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The Causes for Our Afflictions and Suffering
Suffering (Dukkha) is part of the human experience. This is not new, the first noble truth of the Buddha states that there is Dukkha. The Yoga Sutras also refers to Dukkha. According to both the yoga tradition and Buddhism, we exist in a cycle of suffering (Samsara) where we can trace the roots of our misery to the Kleshas (afflictions). But why are we suffering, and is there a way out of this suffering? In this short article, I talk about the Kleshas, Dukkha, and Samsara and I will shortly refer to the yogic answers to these questions.
What is Dukkha?
The Sanskrit word Dukkha refers to many kinds of suffering. It can be, but not necessarily always is, extreme suffering, like hunger or terminal illness. Dukkha refers to any unpleasant experience, that you and I, as human beings living in this world, are experiencing.
This could be the sadness of separation from something or somebody dear to us, frustration, anger, disappointment, insult, envy, failure, loss of any kind, betrayal from someone we trusted, and more. And of course, the existential suffering of knowing that our days here are counted and sooner or later we will get old, maybe become sick, our body will decay, and definitely, we will die.
The Endless Cycle of Samsara
Yoga and Buddhism share the belief in Samsara – the infinite cycle of life and death. When something is born, it must die sooner or later (in our relative phenomenal world). Being in Samsara, according to these traditions, is a cycle of suffering from which we need to get out. It’s like a prison from which we can’t escape and are doomed to be reborn over and over again, just to suffer, get old and die. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, you cannot deny the fact that we are born into this world without choosing to, and when we grow we realize that we cannot satisfy all our desires and cannot control most of the things that happen to us (most notably, we cannot stop the flow of time and cannot stay young forever).
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Why Do We Suffer? What Are the Kleshas?
The Buddha, Patanjali, and other spiritual teachers analyzed the causes of suffering, and tell us that the Dukkha we experience is not inherited in the world, but stems from our consciousness (or Chitta). The term Klesha can be translated to affliction and is used by Patanjali to describe a deep cause or root of suffering.
The Yoga Sutras defines five Kleshas as follows:
avidya asmita raga dvesha abhinivesha kleshaYoga Sutra II.3
This was translated by B.K.S. Iyengar, as:
The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are; ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I’, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death, and clinging to lifeLight on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The 5 Kleshas
- Avidya is usually translated as ‘ignorance’; but it actually refers to spiritual ignorance or delusion; not knowing what we really are; what is our real essence (which, according to yoga is pure awareness, or Purusha). We are deluded because we think we know, whereas in reality, we don’t.
- Asmita is the narrative of our life; the stories we tell ourselves; our opinions; our thought patterns, our habits, our views and so on. Because we don’t know who we truly are, we identify with this story about ourselves and don’t see our true essence (or Purusha – pure awareness).
- Raga is clinging to pleasant experiences.
- Dvesha is the aversion to unpleasant experiences.
- Abhinivesha is the fear of the ego from its extinction; it also means inertia, in the sense of a desire to continue the status quo (which is of course, impossible).
In what follows I will explain further these 5 Kleshas.
Avidya – Lack of Spiritual Knowledge
In Sutra II.5, Patanjali defines Avidya as follows:
antiya ashuchi duhkha anatmasu nitya shuchi sukha atman khyatih avidyaYoga Sutra II.5
This was translated by B.K.S. Iyengar as:
Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidyaLight on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
We can see that Avidya refers to four types of confusions or delusions:
- Thinking that the impermanent (anitya) is permanent (See more about impermanence);
- Thinking that the impure is pure
- Confusing pain (dukkha) with pleasure (sukha)
- Not knowing the real Self (Purusha or Atman).
In Sutra II.4 Patanjali tells us that Avidya is the source of all the other Kleshas, or in his words, the field (kshetra) from which the rest of the Kleshas sprout.
Let’s see what is the reason for this.
The Other Kleshas
If you are deluded about your true nature, then you identify with the phenomenal self, which is your body, mind, and emotions. You hold some narrative about who you are, what is your personal history, what are your preferences, and so on. This is Asmita. This narrative – Asmita, is, according to yoga, false in the absolute sense. You may need it to live in the world, so it is useful at the relative, conventional level, but if you identify with it, and think it’s really who you are, you will suffer. Asmita creates feelings of superiority or inferiority, both are not wholesome. For example, if somebody says bad things about you, or your last publication got negative reviews, you are hurt and suffer.
Asmita creates our cravings and attachment to pleasant experiences (Raga) and our aversion towards unpleasant experiences (Dvesha). If your happiness depends on impermanent things, like your body, your property, or your relationships, you’ll suffer once they are gone or changed. When you’ll get old or sick you suffer from the betrayal of your body. When the things you own are worn out, get lost, or broken, you will be disappointed and frustrated.
In our practice, we can observe our likes and dislikes (Raga and Dvesha) and study our tendencies. Some days we may experience more aversion toward the practice, and the hard work and discipline it entails. We may also develop a dependence on our practice, and might not be able to pass a day with balance and serenity if we don’t practice. This is a sort of Raga (attachment). We all have poses that we prefer more than others and maybe are attached to these poses and avoid those that we don’t like. Note that we may be more attached to suffering than to pleasures. Moments of humiliation or situations in which we were ridiculed or made to feel small come back to us much more frequently and with more emotional force than when we were admired or looked up to (which can also cause suffering when this admiration ceases).
These gravitations and attachments limit our freedom. Yoga calls us to go beyond our likes and dislikes. In fact, the effect of asana practice, according to Patanjali is to be immune to the dualities we experience in life and our clinging and aversions.
The last, and deepest Klesha is Abhinivesha – the fear of extinction; and more generally, any fear. According to yoga what actually dies is Asmita, our small phenomenal self. If you reflect on it, you’ll agree that the materials and the energy that constitute our mind and body are not dying, they just change form. Nothing can be extinct. What dies is our narrative, our life story that we are so attached to.
B.K.S. Iyengar divides the Kleshas into three groups: the first two are intellectual; Raga and Dvesha are emotional and Abhinivesha is instinctive. Patanjali says that the instinct of survival – Abhinivesha is found even in wise men, and Vyasa says in his authoritative commentary that it is found in all creatures, even in worms.
How to Overcome the Kleshas?
Talking about Dukkha and Kleshas may sound pessimistic, and some people think that yoga and Buddhism have a pessimistic worldview – nothing is far from the truth! Analyzing the sources of our suffering doesn’t create more suffering. You don’t suffer because you studied about Dukkha, but because suffering is a common experience. Yoga explains why we suffer and suggest ways to overcome this suffering. I think that sutra II.16: heyam duhkham anagatam (“The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided”), is the most concise and to-the-point expression of optimism. It says: don’t bother with the suffering of the past, they can’t be changed, don’t even bother with those of the present – instead, practice to avoid future suffering.
When we suffer we usually blame the external circumstances of our life, or we feel that something is wrong with us. Changing our life circumstances is often impossible and blaming ourselves for our suffering is not helpful. Yoga goes beyond that, by pointing out that the cause of our suffering is the way we perceive and react to the world. Indeed, attempting to improve our external environment in order to decrease unpleasant experiences is so natural for us and so ingrained in our consciousness, that we are not even aware that this is our strategy to avoid suffering. But this is not a helpful strategy. It is more promising, as yoga suggests, to study our aversion-clinging reactions and develop better inner stability and equanimity. In other words, yoga calls us to turn our attention inside and to attempt to change our behavioral patterns. This is not easy, but this is the only thing we can hope to change…
Yoga asks us to go beyond our identification with our limited personal narrative and to see the true nature of Reality, to see the common basis of all phenomena, and to realize that life is a river that can’t stop, it can only change form. It promises much more than transient pleasures. Ananda (bliss) is happiness that’s independent of external circumstances. Yoga asserts that it is possible for us to come to Ananda.
How to get to this realization – well, that is not easy, but in Chapter 2 Patanjali gives us frameworks of practice that can help us to get more discretion and wisdom in order to realize our true nature. These are Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga – which I discussed in another article.