The Science of Suffering: Understanding the 5 Kleshas and What They Really Mean
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Start with Ignorance
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?
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
What is Satya?
Yoga is an eight-limbed path. The path if followed in order to develop discriminative knowledge as a means to freedom. Attention is the tool for developing the discernment required to walk the path. The Yamas are the first limb of this path and they mean observances and self-regulation in relationship to the external world and others.
Satya is the second of the Yamas, following Ahimsa. Satya means truthfulness and Ahimsa means non-harm. Therefore, to become discerning through attention you must first practice living non-harm and then living truthfully. In this article we explore attuning to truthfulness and other Yamas in daily practice.
When applying Satya to your own life, be gentle with yourself and others and be careful not to be too literal. The truth for truth’s sake, for example, is not more important than maintaining a kind, nonviolent attitude and demeanor. If your truth is simply to reveal something painful but will have no social benefit, it may in fact not be the true meaning of Satya to express it. We will look closer at how to live more consciously of Satya in daily life with the practices below. Be encouraged to live a life more full of your truth as your dive deeper into the theme of Satya.
10 Practices to Living in Satya
Explore Your Current Feeling for Loved Ones
The Satya of relationships: Be encouraged to know how you currently feel in relationships that are longstanding. Scroll through you favorite contacts in your cell phone. Of those names, how many of the people have been important to you for many years? Are you living on an assumption you know how you still feel about them? Make time and space to comfortably lay back and relax. Breathe slowly and let yourself become calm. Then, bring each of these people into your minds eye one at a time. As you do, feel how your body responds to each one. The body gives so much information, the heart, the gut, the throat, and the head. Become aware of the sensation you experience for each important person to you. Enjoy your newfound exploration of these relationships.
Communicate and Don’t Make Assumptions
Do you ever make assumptions without directly communicating about them? Notice how speculation and anticipation shape your reality and keep you from truly communicating with others. The story you create can stand in the way of you opening to truthful conversation.
When you make assumptions you cheat relationships out of being a place you go to communicate and as a result, you live in a false reality.
Will you venture to have open conversations and enter into real communication and depth of relationship?
When Making Big Life Choices, Check In with Your Inner Experience
So often people make choices that they assume others want them to make or that they are “supposed” to make. I gained insight when my friend described her process for deciding whether to get her masters or to follow a healing path. She sat down in meditation and imagined her life going in either trajectory. She said when she thought about school, she could feel her brain. Conversely when she thought about healing arts and continuing on a yoga path, she felt her throat and heart. She said her throat chakra, the seat of her voice, and her heart chakra, the seat of her love were what she cared to feel and that it helped her know which path to follow. Will you make a practice of sitting with big decisions to feel how your mind and body perceive them and choose from your inner truth? What part of you speaks?
Do You Always Say Never?
Become aware of your use of hyperbolic, exaggerated language. If you speak using extremes of language such as always, never, very, so, extremely, all the time, etc., notice this linguistic habit. When it comes up, as yourself if your language use is impeccable or if you are exaggerating. Is this a truthful expression of reality?
Don’t sacrifice kindness for the sake on honesty
If you think too literally about Satya or truthfulness, then you could easily justify saying something just because it’s true. But, what if your speech results in no improvements and only adds hurt? Recall that Ahimsa comes first before Satya, and therefore nonviolent communication is more urgent than truthful communication. Next time you just want to spew negativity, stop!
Notice Your Limiting Beliefs About Yourself
Take this moment as an opportunity to examine living truth of thought and action. How are your limiting beliefs stopping you from reaching your potential? For example, if you just assume you can’t dance because someone made fun of your dance when you were 12, you may never feel the freedom of ecstatic self-expression. If you assume you can’t learn languages because you failed to pick up Spanish while sitting at a desk in college and labeled yourself ‘not good at languages,’ you could be cheating yourself out on an enriching life experience, travel, and relationships with people that speak another language.
With the determination and dedication, most of us can accomplish more than we could ever imagine.
I know this is true because everything I have been doing for years with diligence, I now do with grace and ease where I once felt like a total dud. Check in with your limiting beliefs and see how they may be robbing you of living a truly amazing life, keeping you in a life that isn’t truly yours or preventing you from blossoming into a new you.
The Cycle of Desire
Define your truth through the cycle of desire and notice where you lie to yourself or others, or prevent your own joy because the truth is uncomfortable or untimely. Here are the steps:
The Desire Cycle
- Name the desire and how it makes you feel
- Express your desire
- Be present to receive said desire
- Be grateful for receiving
- Express your gratitude
It can be terrifying to admit what you want even to yourself. Maybe others have expectations of you that you feel pressure to uphold or you’re too afraid to be yourself because you could fail or be rejected. How will you act at this crossroads? Will you be brave enough to admit to yourself what you want? And when you do, will name it aloud to begin manifest it?
Maybe you’ve experienced getting what you want and still did not feel happy. That’s because you must also be present to receive your desire and then to accept it graciously.
Maybe you finally get the job you’ve been after. You are so convinced that you are not worthy of the job that you can’t enjoy it and your lack of self-esteem keeps you from being graceful, gracious, and expressing gratitude. What mental process needs to take place for you to truly be present to receive your desire? You could reimagine the same scenario by becoming ready to accept your desire and know that you getting it means you are worthy. Therefore you can graciously accept and express gratitude and confidence.
Consider the first stage of the cycle of desire, naming your truth. Can you remember a time that you could not or did not choose to admit to yourself what you truly wanted? How did that feel? Now think of a time you admitted to yourself what you wanted, did you find any liberation in that? Continue to notice how the choices you have made in the past may have been authentic to you or you suppressing your true nature. Then, start to think about what you currently desire. How do you want it to play out? Try out the desire cycle to bring your truth into manifestation today.
Be in Touch with Your Throat Chakra
The sensations in your throat can be your teacher. Pay attention to your throat during moments of difficult communication. Does your throat it tense and squeeze? What about in moments of loving communication? Do your words flow with ease? When you are speaking on a day-to-day basis, pause to notice the sensations of your throat. Feel the energy of it being open and fluid, or closed and protected or somewhere in between. Often the sensation of your throat can be a messenger of your truth to you if you only listen.
Is What I Have to Say an Improvement on Silence?
Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it needs to be said. Before you speak, especially if you’re ‘just venting’ for the sake of venting and not pondering problem-solving solutions, stop! The energy around venting can get you stuck in a cycle of negativity and victimhood. Try to express yourself so in a solution-oriented manner. That way, your truth is an expression of discernment and not purely negative. Consider that venting might cause harm to the person you a complaining about which violates the principals and definition of Ahimsa. Applying the principal of Aparigraha, or non-attachment, could help you to let go of what’s bothering you, find a sense of freedom, and then the inspiration to think of a way forward.
Credit the Source of Your Truth
When I have facilitated a really brilliant training, I am aware that my take on kids yoga is re-mix of the wisdom of my teachers, community, experience and education. I routinely make sure to honor the sources of my inspiration formally in my bibliography and aloud with acknowledgement. You make sure to live conscious of Satya (truthfulness) while not forgetting about Asteya (non-stealing) by practicing acknowledging your sources.
Attention to truthfulness is discernment. Living in this way will provide great freedom. Know that nothing needs to be achieved in this moment now. Attuning yourself to your inner truth and communicating that truth in a non-harmful manner will be a challenge. Luckily for you, as you practice, you have plenty of room for error, mistakes, and experimentation. You have your whole lifetime. What is truth today may be different tomorrow. Having a flexible attitude and gentleness toward yourself and others may make walking the path of Satya and ultimately yoga more accessible and pleasant. Gain the freedom yoga promises as you live life authentically.