A Modern Take on the Roots of Suffering
A lifetime on the spiritual path means revisiting the sacred texts over and over again. Whether this is your first foray into the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the hundredth, you will encounter in Chapter 2 Verse 4 a simple explanation of the obstacles on the path to liberation from suffering. Here’s a crucial piece of the puzzle: the reason you will return again and again to this work is that the obstacles will never fully go away. You can, however, learn to identify them with greater ease and bypass them more gracefully.
If you were to receive word that there was a huge boulder in the middle of the road on your drive to work, you’d never expect yourself to go there and remove the boulder yourself, much less believe that the removal of that one boulder would eliminate all future detours from your future commutes. No, you’d learn a new path, a way to get around it, hopefully with as little drama, grumpiness, and frustration as possible. You would acknowledge the presence of an obstacle, handle it in a skillful manner, get to where you’re going, and feel confident that you are equipped for the boulder that fell. To complete the metaphor, you might decide to invest in some sturdy tires so you can off-road, or a well-functioning GPS if you want to make life even easier. And making life easier is the point, is it not? To learn how to handle more gracefully that which the universe puts in your path with the least amount of suffering as possible.
An Overview of the Roots of Suffering
“Ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles.” (From Swami Satchidananda’s Yoga Sutras, 2.2)
- Avidya: Most commonly translated as ignorance, the first obstacle on the road to liberation has to do with not seeing things as they really are, and being disconnected from the Truth. Anytime you are unable to be with the present moment, the unfolding of life as it is, you are experiencing avidya. More often than not, people are not fully engaged in the present moment because they are experiencing one of the other kleshas, which Patanjali lays out in the subsequent sutras.
- Asmita: Asmita is the ego, and it becomes an affliction when you relate more to what you think you are, rather than who you actually are. Labeling yourself, judging yourself or others as they relate to you, or identifying with the “storymaker” are types of asmita, and they cause an unfortunate, but common, disconnect from universal consciousness. If it occurs to you that almost all of your thoughts are about you and your stories, you would be right. Nevertheless, you can see that asmita is a type of avidya.
- Raga: Raga means attachment, or clinging. Raga is the desire to repeat enjoyable experiences, to have more of what is pleasurable. The problem with this is that actually having more will never fill a person up; suffering is inevitable.
- Dvesa: The flipside of the coin is dvesa, or aversion. Dvesa is the desire to avoid experiences that are uncomfortable or bring displeasure. Raga and dvesa are about either clinging to or resisting what is, rather than simply being with it. Pushing away or resisting the moment is dvesa.
- Abhinivesa: Finally, abhinivesa is described as the fear of death, but is really another type of clinging—clinging to one’s life and identity. As the Buddhist teacher and author Michael Stone puts it, “Abhinivesa is not the fear of the death of the body per se, but the fear of letting go of the story of ‘me.’” A person might fear that releasing an aversion or attachment to something might result in the dissolution of the person’s identity.
Recognizing the Kleshas in Action
Here are a few examples of how the kleshas might appear in your life.
Say you take a bite of cake. You recognize the flavors and textures as delicious, and immediately say to yourself, “More, please!” You have barely even swallowed it before deciding you’d like to have more, and so you do. Before you know it, you have finished your slice (or several slices), are experiencing physical discomfort, and feel an added emotional guilt for not being able to control your desires. You then silently and shamefully point out this pattern in your life (“Ugh, here I go again!”), and begin to identify with the story that you’re weak, overindulgent, and unable to control how much you eat.
Or how about this scenario: You’re in your regular yoga class and the teacher leads you into a pose you despise and aren’t able to do well. You bite your lip, attempt the pose, fall out of it, and decide to go visit the restroom instead. All the while, you curse the teacher under your breath for setting you up to fail. You talk yourself into the “truth” that maybe you don’t belong in this class after all. You begrudgingly head back to your mat, where you plan your shopping list, and berate yourself for not being as good a yogi as the other people in the room.
Both examples highlight the ways that neutral events can spin into a cycle of suffering, or samskara. If left unchecked, there would rarely be a peaceful moment between your ears.
What Can You Do?
The practice of yoga is all about awareness.
- Putting names to the mental patterns that all human beings experience can be comforting and helpful in becoming more conscious with your thoughts and actions. This is step one.
- Meditation, then, is the next step, and is the answer to most conundrums on the yogic path. Meditation creates more distance between the higher Self and your thoughts, making it easier to see the kleshas when they occur. Once you can say to yourself, “Oh that’s aversion!” or “Oh, that’s me being wrapped up in my story, which isn’t the actual Truth,” the work becomes being with the feelings that arise without seeking to avoid them.
- Finally, the idea would be that you could approach your life circumstances with more present awareness (purusha) in the moment, rather than so easily succumbing to the obstacles and letting it take you further away from your true center.
Revisiting the two examples above, taking a bite of delicious cake could become a truly delightful experience if it were experienced in the moment, fully and completely. Perhaps that single bite would have been enough. Or perhaps a purposeful choice to enjoy a second (or third) bite would have been nice, too. But chances are a connected, intentional state of awareness wouldn’t need much more than that.
The dreaded yoga pose might have actually been pleasant, if not wrapped up in the story about it. Being with the uncomfortable sensations without trying to avoid them might have actually brought about a breakthrough in mastery. Or it might have triggered nothing at all if the mental conditions were right. The work is simply to be with experiences as they arise, without layering all the mental drama onto them. After all, it’s rarely the thing itself, but your thoughts about the thing that cause you to suffer.
It takes discipline, patience, and acceptance to walk the path of the modern spiritual seeker. What may be cognitively simple is usually extremely challenging in practice. Such is life. This is why yoga is a practice, rather than a skill to be mastered. It is all part of the human condition, and you are fortunate to have such clear teachings at your disposal for how to cope with that which is unavoidable. You can only trust that it gets a little easier, over time. And if not, you’ll practice present-moment awareness in that experience, too.
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