Overcoming the Klesas (Seeds of Suffering)

According to The Yoga Sutras, the primary goal of yoga is to overcome suffering.  But it’s not the kind of suffering most people think of. Sure, yoga’s great at overcoming physical ailments, from back pain, to asthma, to insomnia. But yoga’s ultimate goal is to overcome the suffering of the mind, or what my teacher calls psycho-emotional suffering.  The kind of stress, heartache, and anxiety we create within ourselves.  The internal suffering we do over external events.  The suffering we do over our suffering, so to speak.

Sutras 2.3 – 2.12 list five klesas, or seeds of suffering:

  • Ignorance, which is especially problematic, because it is not just a source of pain. It is also the fuel that ignites all other sources of suffering.
  • Ego, the belief that we are somehow separate from those around us. Ego results in feelings of isolation, ethnocentrism, and dogmatism.
  • Attachment, or holding on to something for fear of losing it, including relationships, possessions, job titles, and stature.
  • Aversion, or avoiding something for fear of pain. Aversion results in the victim mentality so prevalent in our society today, prejudice, fear, and blame.
  • Fear, especially the fear of death.

Most of us experience all of the above at one point or another. Some will be recurrent themes in our lives, like an unwelcome house guest that visits at the worst possible time, and then decides to stay longer than planned.

For me, attachment and fear are old friends. I love my house, my dog, my husband—even my yoga studio. I worry about losing any and all of them.  Love isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but does fear of loss cause me unnecessary pain? Does fear of loss invite me to make poor decisions?

The sutras say that actions based on the klesas have undesirable effects.  They leave behind a nasty trail, not unlike a slug’s gooey slime trail.  Worse yet, those effects may not even be seen in our lifetimes.  Future generations may instead pay the price of our folly.  One look at our current political climate, and I know the sutras are still correct, even thousands of years after they were written.

But the sutras also offer hope!  They say that yoga, especially meditation, can help us develop a clear mind. And when our minds are clear, we can choose to act differently. By doing so, we not only decrease our own personal suffering, we also leave a cleaner imprint on our world.

We Seattleites, are known for our concern about the environment.  We reduce, reuse and recycle. We encourage people to drink tap water instead of buying those evil plastic bottles.  We even ban plastic bags in grocery stores.  Our goal is worthy: to leave our world a better place than we found it.  But perhaps we’re missing at least part of the point.  Perhaps we should also work to reduce our internal garbage. By doing so, we may just erase the psychic slug trail of negative energy we’re leaving behind.

According to my favorite Native American saying, “We will forever be known by the tracks we leave.”  Today, I invite you all to make your tracks lighter.  Act mindfully, lovingly, with a pure mind.  Take the Sutras’ advice, and start a consistent meditation practice, not just for your own benefit, but for that of your world.

And here is my blessing for you. May your tracks be invisible.  May your actions support your values.  May you live beyond the klesas so that all beings after you are brightened by the path you leave behind.



One thought on “Overcoming the Klesas (Seeds of Suffering)

  1. Jesse Parent

    Thank you for writing this, Tracy.

    Your comments about the political climate, and internal garbage, particularly resonate with me. They seem to be why I’m moving further away from a career in political analysis, and trying further to embrace more constructive pursuits (for me, at least).

    It’s a struggle right now, as I feel like I’m starting over from scratch. But I know it’s the right way to go. Here’s to community that embraces those aims.


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