The origin of suffering


Life and its unavoidable circumstances can sometimes lead us towards pain and suffering. Yoga emerges as a way to eliminate suffering in its deep origin and for that it is convenient to explain what its possible causes are.

The uncertainty of the future, the wounds of the past or the different vicissitudes that destiny offers (and if we do not think about the pandemic for which none of us were prepared) put us in front of pain in many moments of life. Avoiding any illness has been a driving force for human beings in their search for happiness, and it is one of the fundamental bases for the creation of different religions and philosophical currents. If life is suffering, why are we here?

We live looking for remedies to avoid discomfort and inconvenience, anesthetize ourselves from dissatisfaction and emptiness, distract ourselves from the emotional and mental burden of our day to day. And for many goals, objectives that we achieve, social or economic status that is reached, we return to touch again and again the pain. However, we rarely stop to think, what is the origin of suffering?

In yoga philosophy (which we try to show you in our regular workshop) these origins are described: the Kleshas. They are mental states that cloud our minds, that prevent us from seeing and understanding the profound reality of our being and therefore deny us being in contact with a state of happiness. Its literal translation means poison and they are explained as the obstacles that prevent reaching enlightenment.

The origin of everything is ignorance

Yoga Sutras II.4: «avidya ksetram uttaresam prasupta tanu vicchinna udaranam»

"Ignorance is the cause of all other kleshas, which may be dormant, attenuated, interrupted, or fully active."

Etymologically the root vidya means knowledge and the prefix a means negative, therefore Avidya is literally no knowledge or ignorance. But it does not refer to ignorance of academic knowledge, it does not refer to illiterate or uneducated, Avidya is the ignorance of the truth of Isvara, of the universal consciousness. There is only one knowledge that is needed to attain absolute bliss: you are already the whole, Brahman. It is not a rational knowledge, but a deep assimilation of this concept. You are already the divine. If we are not able to understand and integrate it, obviously we will be subject to the afflictions of the earthly world.

Avidya ignorance brings with it pain and can never offer any joy. The worldly pleasures, the most superficial joys fade with time and do not last. Only by establishing ourselves in our essential nature can we find the rest of eternal bliss, which does not fluctuate with time.

We can believe that we already know everything, or that we have everything we could wish for, but time is inexorable and we confuse temporary with permanent, unreal with real. If we cling to what brings us momentary happiness, in the end when we lose it or it ceases to exist, we will suffer again after its loss.

Yoga Sutras II.5: «Anitya asuci duhkha anatmasu nitya suci sukha atma khyatih avidya«.

"Confusing the transitory with the permanent, the impure with the pure, pain with pleasure, and what is not the self with the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidya."

To eliminate this ignorance, to reach a discerning knowledge (viveka) that allows us to distinguish between the real and the unreal, is the ultimate goal of the practice of yoga, of all styles or paths of yoga. In the first sutras of the same chapter it is shown that it is considered aim to strengthen the mind in the contemplative state (samadhi) and thus reduce afflictions. That is why yoga arises, to eliminate suffering and afflictions.

The rest of the afflictions

Ignorance is the main one and the origin of all of them, from which four others arise: asmita (the ego), raga (attachment to pleasure), dvesa (aversion) and abhinivesah (fear of death). The inability to understand that we are already part of the universal, avidya, prevents us from feeling connected to everything, hence the feeling of separation and individuality, the creation of the ego, of the self. The ego must define itself and it does so through its passions or attachments, ragas, and its aversions or hatreds, dvesas. The belief of the ego as a unique and limited existence generates that instinctive fear of abhinivesa death.

They are therefore all the result of the first, no longer knowing oneself with the divine (and here everyone uses their own definition, it can be God, the universe, universal consciousness, mother earth or quantum energy). While the ego is more mental, passions and aversions are emotional and fears of pain and death are purely instinctive. That is why the practice of yoga is integral and it works at all levels of being, because it reduces these afflictions in all spheres of the person.

If we look a little deeper we realize how much we resonate with each one. Much of human suffering comes from pride and ego (asmita), from that predominance of the "I", "I am", "I have", which causes us to confuse what we really are with our possessions or identify ourselves with the image of who we think we are or who we think we should be. This whirlwind of the ego that wants to always be on top generates constant anxiety and worry. Pride leads to arrogance and conceit, preventing a person from discovering his true self. The "I" must be the joy of singularity, not the madness of individualism.

In addition, the ego and more in our hypermaterialistic society needs to find passions and pleasures that feed it. So ragas is that attachment to pleasure and makes us go in search of people, objects or activities to be in that stimulus of passion, joy or fun. It is the ego that pushes us to seek it by activating our actions, but being an ephemeral happiness, in the end it returns us to boredom, emptiness and dissatisfaction when it is already obtained. If you could be grateful for anything you get, without falling into its possessiveness, if we got rid of everything unnecessary, then there would be more space to find deep, lasting happiness that only springs from within.

And just as ragas leads us to action in search of pleasure, we also move to avoid pain or discomfort, then Dvesa, aversion, is acting. It is the counterpart of ragas and is also the fruit of the ego. An ego that wants to nourish itself only with pleasant experiences and that what is not offered causes a movement of separation to sprout. That's where rage, envy, frustration, jealousy are born... All those harmful emotions that are nothing more than wanting to avoid what causes us pain. Only that pain and suffering are also temporary, and arise because we first become attached to desire and what we believe we are or deserve.

Although the most complicated of all is Abhinivesa, clinging to life, due to fear and the survival instinct itself. The uncertainty of what will happen after death, typical of Avidya, the existence of an individual ego separated from the rest, causes resistance to what is supposed to be the end and unease just by mentioning it. It is the subtlest of afflictions and can be found even in wise men and in all living things, but if there is one thing we can be sure of, it is that this life is not permanent. This is our nature and that is why Patañjali highlights it, so that we are able to see it and transcend it.


However, happiness is something else. Happiness is a permanent state that does not depend on possessions, our image or overcoming fears. It is a being settled in our essential nature of our being, we are already happiness. It is the creations of the ego, the inability to feel connected to that source, that prevents us from being happy.

Yoga Sutras I.2 – I.3: “yogas quotes vrtti nirodhah. Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam

“Yoga is the suppression of mental fluctuations. In this way, the one who practices establishes himself in his essential nature.

Whether from an injury during an asana, because they confine us at home or because they fire us from work, life is going to put us in different situations of pain, discomfort, annoyance or uncertainty. That is unavoidable. But it is also transitory. The practice of yoga puts us in front of the Kleshas so that we can see them and disidentify ourselves from them. Little by little the mind quiets down, the emotions flow and disperse, and we can gradually settle into an internal state of compassion, gratitude, understanding, softness, peace... In a state of permanent happiness, from which we never leave, because it is the ultimate truth, you are that and nothing more.


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