In this series of articles, DAAJI explains the fundamental principles of yogic psychology, with its foundation in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. He explains Patanjali’s descriptions of the human mind and the various mental imbalances, and furthermore he also gives us solutions to create mental well-being through yogic practices. In this article we start to explore the kleshas, the five afflictions to mental well-being. The first of these is avidya, meaning ignorance, the mental defect where one is unaware of the most vital and the most essential.
Part 5 – AVIDYA
Let’s first remind ourselves of the fundamental principle of yogic psychology: that our original inner mental state is one of purity, stillness and Samadhi, which is also the ultimate goal of Yoga. It is the pure state of no-vibration that lies at the center of our existence, beyond the field of consciousness. It is the healthy mental state. Yogic psychology has never been based on pathology, but on attaining that pure state, which is the baseline for mental well-being.
This field of no-vibration, no-thingness, or the original void, is present in every fiber of our being. In Yoga we return to that baseline, the ultimate state of the vibration free stillness. It was our starting point and will eventually also be the ending point of our existence. If we are able to master that state while we are alive, we transcend the need for the cycle of birth and death known as reincarnation, as we go beyond consciousness to something more profound and more beautiful.
In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali codifies the various modifications and vibrations that arise in our field of consciousness; all those things that take us away from the balance and stillness at our center, the soul. The process of refining these modifications is what Yoga is all about.
Up till now, we have explored the basic types of thought patterns or tendencies known as the 5 vrittis, which can either be colored or uncolored, i.e. impure or pure. The process of coloring becomes cumulative, however, and leads to negative mental states that eventually become afflictions or obstacles to well-being and further evolution.
Patanjali codifies the various modifications and vibrations
that arise in our field of consciousness; all those things that take us away
from the balance and stillness at our center, the soul.
The process of refining these modifications is what Yoga is all about.
There are 5 basic afflictions known as kleshas. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the kleshas are those negative mental states that cloud the mind and cause suffering and the conditions for suffering to arise. They lead to mental complications and imbalance, preventing us from being centered and contented.
Here is what Patanjali has to say about the kleshas:
2.2: Samadhi bhavana arthah
klesha tanu karana arthash cha
If your practice is aligned with your goal (Samadhi),
the obstacles along your path (kleshas) will disappear
and ultimately you will reach your goal.
2.3: Avidya asmita raga dvesha
These obstacles are:
ignorance, lack of awareness (avidya);
egotism, identification with the impermanent body (asmita);
likes, pleasure (raga);
dislikes, pain (dvesha);
clinging to life, fear of death (abinivesha).
2.10: Te prati-prasava heyah sukshmah
When samskaras are removed,
these afflictions can be
resolved back to their origin.
2.11: Dhyana heyah tad vrittayah
Through meditation, the outer expression of the
2.12: Klesha mulah karma ashayo
drishta adrishta janma vedaniyah
Whether they are fulfilled in the present or the future,
karmic experiences have their roots in these 5 afflictions.
2.13: Sati mule tad vipako jaty ayur bhogah
While the roots, the samskaras, remain, karma
manifests in rebirth in the form of station in life,
lifespan, and types of experiences.
2.14: Te hlada paritapa phalah punya apunya hetutvat
Virtue brings pleasure; vice brings pain.
Patanjali starts his discussion on kleshas with the importance of having a goal. But not everyone starts a meditation practice with the goal of Samadhi, or complete oneness with the original balanced state. So another way of looking at this is: in which direction are we traveling? Along the way to the ultimate goal there may be many other goals, like peace of mind, liberation, development of love and compassion, self-confidence and clarity of mind. The important thing is to be traveling in the right direction – centripetally towards simplicity rather than centrifugally towards complexity.
Patanjali goes on to define the 5 kleshas or mental afflictions, and then establish their relationship with the formation of samskaras. Samskara theory is a critical aspect of yogic science: that impressions or modifications in the field of consciousness result in complex energy patterns being formed, which harden and create samskaras over time and through repetition. It is like the process of a track being formed through a forest. First one or two people walk along a particular path, flattening the grass or undergrowth. Others follow the same path until eventually there is a clearly marked track, which is regularly used and may eventually become a thoroughfare and even a road. What started as temporarily flattened grass over time becomes a hardened road.
Along the way to the ultimate goal there may be many other goals,
like peace of mind, liberation, development of love and compassion,
self-confidence and clarity of mind.
The important thing is to be traveling in the right direction
– centripetally towards simplicity rather than centrifugally towards complexity.
Similarly, an initial behavior or response, for example fear of the dark, can be reinforced over and over again in a person until it eventually becomes a mental tendency or even a phobia. It has hardened into a samskara. Fear of the dark relates to a few of the kleshas – first, the fear of death and clinging to life; second, dislike or pain; third, egotism, because of identification with the body and concern for the body; and finally, the ignorance or lack of awareness at the base of the fear. The mind has become colored because of past experience, so that the default response in that person becomes: being in the dark is inherently dangerous.
It is very difficult to completely get rid of kleshas, as many of the samskaras behind them are formed subconsciously through emotional responses, in this particular example fear. The associated pathways in the nervous system for such responses are not through the cortex of the brain, but directly from the heart to the mammalian brain or amygdala. They are not responses that involve cognitive thinking, but instead subconscious processes that affect us without our conscious control. They can potentially surface at any time. As a result, our need for vigilance is never-ending. It is also why the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, Yama and Niyama, are so important for our self-development.
Heartfulness has a very effective method for removing samskaras that is independent of the neural pathways and parts of the brain involved in their formation. It is known as Heartfulness Cleaning. It was developed in the 1940s by Ram Chandra of Shahjahanpur (Babuji) as a way to purify the field of consciousness of samskaras, so it was not available as a technique when Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. The modern yogic technique of Cleaning has revolutionized Raja Yoga in the last century. It is one of the most potent tools that yogic psychology offers the world, because it works by cleaning the vibrational complexities and impurities in the field of consciousness at the vibrational level, rather than trying to change behavioral patterns, thought processes or the nervous system.
When we look at how the human system works, generally everything starts from the causal body or soul (the cause of our existence), which then affects the subtle bodies, at the level of the heart-mind, and then this permeates outwards to affect the systems of the physical body, such as the hormonal, nervous and circulatory systems. In fact our human system is like a series of layers from the Center outwards, defined in Heartfulness Yoga by the 5 koshas, the 3 bodies and the 23 rings. By working at the subtlest vibrational level of the subtle bodies, Cleaning does not rely on thinking and analysis to remove the roots of afflictions.
Some spiritual teachers, like Osho, have spoken of removing kleshas through prati-prasav as a process of reabsorbing the behavioral effect back to the cause, by reliving those past experiences that caused the afflictions. He also called this process involution. The reliving involves letting the past surface without judging it, without liking or disliking, while being a witness to the process without getting entangled or affected by anything that surfaces. But it can take forever to reabsorb samskaric tendencies back to their source, as the roots may have started many lifetimes ago and be buried very deep in the subconscious mind. And, if we are not careful, sometimes reliving the experience may cause a reaction in us, so it can actually intensify the samskara rather than removing it.
Per contra, Heartfulness Cleaning does not require reliving. It is a higher order of yogic practice. In fact, all the samskaras of one lifetime can easily be removed in one session with a Heartfulness trainer, without the person even being aware.
Once the root cause, the samskaras, are removed, then it is definitely up to us to refine the associated outer behavioral patterns. That is why all great spiritual teachers have given guidelines for living, for example, the Vedas, Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yama and Niyama, Buddha’s eightfold path, the Ten Commandments of Jesus, the golden rules found in the Quran and the Talmud, and the Ten Maxims of Ram Chandra. For this we need self-study and self-awareness, as discussed below.
Psychologists and psychiatrists also try to change mental and behavioral patterns resulting from the past, in order to cure their patients of mental afflictions and bring about well-being. They do so through behavioral modification therapies like Gestalt, Transactional Analysis, Integral Therapy, Primal Therapy, psychoanalysis, hypnosis etc. But again, without the removal of the root samskaras it will always be a very long and tedious process.
Patanjali tells us that the outer expression of the kleshas will disappear through meditation. In meditation, we learn to identify with the source of our existence, the soul, rather than with the body or the mind, so in that sense meditation does help to remove some of these afflictions. Also, in Patanjali’s time, yogis meditated for hours and hours every day, and so it may have been possible to remove afflictions through meditation alone, although I doubt it would have worked for most people. Maybe for someone like the Buddha, but how many people had his determination and fortitude for self-study and tapasya? In any case, how many of us have time for hours and hours of meditation every day? Thankfully the practices of Yoga have evolved in modern times, and Heartfulness Cleaning can remove the root cause, so there is less need to sit in meditation for hours and hours every day.
The seeds of our karma are our samskaras,
and they carry over from one life to the next
by impressing upon the subtle body around the soul.
They create vibrational patterns,
and so, at the time of conception for the next birth,
these vibrational patterns draw us
to certain parents, culture, life experiences etc.
For all of us, the mind is affected by the accumulation of the past, of samskaric patterns and responses that are hardwired into our central nervous system, creating channels that define our thoughts and actions, creating the blueprint for our destiny. Neuroscience also recognizes this. Whatever we have done in the past has formed the habits that determine what we do today and what we do today determines the future. Every thought and every action is self-perpetuating until we remove the root cause.
The seeds of our karma are our samskaras, and they carry over from one life to the next by impressing upon the subtle body around the soul. They create vibrational patterns, and so, at the time of conception for the next birth, these vibrational patterns draw us to certain parents, culture, life experiences etc. I have written about this at length in Designing Destiny.
A better translation of avidya is lack of awareness,
as vidya is possible when there is a pure canvas of consciousness
upon which awareness and perception can work as a witness.
And as Patanjali says, virtue brings pleasure and vice brings pain. This is natural cause and effect. To evolve, however, we don’t want to be attached to either pleasure or pain, virtue or vice, or any of the other dualities of earthly existence, as they are always two sides of the one coin. Ultimately, where there is pleasure there is pain, just as where there is the brightest light there is the darkest shadow. Duality is part of the physical world and in Yoga we are transcending our temporal physical nature towards our eternal nature. But while we remain rooted in the emotional baggage from the past, this is not possible. Our mind remains an accumulation of the past.
It is worth reflecting on the relationship between samskaras and kleshas. Here is something to think about: the kleshas are an outer expression of the samskaras that accumulate in our field of consciousness, and yet kleshas also lead to the formation of samskaras. So what is needed from our side to cut this cyclical loop?
The first of the kleshas is avidya. Patanjali says:
2.4: Avidya kshetram uttaresham
prasupta tanu vichchhinn odaranam
Only through avidya are the other afflictions able to operate,
whether they are latent, budding, fully expressed or overwhelming.
He is saying that avidya is the basis of all other afflictions. What is avidya? Many people translate it into English as ignorance or lack of knowledge, but here Patanjali is not writing about the knowledge accumulated through learning facts or even through past experience. Actually, accumulating knowledge is only going to complicate rather than purify consciousness. Real vidya comes with purity, with the removal of beliefs, prejudices and clutter in the mind. A better translation of avidya is lack of awareness, as vidya is possible when there is a pure canvas of consciousness upon which awareness and perception can work as a witness. In essence anything that takes us away from centeredness is avidya and anything that aids us in moving towards our center is vidya.
It is the ignorance resulting from a limited consciousness that creates lack of awareness. So the next question is: What limits consciousness? The coverings of samskaras that cloud the purity of our consciousness. And there are two things that are largely responsible for this process of accumulating samskaras: desire and ego.
Desire comes from our mental process of judging things according to what we like and want, or dislike and don’t want. Desire also arises due to a feeling of lack of things, and due to an overwhelming impression that an object creates in us. Desire de-centers us from our main nature.
Ego is the function of our mind that identifies with and attaches to ‘possessions’. When the ego is desireless, i.e. it has no likes and dislikes, when it is only identified with the higher Self, then its purpose is to take us to our ultimate destination, and it is one of our greatest instrument in fulfilling our duty or dharma. But many of us identify with other things – our body, mind, work, children, spouse, culture, country, religion, reputation, and even with material things like our house and car.
So the process of going from avidya to vidya is the process of divesting all identifications, likes and dislikes, so as to return back to simplicity.
Avidya can manifest at any time, even in experienced yogis, because of cultural beliefs and lifestyle. For example, even very wise and open-minded evolved beings may still hold beliefs because of their backgrounds and cultural experiences at an early age. So it helps to be vigilant about Patanjali’s first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, Yama and Niyama, especially the fourth Niyama of swadhyaya or self-study. Self-study makes us aware of our intentions and actions. We shine light on our thoughts and feelings. We then work on refining our character by bringing those habits and tendencies to light that limit our personalities. Rather than being judgmental, swadhyaya is done with self-compassion and is used for continuous improvement and refinement.
Heartfulness facilitates self-study in a number of ways:
Through Meditation we learn to be the observer so as to become a witness to our inner universe. A few minutes of daily Meditation makes us more and more meditative, the effect of which percolates into our mundane day-to-day activities.
Whenever any inner stir arises, we are quickly aware and can do what is necessary to remove it through the process of Cleaning. We don’t need to be entangled in the emotions of what we see in ourselves.
We are encouraged to write a journal, so as to sensitize ourselves to our inner world. This way we learn to become a good witness, with self acceptance and self-compassion, and we are able to change more easily.
Through Prayerful Connection with our higher Self, we are able to listen to our heart and honor its higher wisdom.
Through the practice of Constant Remembrance, we remain constantly connected with the wisdom of the higher Self. This provides an inner canvas of consciousness that remains immune to samskara formation.
2.5: Anitya ashuchi duhkha anatmasu
nitya shuchi sukha atmakhyatir avidya
Avidya is mistaking the temporal to be eternal,
the impure to be pure, the painful to be pleasurable,
and the lower self to be the higher Self,
the soul or Atman.
Rather than identifying so heavily with the peripheral transitory aspects of life – the body, other ego-identifications, behavioral patterns and emotional afflictions – we learn to identify with the inner aspect of our existence, the eternal soul, the source of all joy and pure consciousness. Awareness allows us to see Reality.
The practices of Heartfulness are designed to do exactly that – to uncover our original state of purity and balance. This is why Yoga has never looked at psychology from the perspective of pathology, because it has always focused on the positive approach of attaining the healthiest mental state possible for human beings, that of Samadhi.
Article by KAMLESH PATEL (DAAJI)