A Brief Tour of the 5 Kleshas (and How to Figure out your most Stubborn)

I know what you’re thinking.

What the hell is a klesha? So glad you asked…

A klesha is a form of self-inflicted suffering that Patanjali spoke of in the infamous Yoga Sutras.

It’s irrelevant that you don’t practice yoga. The Sutras offer a widely revered philosophy that can be used by anyone interested in improving their self awareness.

Swami Satyananada Saraswati says: ‘Kleshas are a kind of agony that are inside our very being’. We all feel the pain of these kleshas, but a lot of the time, the daily grind and hustle masks the pain.

The 5 kleshas are the standard ways we humans cause our own suffering Click To Tweet

These kleshas are obstacles to our clear seeing and awareness. They are:

  • Spiritual ignorance (avidya);
  • Ego (asmita);
  • Attraction (raga);
  • Aversion (dvesha); and
  • Clinging to life (abhinivesha).

This post aims to demystify the kleshas, and give you an idea of which dims your shine the most.

Let’s get cracking.

Avidya: ignorance/lack of awareness

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Avidya or ‘ignorance’ is the base of the other four afflictions (and possibly every single affliction there is).

It means ignorance of Self.

When we don’t truly know ourselves, we stay ‘in the box’ of ego (asmita). Being in the box results in being overly attached to pleasures (raga), and resistant to dislikes (dvesha). Whether we are aware of it or not, we also cling to the life in the physical body (abhinivesha), resulting in dukkha (suffering).

Avidya is the mother klesha. It translates as ignorance of self Click To Tweet

Ignorance doesn’t mean the lack of worldly knowledge. In fact, being preoccupied with acquiring knowledge of the material world (scientific knowledge or news) can cause ignorance of true Self.

The effect of this klesha is that we don’t know how to find true fulfilment where we are.

could this be your most stubborn klesha?

This is probably all of our most stubborn klesha. It takes treading a different and lonely path to realise our soul potential, instead of working on personality-related objectives.

Nonetheless, here’s a few indicators that this is a dominant klesha. You:

  1. don’t know your own likes and dislikes, and are easily swayed by the preferences of others.
  2. frequently confuse yourself with your own actions.
  3. couldn’t name five values for me right now.
  4. feel your life lacks purpose.
  5. rely on something outside of you to tell you what’s safe/good.

doing a klesha coup

Asmita: egoism/the sense of ‘I’

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Asmita, or ego, is the box we place ourselves in, because we lack awareness of our true natures.

How do you define yourself to you and others? That’s asmita.

Asmita is your ego, your false self, your personality as you know it Click To Tweet

Our asmita shells result in suffering because we unconsciously operate under the belief that we have to be a certain way in order to survive. When our ego strengths don’t give us the results we think we want, that causes disillusionment and fear.

As I wrote about before, we need our egos. They are useful for getting around and communicating in this world. But we have to live with the awareness that there is more to us than our egos.

could this be your most stubborn klesha?

Ask yourself:

  1. in your mind, are you very identified with what you do, and who you are in relation to others? Are you a competitive human bean?
  2. are you obsessed with achieving?
  3. when faced with something difficult, are you able to easily see possibilities for how it can be overcome?
  4. do you consider your personality traits and those of others set in stone?
  5. has it been years since an aspect of you changed?

doing a klesha coup

Practice reducing your fixedness in how you see yourself and others, and cultivate more open-mindedness.

  1. observe how you define yourself to others.
  2. ask yourself whether pursuing that new goal is really going to bring you lasting satisfaction.
  3. break a habit. Notice that as you are simply a collection of them, you can change all the time.
  4. seek to feel others beyond their immediate presentations.
  5. when you find yourself overthinking, focus on what knowledge your heart holds, instead.

Raga and dvesha: attraction and aversion

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We’ll look at these two kleshas together as they are flip sides of the same coin.

When either of these kleshas is in full force, life can be very tormenting as we are running away from what’s painful and chasing what’s pleasurable.

Raga and dvesha are your likes and dislikes, wants and not wants Click To Tweet

Reducing the impact of these kleshas means learning to cultivate some detachment from our desires and aversions, and equanimity (equal treatment) towards our experience of pleasure and pain. Like everything, it is a practice.

Raga or ‘attraction’ is over identifying with the qualities of our body/mind that we like. It can be difficult to loosen their hold, because we are wired to be attracted to sensual pleasures. There is nothing wrong with enjoying’s life’s beautiful and tasty things.

But the discerning mind recognizes that the bliss of worldly pleasures doesn’t add up to lasting authentic happiness.

The opposite of raga is dvesha (aversion). We want to avoid things, people and situations that we don’t like. We have to work to notice powerful aversions when they appear, and try to stay with them for longer.

As my fave yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, said,

“When the water in a pot is agitated, the moving water disturbs any reflected object. Similarly, when the calm waters of a man’s heart are stirred by likes and dislikes, he is unable to solve his problems and to make wise decisions.”

could this be your most stubborn klesha?

  • are you overly invested in ‘how you feel’, whether that is awesome or like ten kinds of turd? Does it throw you off course?
  • are you unable to stop yourself littering life with short term pleasures?
  • is delayed gratification and impulse control quite hard for you?
  • do you go to lengths to avoid dealing with difficult situations and people, even when that’s counter productive?
  • are you tossed and turned by events unfolding in the external world?

doing a klesha coup

I wrote about it before.

Abhinivesha: clinging to life

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This is the most difficult one to overcome. Being alive is pretty great. It’s hard not to want that to continue.

We are born with a seed of fear about death. The clinging is evident in contemporary Western society, with most of us being obsessed with the fountain of youth.

Abhinivesha is clinging to life; the root of all fear Click To Tweet

But, if we can grow ‘interiorly’, our external appearances take on less significance. They do not affect our happiness or contentedness.

Could this be your most stubborn klesha?

  • do the passing years freak you out a lot?
  • do you do everything you can to forestall ageing?
  • are you preoccupied by staying safe at the expense of having a fuller life experience?
  • can you bear to contemplate your own death or death of loved ones?
  • do you believe you perish with your physical body?

doing a klesha coup

  • read a good book on the fear of death, such as the Denial of Death.
  • consider that every single fear you have can be tracked back to a fear of death (the fact that we have fears at all is based on survival angst that happened when our brains weren’t fully formed).
  • contemplate death – yours and other peoples.
  • invest in developing your soul potential through a life of integrity.

Summary

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So that’s it: the 5 kleshas; the ways we make ourselves suffer. As you can see, there is a lot to be working on here.

The first stage of working with the kleshas is to simply acknowledge them. The next time you are experiencing a little angst, ask yourself which klesha is having its wicked way on you.

And have yourself a secret smile, knowing that your self awareness just elevated.