klesas

This week at Jai Ma, as part of our monthly pranayam/meditation/dharma discussion group, I led a discussion about suffering.  I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few months, and the different approaches that Buddhism and yoga take to it, so I felt pretty well prepared for the discussion.  In fact, I’ve been doing so much thinking about it, I was afraid I was going to stumble all over my words and not make any sense at all, but I think it went pretty well.

Both Buddhism and classical yoga are concerned with suffering.  Classical yoga was heavily influenced by Buddhism, so it’s natural that there’s some overlap in philosophy and interests.  Buddhism views the primary source of suffering as attachment; the things or situations that we want but don’t have, or want to keep but can’t.  Patañjali (author of the Yoga Sutras, written in the 2nd century AD, about 700 years after the Buddha) had a more complex view of suffering; he identified five causes, which he called klesas.  Patañjali said that the most important of these was avidya – not seeing, or misunderstanding, or ignorance.  The other four are best described as “I” statements:  “I am,” “I want,” “I don’t want,” and “I fear.”

The first two klesas – avidya and “I am” – are basically intellectual; front brain, cerebral cortex stuff.  Avidya, in my experience, is the hardest klesa to identify in ourselves; we almost always assume that our understanding of a situation is correct.  A good practice when embroiled in suffering is to step back and ask yourself what assumptions you’re making about the situation, and which of them may be incorrect.  Even if you think your understanding is flawless, this practice will help you discover whether you’re missing something.  The klesa “I am” is somewhat easier to identify.  Any time you find yourself drawing conclusions because of a label that you (or anyone else) has applied to you – male, female, young, old, capable, incapable, expert, amateur, complete fuck up, yogi, witch, Christian, atheist, &c. – you are dealing with this klesa.  “I am” blinds us to what we actually are – messy, indistinct beings who are not easily categorized or dismissed.

The next two klesas – “I want” and “I don’t want” – are emotional; ie, the limbic system.  These two represent the cat and mouse game that we all play, chasing after the things that we want, running away from the things that we don’t want.  They cause suffering because they draw us away from what’s actually going on.  I would be the last person in the world to denigrate fantasy – I think it’s an absolutely necessary part of life – but when it devolves into escapism it’s going to cause problems.

The last klesa – “I fear” – is instinctive, and is rooted in the reptilian brain.  Whatever fear looks like at first blush, it always boils down to a need to survive.  Fear serves a useful function of alerting us to threats to our survival, but it takes a liberal approach to defining what’s a threat.  Evolutionarily, of course, this makes sense.  It’s better to call a hundred false alarms than miss a single real threat.  Because of this wide swath cut by fear, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection between whatever it is that we’re afraid of and the possibility of death.  But it is always there, if you look closely.

Audacious as this may be, I disagree with the Buddha and Patañjali on the question of relative importance of the causes of suffering.  I think the root cause of all suffering is not attachment or misunderstanding, but fear.  As much as we like to pretend otherwise, when push comes to shove (as it does when we’re suffering) the reptilian brain’s need for survival trumps all else.

Ranking the klesas in terms of strength probably isn’t all that important, though.  What’s important here is that Patañjali was a genius psychotherapist.  Not only did he identify these five sources of suffering, but he also told us how we could overcome them.  Patañjali spelled out a three part approach:  tapas (intense, focused practice), svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvarapranidhana (offering up the fruits of your practice; letting go).

Any time you find yourself suffering, if you have the presence of mind to do so, you can look at these five potential sources, the klesas, work out which one (or ones) is (or are) currently afflicting you, and trace your suffering to the root.  This work is your tapas and svadhyaya.  Self-study is your practice, in this context.  Once you do this, you will begin to see the entire situation more clearly, and you will probably find that the thing you thought was upsetting you is probably a surrogate for something else; some deep, wounded part of you, perhaps, or some fear that is to scary to look at directly.  My experience is that this realization brings with it not further panic, but relief.  And this is what is meant by Ishvarapranidhana; letting go.

(Reference:  first 5 or 6 sutras of Sadhana Pada, book 2 of the Yoga Sutras.  I recommend the Desikachar and (especially) the BKS Iyengar translations/commentaries.)

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3 Responses

  1. […] our last formal topic (the klesas – causes of suffering), this is something that’s been percolating through my mind for […]

  2. I understand what you’re saying about fear being the root cause of all suffering, although I could also see the perspective in which our our fear of dying just being the holding tightly/being (too?) attached to our life. So like many things, just slightly different views of the same thing.

    p.s. thank you for writing! I find your entries really helpful ways to look at some of the ideas I’m exploring. You’ve had so much more training in all of this than me… I wish we lived closer so we could discuss more!! One day…

  3. Mmmm… very good point; fear of dying as a subset of attachment. Good job grasshopper!

    I’m glad you’re finding my entries helpful, also very glad you find yourself exploring some of the same terrain.

    And, of course, I too look forward to that one day… till then, know that I’m never more than a phone call away.

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