klesha, we perpetuate the notion of our own dukha (suffering). The antidote to dvesha is acceptance that nothing is permanent and that the world is ever-changing in a constant state of flux. Similarly to raga we can notice with our feelings in each moment as they arise and learn to recognize if it's a learned response based on a previous experience. It is okay to feel suffering and discomfort, but problematic when we are attached to a certain way of thinking/feeling based on a past event.

5. Abhinivesha (fear of death)
The final klesha is abhinivesha and it is the fear of death. Put another way, it's "clinging to the status quo." Abhinivesha is another way in which we are unwilling to accept the natural changing and fluctuations of the universe. We fear death because we don't know what's coming next. This klesha is deeply rooted in all humans, even the wise. The antidote to abhinivesha is to begin to accept the nature of the life cycle, not only for ourselves but for all living beings.

One notion that's very comforting to me, is that the ancient yogis recognized these difficulties over 2000 years ago. In other words, it's not a modern problem to experience discomfort and suffering and to wonder what to do about it.
All kleshas are weakened and confronted through yoga practice. Consciously living, making mindful choices about our reactions and interactions help us to work with the effect of the kleshas. Additionally, accepting and exploring our interconnectedness with the cosmos, with fellow human beings, with the ebb and flow of all things is a step in the right direction.

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