The Five Sources of Pain, Part 2: Delineating the Kleshas

As stated in the last post, the five sources of pain are listed as Ignorance, Ego, Attachment, Repulsion, and Clinging to Life. Though existing as upwellings of a single disease, the five may be teased apart like the threads of a rope, thus weakening the whole. (Have you ever noticed that ropes burn better when separated enough to allow oxygen to move between the strands? No? Just me? Well, the simile stands even for people who haven’t burned as many things.)

Ignorance (avidya), being the root of all pain, is not merely the lack of knowledge of some particular fact or other. A person may be illiterate and less ignorant, in the Yogic sense, than a highly educated university professor; this is in no way a judgment on education, but to point out that it is not possible to attain to gnosis (jñāna or vidya) from gaining worldly, or wordy, knowledge. For many people, such knowledge can form a temporary barrier to gnosis, though wisdom gained can tip this balance in the other direction. Kleshic Ignorance is a fundamental misapprehension of the Nature of the Self, a failure to recognize who and what one’s own soul actually is. This is the closest thing to “original sin” or “fall from grace” there ever was, and we cannot know who or what is to blame anyway. As Lord Buddha made clear, to ask the question of how it came to be before we have attained freedom from the condition which keeps us from knowing is like the man struck by a poisoned arrow who refuses treatment until he knows who fired the arrow and why, who created the poison, etc. In short, don’t worry about it; get free, and then the speculative questions can be approached. Whether or not this Ignorance has always existed or was somehow added to us is not, therefore, a relevant question for now and must be set aside. What is sure is that it can be removed. We have this assurance by way of the example of the individuals who have transcended it and come to jñāna. While each such Master’s followers may make claims to uniqueness, as a rule they all tell their disciples something like, “If I can do it, so can you.” Accepting this idea is shradha, or faith, an essential trait for engaging in the practice. This particular faith overcomes ignorance, not by blinding us to any contradictory evidence (which is really a deepening of ignorance) but by opening us up to the possibility of deliverance. We can rightfully say that Ignorance is the one Klesha from which the others grow and which the others reinforce.

Ego (ahaṁkāra) is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Ignorance. The Sanskrit word ahaṁkāra can be translated as “I-maker” or “I-actor” suggesting that “ego” is really more of a process than an entity. Anyone who has studied Buddhism can see in this a clear parallel with the doctrine of anātman or “no-self”; our self-identity rests on a roiling ocean of experiences and mental events and as we dig into it we can watch pieces of it go floating off into nothingness like icebergs melting into the sea. Ego is therefore the process of identifying oneself with this, that, or the other — none of which is the genuine article. Generally, the more energy we put into the something, the more of our identity we draw from it. Consider that when we ask someone, “What are you?” we are given a career, a university degree, or a job title in response. We may also be told, “I am a father,” or “I am a Christian,” or “I am a film buff,” the like interpersonal roles, belief systems, hobbies, etc., but even these depend on how much time and energy the person puts into them. Few people, for example, identify themselves as comic book fans if they only pick up the odd graphic novel a few times a year, even if the description might still fit in terms of how much they enjoy or get out of the experience when it happens. Thus we find the source of many social phenomena such as “fandoms” which have arisen in a big way in the age of the Internet. This perfectly illustrates the painful influence of Ignorance: nothing about the process of self-identity is inherently harmful, but our ignorance of our true nature means that we reify those identities, letting our minds and senses of self crystallize in a configuration entirely based on those identities. As we will see in discussing the other Kleshas, we feel the need to protect our identities, often irrationally and viciously, because to let them fall apart is death.

Attachment (rāga) is the principle mechanism by which we seek to strengthen Ego and by which ego itself extends its reach. Attachment is often conflated with desire; while desire is part of Attachment, it is not the whole thing. Simple enjoyment of something good or pleasurable which comes our way is not the problem. The problem is how much “need” we feel for that object or experience, how much we think it defines us, how much of a sense of security we try to squeeze out of it, and how unwilling we are to let it go once it has served its purpose. All of the above applies not only to physical objects but to beliefs and ideas as well. More often than not, the ideas we hold dear say a lot more about ourselves than they do about the world to which we think they apply. Again, this is not a bad thing in itself, but such attachments do make it hard for us to re-evaluate our beliefs and assumptions when they begin to hold us back or push us into destructive behavior. If Ego is the fortress keep of the psyche, Attachment is the sum total of its fortifications and supplies which make us feel safe, comfortable, and secure locked away from real experience of the world-as-it-is.

Repulsion (dveṣa) or Revulsion is the other pole to Attachment, and the push-and-pull which they represent is calibrated to uphold the Ego regardless of how deranged it has become. Like Attachment, the problem is not that we avoid that which is harmful but that because of Ignorance we are unaware of what constitutes harm and because of Ego we have false ideas about who or what is being harmed. To continue the fortress analogy, Repulsion is our psychic military; from Repulsion come anger, aggression, defensiveness, and other habits of hostility. Just as Attachment also applies to ideas, so does Repulsion. The beliefs of others can offend us — that is to say, we respond to them as if they are attacks — to such a degree that it is as if an egoic immune response has triggered and a war begun against an invading force. But, of course, the invasion is usually an error of perception on our part rather than a genuine personal attack. Such is the messy interaction of the sources of pain. It’s worth noting in passing that our interpersonal prejudices, both positive and negative, are egoic Attachment and Repulsion in action; racism, for example, is Repulsion based in an overweening emphasis on the superiority of one’s own ethnicity, while those inversions of racism which attribute, say, innate mathematical ability to people from Asian countries represent Attachment focused on a limited sense of identity projected onto others.

Clinging to Life (abhiniveśa), otherwise formulated as fear of death, is the natural outcome of and reinforcement to the other four Kleshas. Where Attachment and Repulsion tend to be focused on specific objects of experience, Clinging to Life is a more free-floating anxiety, existential angst, unhealthy fear of mortality, and the like: basically, all of those patterns of thought and emotion which are rooted in egotism but whose tendrils wrap around the whole of life rather than stabbing straight into some thing in particular. Ultimately, it is the fear of dissolution, of lost identity, of oblivion. After all, this is what undergirds all of life’s anxiety and fear. A person fears being forgotten because this is a form of erasure from the only type of post mortem survival we’re taught to believe in by our materialist society; another is afraid of change because, whatever else they tell themselves, change reminds them that one day they will die; examples are endless.

All of these sources of pain may seem so natural to what it means to be a thinking, feeling, embodied being that the cause of dissolving them seems hopeless. Alternatively, one or another of the Kleshas may be such a strong obstruction that dissolving any or all of them itself feels undesirable. The anger of Repulsion, for example, may shore-up our self-identity as righteous, just, socially aware individuals such that it seems like personal weakness or moral failure to do away with it. For many of us, Ego and Clinging to Life are such strong presences that any weakening of the Kleshas as a collective seems like an existential threat — reducing the hold of any Klesha feels like a tearing-away of a piece of one’s own essence and, so, a move toward death.

Partly, the sense of the natural or inherent status of the Kleshas is a consequence of how deeply they have become rooted in any given individual’s consciousness. One of the great lessons of spiritual practice is simply the negative knowledge that, “I am not what I have habitually believed myself to be,” and it is this very negative knowledge which brings true freedom. However it must also be borne in mind, lest we allow ourselves to fall into the dualism, world-denial, or solipsism so common in spiritual circles throughout history, that even the Kleshas are themselves based in something basically good: Ignorance can’t exist without something real of which to be ignorant; Ego is an ersatz of a genuine Self (even if the nature of which cannot be put to words). Contemplation of what might be at the heart of any given Klesha is a useful exercise in and of itself.

To the end of contemplating the Kleshas and find more practical approaches to disentangling them, next time we will explore a model of the five elements and how they relate to one another. While this may seem like an aside, it is actually a necessary step in gaining a better understanding of how the Kleshas actually work in and on our minds. As an added bonus, this astrologically-based approach to the elements is applicable in understanding the planets and signs and in practical magic.

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