Life is a tapestry of experiences—ups, downs, joys, sorrows, and the pleasures and pains of life. One experience that can be particularly challenging is that of suffering. The great wisdom tradition of Vedanta reminds you that, in the absence of enlightenment, life contains suffering.
Unlike pain—an uncomfortable physical, mental, or emotional experience—suffering is the state of being caught up in your painful situation and identifying with it as an aspect of your being. In other words, pain is what happens to you; suffering is your interpretation and reaction to that pain. Therefore, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. But what are the roots of suffering, and where do they come from? According to Vedanta, there are five specific causes of suffering—the five Kleshas.
In Sanskrit, the word Klesha means poison and refers to a negative mental state that obscures the mind and allows the conditions of suffering to arise. By transcending them, you can be liberated from suffering. The following looks at each Klesha in turn.
Not Knowing the True Nature of Reality
This is the state of ignorance or Avidya that arises when you forget your true nature as spiritual beings. Your real identity is that of pure, unbounded awareness. You are immortal and eternal, and encompass timeless focal points of consciousness that were never born and will never die. You are the infinite potential of all that is, all that ever was, and all that will ever be.
Unfortunately, the turbulent activity of material life has overshadowed this understanding from your conscious awareness. And when you don’t grasp this essential truth of who you are, you set the stage for the other four Kleshas to arise.
Identification with a False Sense of Self
Once you have forgotten your true self, you substitute a false identity in its place. This constricted self is the ego; the moment-by-moment fabrication of your self-image that defines itself by the positions and possessions of life. Known in Sanskrit as Asmita, this is the veil or covering that hides your true nature and causes you to become trapped in unbridled egoism.
A great deal of suffering is caused by the ego’s need for approval and the resulting offense taken whenever its needs are not met.
Attachment to Objects of Desire
Raaga, or attachment, is the act of clinging or grasping to something which is illusory or impermanent. When you are deeply attached to something, it is an indication that you are afraid it of it being taken away. This creates a deep-seated sense of insecurity within you because you know that whatever you have might be lost—so you hold on even tighter.
Attachment causes suffering by instilling in you a background current of fear, tension, anxiety, and dread of loss that is the inevitable byproduct of life on the material level.
Aversion or Avoidance of Things You Don’t Want
While attachment is the act of hanging on to things, people, or situations you do want, Dvesha, or repulsion, is your avoidance of things you don’t want. Anything that poses a threat to your ego will cause you to recoil. You will go to great lengths to get away from those things and push them as far out of your mind as possible.
Aversion leads to suffering by pulling you into negativity, fear, what ifs, and worst-case scenario thinking as you worry over what you will do if you can’t avoid what you fear most.
The Fear of Death
Abhinivesha, or the will to live, is the ultimate attachment—the attachment to life itself. Fear of death is an experience shared by nearly all human beings, even those who live in misery. It is essentially clinging to all that you have and all that you have ever known. Death is the great unknown and it looms closer to each of you every day.
The fear of death causes suffering by giving rise to all other fears, anxieties, doubts, and worries.
Remember Your True Identity
All of human suffering can be attributed to one of the five Kleshas. How do you escape this cycle of suffering? Patanjali shares a vital understanding in Chapter 2, Sutra 4 of The Yoga Sutras when he writes:
“Ignorance of our real nature is the source of the other four, whether they be dormant, weak, suspended, or fully active.”
What this means is that all the causes of suffering are contained within the first cause of not knowing the true nature of reality. When you remember your true identity as pure spirit:
- Your ego no longer dominates your awareness, giving and taking offense, or seeking the approval of others.
- You let go of your attachments, understanding that in an impermanent material universe everything has a beginning, a middle, and end.
- You no longer avoid those things you fear, knowing that those things are impermanent and illusory, and cannot cause harm to your true self.
- You are liberated from your fear of death in the realization that death is merely a transition between one expression of your spirit and another, and that your life is like a flash of lightning across the summer sky, a parenthesis in eternity.
Transcend Suffering Through Meditation
To transcend the first Klesha and, thus, the remaining four, Patanjali gives the following guidance in Sutras 10-11: “The subtle causes of suffering are destroyed when the mind merges back into the unmanifest. The gross effects of suffering are discarded through meditation.”
Meditation is the key that unlocks the prison of suffering by returning you to the state of knowledge of who you are. You plug back into the field of pure consciousness and, in doing so, you lift the veil of egoism, eliminate the need for attachment and aversion, and dispel the fear of your own mortality. Meditation can also create the space, or witnessing awareness, that allows you to notice the Kleshas as they arise in your awareness. Seeing the Kleshas for the illusions they are, you can be liberated from their control.
Jump start your path to transcending suffering with six days dedicated to learning meditation, yoga, and the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda at our Seduction of Spirit retreat, led by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.