Obstacles to Happiness: The Kleshas… A look at Avidya: the root cause of Suffering

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So it can be said that we all have two main goals in life:

1) To be happy
2) To avoid suffering

And this is true of all sentient beings! We all desire these two things in our life. In fact we all desire the goal of yoga – Samadhi…pure consciousness…a state where suffering doesn’t exist and we simply exist with awareness.

So what is it in life that prevents us from experiencing this state of Samadhi? In the yoga sutras, Patanjali describes five obstacles to happiness. These obstacles are called ‘kleshas’ which in Sanskrit is translated as ‘poisons’.

The Five Kleshas are:

1) Avidya (ignorance)
2) Asmita (Egoism)
3) Raga (excessive attachment)
4) Dvesa (excessive aversion)
5) Abhinivesha (fear of death)

Let’s explore avidya closely as it is the root cause of all the other kleshas.

When we refer to avidya as ignorance it does not mean ignorance of content knowledge or skills. It refers to ignorance of our own nature. Avidya is a misconception of our true reality and is described as the root klesha which produces the other four. Avidya is our lack of awareness of our true nature which then disconnects us from Truth or not knowing the way things really are.

We are all very good at developing a false understanding of our true nature! The way we talk about ourselves is a good reflection of this. For example, we may catch ourselves saying things like “I’m stubborn, I’m a Taurus!” or “I’m this way because my mother is like that…” or “that’s just the way I am!”. We start becoming attached to our personality and mistaken it for our true identity. This is avidya – ignorance of our true nature.

Patanjali describes four ways that we can experience avidya.

1) Mistaking the impermanent for the permanent

We tend to live our life as though we believe we are immortal. If we lived and remembered each day that life will end, we would worry less! We also deceive ourselves into thinking that there are certain things in life that we can’t live without. But we always manage to re-adjust. For example, a smoker, drinker or sugar addict would claim they couldn’t possibly live without a cigarette, alcohol or sugar in their diet! But this is simply untrue. We live with this deception that we can’t live without certain things – mistaking what is impermanent for something permanent.

2) Mistaking the impure for the pure

This can be seen as ‘mistaking a lie for the truth’. Sometimes we can convince ourselves that something is true, when deep down we know it is not. I often think of a line that George Costanza from Seinfeld says to Jerry who is about to sit down for a lie detector test. He says “It’s not a lie if you believe it”. In other words your thoughts can become clouded if we habitually delude ourselves to perceive the world a certain way. We begin to believe our own delusions of truth! Our truth (that which is pure), now becomes impure.

3) Mistaking pain for pleasure

A lot of things give us immediate pleasure but they often imply we will experience some form of suffering in the long term. Think of eating fast food or enjoying the indulgence of pleasures like sweets or chocolate. You grow to enjoy and even crave the way this food, but by no means does this food offer pure nourishment to you! So we start to habitually eat these foods mistaking them to be pleasurable when in fact in the long term, will cause us pain.

4) Mistaking the non self as the Self

We get very caught up in our roles and identities. If I asked you “Who are you?”, you most likely will respond with an identity you associate with, for example, “I am a female, I am a teacher, a wife, a mother, a yogi… and so on…” We get caught up in our identities as though they ARE us: Our jobs, our likes/dislikes, our clothes as though all these things define us. I love the quote from the film ‘Fight Club’ where Tyler Durden says “you’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet….” This is exactly what Patanjali is saying here. We mistaken our Self (true identity) with the non self – all these layers of identities of who we think we are! Underneath all these layers though, is the Self.

So who are you beneath all your layers? Without your job? Your possessions? Your hobbies and achievements?

Get in touch with your eternal Self by stripping down the layers of your outer identifications.

What’s the first step?
The first step to get out of your suffering is to acknowledge yourself as the person responsible for your life – for the world you inhabit. Acknowledge yourself as the doer.
Now start to look at the false perceptions you carry about yourself. Do an observational check…
What false perceptions of yourself do you carry?
What ignorance (avidya) do you hold about “the kind of person you are”?

Next time you catch yourself saying “that’s the way I am” or “that’s not my kind of thing”…consider if that way of speaking or thinking really helps you discover the path to Samadhi – who you really are. Your true nature.

“Unreal cognition (ignorance), avidya, is the central foundation of all suffering” – Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati

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