The 5 Causes of Suffering

Fresh off of my yoga teacher training (YTT), I've been doing a lot of reflections about yoga philosophy and the yoga lifestyle. I want to start off this post by pointing out that I am in no way shape or form an expert on yoga or yoga philosophy. I'm simply relaying the information and concepts as I understand them. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (THE book that introduced yoga to the world) outlined a systematic approach to end suffering. Yoga philosophy believes there are 5 kleshas, or causes of suffering. In my work as a psychotherapist, who facilitates group therapy, I can honestly say this is good information. All of the suffering I've seen since learning about yoga philosophy fits into one if not multiple klesha categories.

The 5 causes of suffering according to the yoga sutras are as follows:

  1. Avidya- Ignorance

  2. Asmita- Identifying with the ego

  3. Raga- Attachment to pleasure

  4. Dvesa- Aversion towards pain/suffering

  5. Abhinidvesa- Fear of the unknown

Avidya- Ignorance or not seeing the true nature of things. Every time you think negatively about yourself. Every time you feel alone, or misperceive an interaction, or read too into something. Every time you wish someone would act differently than they are acting, or that the present moment would be different than it is, this is avidya. Some argue that all suffering can fall under this category. When we don't understand that life is always changing, that things we love will be lost at some point, this is avidya. When we fail to realize we are perfect, and that the undercurrent of life is love, this is avidya. The buddha said "when you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky". 

Asmita- Identifying with the ego. Whenever you're in competition, embarrassed, ashamed, worried about your image, worried about how others will think of you, whenever you want to be "right" in an argument, or get revenge, this is ego. Ego does not serve us. When you have an issue with your identity, it's usually ego that's at play. When you lament over how you used to be, or how you should be, this is ego.

Raga- Attachment to pleasure. When we love something we never want to lose it. I've heard it said that everything we love will eventually lead to our suffering. Because everything changes and eventually falls away, the things we love, we will eventually lose, thus causing us suffering. This is raga. We, naturally want to cling to pleasure, attach to what makes us happy. 

Dvesa- Avoidance of suffering. I believe it was the Dalai Lama who said everything that we do is to avoid suffering. I've also heard it said that we will put more energy into avoiding suffering than we will to cling to pleasure. We don't like discomfort. Addictions are often a matter of dvesa, as drugs/alcohol or food are used as a means of numbing out the pain, distracting from the uncomfortable feelings. 

Abhinidvesa- Fear of the unknown. Our human brains HATE the unknown! We want to have things figured out, we want to solve problems. When we are in limbo, when we don't know what to expect, or what's wrong, or where we are going to live, this often causes great anxiety and suffering. Death is the ultimate unknown, and many people are afraid to die. I know I'm afraid to die. So many things are out of our control, in which case they are unknowns. So many things can only be known in the present and this is often a difficult reality to come to terms with. 

So what can you do with this information and how can it help you?

Just begin by taking pause when you feel unhappy, or when you are in a place of emotional suffering and try to identify which of these causes is behind your unhappiness. Name the cause of the suffering to yourself. There's a term in therapy "name it to tame it" meaning that simply by naming a feeling or naming what's going on internally, it tames the feeling, it calms our brains down.  Know you're not alone, and that this is actually something many others suffer from. Plan accordingly. For instance if you realize you're suffering from attachment to pleasure, it may be helpful to identify this is in fact what's going on emotionally, and then remind yourself that everything changes, or you may do some extra self-care to nurse your emotional wound. If you're interested in these concepts, check out more information on yoga philosophy here, and I hope this post helps the next time you're experiencing emotional suffering.