Obstacles to Practice: Kleshas

The five basic obstacles below we will recognize through the variety of spiritual traditions. Kleshas are the familiar stories, emotions, self-images, beliefs, and patterns that keep us identified with an idea of who we are which is not who we are.  Through the practices of self-observation and self-inquiry, we can gradually increase our sense of self-understanding. First, we become aware of our powerful preferences and distastes. Then, we become aware of the sources behind those tendencies.  Over time, we are able to eradicate behavior that amplify obstacles. In so doing, the filters through which we look and act become increasingly transparent.  We are then able to look both inward and outward with greater clarity.

Avidya: Ignorance

A great Samurai comes to visit the Zen master, Hakuin. The Samurai approaches the Zen master and bows dutifully asking, ‘Sir, I wish to understand the differences between heaven and hell.’ The Zen master looks at the Samurai and eyeing him from head to toe, says, ‘I would tell you, but I doubt that you have the keenness of wit to understand.’ The Samurai pulls back in astonishment. ‘Do you know who you are speaking to?’ He huffs. ‘Not much’ says the Zen master, ‘I really think you are probably too dull to understand.’ ‘What?’ says the Samurai, ‘How can you talk to me like this?’ ‘Oh, don’t be silly,’ says the Zen master. ‘Who do you think you are? And that thing hanging by your waist. You call that a sword? It’s more like a butter knife.’ The Samurai, becoming enraged, draws his sword and raises it over his head to strike the Zen master. ‘Ah,’ says the Zen master, ‘that is hell.’ The Samurai’s eyes shine with recognition as he bows and sheathes his sword. ‘And that,’ says the Zen master, ‘is heaven.’

Avidya addresses the false notion of the nature of reality into which all humans are born. Often it is translated as ignorance.  As Patanjali defines avidya is not simply intellectual ignorance but is mistaking the impermanent for the permanent, the impure for the pure, the painful for the pleasant, and the not-self for the Self.

 Asmita: Egoism

Arising from avidly (ignorance of the true Self), through asmita we limit ourselves by defining our identity around our roles, gender, ethnicity and body concept instead of acknowledging our true spiritual nature, or truth, consciousness and bliss. Mistaking our ego for the self. Even with the arising of pleasure, it is to skillfully stay present in the moment by using body sensations as the object of focus. When you do so, you will discover that what is pleasurable often arouses mental attachments of wanting whatever is pleasurable never to end. So often seeking to grasp hold of and retain the pleasantness, our minds attempt to control the future so the pleasure will not be lost.

Desha: Aversion

We can become subconsciously driven to avoid previously painful experiences. Our desire to protect ourselves limits our options in life and clouds our ability to see clearly. As in the case of attachments, we mistake the person, situation or object that caused us pain, with the painful experience itself. We can go to great lengths to avoid situations that we are afraid of whether they are physical, emotional, or spiritual. Fear and hatred are the downfalls of excessive desha. Clinging to experiences that were not pleasurable.

 Raga: Attachment

We define ourselves as a collection of our previous emotional experiences. Over time, our sense of self-identity is largely formed by a long list of likes and dislikes.  Attachments (raga) arise from previous experiences of pleasure and happiness. Extreme attachments are obstacles on the yogi’s path to freedom. We can become subconsciously driven to seek opportunities to repeat previous experiences of pleasure over and over.  The object or person or experience that originally generated pleasure becomes the symbol or substitute for real pleasure. Clinging to experiences that were pleasurable.

 Abhinivesha: Possessiveness

A fear of loss, or clinging to one’s life. A clinging to what we know and an overwhelming concern for survival. Clinging to life makes one paranoid in one’s dealings with others, and causes one to become selfish and self-centered.

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