April Newsletter: Recognizing the Kleśas as Obstacles to Yogic Living
Updated: May 4, 2021
It's April y'all. Full disclosure I had a rather strange last month of March that has lingered well into this month. There was a lot of shifting energy so much that my little east Nashville neighborhood suffered straight-line wind damage and we were out of power for just shy of two days, and I didn't have internet service for nearly two weeks. Vata dosha was--and in some ways still is--disturbed in my life in myriad expressions, from losing friendships to my laptop battery nearly exploding, so this newsletter's topic is very relevant.
Have you ever heard of the kleśas?
Also expounded upon in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, the word kleśa (pronounced "KLAY-shuh") is commonly translated as "affliction," "poison," "corruption" or "obstacle." These kleśas are the products of citta vrrti; the fluctuating internal chatter of an unsteady, unfocused & unaware mind. Sometimes this fluctuating mind chatter may be harmless inner noise that makes it hard to focus. However, other times this fluctuating mind chatter can show up as negative thought patterns, demeaning self-talk, judgements, opinions, expectations, comparisons and other energy draining mental ruminations.
Let's take a moment to establish a baseline understanding of citta vrrti in order to better understand how the kleśas can influence our psychology.
The stray, fluctuating thoughts of citta vrrti--whether harmless or harmful--have their own source, and are known in yogic philosophy as saṃskāras & vāsanās. Saṃskāras are the subconscious mental impressions derived from our past experiences; vāsanās are the subtle desires that influence our current internal or external behaviors which leads to the creation of more saṃskāras. These saṃskāras & vāsanās are inherently neutral, so for the dedicated & studied yogi or yogini we can utilizes the mental phenomena as a tool to deepen our sadhana. However, for the everyday person living out the unsteady influence of citta vrrti combined with the corrupted perceptions of the kleśas, the saṃskāras & vāsanās can become a source of self-destructive behaviors that negatively affect ourselves, our families, our friends and our communities.
In my option, the kleśas are a foundational component for a sort of yogic pathological psychology. There are a total five kleśas that can be thought of as a poisonous tree with ignorance as its root and fear as its toxic fruit. These five obstacles show up in our everyday thoughts, behaviors & choices. Subversive & highly influencing, the kleśas can prevent us from being able to perceive our surroundings, our situations, ourselves or our fellow humans with clarity, intelligence, curiosity & compassion.
The 5 Kleśas
1) Avidyā: Meaning ignorance, this is confusing reality as singular absolute truths, thus preventing a person from perceiving beyond their set of beliefs & attitudes. Operating from the space of ignorance leads a person to believe in & act out on falsehoods. This can further perpetuate narrow-minded thoughts & behaviors that supports & upholds a person's clouded, limited perceptions. Avidyā is the root in which all the other kleśas manifest.
2) Asmitā: This translates to egoism and externalizing one's self-identity. In the Yoga Sutras it's said that when a person is not practicing yoga to dwell in the nature of self then that person is falsely identifying with the external objects of citta vrrti, saṃskāras & vāsanās. This particular kleśa is the cause of many discussions in my YTT sessions, as it seems to be the most in direct conflict with answering the big questions such as "who am I?" To start shining light on the illusion of identity, take time to reflect on who you are when you're not a fill in the blank here? When you're stripped of external identities--titles, achievements, degrees, jobs, family ties--who or what still remains? This can lead a path away from the obstacle of egoism. When a person is absorbed in egoism, this can show up as deluded thoughts, self-absorbed attitudes, narcissism, and clinging to external measures of self-worth.
3) Rāga: Meaning unhealthy attachments/ desires and addictive behaviors, this kleśa can be very obvious when it takes the outwardly extreme forms of addictions. However, this is also an illusive obstacle as unhealthy desires can take the form of what seems like normal or healthy behavior. Recognizing when a hobby, sport, job, daily routine, expectation, etc., is actually feeding into an unhealthy--and often self-destructive--rāga takes a lot of continued self-work. I write more extensively about my personal experience with rāga and hot yoga in this blog post. All this being said, if you or someone you love is facing substance or behavioral addiction, please seek out help from a qualified professional or support group.
4) Dveṣa: This kleśa is often translated as aversions and hatreds, thus being the opposite spectrum of rāga. Dveṣa is how a person reacts when something or someone knowingly or unknowingly blocks/ hinders/ separates that person from the objects of his or her desire. This can manifest as brooding thoughts, negative emotions, sneaky attitude, untrustworthy behavior, aggressive behavior, hostile behavior or even violent actions. Understanding the root cause of dveṣa will ask of the seeker to revisit the influence of all afflictions.
5) Abhiniveśa: Fearful clinging to life is the common translation for this kleśa. If avidyā is the root from which the poisionous tree of the kleśas originate, abhiniveśa is its toxic fruit. One may look at this idea of clinging to life as a survival mechanism, as it is only natural to instinctually self-preserve in the face of life-threatening events. However, when this survival aspect become the neurophysiological baseline in which a person operates, perception becomes clouded by the dullness of ignorance. Living in a state of fear is too real for many people--in the USA those of us descending of the African Diaspora are all too familiar with living in a constant fluctuating state of fear for our lives--so this, just like all the kleśas, needs patience & compassion to unpack the influence of fear in a person's life.
Fear--when fueled with hatred, addictions, egoism & ignorance--can take on an illusion of power. That perceived superiority is easily threatened by anything or anyone that challenges the "truth" that upholds it. How can we, as yogis, yoginis & spiritual seekers, compassionately dwell in the shadow of our own fears to dissolve its illusions from our perceptions? How can we shine light into the dark corners of our own psyches to illuminate a higher Truth that is based in Divine Love and not worldly ignorance? I'm still on the path to figure that out, so I'll write about that another time :-)
"Ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles or causes of all miseries in life." ~ Yoga Sutras 2.3