Life and its inevitable circumstances can sometimes lead us into pain and suffering. Yoga emerges as a way to eliminate suffering at its deepest source, and for that it is helpful to explain what the possible causes are.
The uncertainty of the future, the wounds of the past or the different vicissitudes of fate (and if we do not think of the pandemic for which none of us were prepared) put us in front of pain in many moments of life. Avoiding any suffering has been a driving force for human beings in their search for happiness, and is one of the fundamental bases for the creation of the different religions and philosophical currents. If life is suffering, why are we here?
We live in search of remedies to avoid discomfort and unpleasantness, to anaesthetize us from dissatisfaction and emptiness, to distract us from the emotional and mental burden of our daily lives. And however many goals, objectives we achieve, social or economic status we reach, we touch the pain again and again. However, we rarely stop to think, what is the origin of the suffering?
In yoga philosophy (which we try to show you in our regular workshop) we describe what those origins are: the Kleshas. They are mental states that cloud our mind, that prevent us from seeing and understanding the deep reality of our being and that therefore deny us contact with a state of happiness. Their literal translation means poison and they are explained as the obstacles that prevent us from 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, dimmed, interrupted or fully active”.
Etymologically the root Vidya means knowledge and the prefix a means negative, therefore Avidya is literally not knowledge or ignorance. But it does not refer to ignorance of academic knowledge, it does not refer to illiterate or uneducated, Avidya is ignorance of the truth of Ishvara, of universal consciousness. There is only one knowledge needed to achieve absolute bliss: you are already the whole, Brahman. This is not rational knowledge, but a deep assimilation of this concept. You are already the divine. If we are not able to understand and integrate it, we will obviously be subject to the afflictions of the earthly world.
Avidya ignorance brings with it pain and can never offer any bliss. Worldly pleasures, the most superficial joys, fade away with time and do not last. Only by establishing ourselves in our essential nature can we find the repose of eternal bliss, which does not fluctuate with time.
We may believe that we already know everything, or that we possess everything that we could wish for, but time is inexorable and we confuse temporary with permanent, unreal with real. If we become attached to that which 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, the pain with the pleasure, and the non-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. The first sutras of the same chapter show that the aim is to strengthen the mind in the contemplative state (samadhi) and thus reduce afflictions. That is why yoga was created, 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 sense 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 in the ego as a unique and limited existence generates that instinctive fear of abhinivious death.
They are all, therefore, the fruit of the first, no longer knowing oneself to be one with the divine (and here, let each use his own definition, it may 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 instinctual. That is why the practice of yoga is integral and works on all levels of being, because it reduces these afflictions in all the expectations of the person.
If we look at them a little more deeply we realise how much we resonate with each other. Much human suffering comes from pride and ego (asthmia), from that predominance of “I”, “I am”, “I have”, which causes us to confuse what we really are with our possessions or to identify with the image that we think we are or who we think we should be. This whirlwind of the ego that wants to be always on top generates constant anxiety and worry. Pride leads to arrogance and conceit, preventing a person from discovering his or her true self. The “I” should be the joy of uniqueness, not the folly of individualism.
Moreover the ego and more so in our hyper-materialistic society needs to find passions and pleasures to feed it. So ragas is that attachment to pleasure and generates us to 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 at the end it returns us to boredom, emptiness and dissatisfaction when it is already obtained. If we could be grateful for anything that is obtained, without falling into its possessiveness, if we were to let go of everything unnecessary, then there would be more room to find a deep, lasting happiness that only springs from within us.
And just as ragas lead us to action in search of pleasure, so we move to avoid pain or discomfort, so is Dvesa, aversion, acting. It is the counterpart of ragas and is equally the fruit of the ego. An ego that wants to be nourished only by pleasant experiences and that which is not offered to it causes a movement of separation to spring up. This is the source of anger, envy, frustration, jealousy… 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 they arise because we first become attached to desire and to what we believe we are or deserve.
Although the most complicated of all is Abhinivesa, the clinging to life, due to fear and one’s own survival instinct. The uncertainty of what will be after death, which is characteristic of Avidya, the existence of an individual ego separated from the rest, causes a resistance to what is supposed to be the end and an uneasiness just to mention it. It is the subtlest of afflictions and can be found even in wise men and in all living beings, 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 points it out, 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, on our image or on overcoming fears. It is a being based on the essential nature of our being, we are already happiness. It is the creations of the ego, the inability to feel connected to that source, which prevents us from being happy.
Yoga Sutras I.2 – I.3: “yogas cita vrtti nirodhah. Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam”
“Yoga is the suppression of mental fluctuations. Thus the practitioner is established in his essential nature”
Whether it is because of an injury during an asana, because we are confined to our homes or because we are fired from our jobs, life is going to put us in different situations of pain, discomfort, inconvenience or uncertainty. This is inevitable. 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 is silenced, the emotions flow and disperse, and we can settle down, in an internal state of compassion, gratitude, understanding, softness, peace… In a state of permanent happiness, from which we never come out, because it is the ultimate truth, you are that and nothing more.