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In a previous article, I explained what are the Kleshas. In this article, I would like to return to this subject and demonstrate how the Kleshas (afflictions) and the Vrittis (in this context: movements of the consciousness) are connected and how to encounter these connections in our practice.
Yoga, like other traditions developed in the East, is meant to overcome the universal experience of Dukkha. Dukkha is a wide-ranging term that refers to any unpleasant life experience. These could be situations that are subjectively not agreeable or satisfactory to us, such as aspects of our experience that we are aversive towards and want gone (which is often impossible), or aspects that we do want to incorporate into our experience but cannot. To put it more concisely, these are our likes and dislikes, or our aversions (Dvesha) and desires (Raga).
If you ask the common person on the street about their suffering, they may mention an aching back, an annoying boss at work, a desired job that was lost, the betrayal or loss of a loved one and so on. These are all very personal reasons, our life stories. Western psychology focuses on understanding these life stories and learning to behave in a manner that will decrease suffering. Yoga, however, is interested in the deeper, universal causes of suffering. The key factors that cause the existential suffering which is common to all humans. The exploration we do in yoga is quite different than that done in psychological treatment. We are not interested in a specific life situation, but in the underlying layers that generate these situations and stories.
According to Patanjali, there are five such deep causes, which in Sanskrit are called: Avidya, Asmita, Raga, Dvesha & Abhinivesha (see the previous article to refresh your memory).
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Observing the Kleshas
Avidya and Asmita are difficult to observe directly. But we can observe and explore Raga, Dvesha & Abhinivesha. It can, and should be done also in our daily activities, but yoga practice can be used as a lab. We take time to be with ourselves and observe our tendencies. Asana practice gives us special access to ourselves – when the mind becomes quiet, we can see more clearly these tendencies. We need to ask ourselves: how do we react to challenges and limitations? How do we deal with our shortcomings and limitations? Do we sacrifice our health and well-being just to achieve something – all these and more can be seen in our practice, especially in self-practice.
In a class situation, we can observe our pride, our tendency to compete, excel or try to impress the other students or the teacher. We want to be noticed; we want to be loved – this is natural. But if our main motive is to impress other people; if we do things just to get positive feedback, then we can easily fall into the dual trap of fame-blame. As long as we get good responses, we are happy, but the moment we are criticized, scolded, or admonished, we lose our well-being and become miserable. The opposite tendency: to avoid trying, to feel inadequate, to be pessimistic about our ability to improve, is the other side of the coin, which is another expression of Asmita (ego).
Observing Raga and Dvesha
Observing these aversions (Dvesha) and attractions (Raga) can teach us a lot about ourselves and about the roots of our suffering and our afflictions. We can also observe Abhinivesha – the basic fear of losing our individual existence. Often when we try to do backends or inversions we face fear. We are not used to bending backward; and because we can’t see what is behind, backbends, especially dropping from Tadasana to Urdhva Danurasana, or from Sirsasana to Viparita Dandasana, we go into the unknown – and what is death if not going to the unknown?
We can observe our reaction to fear and check if it’s proportional to the risk. Often, it’s not. There are many safe things that cause fear – for many people Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Full-Arm Balance) is frightening – although they are strong enough to hold themselves. Often just padding the wall with bolster releases this fear. We need to check our reaction to fear. Fear is natural and essential to our survival but are we overreacting?
By observing Raga, Dvesha & Abhinivesha, we can get to know the Asmita – the phenomenal small self that fears its own termination. The one that makes up all these life stories, all these likes, and dislikes. And once we recognize the Asmita, we can get in touch with who we really are, which according to yoga, is pure awareness – unchangeable and undestroyable. Once the confusion about who we are is clear, once we learn to distinguish between the permanent and impermanent, between what gives lasting happiness (Sukkha) and what leads to misery (Dukkha), then we conquer the Avidya and get true Vidya (knowledge).
Practitioners of yoga know the term Vritti from the Parivritta asanas. There are few terms in Sanskrit to denote movement. Vritti refers specifically to circular movements. When talking about the movements of the Chitta (the consciousness), it means circular thinking; or reactivity, the Klistha aspect of Vrittis (remember that Vrittis can be Klistha afflictive, or Aklishta – not afflictive). These are automatic, non-wholesome reactions; like bursting anger, that can cause us to say things we later regret or behave in ways we end up regretting. By observing these reactions, we can learn to let go of the ‘automatic pilot’ that often drives our plane and respond in a better way to life’s challenges. B.K.S Iyengar said that it’s much easier to observe the Kleshas than to see the Vrittis directly.
In the first chapter he [Patanjali] deals with the five fluctuations and disturbances of the consciousness. In the second chapter he speaks of the five afflictions causing miseries or pains. They are on a gross level. Why did he not speak of pains in the first chapter? Because pains can be experienced at once by an ordinary person, whereas fluctuations cannot be experienced by one easily. He explains that the consciousness fluctuates due to pains. By working on the pains, the fluctuations cease and we are led from the external to the internal.Astadala Yogamala Vol 1 p. 144
Observing the Kleshas can teach us about the Vrittis
Dukkha can stem from realistic difficulties. This is the Pramana Vritti – we perceive the situation correctly, but there is still suffering involved. But more often it stems from Viparyaya (false perception), like when we meet somebody and interpret their facial expression as a dislike, which can be totally wrong. Dukkha can also come from our imagination – Vikalpa. For example, when we contemplate a threatening situation, which is non-existent, but still, we suffer consequent anxiety. Another source of suffering is memory or Smrti – bad memories and traumatic experiences can cause much Dukkha. Finally, even sleep, Nidra can be afflictive when it’s not satisfying or when we have bad dreams.
Asana practice can serve as a lab for observing the Kleshas. By studying them we can also learn about the nature of our consciousness and its movements – the Vrittis. This knowledge will help us to achieve a more quiet, stable, and balanced mind – Chitta Vritti Nirodha. Then we’ll achieve more clarity and be more immune to the emotional upheavals that we encounter in our life.