Unclouding the Mind. Yoga and the Five Kleshas
As you probably know, the main axis of Yoga, the point to which most yogic scriptures come back to once and again, is meditation. Meditation is Yoga and all the rest –the poses, the breathing, the chanting, the rituals– are ways for us to attune to the frequency of our soul, our heart, our inner center, so we can learn to examine our thoughts and emotions without too much of an investment. We want to learn to slow our minds down a little and allow any and all emotions to surface while resting in our true essence: in that quietness that’s within us and that’s silent without being empty.
The reasons to practice meditation, then, are many and you can explore some of them here. But we can say that we meditate, primarily, to get to truly know who we are, what we are made of, and what the jam and butter of our daily life-toast is all about. Meditation helps us to progressively uncloud our mind; and let’s be honest, we need this. Most of us still go through life looking too much to the far horizon, unable to clear the actual clouds in our most immediate portion of sky.
In the Yoga Sutra, sage Patanjali explains in his very own way what these clouds are made up of. He speaks of things like ignorance (Avidya), ego (Asmita), attachment (Raga), aversion (Dvesha), and clinginess to life (Abhinivesha). These are the so-called Five Kleshas or roots of suffering: the reasons we humans often get stuck in unhelpful patterns and damaging behaviors for years, decades, even lives.
According to Patanjali, continued exposure to the methods and the philosophy of Yoga is like a balsam: a sort of soothing pill that can help us become more aware of each of these five pitfalls so we can put an end to them. And so, as we hop on the mat with the intention of resting in our own space and get more acquainted with who we really are, confrontation happens. But confrontation is a necessary part of life. As our practice develops and we learn to sit longer in our true centre, moments of confrontation unfold as part of a much larger process of change and transformation occurring also off the mat.
Those of us who have been practicing Yoga for a while will agree that it’s fairly easy to see how our commitment to the cultivation of greater awareness brings forth a greater ability to see things for what they really are; to see through our own bullshit, as well as through the bullshit of others, without the need to look away too fast. This isn’t always pleasant, but pleasure is not all there is to life. Greater awareness can also bring forth an enhanced ability to connect back to our truth and to truth in general and avoid ignoring the rough bits and parts of our own personalities and lives. This is the very meaning and method to overcome the first of the five kleshas: ignorance. To stare our bullshit right in the eyes. That excessive identification with the 'ego' and 'attachment' be mentioned as the second and third causes of our suffering, then, should come as no surprise.
To say that we live in the age and time of ego and attachment is actually quite an understatement, and we're sure that most of us can think of at least a few ways in which our ego, our desires, and attachments (to things, experiences, people, feelings) run our lives. The vast majority of us –even those working to subsume our ‘issues’– still go through life unable to disconnect from the labels, the names, the titles, the roles, the tags; constantly pursuing something, primarily, a more improved, refined, and perfected version of 'who we can become.' This is of course a version we aren’t yet (at least allegedly) and one we can look forward to for us to be able to put up with things we don’t really like. With meaningless jobs, with meaningless lives, with the discomfort of knowing that, at the end of the day, we don’t really know why we are here, where we come from, what this ‘thing’ is, and what it is about. Uncertainty is one of life’s most powerful motivators.
Identified with our roles, degrees, careers, partners, friends, and possessions, we take all of that to be an extension of us –often quite literally. And though the pursuit of some of these identities can sometimes be satisfactory, more often than not, because of the transient nature of experience and of how ignorance is frequently inbuilt into any false pursuit, we end up back where we started: in need of more investing, more identifying, more pursuing, more desiring... More of ‘anything' to really feel satisfied. The question is: for how long?
The titles we attain only make us happy for a little. The money in our bank accounts can only buy certain forms of security. The love of the people around us is not up to us; and our possessions, once exciting, soon lose their appeal and leave us flat. We spend a great part of our lives unable to sit with the discomfort of not knowing what we are actually doing and who we are, unable to face what we avert, often at a really high price. And it is in this discomfort, in this emptiness of meaning and reason that the actual answers lie. This is what Patanjali referred to as dvesha or aversion: the inability to face our darkness and the desire to move away from discomfort and unrest and uncertainty as fast as possible to avoid experiencing pain, hurt, sadness. As if these were not also part of life.
We haven’t yet written an entry on death itself, but maybe it’s about time. Because fear of death is at the root of all of these diversions, of all of our endeavors and desperate attempts for meaning, love, and direction. Patanjali called this ‘clinging to life,’ abhinivesha, and we not only cling to our life for as long as possible in a literal sense —who wouldn’t?– but do so completely identified with both the physical world and this physical body of ours. We believe we know reality; and yet, if there is one thing that prolonged meditation can teach us is that everything we believe in is a convention, and actual wisdom (prajna), actual ‘knowing before knowing,’ begins deep inside. It begins before and beyond the mind. This thing we call ‘REALITY’ is nothing but a well-established collective hallucination of our minds.
To us, this tendency of ours towards identifying with the physical body and the physical world is very much connected to the Vedic notion of prajnaparadha or wrong judgement –one of the main roots of suffering also in Ayurveda. Wrong judgement means that we habitually choose to pursue and do things our inner wisdom tells us are not good for us; a lack of judgement stemming primarily from a lack of understanding of the nature of life and from confusing unreality or what the yogis call maya for all there is, for REALITY all caps. Again, uncertainty has a strange effect on us. It can push us to climb the highest mountains and attain incredible achievements, but it frequently compresses us too into sanctioned forms of 'being,' into conformity, into one-size-fits-all molds and roles that give us the illusion of knowing.
But the actual way of knowing if we’re really working through the five root causes of our suffering is this: ask yourself if your Yoga practice and your life is taking you in the direction of more or less comfort, of more or less uncertainty, of more or less questions without clear answers. And we're not here speaking of material comfort. But that being granted to some extent, there is a way in which earnest Yoga practice –indeed, earnest self-inquiry– should create more space within you to sit with the incertitude of it all, with the blank pages, the half-cooked truths, the days full of clouds, and the at best partial answers to the mystery of life.
Actual Yoga practice, and remember, Yoga is meditation, is ultimately a roadmap to complete liberation, but not in a all-must-be-joyful-and-easy-and-pure-bliss kind of way. Liberation looks different for different individuals, and the way to it does as well. And what is Yoga really if not an individually tailored method for us to be at ease with who we are and with the world as it is and not as we think it ought to be.