Are there mental obstacles or unhelpful habits that hold you back in your everyday life? Do you find yourself clutching to pleasure and dodging anything painful? Taking a look at the kleshas might provide you with insight to move beyond these afflictions and reduce suffering.
In this article, we will look at:
- Where the kleshas come from
- What the five kleshas are
- Differences between spiritual traditions
- How yoga can be helpful
If you’re looking for a definition of the word kleshas, kleśāḥ, kleśa, or क्लेश you’ll likely find translations such as:
- Negative emotions/mental state
What are the kleshas?
The kleshas are mental afflictions. Afflictions are things that cause us pain, suffering, torment, and misery. These afflictions of the mind take us away from present moment awareness and remind us that we are often responsible for making our lives harder than they need to be.
There is a famous quote “unlike pain, suffering is optional”. This “suffering” is different from the pain of injury or illness, and although the manifestations of suffering can still be physical the kleshas relate to spiritual suffering.
The kleshas provide a ripe environment for samskaras to thrive and are like poison within us. They contribute to negative thought patterns and unhelpful behaviors. They shape how we move through life and according to the yogis, they affect karma and therefore the cycle of rebirth.
There are different interpretations of the kleshas depending on the spiritual tradition. But ultimately, all agree that the kleshas are impediments to spiritual progress and obstruct the path to enlightenment. They are something to be witnessed, studied, and overcome but they are ultimately part of being human.
“We are born with Kleshas. And the only way to overcome them is through right knowledge.”– Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the Five Kleshas
In the second pada of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, we find five kleshas. He says they must be addressed and let go of. So, what are they?
“These obstacles- the causes of man’s sufferings- are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.”– Yoga Sutra II.3 Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood translation.
The First Klesha: Avidya, Or Ignorance
“Ignorance is the notion that takes the self, which is joyful, pure, and eternal, to be the nonself, which is painful, unclean, and temporary.”– Yoga Sutra II.5 Edwin Bryant translation.
- Vidya means knowledge. Adding the prefix gives us ignorance.
Avidya is not your ordinary ignorance, it is spiritual ignorance that clouds our perception. It is the misidentification of who we really are, the over-identification of the senses, the misunderstanding of what reality truly is, and ignorance of or lack of engagement with our true nature.
Richard Rosen in his book “Yoga FAQ” says that:
Avidya “is the broadly mistaken belief we all have that our self is something other than what it actually is….Are we all simply born with the avidya program preinstalled in our being, just like Apple preinstalled some programs on my iPad that I don’t want but can’t get rid of? Apparently so according to Patanjali.”
Avidya is the root of all other kleshas.
The Second Klesha: Asmita, Or Egoism
“Ego is [to consider] the nature of the seer and the nature of the instrumental power of seeing to be the same thing.” Yoga Sutra II.6 Bryant translation.
Asmita, the second klesha is our sense of “I-am-ness”. Unlike the interpretation of ego as “holding oneself in high esteem”, asmita is how we view ourselves in relation to others.
Do you identify yourself through your work, body, relationships, and achievements? Enter asmita! Our self-image and intellect are a distraction from our true nature and along with our powerlessness over impermanence, we encounter further suffering.
The Third Klesha: Raga, Or Attachment
“Attachment is that which dwells upon pleasure.”– Yoga Sutra II.7 Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood translation.
Too much of a good thing? Raga is our attachment to pleasure. Literally “to be colored”, it is the desire for gratification and the feelings that come along with it. The basis of raga is the ceaseless seeking of pleasure and clinging to gratification.
If we are unable to embrace the impermanence of pleasure and enjoy it fully in the present moment, then this causes suffering. A good question to ask in the face of raga is do I really want or need the thing that I am craving? Or is the attachment there for some other seeming purpose?
Raga and its attachment to pleasures take us out of appreciation!
The Fourth Klesha: Dvesha, Or Aversion
“Aversion is that which dwells upon pain.”– Yoga Sutra II.8 Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood translation.
Dvesha or aversion is often referred to as the flip side of the same coin as raga. Where raga leads us to crave, dvesha leads us to recoil. It is our avoidance of the unpleasant and can lead to numbing as a way to diminish or remove pain. Constantly evading the push and pull of raga and dvesha leads to further suffering.
“Each person has two forces Raga and dvesa. They are there to serve you, not you them.”– TKV Desikachar on Bhagavad Gita 3.34.
The Fifth Klesha: Abihinivesha, Or The Desire To Cling To Life
“Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men.”– Yoga Sutra II.9 B.K.S Iyengar translation.
- Clinging to life
Is the fear of death inherent in all of us? Are you terrified by the acceleration of time as you age? Do you struggle with change?
Fear of change, impermanence, and relinquishing material things leads to suffering and abihinivesha is not dissimilar to the attachment and aversion of raga and dvesha. Lack of control over our material nature takes us out of the present and into suffering.
The opposite of abihinivesha would be present moment awareness and acceptance of what is.
The kleshas are slightly different in Buddhism. They are said to impact the rebirth cycle and, like in the Yoga Sutras, they impede the path to enlightenment. The kleshas are referred to as the three poisons which cloud the mind and form the basis of all other kleshas.
Suffering or dukkha is within our minds and stems from the three mental afflictions:
- Moha– ignorance, delusion
- Raga/ Lobha – attachment, greed
- Dvesha – aggression, anger
One of the principal differences found in the Buddhist tradition is that we are not born with the kleshas but encounter them through the way we live life and interpret our sensory experiences.
Now we know where the roots of suffering lie how do we work to rid ourselves of them?
The kleshas are said to be weakened by the yoga of action – Kriya Yoga. Self-discipline, self-study, and devotion are practices that aid mental steadiness and ultimately the path to enlightenment.
“Echoing the Buddha and the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s premise is that life makes us suffer because of desire and misunderstanding. Reality rarely conforms to expectations, and misdiagnosing the source of unhappiness makes things worse, reinforcing illusions about who we are and what we need.” This is dukkha he says. Yoga is a way out of the suffering.”– “The Truth of Yoga” – Daniel Simpson
Conquering the kleshas through meditation
“The states of mind produced by these Kleshas are eliminated by meditation.”– Yoga Sutras Bryant translation.
Simple meditation techniques are a good place to seek out the roots of suffering. Through self-inquiry and attention, by bearing witness to our experiences and responses, small changes begin to take place. Meditation helps us to clean the “dirt from the mirror” and find the clarity beneath.
“Knowing oneself comes from attending with compassionate curiosity to what is happening within. Methods for gaining self-knowledge and self-mastery through conscious awareness strengthen the mind’s capacity to act as its own impartial observer.”― Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
If the roots of our thoughts and actions are well intended, it is harder to let the kleshas play out. Maybe the kleshas are simply a part of being human but the practice of acknowledging them can prevent future suffering.
- Eternal bliss, transformation, and samadhi cannot unfold in the existence of the kleshas.
- The kleshas are a tool for growth and spiritual awakening.
- Mindfulness practices are a great tool for facing the kleshas.
- We increase our chances of ridding the multi-layered spiritual ignorance of avidya every time we consciously try to witness our behavior.
“When the empty nature of the Self and the Mind is fully understood, there is no longer a root for the disturbing emotions to be attached to, and the disturbing emotions lose their power to distract the mind.” – Wikipedia
Journaling about the mental afflictions or obstacles within your life can be a good place to start. This, alongside an awareness-based yoga practice, may be the key to shifting harmful thoughts, helping to change unhelpful habits, and eliminating suffering.