Klesha is a term used in both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Both traditions use the term to refer to negative mental states that lead to suffering and pain and prevent us from achieving enlightenment.
Klesha Deep Dive
The Kleshas in Samkhya
Purusha & Prakriti
Central to Patanjali’s understanding of the kleshas is the concept of Purusha (spiritual consciousness) and Prakriti (material consciousness). Whilst the first is eternal and unchanging, the latter is not.
Prakriti is actually everything else that is not the Self.
This is why Samkhya understands that the universe is dualistic. This system believes that the problem lies in the seer (Purusha) becoming entangled with seeable/material (Prakriti).
This is where the kleshas come in.
What are the kleshas?
Kleshas are mental afflictions that cause suffering in our lives. They’re states of self-inflicted or mind-created suffering, describing how we humans have an aptitude for making lives hard for ourselves!
We suffer through these kleshas because we identify with a particular aspect of the self, meaning the base of our identity is in the transient, material aspect of our personhood instead of the eternal one.
In other words, something painful happens to us (which is inevitable), and then we become attached to a certain aspect of the self and create a story around that pain which leads to suffering.
That story might sound something like, ‘why me? I’m a good person!’, ‘I don’t deserve to be spoken to like that!’, or ‘I’m just an unlucky person‘.
In yogic philosophy, these stories, attachments, and social conditionings are things that we need to deconstruct if we want to become liberated in this lifetime.
We need to become disidentified with the kleshas.
Patanjali states that the following kleshas have four potential states:
- Fully active
The Five Kleshas
This is the ignorance that many of us possess; the ability to be thinking about or experiencing everything else but the present moment.
We’re interminably focused on a past that has already happened or a future that has not yet arisen, leading us to stray from the true nature of the Self.
In this process, we mistake the impermanent for the permanent and what we believe gives us joy actually brings us more suffering in the long run.
When we take a moment to pause in meditation, for example, we can start to develop an awareness of the present moment and come to land in the Self. More often than not, the mind’s frenzied activity causes us to forget the true nature of the Self.
This klesha firmly establishes our false sense of self, concealing the Self (or Atman). We believe there to be no distinction between Purusha and Prakriti.
So I’m sure you can imagine how this is where it all starts to go wrong…
Sounds like: ‘what’s the point in X, we’re all going to die anyway’, ‘I think bad thoughts so I must be a bad person’, ‘I just can’t meditate. I’ve tried and my mind is too busy, so I’m not going to. It’s too hard’, ‘I’m the only person that matters’, ‘I am nothing more than this body’.
The sense of I-ness tied to the first klesha, ignorance.
This is when we prioritize what we believe the be the self, the little ‘I’. We believe that we are our thoughts, bodies, or sum of experiences, instead of unbounded, untainted divinity.
Perhaps we strongly identify with our house, our job, our partners, our bodies, our achievements, or our income and believe that our value is inherently linked to our material surroundings or our body image.
We don’t see reality as it actually is, we see it through the subjective, corrupted lens of our social conditioning. This is a lens that’s completely skewed and clouded by our samskaras (mental/psychological imprints or impressions).
Sounds like: ‘I’m a failure because I didn’t achieve X’, ‘that person hates me/has it out for me’, ‘why me? I’m so unlucky’, ‘I’m better than them’.
As Buddhists teach, desire is the root cause of suffering, and this is what Patanjali explains through the third klesha.
Raga is the attachment to these desires and is found in the belief that our happiness is dependent on external factors. It’s the clinging to feelings of pleasure or gratification that we get from pursuing things in the material world.
And guess what? Raga is fueled by the belief that we are a separate self and a confusion between the permanent and impermanent.
Sounds like: ‘I’ll be happier when…’, ‘If I can just achieve X, I’ll finally be able to…’, ‘why can’t I feel happy/life be good all the time?’, ‘I didn’t attain X so now I’m upset/sad/fustrated/angry’
Dvesha is the avoidance of things that we think will make us unhappy or we won’t receive pleasure from.
Whilst raga is about chasing, dvesha is about running away. Aversions cause us much pain, suffering, and anxiety.
The truth is that we can’t spend our lives running away from things that make us scared and only towards things that make us happy (or at least that we think will make us happy). This is a recipe for disaster!
If we refuse to step our out of comfort zone, we miss out on immense opportunities for growth.
Sounds like: ‘I don’t want to put myself out there because I don’t want to get hurt’, ‘I’m too embarrassed to do X’, ‘if I don’t have anyone to go with me, I’m not going to go’, ‘last time I did X, I felt Y, so I’m not going to do it again’
This is a fear of death and hence a clinging to life.
Whilst death is much more normalized in many Eastern countries, death is somewhat of a taboo in the West.
Just take dead bodies in the West, for example, which are taken away into a morgue so people don’t have to look at them. Yet compare this to Hindu death rituals which advise that the body should remain at home until cremation.
I remember listening to Ram Dass talk about how, when his mother was very ill and dying in the hospital, the staff used to pretend as if she wasn’t actually about to die.
Doctors and nurses would come to her bedside and say things like ‘you look much better today’ or ‘I think the medicine is working better’, serving to demonstrate how many of us avoid thinking about death at all and, even when it’s time, many pretend it’s still not happening.
Ram shared the wisdom that it’s not the soul that is afraid of dying, but the ego. He said ‘as long as you identify with that which dies, there is always fear of death.’
Sounds like: ‘I hate getting older’, ‘I’m scared to grow old’, ‘I don’t want to die yet, there is still so much more I want to do’, ‘there’s no continuity after death’, ‘I don’t want you to die/leave me’
Order Of The Kleshas
Patanjali lays them out in this order for a reason.
Avidya is the ultimate klesha through which everything else arises; ignorance or delusion becomes the seed of the source of suffering from which the other kleshas grow.
This ignorance leads to a sense of ‘I-am-ness’, leading to attachments and desires, and so on.
The Kleshas in Buddhism
The kleshas are very similar in Buddhism as they are above, but there are three main ones that are the root cause of all other kleshas.
These are called the three poisons or three unwholesome roots and they impact the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara).
The three poisons are:
- Moha– ignorance, delusion
- Raga/ Lobha – attachment, greed
- Dvesha – anger, hatred
Klesha In Your Life
Understanding the kleshas will ensure we can arrive at awakening faster than if we are to become trapped in them.
Instead of having to figure this out for yourself, yoga has given us a handy shortcut! (We’re not promising it’s short, we’re just saying it’s shorter than having to figure it out for yourself…)
Use these kleshas essentially like a road map that highlights all the rocky, laborious, and uneven terrain.
To combat these kleshas, we need to establish a firm, daily practice that constantly reminds us of what we actually are and leads us away from ignorance. Dissolving avidya will take reminding ourselves of the nature of Self.
Some kind of meditation practice ideally needs to be one of these! This is because we need something that cultivates stillness and, even if you think asana or pranayama does this for you, it’s still a practice that we’re doing.
Meditation is one of the only times in life that we drop away from doing and fall into being, allowing the light of the Self to shine through and destroy perceptions of the ego.
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