What Causes Suffering?
Part Two

Empty roadCheck out last week’s blog –
What Causes Suffering? pt.1

This morning as I dressed to meet my friend for coffee, my husband plugged in the vacuum and started vacuuming the upstairs rugs. “Lucky,” so many of my friends would say. Instead of feeling lucky, however, I felt guilty.

“I will do that,” I told him. “You don’t have to.”
“When will you have time?” he responded. “I don’t mind.”

I realized he was right, but even as I sit and write this, I still feel disappointed I had not taken care of the vacuuming, especially as my husband does many chores to maintain our home.

The unease I feel comes from two sources. The first, the comparisons I make with other women who are far more attentive housekeepers than I. They maintain homes appearing orderly, vacuumed, and elegantly decorated. While my unease as a housekeeper does not qualify as “suffering,” my thinking leads me to feel “inadequate” when the subject of housekeeping comes up. I start to think about the bathroom needing cleaning, the rug needing vacuuming, or the cobwebs to be dusted from the top kitchen shelf.

But, on the positive side, I am able to recognize my thinking and assumptions as avidya (lack of understanding, misapprehension), and specifically as that branch of avidya called asmita. Asmita or ego can also be described as “I-am-ness.” When asmita rules the mind we have a distorted view of ourselves. We think we are better than others or not as good – superior or inferior, both of which are avidya.

In our own lives, each of us has a set of descriptions we use when asked about our background. “I am a mother.” “I am a doctor.” “I am a yoga student.” “I am a diabetic.” “I am a Methodist.” “I am an American.” “I am a homeless person.” “I am a wife, a husband, a child, a father, a teacher, a heart patient, a loser, a success” and on and on. This is “I-am-ness.”

These identities we take on are what our minds tells us we are, or what we are taught we are. We identify with what each of these means to us. And because there are values assigned to identities within our culture, labels of superior and inferior may be assigned to individuals either by others or themselves.

That was the second source of my unease when my husband plugged in the vacuum. “Wife” is an identity I take on. Because of my upbringing, there are certain standards I associate with it, like “wife does vacuuming.”

At the core of the problem of “I-am-ness” is this: When we believe these identities constitute who we are, we are blind to our higher consciousness, known as purusa. This higher consciousness, the unchanging light of awareness, lies within each one of us. There is no superior or inferior. But when our “I-am-ness” gets in the way, it blocks our ability to recognize who we truly are and, instead, leads us down another road to suffering.


What Causes Suffering?
Part One

Dark windowCorrect perception characterizes the state of yoga. We see a situation clearly; we base a decision on our perception; we act on the decision, and things go well. Without correct perception, we have no clarity. A decision is then based upon misunderstanding, and when we act based upon misunderstanding, things do not go well. Suffering then results for us and perhaps others.

We saw President Bush make a decision based upon incorrect understanding when invading Iraq in 2003. He based the decision on inaccurate reports that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The resulting devastation and chaos military action caused much suffering to many people – suffering that continues to this day.

How many times in our own lives have we made a decision based upon incorrect understanding? How many times have we correctly understood a situation but failed to act, even though to do so would have been beneficial?

Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, identifies the incorrect perception or misapprehension characterizing both of these situations as avidya – the absence of the inner light of knowledge or wisdom. It is the most important of the five klesas or afflictions that cause us suffering. And, it is also the source of the other four klesas.

Where does avidya come from? In our lives we develop habits of acting and perception that come from our upbringing, environment, experiences, and culture. The habits of action and perception become deeply rooted so we are often unconscious of them – they are called samskara.

Imagine looking through a window onto a city street. A window so dirty we can’t see clearly what is happening is like our vision when these habits of perception or avidya veil our ability to see clearly. Yet, without the light of awareness we make decisions and take actions based upon our clouded vision. And, if we are not aware of this veil, we continue to make decisions and to act based upon misapprehension and wonder why things are going wrong. Why are we suffering?

Bernard Bouanchaud, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra, explains that the klesas are the causes of “self-induced suffering.” He goes on to say: “The suffering that comes from oneself…is the only cause of suffering on which we can take direct action.” For we cannot eliminate suffering caused by others, and we cannot eliminate suffering caused by natural disasters. By “cleaning” our distorted perceptions from the window through which we view the world, we can reduce our own suffering and the ill-conceived actions that may cause suffering to others. Next week we will continue to examine the next of the klesas – asmita, ego or “I-amness.” In the meantime, become aware of your decisions and why you make them. Notice if you are feel uneasy or unsure as you do make them and act. Consider if you may perceive, decide, and act out of habit. Observe the results of your decisions and actions. Try writing your observations in a journal.

Check out What Causes Suffering? pt.2