Obstacles to Higher Awareness: The Five KleshasDec 30, 2020 09:30AM ● By Sheila Ewers
The teachings of yoga recognize that disruptions on the path to awakening originate in both the external forces of the world around us and the internal field of our own awareness. Because we live in a material world, we have no choice but to deal with circumstances, like those of the last year, that create challenges. Still, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which are widely considered to be the authoritative texts on the theory and practice of yoga, we can choose to recognize our responses to difficulties and dismantle the habitual reactions that create suffering. The Sutras call these hindrances to awareness “kleshas,” which translates to “afflictions” or “poisons.” Overcoming our kleshas, advises the Sutras, leads to liberation from suffering in this life and from being locked into an endless cycle of death and rebirth.
The five kleshas are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to embodied life.
Ignorance • Avidya
Ignorance is at the root of all of the remaining afflictions. The philosophy of yoga presupposes that all sentient beings derive from one great sea of consciousness that is infinite, eternal and united, but most people see the world through a narrow lens that defines reality as limited to what we perceive through the senses. Yogis call this perception “maya”—the illusion that we are separate from the universe. The Sufi poet Rumi puts it this way: “You are not a drop in the ocean; you are the ocean in a single drop.” Having forgotten our true nature, we over-identify with all that is fleeting and temporal in the world rather than what is permanent.
What’s more, each of us has a unique perception of the world in accordance with our past experiences, beliefs and cultural integration, yet each of us believes that our thoughts are true, our perceptions are reality, and what we believe is absolute. Our entrenchment in these beliefs makes it difficult for us to harmoniously co-exist with those who see through a lens that bears little resemblance to our own.
Ego • Asmita
Once we believe ourselves to be separate from the whole, the second klesha develops out of a need to define exactly who we are. “Asmita” translates literally to “I-am-ness,” or ego. It encompasses the entire image we create of ourselves. It can have external references, such as, “I am tall/short, black/white and old/young,” and it can have internal references, as in, “I am bad/good, quick-tempered/patient, extroverted/introverted,” and so on. Most of us create many layers of an identity throughout our lifetimes, using our stories and patterns to help narrow and entrench the definition of ourselves into something we believe to be permanent and unique. We identify with how we look and feel, what we do for a living, our relationship status and so on, rather than seek to identify with the part of us that is changeless.
Attachment • Raga
Attachment inevitably follows the development of ego identification. Once we narrow our definition of ourselves to a particular identity, we begin to identify with what brings us pleasure, whether it is tasty food, joyful conversation, a hug from a child—or something more toxic like drugs and alcohol. In our modern world, we have almost unlimited access to what brings us pleasure. We seek more of the things that create joy—in relationships, experiences and sensations—and we fill our lives with as much pleasure as we can manage. The philosophy of yoga suggests that while we can and should appreciate the things that bring us joy and happiness, attachment to them causes suffering. Even happy memories can create disruptions to our equanimity when they become a source of longing or a sense of disconnection from the present moment and internal awareness.
In his book, Yoga: The Art of Integration, Rohit Mehta writes, “Life can be experienced. It cannot be held.” The affliction of attachment keeps us impossibly trying to hold what we love permanently; this clinging creates suffering.
Aversion • DveshaThe opposite of raga, dvesha refers to aversion—avoidance of that which produces an unpleasurable experience. It can be easy to recognize as it often manifests with strong emotional responses such as disdain, anger and sadness. Since we inevitably have things we enjoy and things we prefer to avoid, attraction and aversion are essentially two sides of the same coin. They are not inherently bad or wrong, according to yogic philosophy, but aversions can create suffering and limit awareness when they consume our thoughts. When we obsessively focus on what we perceive as wrong or bad in ourselves or the world around us, we cloud our minds with negativity and fail to see what is whole and good.
Fear of Death • AbiniveshaThe translation of the final klesha, abhinivesha, can be “clinging to life” as much as “fear of death.” The inescapable result of identifying with a finite self is the arising of a fear that nothing else exists and that death destroys all. To fear death is to fear the unknown, to resist change, and to cling to what is impossible to hold. Yet humans are deeply and subconsciously programmed to fear death above all things.
As we journey towards self-realization and begin to remember our true nature with a yoga practice, we begin to undo the suffering caused by the kleshas. Through consistent practice, self-study and a willingness to accept what we cannot change, we have the ability to dismantle the hold of these afflictions. When we see through the veil of ignorance that clouds our awareness and understand ourselves as infinite, eternal and whole, we are free from the bondage of our illusions and recognize that what we experience in the external world—even if difficult or challenging—is transitory. Then, even the greatest challenges hold no more power to disrupt our equanimity.