The Kleshas & the Nature of Human Suffering

By Stephie Clemens

“Seek truth, not peace.” –Yoganand Michael Carroll

This simple one-liner from one of my yoga teachers has always struck a chord with me but for the past few weeks, it has become a mantra. The simple yet profound statement has also become an invitation to step into the state of inquiry to explore what it means to live a life steeped in truth and authenticity.

Sri Patanjali’s first yoga sutra – Now, the inquiry of Yoga – invites an exploration into one of the most fundamental human questions, “who am I?” This practice of inquiry invites a systematic approach of “peeling back the curtain” in order to experience the seed of Self – whole, infinite, and immortal. Yoga teaches that what keeps us from realizing our True Nature, which is truth, consciousness, and bliss are obstructions. These obstructions or samskaras – limiting beliefs that have been adopted and cemented as perceived truth – create a web of ego and identity which ultimately creates the separation from Source. This disconnect from our True Nature can cause suffering and subsequently be viewed as the root of all disturbances across the layers of Being.

“Yogis discovered that there are two primary roots to physical suffering. One is craving and its many effects – greed, grasping, clinging, addiction. The other is aversion: fear, terror, hatred, avoidance, anger, resentment. …Yogis – practicing intensively over the course of hundreds of years – learned to reach in and turn off the switches that control fear, terror, aversion. To turn down the volume on hatred and resentment. And to systematically begin to reestablish feelings of well-being.” – Stephen Cope

 

Sri Patanjali expands upon on the roots of suffering in chapter two of the Yoga Sutras – Sadhana Pada: On Practices for Being Immersed in Spirit. This particular chapter is offered to the yoga student whose path is filled with obstacles. Patanjali gives advice on the nature of the mind, the nature and removal of the Kleshas or suffering, and how to live a yogic lifestyle.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.3 There are five primal causes of suffering: ignorance of the True Self and the value of spirituality; egoism and its self-centeredness; attachment to pleasure; aversion to pain; and clinging to life out of fear of death.

The five Kleshas are interconnected afflictions that contribute to one’s deepest samskara or suffering – the recoil and disconnection from Source. The I-self or ego has an intense fervor to separate from this deeply embedded implicit memory and seed of our very nature by creating layers of explicit memories through identity, story, and judgment – all which creates avidya or ignorance and the forgetfulness to the joy, beauty, and magnificence of the Divine Self.

Avidya

Avidya, or ignorance of True Self, is the most subtle but carves the deepest mental groove of all the afflictions. Avidya and the separation from the light of truth perpetuates the remaining four poisons. By remaining in a state of ignorance to who or what we are – we experience life through the potentially distorted lens of our senses and labels of identity.

Asmita

Asmita refers to the ego-mind or one’s unique “I am-ness.” Asmita is born out of Avidya and is the aspect of the mind that ensures that the sense of self remains safe and intact by the creation of limiting beliefs and false perceptions. Asmita is fueled by Chitta and the mind of samskaras – impressions and memories – which orients the yogi to the familiar and begins to color perception and then responds in accordance with previous experience – creating an intricate web of false narratives. Asmita may also be viewed as “having a soul” as opposed to “being a soul.”

Raga & Dvesa

Raga and Dvesa can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Raga is the attachment to pleasure or experiences that validate one’s ego or identity while Dvesa is the aversion to pain or any experience that negates Asmita. Tendencies in action where Raga is present may be dependency or addiction. When Dvesa is present, the tendencies move toward withdrawal or separation. The teachings of Yoga invite the practitioner to grow in the capacity to hold both states – creating a quality of equanimity.

Astavakra Samhita 1.6 Virtue and vice, pleasure and pain are of the mind, not of you, O all-pervading one. You are neither doer nor enjoyer. Verily you are ever free.

This later writing from the Astavakra Samhita refers to qualities of Raga and Dvesa, that these mental states affect and cloud us from seeing clearly when we identify with them as truth. Pain is a present moment experience – physical or emotional – it is the mind that creates the label for such a sensation. Some would argue that all emotion is born out of sensation. For instance, fear is born out of contraction – becoming rigid or frozen within the physical body – and acceleration – an increase in heart and breath rates. It is the mind that will perpetuate the feeling so that the sensation moves beyond a present moment experience to take up residence in the body and mind creating the quality of suffering.

Abhinivesha

Abhinivesha can be defined as the clinging to life, or fear of death. Abhinivesha stems from Avidya – the quality that has forgotten the unchanging and infinite Self – and is perpetuated through the qualities of duality – Raga and Dvesa – all of which that validate and bind us to our Asmita. Due to this fear-based affliction, a feedback loop between all disturbances begins to emerge and the yogi gets caught in a cyclical pattern between ignorance and attachment.

Overcoming the Kleshas

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.1 The practical means for attaining higher consciousness consists of three components: self-discipline and purification, self-study, and devotion to the Lord.

To rid oneself of the Kleshas, one must practice Kriya Yoga – the yoga of action – which invites the cultivation of tapas (discipline), swadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to Highest Self) within the framework of dhyana (meditation). By removing the layer of avidya and ignorance that covers the heart through the experiential knowledge of light and truth, all other suffering dissolves.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.2 These practices cultivate an attitude conducive to being absorbed in Spirit and minimize the power of the primal causes of suffering.

The first antidote to any obstacle is awareness – to observe that which arises without grasping or pushing away. By practicing dispassionate non-attachment and welcoming all that may arise with compassion, the lens through which the mind sees can be cleared – able to see the present for what it is – informed by past experiences but not colored by it. Through the myriad of techniques that seek to cultivate greater clarity, the yogi is able to sever the ties of identity and begins to recall True Nature.

“Awareness is not the same as thought. It lies beyond thinking, although it makes use of thinking, honoring its value and its power. Awareness is more like a vessel which can hold and contain our thinking, helping us to see and know our thoughts as thoughts rather than getting caught up in them as reality.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

The second antidote is to cultivate the behaviors opposite to the obstacle. To heed the advice of Patanjali’s first sutra and be in the space of inquiry – what obstacle or poison presents itself most readily in your field of awareness? Whatever may be present – in any given moment – start there and begin to cultivate the qualities opposite to the cause of the distortion.

Sri Patanjali continues to elaborate on the nature and removal of the Kleshas in the second chapter by offering the 8-limbed path of Yoga which begins with the Yamas and Niyamas. The Yamas and Niyamas are the ethical foundation of the practices and invites the cultivation of behaviors – both outer and inner – to transcend the causes of suffering in order to rest in Pure Awareness. For example, to skillfully work with Raga and Dvesa, the student is invited to practice aparigraha or non-attachment – which may be coupled with santosha (contentment) or Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to Highest Self). In my own practice and life, when I find that the idea of “letting go” causes even more struggle and strife, I consciously make the choice to shift and surrender to “let be.” By understanding and employing the vast techniques of Yoga, the practitioner is able to live with less fear – in turn, able to live with less suffering.

My yoga journey has taught me that any dis-ease begins in the realm of the mind and if the thought, experience, or story is given enough attention and energy; it will then begin to manifest itself into the other layers of Being. While I may never fully transcend the Kleshas or roots of human suffering, there is an invitation to tease apart the root experience from the stories and judgment that may surround – see the experience as the primal energy which may then offer an opportunity to shift the relationship with the experience. This shift may then offer growth and the ability to cultivate a new courageous and resilient sense of Self. By shining the light of Yoga upon such mental patterns and disruptions, I can begin to cultivate awareness and in turn, develop a greater capacity for compassion, strength, and inner wisdom – to marry my humanity with Divinity.

“Difficulties and hardships are bound to come. …If there were no hardships, you would never realize your inner strength. Although strength is always within us, it only comes out when difficulty appears. When difficulties and hardships arise, do not stop. Instead, continue on your way by having faith in God.” – Swami Kripalu

 

 

 

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About Kirk: 

Kirk was working 80-hour weeks and wearing his shoulders as earrings when he found yoga in 2005. Forever the competitive athlete, he loved the physicality of yoga. When the spiritual and philosophical side of yoga were exposed to him, Kirk was hooked. Yoga provided him with what other activities couldn’t -- the ability to foster the benefits of practice both on and off of the mat. Yoga was something that Kirk could bring into all aspects of his life. 

Kirk knows that yoga can be intimidating, so he crafts a class that is playful and inviting, while still being challenging and safe. His creatively planned classes build strength and flexibility in your body and mind while establishing clarity, giving you more confidence to overcome obstacles in your life, and keeping you injury-free. His classes are themed with a message that is relatable and will inspire you to take it with you off your mat. Kirk has been teaching yoga since 2008 and lead his first teacher training in 2012. Where Kirk truly shines is in coaching, developing and bringing out the best in others.  

Kirk enjoys traveling (40+ countries to date!), snowboarding, and cherishes time with his wife and two daughters. 

About Christen: 

Christen Bakken’s yoga journey began in 1998 in a Bikram studio that provided a safe and secure place to practice. She saw the yoga mat as a place to remember her purpose and a place to play. As she continued her studies and began her journey to teaching in 2006, Christen infused yoga classes with devotion and the yoga mat became a place of personal transformation and healing. Her classes are filled with laughter, song, sweat, and usually heart openers. In 2013, Christen began training yoga teachers. This is the place where she finds the most joy - in community with folks looking to grow and be of greater service in their homes, on their mats, and in the world. Over the years, she has led trainings in Denver, the Midwest, Florida, and now abroad. She has trained in continuing education modules, 200-hour, 300-hour, and 500-hour programs. Beyond the mat, Christen is a passionate adventure seeker - she loves to bike, snowboard, and spend time with her husband and pups. She sees each day as a blessing and hopes to remind all who interact with her of this truth.  

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The Kleshas & the Nature of Human Suffering Info