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The Healing Tree : Understanding the Kleshas

The Kleshas are identified as a list of 5 obstacles on the path to peaceful living. They first appeared in written form in the 2nd pada (or chapter) of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, sometime between 500 BCE and 400 CE. They are also codified in the Buddhist canon, but this piece of writing is going to focus on their Vedic (worldview from which the concept of 'yoga' was born) origin.

'The Vedas are a large body of religious texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. There are four Vedas: the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda.'

The rishis and sages of ancient India were so busy freeing their minds from suffering and rigidity through dedicated practice, that the result wasn't always perfectly chronological data translated for the modern reader. However, these ancient practices and teachings have endured, and, despite the vague origin date, they are just as relevant today as they were between 1500-2000 years ago.

I call the Kleshas the 'healing tree', because their structure is similar to that of a root and branches. The first Klesha is the root from which all the other 4 grow, and each branch grows because of the one before it. If each Klesha represents something bad; an 'obstacle', or, in some translations, a 'poison', why am I calling the model a healing tree? Because true healing isn't just bolstering and nurturing the good in ourselves and the world, but its also taking an honest look at the downright dark and painful stuff too, befriending those aspects instead of shunning them. To heal, you must first reveal, rather than conceal these elements of life. Broadly speaking, in Western culture, the shadows of sadness, failure, illness and death are so thoroughly concealed because of what they seemingly represent, but just because we can't see them on the surface, it doesn't mean they aren't there. The result of such suppression is often worse than the very thing we fear, when we use all of our energy to deny and hide it.

This is where we need to take the lessons from the East. In ancient India, and still today, life is understood as cyclical, with ageing and death being a natural and accepted part of that cycle. This is why open cremations by the holy Ganges river in Varanasi are commonplace, whereas in the majority of Judeao-Christian religions, our funerals are a very hidden and private affair, where the body of the deceased is rarely seen, and if they are, they are made-up to look youthful and alive.

This is not to say that death is not a tragic event, but the clinging on to youth, happiness and only the good isn't any way to live life. It makes sense then, that the final Klesha or 'obstacle' on the path is fear of death. This feels like a heavy one on its own, but how I have come to understand it, is that pretty much every anxiety we have in life is, in one way or another, linked to the fear of it ending.

The root of it all

Before we get that deep though, let's go through the 5 Kleshas one by one. As I mentioned before, they run in order, or at the very least, the first Klesha enables all the others, hence why its often shown as the root of the tree. That root is ignorance, and it couldn't be a more perfect descriptor for the root of all our problems. Think of every houseplant you've killed (we've all done it). You see the leaves wilting and the stems getting brittle, so you start to water it with abandon, because you want it to look healthy again. However, by the time the leaves are looking sad, we all know that water probably won't cut it alone, but rather the plant has probably overgrown its pot, or something needs to be up-rooted, or cut altogether. We are willing to deal with surface issues but not able to go to the root of the problem.

Avidya, meaning Ignorance (vidya is sight, so the a prefix suggests the opposite of that, in Sanskrit), is the root of all suffering. It's the umbrella that might be linked to the Western psychology model of the shadow. It represents not only what we can't see, but what we choose not to see. Choosing to ignore certain aspects of our character is a temporary fix to avoid adversity, but over time, those ignored aspects accumulate and become a heavy load to bear, which in turn manifests as chronic stress, anger, grief, sickness etc.

Avidya in today's world, and, more specifically, in the yoga world, can look like a quest for spirituality without any sense of reality. We are quick to run towards the promise of 'love and light', without dealing with the shadow and the truth. I've seen some yoga teachers use this tactic to deny institutional racism (under the guise that 'we are all one'), and then you've got the covid deniers who say that vaccines and masks suppress immune health (assuming that a fully functional immune system in everyone is a given). Upholding these ignorant sentiments might make everything seem fine and dandy on the surface, but in truth it's pretty harmful to a sense of communal wellbeing.

I am therefore I am.

Ego confusion forms the second branch of our tree, codified by the Sanskrit word 'Asmita'. This second branch deals in both the high and low end of the Ego spectrum. A little bit of Ego is necessary in life, at the very least, so that we can identify ourselves during our time here on earth. For example, I identify as female, my job is a yoga teacher, those things afford me basic identity in my life. Whilst we don't want to be looking at annihilating all traces of our small and temporary identity, too much identification with it leads to low self worth and a broken inner compass.

So if not the temporary facets of our ego, what is it that we can rely on? What is the bedrock of our being? Carl Jung would have called it the Self (with capital S), and in the Vedic worldview (aforementioned ancient Indian philosophy out of which the concept of yoga was born) it would be the Atman, which is the universal principle of Self. It's basically what we might commonly refer to as our Soul. If we were to go back to the image of a tree for just a moment, then let's think of the soul as the soil into which the tree is planted, and then the trunk and branches are aspects of the ego/self with a small 's'. If we rely on, and identify only with the fruits of our tree, but have no connection to the soil, then when the tree wilts in different seasons so do we. How we might understand that in terms of over-identification with ego is basing all of our identity on the surface things, like looks, money, relationships etc., things that are all subject to change. If we've no grasp on what lies beneath all those things (the soul soil), then we find ourselves completely uprooted in times of change.

Ego confusion doesn't just look like pomp and (small)self-obsession, but also low confidence and leaky boundaries, because when we don't have our metaphorical roots firmly planted down, it becomes much harder to sense our intuitive process and hear our gut instinct. The work it takes to reconnect with that intuition and overcome the blinding nature of the ego is ongoing for me, but by far the best tool I have found for doing that work is daily affirmations. See below for an example:

Appreciation over addiction.

The word addict sounds scary, but in the last ten years the parameters by which we define it have broadened. What started as a word used only to describe those on the edges of society; drinking upon waking, living on the street, injecting hard drugs etc. has now come to include even those of us who can't put our phones down for more than ten minutes. You even get the suffix 'oholic' tacked on to a word like work, to be worn actually, as some kind of capitalist badge of honour, when in fact this form of socially-acceptable addiction often becomes the most toxic of all.

The 3rd Klesha 'Raga' describes our problem with attachment (read addiction), and how we can't get enough of the things we like, even if those things don't like us at all; substances, bad partners, shopping, high-stress jobs, you name it - most of us are attached to at least something.

It also feeds into a scarcity complex. By needing something external to bolster our sense of wellbeing and joy means that we don't truly trust our inherent wholeness. Something that my yoga practice has taught me is to work on being unconditionally content. This is not to say that I should be always 'happy clappy', but rather, just anchored into something more concrete within myself, even when life tries to take me up and down. This has taken me years to build, and I would say Raga is my most challenging obstacle, but the practice to reveal and subsequently heal it has been life changing.

My personal practice to overcome Raga is, of course, my daily yoga and meditation practice, but also abstaining from alcohol and overly processed food; highly personal because food and alcohol were my achilles heels. You have to find what works for you.

Out of sight, out of (my) mind.

The flip side of the addict/attachment coin is avoidance, because the more you train your body to only run towards things that feel good, the more it will run and hide from difficulty and discomfort. This is not an appeal to you to live an austere and joyless existence; quite the opposite. Rather, when you learn to stare discomfort and suffering (which are inevitable at some point in everyone's life) in the face and ACCEPT them, even if you still deem them bloody awful, you are already set up for a more resilient life.

Just as with an addiction or attachment to something that, once gone, makes you unhappy, so too does a visceral avoidance of something you don't like, have a similar effect. Both of these states of reacting have a hold over you, and rob you of your agency, liberation and therefore your joy. Joy can be understood in the same way as how the yogis see contentment, not a permanent state of happy, but a pretty consistent state of calm acceptance, that of course, takes time, patience and practice to cultivate.

I have slowly and surely been able to look at the most excruciatingly uncomfortable, icky, even scary aspects of my true being with love, understanding and a willingness to reveal so that I might heal. Then, something amazing happens. When I am able to look at and truly own those uncomfortable and annoying truths within myself, I am less affected by the same traits I see in others. All my relationships get easier because I am seeing the whole truth of those around me with knowledge of the whole truth of myself; empathy, essentially.

The ultimate surrender.

Ok, just to be clear, the final Klesha 'Abinivesha' means, yes FEAR OF DEATH. So just for the purposes of, I don't know, literally everything, I'm going to offer my interpretation of this potentially heavy topic. Before I do lighten the load though, I want to acknowledge the cultural attitude of the people that brought you these Kleshas, to death itself. In the Vedic worldview, death is not final, but simply the end of one cycle. It is seen as shedding one tired, old body and some of the weight of its karmas. Ram Dass likened it to 'taking off a tight shoe'. This is why in India, specially in the Hindu religion, before its cremation, the body of the deceased is out in the open, adorned with flowers and the soul blessed for its swift passage. Conversely in many Judaeo-Christian burials, the deceased is covered and the reality of bodily death concealed, because it feels final and terrifying for the onlooker.

How I think this ends up affecting us in our lives however, is that it seems to me that most of our fears, insecurities and anxieties can be linked to fear of death. For example, the resistance to ageing is everywhere. Take the quest to offset wrinkles for example; we think of them as unattractive somehow, but why is that? Becoming chronically ill or infirm is seen as something to pity and fear. I have a strong memory of the 'Scottish Widows' advert on tv, showing a supermodel in a black cape wandering Highland cliffs... There's definitely a disconnect within our society when it comes to ageing and dying and what that looks like.

There's also a time pressure on young people. Just as I started to feel like an adult (I'm 30), I'm suddenly aware of the timer society has set on my reproductive system, and how that is going to dictate my life from now on. There's also an urgency to move up a pay bracket every 5 years, to own a property, to move out of London, to write a book, to own a business, the list goes on. Of course, you can free yourself from this conditioning, but it's undoubtedly a LOT of work.

Furthermore, is it possible to stay in the rat-race to some degree but maintain agency over your joy? I believe that it is. In the yoga texts people are largely identified as either renunciates or householders. You and I, dear reader, are probably the latter; people with a certain degree of spiritual curiosity and deep felt awareness that there is more to this existence than meets the eye, but who also have to pay bills, support families, enjoy a healthy bit of hedonism and be in society at large. I'm not saying you can have it all, although you do kind of start to realise, the further down this path you go, that everything is as it should be in your life, and that everything is, well, everything.


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