The Kleshas: Five Obstacles to Awareness

The field of the mind is endlessly fascinating to those interested in mastery and transcendence. So much affects us – from the external forces of the universe to the internal forces of our thoughts. The practitioner whose goal is to gain control over the mind must contend with both facets.

According to the Samkhya/Yoga philosophical system, the external forces arise from the qualities of the material universe in which we reside. This physical reality, Prakriti, is comprised of and designed by the gunas, which are constantly in flux. Always churning, the gunas create imbalance to the extreme – excitement, volatility and urgency or heaviness, darkness and enveloping inertia. But, when they are brought into balance, through detachment and meditation, they cease to affect the yogi. The wild activity of the material universe no longer pulls or distracts the yogi’s mind field. Instead, the power of consciousness becomes situated in its own essential nature, the Self, Purusha.

Once the yogi has had an experience of pure consciousness, the mind continuously strives to attain it, over and over again. Attunement to the universal energy of the gunas is only one piece. There is an internal landscape, at the depths of the human mind that must be analyzed, parsed, and deconstructed. This deep psychological work happens at the most subtle level, where thoughts originate and instigate our behaviors and emotions. This exploration is the path to freedom.

But that freedom only comes from the willingness to analyze our mental make up, our habitual ways of thinking, our ingrained beliefs. How do our ideologies affect our mindset and thus our approach to life? As embodied beings living in the material world, we have no choice but to deal with what comes at us – the people and things that create challenges and reactions. But once we develop an awareness of our deep-seated psychological framework, we can dismantle it and free ourselves to live a life that is centered on spirit, our higher Selves.

The Yoga Sutras, in their infinite wisdom, explain how. The mind field is bubbling with activity and that activity has come to be called thoughts. Patanjali says that our thoughts range from the direct perception of information, to inference and logical reasoning to misconceptions. Our thoughts also consist of our conceptual frameworks and imaginations as well as thoughts that operate during dreamless sleep. And there is memory, which encompasses all of these plus our life experiences. But the key to gaining control over the mind is not to try to figure out what kind of thought we are having. Rather, it is to understand that regardless of what kind of thought may be rolling around, what lies underneath is what matters.

According to the Sutras, the kleshas are the driving force behind our thoughts. Klesha is translated as obstacle or affliction. This means that our thoughts are either klishta – detrimental, harmful or damaging – or aklishta – not detrimental, harmful or damaging. To say it a different way, our thoughts impede our path toward enlightenment by creating a mental field full of pain, impurities and negativity. Or our thoughts may be pure, positive, and virtuous, and move us toward enlightenment.

There are five kleshasavidyaasmitaragadvesha, and abhinivesha.

Avidya is spiritual ignorance. It is the mistaken notion that there is no distinction between Purusha, spiritual consciousness, and Prakriti, material consciousness. The yogi ignorantly takes what is fleeting, evanescent and ephemeral as permanent, eternal and everlasting, what is impure as pure, what is pain as happiness, and what is not the self as the Self. All of these misconceptions arise due to how we perceive the world – through our senses – which is how we are trained to experience, and thus believe, what is presented to us in material reality.

Avidya is the first and most important klesha because it is the field, the fertile ground, in which the others take root and grow – from the active and sporadic kleshas to the weak and even dormant kleshas. And so, it becomes the imperative of the yogi to break this misguided ignorance and abolishavidya.

Asmita is the belief that what is seen is the same thing as the power of seeing. It is yet another misidentification, this time of the intellectual mind with pure spirit. Asmita translates as egoism, I-am-ness or the I-feeling and means that we believe that everything exists in reference to us, solely for us. It is self-absorption and not the good kind. We should be Self-absorbed.

Raga is attachment. Happiness follows attachment, arising from happy memories. At the same time, attachment stems from happiness, as in “I want the good things to keep happening because they make me happy.” This is not bad, it just is, and it is natural for all sentient beings.

Dvesha is aversion, which comes from unhappy memories, and pain follows. As with ragadvesha is not bad, it just is. Actually, it is simply another form of attachment – but to the pain – as in “I don’t want these bad things to keep happening because I am suffering.” Dvesha is easy to recognize because it manifests in such strong reactions like sadness, apprehension or disquiet.

The dance of raga and dvesha is constant. Everyone wants to perpetuate satisfaction, enjoyment and gratification while avoiding pain and suffering.

Abhinivesha is fear of death, also translated as clinging to life or the desire for continuity. Abhinivesha is the last of the five kleshas and has all the others wrapped up inside. We protect the mental field we have created for ourselves – from our spiritual ignorance to our ego to our likes and dislikes – and hold on, tightly, believing that how things are must be the only way.

Another way to explain fear of death is fear of change – of how things are, what we know, or what we think we know. It is said that even the learned person has this fear. It is innate and thought to be a memory of past lives/deaths.

But, the kleshas can be attenuated and eventually destroyed. At the gross level, the three active practices of Kriya Yoga, tapas, self-discipline,svadhyaya, self-study and Ishvara Pranidhana, devotion to a greater power, weaken the kleshas. At the most subtle level, the practice of dhyana, meditation, destroys the kleshas.

From tapas, austere practices of the physical body that train the senses, mental impurities are destroyed. There is a level of mastery over the senses, and we are no longer subject to believing that physical reality is all that there is.

From svadhyaya, self-study and reflection on the holy words of scripture, a connection is made with a greater power, whatever that means to the yogi– God, guru, divinity, nature, love, etc. That connection engenders a shift toward the Self.

From Ishvara Pranidhana, from direct devotion to that higher power, comes mastery of the deepest state of meditation. In other words, when the yogisurrenders to that guiding principle, whatever it is called, the impact of the kleshas on the level of the thoughts is further diminished. The mind becomes more refined, and thus able to focus on the truth

And then from, dhyana, the kleshas, are eliminated. In meditation, the mind is fixed on one thought of the yogi’s choice. That concentration on one thought, or one image, or one point literally transforms the mind by allowing it to flow undisturbed from the last thought to the next. What has just passed is the same as what is now present. And it keeps going like this.

Once the mechanism that produces the detrimental, harmful or damaging activities of the mind field is eliminated, the thoughts of the yogi are no longer afflicted. The, the underlying obstacles to freedom, the kleshas, are removed and we stand in our true nature, abiding in peace.