We shift our focus to another key theme of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali today, the kleshas or the five obstacles that prevent us from realizing our inherent peace. Often translated as “veils,” the kleshas represent what the Yogis perceived as the five primary psychological states of misperception or misidentification that keep us from realizing our natural peace and joy. We’ll look at each of these forms of misunderstanding in greater detail, but today we’ll start with a general overview of the obstacles as a whole as well as their place within the Yoga Sutras.
The Kleshas & Their Role in the Yogic Journey
As discussed previously, the essence of The Yoga Sutras can be summarized in a few simple lines. The Yogis observed that our inherent nature is one of peace and contentment, however when we start to misidentify with the transient parts of ourselves, such as our possessions, our bodies, or our thoughts, we lose touch with that peace and experience frustration and pain.
From this basic observation, Patanjali then goes on to offer a variety of practices, such as meditation, that we can use to reestablish our connection with that peace. He also provides a series of tools that can help us better recognize the process of misidentification and to redirect our thoughts when we fall into it, which in turn leads us to the five kleshas.
Essentially, the Yogis realized the concept of “misperception” as a whole is so large in scale it can be overwhelming. For this reason, they learned to break down the process into five primary forms, making it easier to identify and in turn shift these patterns. They also realized as individuals we all have a tendency to be more susceptible to some forms of misidentification than others. By deepening our understand of all five, we can learn to be more aware of our own particular areas of challenge and also to be more compassionate toward those who struggle with areas which are perhaps more foreign to us. In this way, a greater understanding of the five kleshas can improve our self-awareness, our empathy, and above all our over-all peace.
An Overview of the Kleshas & a Word On Progression
Again, much like the ethical principles of Yoga, each of the kleshas has its own unique character while also ultimately connecting with the other four. The veils are also similar to the limbs of Yoga in that they have a tendency to naturally build off of one another. In this sense, again, by understanding each, we can better understand our own challenges as well as those of our family, friends, co-workers, and even those we may initially think of us fundamentally different from us.
The first obstacle is avidya or “false knowledge.” According to Patanjali, avidya is ultimately the foundation of all the other kleshas, which is to say they can at heart be traced back to misunderstanding. Avidya falls into two basic but equally powerful categories: the first is when we hold a belief that is not accurate, while the second is when we simply lack knowledge or awareness – in other words, the Yogis remind us that absence of knowledge can be every bit as painful and detrimental as misperception or falsehood. Again, for Patanjali this is the “cornerstone” of all obstacles. This means that even if we have a more conspicuous tendency to fall into one of the later kleshas, we can all benefit from a greater understanding of avidya since it will help us understand our own particular extension of this “root misperception.”
The second klesha is asmita or “egoism.” Egoism is when we fall into identification with the transient and conditional parts of ourselves – parts that ultimately distance us from others and even ourselves. It’s worth noting this understanding of egoism is very much distinct from pride or arrogance. Simply put, the Yogis realized when we misidentify with our perceived shortcomings, this is as much a form of egoism and a source of suffering as when we are proud of superficial things. It’s also important to understand the error of asmita can apply not only to our view of ourselves but also how we think of the people around us – in other words, we need to watch not only for the tendency to misperceive our own nature but also to erroneously think of others in terms of an inaccurate or partial vision of their true greater selves.
The third obstacle or veil is ragas or “attachment.” In ragas, we are allowing our focus on a particular thing to obstruct our view of life as a whole – or, to use an expression we’re all familiar with, “missing the forest for the trees.” As discussed in our exploration of the yamas and niyamas, it’s important to note attachment is by no means limited to material things, as we can cause every bit as much pain through attachment to situations or ideals as we do through material obsession. In fact, these subtler forms of attachment are often easier to overlook and in turn even more deleterious.
The fourth veil is dvesha, which is essentially the compliment to attachment or aversion. In dvesha, we allow our fixation on the things we perceive as negative or “bad” to prevent us from enjoying and appreciating what is, including the possibility that “poor” outcomes could in fact ultimately prove to be for the best. Again, aversion can take many forms, from judgment to fear to disdain, but each ultimately brings the same negative consequence in terms of peace with ourselves, the people around us, and ultimately life as a whole.
The fifth and final kleshas is abhinevesa or “fear.” Much as each of the subsequent kleshas can be seen as an extension of avidya, so all the kleshas ultimately lead to and manifest as fear. Again, whether this is rooted in ego (i.e., fear of not fitting in), attachment (fear of failure), or aversion (fear of not being able to avoid that which we perceive as bad or undesirable), the end result is the same alienation from ourselves, our community, and our world.
The Kleshas, Self-Study & Compassion
Again, in our next five articles we’ll look at each of the veils in greater detail, but we’ll conclude today with a general look at how they can be applied. Essentially, the Yogis realized any time we find ourselves experiencing tension, frustration, anger, or any other form of “dis-ease” – that is, any state other than our natural state of peace – the source of that discomfort can be traced back to one or a combination of the five obstacles. In this way, by understanding the kleshas and their symptoms, any time we lose our balance we can trace it back to its source and ultimately see the mistaken thoughts that lead us there. By then shifting our thoughts, we can not only transform the situation, but also get better at avoiding similar mistakes in the future.
In addition to this benefit, as noted previously, since we all have our own natural areas of strength and challenge, most of us will find we have certain kleshas that tend to come up more frequently than others. Once we are aware of this tendency, it can be easier to watch for them and the situations that tend to bring them to the fore in our lives. This helps us to identify and redirect patterns before they cause greater damage and ultimately to avoid such pitfalls entirely.
Finally, through a greater understanding of all of the obstacles including those to which we are less susceptible, we can greatly improve our compassion for others – that is, by better understanding patterns that may be less familiar to us, we grow more sympathetic toward those who face different challenges on their path. Even more importantly, when we understand these seemingly “opposite” challenges ultimately stem from the same grounds (avidya) and lead to the same result (suffering), we also increase our empathy, becoming more able to relate to those who again on the surface might seem to be foreign or hard to understand.
To give an example, if we struggle with self-criticism, we might have a tendency to judge people who seem excessively confident or even “showy.” However, when we learn to see that both arrogance and self-doubt ultimately rise from the same limited image of the self and that both lead to a life of insecurity and (unhealthy) dependence on others, we can learn to feel compassion for those who at first glance might have seemed our opposites. Taken together, a greater understanding of the kleshas allows us to experience greater self-awareness and greater harmony in our lives, as well as greater compassion toward and ease with those around us, ultimately allowing us to return to our natural state of peace and joy.
Now that we have taken a look at the general nature and significance of the kleshas, we’ll continue in our next five articles with an in-depth look at each, including the Yogic understanding of how they arise, the ways they can manifest in our lives, and how we can use that greater awareness to shift in a more positive direction.