The Science of Suffering: Understanding the 5 Kleshas and What They Really Mean

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For most of us, life is pretty simple when we’re born. Our needs are met. Our concerns are only essential. Our world is new, beautiful, and engaging. And, most importantly, we are connected to the source of the universe, enjoying a direct line to love. In the profound teachings in A Course in Miracles, one of the most foundational beliefs is that when you are connected to this source your life is good, miraculous in fact. But, when separated from it, life is painful and complicated; you are overwhelmed with the feeling of being lost.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, another equally profound book of wisdom, the concept of being separated from the universal source of love is broken down into five identifiable roots of suffering. Known as the kleshas, these roots are what keep us away from love and, therefore, are what cause us to suffer.

By understanding the science of suffering by digging into these kleshas, you can begin to become aware of what is keeping you from enjoying life, what is keeping you from knowing, as the yogis say, your true nature.

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Breaking Down the Five Kleshas

Although you may have heard the Sanskrit words in yoga class or have briefly studied them in a teacher training or college course, chances are that many of us haven’t actually sat down to meditate on what they really mean. But, by doing so, you make yourself aware of your daily actions, recognizing when you are acting or thinking from a place of fear or misunderstanding.

  1. Defined simply as “ignorance,” avidya is one of the most important kleshas because it fuels the other four. The simple act of being separated from the source of love, and not recognizing that you have or trying to reconnect, is avidya in action.
  2. Although not commonly referred to asmita outside of the yoga world, the concept of ego is. Being aware of your desire to think as “I” allows you to realize again this separation from universal love. When you believe in asmita, you believe that you are separate from others, a feeling that fuels negative and corrosive emotions like jealousy and judgment.
  3. Translated to mean “attachment,” raga is pervasive in the majority of our day to day lives. The desire to control things or to keep everything the same is so common that people write it off as human nature. Learning how to let go, however, and finding ways to accept the outcome, to be present with what is, is the only way to end daily suffering.
  4. Why don’t you like the way something turned out? It’s because you are attached to the outcome. This aversion, also known as dvesha, is intertwined with raga; you can’t have one without the other. While the two are burdensome, the fact that they are two sides of the same coin means that by taking care of one you rid yourself of the other.
  5. Finally, there’s the desire to cling to life. Abhinivesha, of all the kleshas, is one of the most difficult to free yourself from. Because life is miraculous and beautiful, and because you love your people in life, learning to accept that life ends can be a real struggle, especially when it feels like it’s not happening when you’re ready. Achieving freedom from abhinivesha can only come when you are aware of and understand the dangers of the other four kleshas. Once you have a handle on the other four, learning to not cling to life is the only natural progression, and a freeing one at that.

 

Practice On the Mat with the Kleshas

AVIDYA

ASMITA

RAGA

DVESHA

ABHINIVESHA

Start with Ignorance

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Take some time to sit with the kleshas and you begin to realize that the order they appear in, one through five, is both logical and practical. In order to make progress with any of them, you must first understand that the root of all suffering begins with ignorance, avidya. Ego, attachment, aversion, and your desire to cling to life all come from a misunderstanding about the universe, a confusion about what is reality and what is not.  

The goal, however, isn’t to get rid of any of them for good. Just as meditation’s goal isn’t to be completely free from thoughts, ending suffering is a constant decision to choose to focus on what is real, rather than what is not.

Falling down the rabbit hole of any of the five, or all five, kleshas is ignorance in play.

Will you make judgments about others during the day?

Will you feel upset when something doesn’t turn out the way you want?

Will you think of yourself as superior or better than someone else?

Of course.

Anyone who has spent time in meditation understands that the subconscious brain is an expert at producing thoughts without your consent. In order to be present you must learn to not identify with them. Instead, you must learn to simply observe.

The same is true with the kleshas.

Freeing yourself from suffering all begins when you realize that reality doesn’t revolve around any of these five kleshas, and that life isn’t defined by them.

Where to Begin

 

Life isn’t black and white, although we often want to think of it like it is. In a black and white world, we’re controlled by the desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure. In fact, we start to live by dividing everything into these two categories. This way of thinking though underestimates the complex nature of the universe.

In the universe, nothing is black or white. Nothing exists only in one plane.

How do we begin to recognize this miraculous nature? How do we begin to trust in the beauty and plan of the universe, letting go of control, and discovering how to tap back in to the cosmic source of love?

  1. By practicing meditation, you learn the subtle art of observation and how it allows you to move into the present. It’s for this reason that meditation is so essential to freeing yourself from the suffering of the kleshas. When you learn to observe your life and your thoughts from a place that doesn’t identify with the “I” nature, you enter a state where you can eradicate the kleshas.
  2. Practice Pranayama. For many students of yoga, the practice revolves around asana, the poses. And while the poses are beneficial, they are designed to prepare your mind and body for meditation and are  so crucial to breaking free from the kleshas. Pranayama gives you the ability to directly tap into the source of the universe, to the universal love that you have separated from.
  3. Whether you move in the form of sun salutations, go for a hike, or simply make a decision, moving gives you the opportunity to be free. Fear doesn’t exist when you’re taking action.

 

Next time you’re around a young child or baby, take a moment to observe. Look closely at the joy in their eyes, at their ability to be present, and you’ll be reminded of what being connected to love feels like.

In the words of Gabrielle Bernstein, “When you’re in harmony with love, you receive more of what you want.” Just as the kleshas can lead you on a dangerous cycle of suffering, love can take you on a beautiful path of joy, fulfillment, and a life you truly love.



The True Meaning of Aparigraha

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I turned the corner onto my street, the street I have called home for the past three years, the one my son took his first steps in, where my daughter spent her first night in the world, where Christmas trees have come up and down, meals savored, and where laughter and crying have echoed through the hallways at all hours of the day. There, standing in my front yard, was the erected “For Sale” sign, signaling to ourselves as much as to everyone else in our community that we were done, we were letting go, moving on.

My heart broke the minute I saw the tall white sign in front of our little house on Placer. Not because it came as a surprise, but because suddenly I knew we were making a mistake. In reality, my husband and I had been talking about moving – to a new home, something bigger with more room, an expansive backyard, a new zip code – for years. Actually, it seems like we spent more time in our home talking about a new home than we did actually enjoying the space we were creating for ourselves and our growing family. Bookmarking houses on Zillow had become an addiction.

In fact, I had become so addicted to the thought of something new that I was completely oblivious to the reality in front of me. Like any addict, I was living in an altered state, one that was preventing me from seeing clearly the love, magic, and beauty of exactly where I was. The technological drugs I consumed were clouding my mind, offering me a constant drip of distractions. It was seeing my house officially for sale, cleaning it to prepare for showings, that woke me up and knocked me back into the reality I had been missing. But was it too late?

Offers were being made on our home, jobs being accepted out of state, apartment leases signed, boxes packed, all while my heart was flooding with regret.

Emotionally off kilter, I fled to my yoga mat, the one place that has consistently brought me peace and grounding for the past decade. I turned to sage advice, poring through the hand-written notes I had taken in the margins of books spouting eternal knowledge, everything from Patanjali’s Sutras to the Bible and, my other bible, Tina Fey’s Bossypants. While the Bible offered me inspiration and Bossypants offered a much needed laugh, it was in the Sutras that I found solace in the Yamas, the internal disciplines of yoga, particularly that of Aparigraha, or the practice of non-grasping, non-attachment.

Okay, I thought, as the final box was moved out of our home and into my parents’ truck. This is a practice; this is letting go. I will be alright, I reminded myself as I slid into the front seat of our family’s car. I have my children, my husband – everything I really need, everything that is really important, is coming with me. So we moved. Our house was still officially on the market with offers being made, but in my mind it was sold, the decision made. I was taking what I needed. Aparigraha was my bitch – I was rocking it hard.

Or, at least, like any egotistical, self-righteous idiot, that’s what I thought. Because, within a week of our big move, I was depressed. Depressed and anxious. Depressed and anxious and grumpy.

The Reality of Practicing Aparigraha

I kept saying, “This is an adventure! Make the most of it!” But no matter how hard I tried to “Aparigraha” it, I couldn’t shake the dark cloud that had moved over me, laying claim to my thoughts day in and day out.

Because family was still back home and because our “back home” home was still technically ours, we spent many weekends out of our new apartment and on the road. Each trip was an emotional rollercoaster for me. I was happy to be home but confused about the future. Would this be the last time we could open the front door of our house? What if we backed out? Could we still back out? What would people think if we did? What would I think if we didn’t?

Bittersweet isn’t exactly how I would describe what I was feeling. Each time we visited home, only to leave a day later to drive eight hours north, the taste became more bitter, sour even. But I was stubborn, repeating the mantra “Let Go” over and over, hoping to eventually crack whatever it was that was making it difficult for me to really accept all of the changes that were taking place.

Why is Aparigraha So Hard to Practice?

Still unable to shake the depression and anxiety that had befriended me at the New Mexico-Colorado state border, I dove deep into trying to better understand what practicing Aparigraha really meant. Is it really just letting go, detaching yourself? Or is there more to it.

I read what Nicolai Bachman had to say about the Yama, that by practicing Aparigraha, we discover why we were born. Or, less esoterically, he also says that the more we accumulate things the more time we have to spend maintaining said things, which means less time for internal development. Got it.

I tried to focus on the feeling of freedom, thinking that by leaving our home and our community we were on a path of new beginnings. I meditated on feeling light, no longer bound by old habits. I worked to open my eyes to what was before me, trying to soak in each and every new experience.

I’ll admit that it helped. That my days were more enjoyable. That I found reasons to smile and laugh. But at the end of the day, as I laid down to sleep, the depression would creep back in. I was still crying myself to sleep most nights, muffling the sound from my husband and children so they wouldn’t know how much I was struggling with these changes.

One day, while at my new job in Boulder, I came across a yoga video by Mara Branscombe called Aparigraha for Freedom and Abundance. Still on my quest to better understand this yogic principle, I put on my headphones and turned my attention to what she was saying. She explained it simply, so simply in fact that I didn’t register how profound her words really were. I came back to the video the next day and really heard her as she said, “Aparigraha is taking only what we need… taking only what serves us… letting go when the time is right. Aparigraha allows us to become more present by letting go of expectations.” I scrambled to find something to write this down on:

Let go of expectations. Let go when the time is right.

I finished what I was doing, tore out this page from my journal, and walked to the park behind the office. I sat for a long time in silence, contemplating these two sentences. I dropped into a place of mental stillness that had been evading me for months. As I settled in, I began to see images, screenshots of everything that was important to me: my children laughing, my husband smiling, spending time in nature, having long conversations with friends, making memories with family, my home. Yes, my home with its red front door, its stucco courtyard, the garden in the back that my husband built, the picnic table by our waterfall, the lights hung over our bed, the fireplace in our living room. I began to cry. And then I called my husband.

In the next 48 hours we were making a pilgrimage back to our home. Not to pack or clean, but to enjoy it. We made fires in our chiminea, ate meals outside, walked with the kids to the neighborhood park, took in the mountain views from our backyard. Finally, we were present together in its walls. Neither of us talking about what we need to do or what we should do, just enjoying the here and now. We listened to our kids laughing as they played chef in their bedroom. We took time to visit with neighbors. We fell in love all over again.

Discovering the True Meaning of Aparigraha

That night, as we decided to not sell our home, I finally understood what I needed to do to let go, to really practice Aparigraha. You could say that I had an awakening when it comes to understanding Aparigraha. I let go of the expectations others had placed on my shoulders. I let go of the burden I had given to myself. Instead of letting go of the wrong things, the things that really mattered, I allowed myself to let go of what didn’t.

Aparigraha isn’t about letting go of all things – it’s about letting go of the right things at the right time.

The art of the practice is finding space to think clearly enough to discern what needs to be held closely and what needs to be let go. In my case, I needed to let go of my ego, of my expectations of the big move. As I did, I found that I was clinging to something that wasn’t important – this new life I had imagined for myself – instead of fighting for what I really needed right now – my home and the community that comes with it.

Maybe one day it will be the right time to let go of my casita on Placer Drive, but I trust that until that moment comes, I will let go of the desire to change what is already so good. I will give up the drugs of overthinking and options, replacing the habit with long, deep sips of appreciating the present moment.

How to Practice Aparigraha on the Mat

Your yoga mat is a beautiful place to practice the art of “letting go”. Using your practice as a place to explore and investigate what you cling to and why is one of the most beneficial tools I have received from my decade of practice. For so many of us, our yoga practice becomes something that we get attached to (how it looks, how it makes us feel, etc.), rather than letting it be something that is truly supportive.

There is nothing wrong with having goals and milestones in your yoga practice, but be mindful of why those are there. How are they serving your well-being and that of those around you? When you can begin to allow your yoga practice to evolve daily, to allow it to ebb and flow with you through seasons of highs and lows, you are discovering the heart of Aparigraha.

Anytime I feel myself clinging to my physical practice, I turn to a softer, gentler form – like Yin. In doing so, I give myself the space and freedom to get to the bottom of what is really going on in my life. At the end of the day, your yoga practice is truly the best way to see your reflection.

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