Often when people begin delving into yoga philosophy for the first time, they have an inkling that there is some pretty good stuff in there but they don’t exactly know how it applies to their daily lives.
Particularly for us in the West, yoga philosophy takes a while to sink in. Part of my mission as a psychologist/yogi is to take the very relevant and usable ideas in yoga philosophy and make them accessible to everyday yogis.
For example, as we get to know ourselves with greater clarity through yoga practice, we start to see the ways we make ourselves (and others) suffer needlessly, which are our kleshas.
The kleshas are outlined in the Yoga Sutras (II.3), where they are described as obstacles to our spiritual growth, or more the point, afflictions. They are tendencies we all have that may be so ingrained that we aren’t even aware of them. They can be present to different degrees: truly advanced yogis are said to have only remnants of kleshas, while the rest of us seem to bounce from one to the other most of our waking hours.
There are five of them: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to bodily life. Let’s take a quick look at each:
:: Ignorance (Avidya): All of the kleshas have their basis in ignorance, which refers to our not knowing the way things really are. Despite our best efforts, we spend most our lives unable to see the ultimate nature of reality. This isn’t really our fault; I believe it’s because of the way our brains tend to interpret things. Our brains are only able to take in a certain amount of information, and this limits the way we experience life. For example, we experience life as if we’re separate from others, when on a very basic level, we’re not. Scientists will tell you that we’re all connected, but it sure doesn’t feel like that when you’re having a bad day. We tend to see things only from our own limited perspective.
:: Egoism (Asmita): So this tendency to view ourselves as separate, as an individual independent of others causes us to develop an ego, or your sense of “me”. I think of the ego as the part of yourself that is really trying to help you, but since it’s laboring under the misconception of separateness, is often misguided. The ego makes decisions on your behalf, often without considering others or the long term consequences. And it has preferences. Oh, how it has preferences! Things we can’t seem to live without (attachments) and things we can’t stand (aversions).
:: Attachment (Raga): I’m pretty sure life wouldn’t end if I couldn’t have my iPhone, but I hate to think about it. I’m attached to the thing. And about a million other things. We all are. When something brings us pleasure our brains want to repeat that experience and on some basic level we expect the things (and people) that give us a moment’s pleasure to make us happy. Maybe intellectually we know that looking for happiness outside ourselves doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop us from acting as if it did.
We become so habituated, so identified with the things we love that we rationalize or maybe don’t even question our desires. This searching for happiness outside ourselves is at best a waste of time and energy, and at worst a cause of further suffering, because things—and the buzz they give us—don’t last. And we all know that letdown when your prized iPhone (or whatever!) is no longer the latest, greatest model and you start craving the new one.
:: Aversion (Dvesha): You know how one little thing that doesn’t go your way can put you in a bad mood? Your sports team loses. You show up for your favorite yoga class only to find out a sub is teaching (oh, the horror!). We let our attachment to having things the way we want them, to having our preferences catered to get in the way of our happiness. When we are confronted with something we don’t like or didn’t want, somehow it becomes much more than that. What if we could just coexist with the things (and people) we don’t like, without getting into such a snit about it?
:: Clinging to bodily life (Abhinivesa): or more simply put, fear of death. Ah, the fear of death. There are many psychologists and philosophers that believe that this is the one thing we all have in common – whether people admit it, or are aware of it or not. It can take the form of a midlife crisis, extreme religiosity, fear of the unknown, or almost any flavor of neurosis out there. This one goes pretty deep.
So what to do when kleshas arise? My simple recipe is to follow the 4 A’s: Attention, Acknowledge, Allow, Accept:
:: Pay Attention to what arises in your mind. That is to say, just try to notice when desire, aversion or one of the other kleshas comes up.
:: Acknowledge what comes up: don’t try to deny or push it away. If you’re craving Ben & Jerry’s, admit it to yourself! It doesn’t mean you’re condoning your craving – but you do need to be aware of what arises so you can deal with it.
:: Allow kleshas to come, and to go. Again, try not to struggle with them or prevent them, but imagine your mind has an in-door and an out-door. Keep both doors open and try to let go of obstacles rather than fight or give in to them.
:: Practice Accepting. Kleshas are part of being human: we all have days when we’re full of aversion, desire, and ego. The idea is not so much to be free from them (though that would be nice! Maybe next lifetime) as to learn to coexist with them and not let them control or define you.
Of course, this is just a very quick intro to get you familiar with the kleshas. In my next installment, I’ll take on Kriya Yoga, which is Patanjali’s recipe for working through kleshas through discipline, self study and surrender. Stay tuned.