Kleshas (5 causes of suffering)

Everyone in this world likes to be happy. Yet, the ways we seek happiness are for some more skillful than for others. Apparently paradoxical, the more we seek happiness through specific ways and try to avoid unhappiness, the further we may be away from happiness. Because happiness is our true nature. It is a state where we can both accept and embrace the pains and joys of this world, without being bound to them. What does Patanjali say about happiness and the causes of afflictions in the yoga sutras? The Sanskrit word ‘Kleshas’ can be translated as afflictions or causes of suffering.

I will refer to the yoga sutras of Patanjali as they are translated by Swami Satchidananda.

Sutra 2:3 “Ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred and clinging to bodily life are the five obstacles (kleshas)”.

Sutra 2:5 “Ignorance is regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant and the non-Self as the Self.”

Sutra 2:6 “Egoism is the identification, as it were, of the power of the Seer with that of the instrument of seeing,”


Patanjali points out that the cause of all suffering begins with ignorance. He continues by saying that ignorance is regarding the impermanent as the permanent.

A character in the movie the Matrix said ‘ignorance is bliss’. And he took the pill that continued the dream, preventing him from waking up to the truth...


Especially when pleasurable experiences appear, the call to wake up may not be strong enough to overcome the call to keep living in a pleasurable illusion. We may think: ‘Just give me more of this and that and life is perfect.’ Just a little bit more money, prestige, free time, a better car, a bigger house,... Who cares about Samadhi (union), truth, and liberation? If pleasure could be a continued experience, maybe we would never want to wake up. Just like in the dream state, we often keep on dreaming through pleasure and wake up when there is pain, fear, and anxiety. Now, this waking up while sleeping is not the solution because we are changing the dream of sleep for the dream of waking. A deeper transformation can come if we keep on dreaming but do it consciously and face the fear, look it directly in the eye. We may realize that the fear is a product of our mind and that nothing can harm us. Half joking, Ram Das used to say even about death: ‘Death is absolutely safe’... So if everything we experience is a product of the mind and is impermanent, then what is seeing and what is permanent?


It is the nature of all that arises to fade away. Joy turns into pain, pain turns into joy and the cycle continues. Just like the dance of the seasons. Would there be any human being on this earth that never experienced pain? Very unlikely to be so. But is pain our enemy, or is it yet another great teacher? Pain can be the catalyst to cut through illusion and ignorance. If there are only joyful sensations, we wouldn’t bother to try to look deeper. Deeper is even not the right description. As Saint Francis of Assisi said: “What we are looking for is what is looking.” What is looking and experiencing, can not be seen directly. It is not an object, it is the very subject through which seeing is possible. This is permanent. It is both the light in which we see as the light through which we see. Sages and yogis described it only as a negation: ‘Not this, not that.’ Don’t look too deep for it. It is like looking for your glasses while you are actually already wearing them. If we shift our attention to That which is Seeing, an infallible silence and peace envelopes us. When we feel this uncaused bliss, we know that we are. We don’t have to first think before we know that we are, like Descartes. The more we identify as That, beyond form and limitations, the more we open up for the infinite dimension of our being, beyond ignorance. When Patanjali says we are in ignorance when we are seeing the non-Self as the Self, he means that we are identifying with the thoughts, sensations, and impressions instead of with the Self that is seeing them.


The joy that radiates from our Pure Being, is way beyond any worldly joy, yet it is not separate from it. Sometimes we must lose something, to find out that life can be much better without. We may be clinging to our old clothes, old car, old friends, old body, while actually they no longer serve us. Do you know a moment like this, when life takes things away from us and we feel pain? At some point, we may realize that this too is a blessing and that we are much happier without... Just as it is like this with material things, it is as well with the subtler mindstuff and patterns.


Patanjali continues by saying that ignorance is seeing the impure as the pure and the painful as the pleasant. Some experiences give us pleasure at first, but their results are painful. I remember several nights regretting with a painful abdomen that I ate so many sweets. Other experiences are painful at first, but their result is joy and freedom. We may think about taking cold showers, doing physical exercise, or performing some asanas like mayurasana (the peacock). To live a happy, harmonious life we should learn to distinguish between momentary pleasure that may bind and experiences that uplift. Of course, pleasure when experienced with awareness can as well serve as a great catalyst for happiness. Don’t become a masochist, whipping yourself until you bleed. Enjoy Divine life, invite joy, dance and flow with her, accept pain and embrace when an apparent new chapter begins! And ask yourself: ‘Who is seeing and experiencing all of this?’ ‘Am I really this personality with all its stories?’, ‘Am I really only my thoughts and feelings?’. In fact, there is only the One, who is you beyond any story and personality.

Whatever appears in our body and mind can be witnessed, is seen in the light of consciousness. This background is ever-present and never changes. It is never born and will never die. It can be felt as a radiating feeling of existence.


Ignorance of our true being leads to egoism. Ego is nothing else than solidified thoughts. Without thoughts, there is no ego, but there can still be awareness. The ego doesn’t have an objective existence. Egoism happens when we identify ourselves, the Seer, with the stories, thoughts, emotions, and sensations. The body and mind are our instruments of seeing or vehicles. Just as we usually take care well of our car, we should take care of our body. Because without the body, the senses, and mind, we cannot experience the world. But if we want to minimize or avoid suffering, we shouldn’t be attached to them. The world exists for the seek of the Seer and for its liberation, not for its own sake. We take a human life form to experience life, to evolve, and learn. Just as we are grateful for our old car and discard it when it breaks down, we can learn to have a similar attitude toward our bodies.

Out of egoism, comes the clinging and attachment to pleasure and the aversion or hatred to pain. In sutra 15 of the second chapter Patanjali continues by saying: ‘To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences: the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings and the constant conflict among the three gunas, which control the mind.’


We can invite joy and pleasure into our lives, but if we don’t want to get entangled in them and suffer through the same means as through which we seek happiness, we should be very mindful to not get attached. Can you think of an experience that is so pleasurable for you that the idea of losing it becomes a source of anxiety? And when we actually lose it, it becomes a reason for misery. During one life experience, I injured my knee and hamstring. This injury made me aware of how attached I was to my Hatha yoga practice and not being able to practice made me suffer. So even a potentially very powerful and uplifting practice and the tool can become a trap if we get attached to it. Reflecting on the temporary nature of life can reduce attachment. The more we remain in the witness attitude, that which is permanent, the more we will remain untouched by the gains and losses of life. But don’t turn this into an escape mechanism! Life is amazingly beautiful, terribly painful, and yet beyond. That is a miracle!


Contemplating our attachments can give us an indication of a blockage on the level of the chakras. Although Patanjali didn’t mention the chakra system and most likely, it didn’t even exist yet in those times (2000 years ago), I still consider it a very useful method to map out the entire human potential. If we are attached primarily to our house, possessions, and safety and feel anxiety about losing this, Mooladhara chakra may be out of balance. If we feel an unquenching thirst for sensual and sexual pleasure and feel disturbed when we don’t have this, Swaddhistana chakra may be out of balance. If we feel a fear of losing control and power and are attached to our position, name, and fame, it can indicate a disbalance in Manipura chakra. If we feel very attached to the blissful moments of experiencing love through chanting, meditation, or in relation to a person or lover, Anahata chakra may be out of balance. If we get attached to dreams, visions, and refined, artistic experiences, Vishuddi chakra is affected. And if we are attached to mental and spiritual power, Ajna chakra may be out of balance. We can make this analysis for ourselves and find the areas where we are the most attached. Then we can adapt our Saddhana and lifestyle to transform these blockages and go beyond them.


Patanjali ends his analysis on the kleshas by saying that attachment and aversion results in the fear of death. This is the root of all other fears and has its source in ignorance of our true being. If indeed we believe only to be this body and mind and that if this body dies, life stops for us, it can give us anxiety. But who are we that are prone to dying? Does awareness die, does life stop? Or can we see ourselves in a drifting cloud, in a dying flower and an opening flower bud as the very source of existence?


Sutra 2:12 “The womb of karmas has its root in these obstacles, and the karmas bring experiences in the seen or in the unseen births.”


A yogi/yogini is someone that may be very engaged in the world but doesn’t live in bondage to the world. A true yogi can be floating like oil on the water without getting mixed with the water. Of course, this ability to let go is not black or white. It requires wisdom and it may take time to develop this pattern. It took us millions of years to become conditioned the way we are now, how can we expect to undo all of this at once? At the same time, awakening happens beyond time and can be instantaneous, although it can come and go.

The root of karma comes from the kleshas, which has its root in ignorance. If we want to be free from the bondage of the world, we have to cultivate wisdom and overcome the identification with the ego.


Swami Satchidananda writes about how silkworms have the tendency to overindulge from the moment they are born on mulberry leaves. 28 grams of silkworms contains about 40 000 eggs. These worms will eat in about 30 days time 1500 kg of mulberry leaves and produce about 8 kg of silk thread. ‘After thirty or forty days they are so tired they can no longer eat. Then they sleep, as anyone who overeats does. When people go to sleep on a full stomach, they roll about, this way and that as digestion is carried on. So the worms roll, and while they roll, a juicy type of saliva comes out of their mouths. All that the worms ate comes out as a stream of a thick paste, which forms silk thread. While the worms rotate they become bound up in the thread, the silk cocoon. When all the thread has come out, the worms go into a deep sleep wherein they know nothing. Finally, they awaken to see themselves caught in the tight cage created by their own saliva. ‘What is this?’ the worms think. ‘Where am I? How did this happen?’ Then they remember. ‘We ate and ate and ate. We enjoyed everything we could, without exception. We overindulged and become completely exhausted, then totally unconscious. We rolled around and around, binding ourselves up in this cocoon. What a terrible thing. We should have at least shared what we had with others. We were completely selfish. People of wisdom spoke a lot about a selfless life of sacrifice, but we never listened, nor followed their advice. The moment they stopped speaking, we started eating again. All those wise words wame in one way and out the other. We are paying for our mistakes now. Well, we repent for all our sins.’

The worms repent, pray and fast. In their deep meditation, they resolve all their unconscious impressions and decide not to live a selfish life again; in the future, they will discriminate before accepting anything. At this decision, two wings appear on either side of each worm – one named viveka (discrimination), the other vairagya (dispassion). These are combined with a sharp, clear intellect, which turns into a sharp nose to pierce open the cocoon. With that, the worms- now silk moths – slip out and fly up high with their fantastically colored wings and look back to see their discarded prisons. ‘We are leaving and we will never come back to that again.’ – Swami Satchidananda


In a similar way, karma already created from the past will continue to unfold within our lives. As we cut through the causes of affliction (kleshas), we start to stop creating karma until eventually we are freer and freer and can rise up on our colored wings just like the silk moth.

Patanjali mentions several methods for avoiding future suffering.


Sutra 2:1-2 “Tapas, Self-study, and surrender to the Divine constitute Yoga in practice. They help us minimize obstacles and attain Samadhi.”

Sutra 2:10 “In subtle form, these obstacles can be destroyed by resolving them back into their primal cause (the ego).”

Sutra 2:11 “ In the active state, they can be destroyed by meditation.”


The first verse of chapter two gives us the methods of yoga (kriya) and the ways to avoid suffering. The first one is Tapas. It literally means ‘to generate heat’ or ‘to shine’. It involves any yogic practice that is done with determination and regularity to bring a sublimation and transformation of the energy. Asanas, pranayama, concentration techniques, and meditation are all forms of Tapas when practiced in a correct way. Tapas includes accepting pain, though it doesn’t need to involve pain. By voluntarily accepting pain, we are burning through heavy karma and overcoming the compulsive reactivity of the ego. We can find this back in all native cultures. The Native Americans have traditions like sundance, sweat lodge, and other initiation rituals that involve putting the body through harsh or unpleasant conditions. Though the focus is not on pain. The focus is on transformation, prayer, and making a connection to the Divine within. And accepting all dualities with equanimity.


Patanjali continues with self-study as a means of overcoming suffering. It doesn’t mean you need to read a library of books. Often less is better. On the one hand, Swadhyaya (self-study) invites us to look deeply and sincerely into every aspect of ourselves and on the other hand to study sacred scriptures or listening to satsangs. This means to get inspired by beings that have walked the spiritual path before us and can guide us. If we know the map and have a torchlight, it is much easier to navigate through the forest in the dark. A spiritual guide can provide us with such a map and warn of potential obstacles. Of course, your smartphone can as well. But no matter how intelligent, intelligence alone will not bring us happiness. And your smartphone can have a few years warranty, but consciousness has an eternal warranty and on top, is free and, as far as I know, is not yet patented.


The next method is Ishwara Pranidhana (surrendering to the Divine). Prayer and devotional chanting are forms of this. Ultimately, the divine is not separate from us. It is the very essence through which we see. We are not worshipping our ego or small self, but the One Self that dwells in all beings. It is the very source of Pure Awareness. Whatever practice reveals this source to us and opens up to the unity of life, will reduce suffering and remove the obstacles.


In sutra 10 Patanjali continues by saying that in the subtle form, these obstacles can be destroyed by resolving them back into their primal cause (ego). This is exactly what the great sage Ramana Maharshi is pointing to. Prior to any thought, is the ‘I’ thought. Without this ‘I’ thought, no other thoughts can appear. Every thought is always happening in relation to someone that perceives it. If a thought form comes up, we can trace it back to its root without getting taken away by it. For example, You are cooking a meal with a lot of love and care and your partner comes in and tells you that the food stinks and it is not good. Your first reaction may be one of anger. The experience at the moment gets in a fraction of a second spontaneously compared to past experiences (citta) and the emotional connection to that memory. If the load is big, you may explode. Now, instead of staying in the drama, personality, and story, you can observe this feeling as a vibration that manifests from the source. Tracing this vibration back, devoid of any content, will automatically lead you to the source of all other thoughts, the ‘I’ thought. By doing so, we learn to detach from the outcome of life and live more freely. Of course, nothing prevents you from stopping to take insults and to take action. But in that case, we can act, not just blindly react. Re-action is always death. It is acting out, again and again, the same old story, just given a new dress. Life is in action, not in reaction. Life is now, not in the so-called past or future.


In the next sutra, Patanjali says that in the active state, the kleshas can be destroyed by meditation. The word meditation can mean many things. Often when we sit for ‘meditation’, we are not really meditating, we are rather trying to concentrate or have momentary glimpses. When this glimpse gets more clear and stabilized, we get centered in the tranquility and lucidity of our own being. Thoughts may still arise, but they will no longer stick to us or play out like we are the tv-show. Eventually, thought forms slow down and the gaps between them become more relevant than the content of the thought itself. In this gap, infinity is perceived. Eternity is present in every moment. One of the names Patanjali gives to this state is ‘Nirodaha’ or dissolution. The more we are in this meditative state, the deeper the purification of the subconscious mind. Nothing seems to be happening. But on a deep layer, the entire body-mind structure is getting aligned with its crystalline, pure structure that is nothing and everything at the same time.


We may slip in and out of this state for a long time. And afflictions can arise again. Sometimes we may feel that all our efforts and past insights are nullified. But evolution happens in a spiral, not in a single line. And eventually, being is beyond time, space, and any process. To learn we have to unlearn. To know, we have to trust the unknown. Are we ready to accept joy and pain, to invite true happiness into our lives and shall we make the dedication that all of our actions may be for the happiness of all beings? Then let's embark together, in true happiness, on the boat to cross the ocean.


A quote from St. Francic of Assissi:


"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

"O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life." Amen.



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