The Kleshas (afflictions of the mind)

23 February 2015

From the perspective of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras it is important to understand that emotional pain and all its varied expressions, such as depression, stem from the desire, attachment, fear and certain unconscious universal constructs (Kleshas) that exist in all un-liberated human minds. These constructs (sometimes referred to as “colorings”) form a basis on which all other more individualized neuroses are woven and re-woven through a complex association of desires, attachments, fears and other human experiences. Thus these Kleshas are basic motivational forces which underpin our ability to act, think, and feel. It is these Kleshas which are responsible for the fluctuations (modifications or agitations) of consciousness and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are primarily concerned with the elimination or stilling of these fluctuations.

If and when they are removed through yoga practices, all of the individual neuroses which they support will crumble and fall away. These Kleshas (afflictions or colorings) are comprised of five basic constructs or crystallized thought-forms and are described by Patanjali at the beginning of Book 2 of the Yoga Sutras (1, 2, 3 & 4).

Once the Kleshas are seen in a clear light and recognized for what they are, they will disappear. The intellectual mind is not enough to bring about this recognition. Patanjali, insists the “8 limbs of yoga” are necessary to lead the mind toward the required purification and these are:

  • Yama (Sanskrit for “moral discipline”)
  • Niyama (Sanskrit for “moral observance”)
  • Asana (Sanskrit for “body posture”)
  • Pranayama (Sanskrit for “breath control”)
  • Prathyara (Sanskrit for “withdrawal of the senses”)
  • Dharana (Sanskrit for “concentration”)
  • Dhyana (Sanskrit for “meditation”)

We all have heard that every journey starts with the first step. So it stands to reason that recognizing the Kleshas is a good way to quench the desire of the intellect. Here is a list of the 5 Klishas and their attributes:

  1. 1.Avidya: a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is “ignorance”, “delusion”, “unlearned” or “unwise” This is the primal ignorance which pervades all of creation. This ignorance is experiential, not conceptual, in nature. To individuals, avidya means that while the non-dual source of all existence and awareness is pure, all pervasive, immanent, and transcendent, radiating from the core of our being, we do not automatically perceive that this is the case. Our individualized and unpurified sensory mind and the sense organs, because they are relatively crude instruments compared to the subtlety of pure awareness, are incapable of directly perceiving it. Our mind’s higher nature (buddhi) is capable of perceiving the radiant and blissful reflection of the Divine Self, but only when it has been sufficiently purified through persistent practice. For most of us, such purification requires many years of meditation practice, as well as the help of our teachers. Although the non-dual source of all existence and awareness is pure, all pervasive, immanent, and transcendent and radiating from the core of our being, avidya prevents us, as separate individuals, from automatically perceiving that this is the case. Our ego-centered, individualized and unpurified sensory mind and the sense organs are relatively crude instruments compared to the subtlety of pure awareness; therefore we are incapable of directly perceiving it. Our mind’s higher nature (buddhi) is capable of perceiving the radiant and blissful reflection of the Divine Self, but only after it has been sufficiently purified through persistent practice. For most of us, such purification may require years of meditation practice, along with the help of compassionate teachers.
  1. 2.Asmita: Translated from Sanskrit asmita means false identification or ego. Also as individuals, we have what is called ahamkara or “self-sense” (egoic self). It is a single vritti, or thought form, the idea of separate individualized existence. This single thought of a limited self is enormously convincing because it pervades the entire body-mind complex. It is the nature of this individual “I-am” sense, or ego, to identify itself with something and become attached to it. And because we do not easily perceive the existence of the Self (Atman), the ahamkara indentifies with some sort of a limited self-concept, generally our body-mind complex, our social identity, our individual attributes of personality, experience, etc. We are born into this world convinced of only one notion: this body is mine. But we don’t even know who the one is that’s claiming the body. The result of this ignorance of our true nature is our misidentification with some limited aspect of existence, which is typically painful because of its incompleteness. Once this misidentification occurs, our whole perception of reality is altered, so that the entire universe is divided into “me” versus “not-me” or “us” vs “them” and the objects of our experience are divided into “mine” and “not-mine”. This is asmita, or “self-sense”.
  2. 3.Raga: In Sanskrit Raga literally means attraction, drawing to or addiction, and because the identification of ahamkara was false to begin with, and because what is “me” is infinitely small compared to the vast surrounding universe which is mostly composed on “not me”, a sort of existential terror and insecurity results. Since we don’t want to confront this overwhelming sense of terror, we develop various strategies for distracting ourselves from it. By enlarging or inflating this “me” and by bolstering and preserving our individual sense we feel less threatened by our relatively insignificant existence. This leads to raga, or attraction, which creates in us a pattern of acquisition. We begin to pursue human relationships, knowledge, wealth, status, power and we amass possessions which might be reinforce the idea that we’re enlarging and protecting our fragile individualized existence. But because change is the very nature of creation, all objects within it are impermanent, and in reality they’re subject to loss at any given moment.
  3. 4.Dvesha: This is the Sanskrit word for aversion (literally “hate”, “dislike”, or “distaste”) is the avoidance of all those things that we don’t want to experience. When experiencing an object which gives us pleasure, we become attached to that pleasure, and desire to experience it again. We may identify that object with the pleasure and when the object or experience of pleasure is denied us, we feel pain. For instance, if our spouse or partner, whom we loved and cherished, would leave us for another, we’d probably try to persuade them to come back, or maybe we try to find another to replace them. If these attempts were not successful, and our attachment remains strong, our pain and anger turns to depression, helplessness, and finally hatred of ourselves and the world. This is dvesha, “the hate which follows after experiencing the pain.”
  4. 5.Abhinivesha: The Sanskrit word for fear is abhinivesah, also translated as “clinging to life” or “self-preservation.” Because of raga and dvesha; a powerful, persistent and habitual “out-flowing” of our energy and attention through our senses toward pleasurable objects of the external world has been created. This “out-flowing” of our attention and energy only increases and reinforces our identification with our physical existence, making it even harder for us to realize or identify with our inherent spiritual nature. Not only do we fear death because our ability to fulfill our desires ceases, but we also have emotionally identified with our body-mind and (at least subconsciously) fear that our entire existence will terminate with the death of our physical body. This klesha, is said to “dominate even the wise.”

The kleshas are imprinted on  chitta (the “stuff” of the mind); and the individual consciousness from time immemorial then tends to create and perpetuate the illusions that existence is limited to the mind-body complex. Even after death the chitta retains the kleshas in seed form and they sprout to full fruition in the next incarnation. As long as any individual thinks that consciousness is limited to their present bodily existence, they are forever at the mercy of forces beyond their control, but they always remain somewhat aware (even if it’s on a subconscious level), that sooner or later the body will die and all experience will cease along with it.

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