The five obstacles

by Janka Oeljeschlager |
August, 2024


We want to be happy. We want our lives to mean something. Nevertheless, happiness seems to be difficult to grasp and distant. Sometimes it is not available, sometimes it is simply unattainable. And once we have found it, we realize how quickly we can lose it again. Our path to ultimate happiness is usually paved with nagging voices of self-doubt and fears. There are moments when these voices are momentarily silenced; other times they torment us. Despite our pursuit of happiness, we find ourselves in a greater or lesser degree of dissatisfaction or even despair.

Why are the happiness and fulfillment we seek so difficult to achieve? Or why is it so challenging to attain the contentment we crave?

The Yoga philosophy, in this case Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, answers this question in one word: kleshas. Klesha is a kind of agony which is inside our very being. Ambition and effort for success means klesha. The kleshas serve as a framework for understanding our discord between our desires and our lived experiences. They define the anatomy of what binds us, and they keep us from what we long for. The cause of this conflict is a fundamental misunderstanding of who we really are. This misunderstanding is leading to all the other suffering within and around us and will probably take longer than a lifetime to become comprehensible to us.

Avidya, ignorance, is the root cause of asmita, raga, dwesha and abhinivesha. “Ignorance is the field for the others mentioned after it, whether they be dormant, feeble, intercepted or sustained.” (Sri Swami Satchidananda). Avidya is the parent of all. It refers to the fundamental misunderstanding of our true nature and the nature of reality. But what is real? Reality is colloquially referred to as the world of material things, states, and events created by humans – all circumstances that change. In the realm of yoga philosophy, Brahman (and so Atman) stands as the singular, unchanging reality that transcends time and impermanence. “Avidya is to mistake the non-eternal, impure, evil and noumenon for the eternal, pure, good and atman.” (Swami Satyananda Saraswati). And he gives the example when we mistake a rope for a snake – the form of our consciousness at that time is avidya. If one is able to control avidya, one will easily control all other kleshas. Said faster than done. From Asmita, or ego, arises the illusion of separateness created by avidya. The awareness of ‘I am’ is mixed with existence, with the body, actions and mind. It is the sense of ‘I’ or individuality that fires up our desires, fears, and conflicts. Not understanding the true nature of our being means mistaking the not-self for the Self. It means confusing the impure with the pure, the impermanent with the eternal and happiness with pain. The ego seeks validation, approval and control and drives us to pursue external achievements and identities. The concept of blending the identification with the body and the higher consciousness together is called asmita.

Raga, refers to attachment, or desire for pleasurable experiences, objects, relationships, or outcomes. We are driven by the thought that fulfillment can be found in external sources, leading us to compulsively seek pleasure and avoid discomfort. Dvesha, or aversion, is the flip side of attachment, arising from our resistance to pain, discomfort, and undesirable experiences. It is driven by fear, anger, and judgment, which create separation and conflict within ourselves and with others. Patanjali emphasizes the importance of cultivating equanimity in the face of dvesha, accepting both pleasure and pain as part of our experience. Through the practice of compassion towards all beings, forgiveness, and empathy, we can transcend the dualities of likes and dislikes, embracing life in its totality and finding peace even in between difficulties. Abhinivesha is the instinctual fear of death or the unknown, rooted in the survival instinct. It manifests as a clinging to life and a resistance to change or impermanence, extending beyond physical death to include the fear of losing one’s identity, relationships, or possessions.
Understanding what binds us is also what informs us. Knowledge sheds light. The kleshas form a narrative, the conditioning of thought and belief, that is invisible because it is taken as the norm. They limit our happiness, block our minds, and promote the very suffering we try so hard to prevent. If we know what is in the way, we can clean up and experience the fullness of our capabilities. Therefore it seems helpful to understand the five kleshas as well as possible, to make them comprehensible, and then to find a way for ourselves to remove or minimize them as best we can on our spiritual path through life.

Teaching Tips

By recognizing and overcoming these mental afflictions, individuals can attain liberation (moksha) and experience true inner peace and happiness. Here are some tips how we can reduce the kleshas in the best possible way:

  • Overcoming avidya involves self-inquiry through practices like meditation and studying sacred texts to gain wisdom and clarity. Cultivating awareness helps recognize thought patterns and dispel ignorance, while a regular spiritual practice fosters inner peace.
  • Witness consciousness allows observing the mind without attachment, leading to insight into the ego’s transient nature. Engaging in selfless service and cultivating compassion dissolve ego boundaries, fostering unity.
  • To withdraw raga, recognize the impermanence of pleasures, practice mindfulness, detachment, and acceptance of the present, breaking free from craving cycles for lasting contentment. Raga stems from the desire for external pleasures, leading to discontent and an illusion of control. Fulfilling desires brings temporary satisfaction, but it’s fleeting, hindering spiritual growth.
  • Dvesha arises from fear of change or uncertainty, resisting disruptions to stability. Compassion towards oneself and others helps mitigate dvesha, fostering acceptance and equanimity towards all experiences.
  • Reducing abhinivesha involves accepting impermanence and embracing the inevitability of death, transcending fear and finding peace amidst life’s uncertainties.

Further Teaching Tips

• Teach the “Giving Blessings” meditation taught by Sharon Gannon in her book “The Magic Ten and Beyond” (pp.5) in order to cultivate feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill towards others.
• Teach the “Giving Away: Relaxation” taught by Sharon Gannon in her book “The Magic Ten and Beyond” (pp. 63).
• Chant the Ganesha mantra and mention that it should free us from obstacles and remove blockages. It gives us strength for new endeavors.
ॐ गम गणपतये नम
Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha
Reverence to Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and Lord of all auspicious beginnings.
• as option, you can also have a look on this PYS 2.10
ते प्रतिप्रसवहेयाः सूक्ष्माः ॥१०॥
te pratiprasava-heyāḥ sūkṣmāḥ
The five afflictions (kleshas) in their subtle form are to be dissolved back to their causal state.

Patanjali says that these subtle inner painful tendencies can only be avoided by returning them to their original state, dissolved into the primordial matter. Look out for subtle signs of your inner suffering tendencies (kleshas). It is crucial to identify and address them early on, as soon as they begin to emerge, in order to prevent them from growing. By meditating on these imprints, you bring them to light. You can’t destroy them by this means, but you can see and understand them well and gain control over whether or not they should manifest in action. Also here we can realize that the ego serves as the foundation for all hindering thoughts.