What Causes Suffering?
Part Four

Image for 11.11.13 blogWhen I taught English Composition, students would come to me now and then to tell me they couldn’t write, or they hated writing. Their aversion to the course sometimes led them to avoid taking the class or dropping out or giving up, convinced they would fail no matter what. This decision had serious consequences. Without passing the required English classes, they could not receive an Associate Degree or transfer to a four year college.

Often these students had struggled in English class in high school. The difficulty they had experienced and the sense of failure they felt caused pain, anger, and frustration for them. Fearing a repetition of this same discomfort in college, they had an aversion to English class and writing.

If you recall the last blog on “What Causes Suffering”, you may remember that extreme desire for something – raga – cases suffering as we intensely wish to re-experience a previous enjoyed pleasurable experience.

Aversion, called dvesa in the Yoga Sutra, is the other side of this coin. When we are caught up with dvesa, we are trying to avoid an experience that had caused us discomfort or pain in the past. This makes sense in many ways as the fear acts a protective mechanism to keep us from emotional pain.

When we experience an event or trauma creating a strong emotional response, such as anger, resentment, disgust, or fear, our consciousness is negatively affected. It is imprinted, creating what is known as a samskara. That samskara leads us to react almost without thinking. So the student with the painful experience with high school English is not thinking about how his college English experience may help him to succeed, or the support he might find, or how he may be adversely affected by dropping out. He sees the experience of college English through the glasses of his previous experience and feels fear of another bout of pain and failure. Fear keeps him from seeing the reality and possibility of the present.

While primarily the student will feel the negative consequences of avoiding college English, dvesa can manifest in ways that have far-reaching consequences. Hatred and xenophobia are extreme manifestations of dvesa, serving as the source of some anti-social and violent behavior around us. Additionally, it is important to remember that hatred and xenophobia as aspects of dvesa are both fear-driven, resulting from previous suffering.

Developing our ability to observe ourselves, svadhyaya, can help us to identify when we are experiencing dvesa. Practicing self-observation, we can notice when a feeling of aversion arises and begin asking ourselves why we are feeling as we do? What in our past may be triggering the feelings? Asking ourselves these questions can create a space between the experience and an automatic negative response. In that space we may find freedom from the bonds of our samskara so we are able to choose how we might respond.


What Causes Suffering?
Part Three

Letting GoIt is hard to give up a dream. But that is what my husband and I had to do. It started with our visits to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We enjoyed the landscape, the climate, the ambiance and everything about it. We decided to move there. It even became more of an obsession once our good friends moved there. We even had the house designed for the property we wanted, which would have made us neighbors of our friends. But it all fell through when we saw the cost and the reality that retirement was still a way off. Two more pieces of property became possibilities and both of those fell through for various reasons.

The dream was out of our reach. We had to let it go, and it was painful.

Describing the causes of suffering, the Yoga Sutra identifies raga as the desire to re-experience a pleasurable experience. The desire can be as simple as wanting a cup of coffee or as complex as an obsession with a relationship. Or it can be a house situated in a place to which many positive, pleasurable experiences are attached.

If we feel pain and discomfort when we cannot fulfill a desire, that is a sure sign that we are experiencing raga. It comes about because we have formed an attachment as a result of our previous enjoyable experiences. We want to re-experience the pleasure.
In our case, the underlying belief was that our house in Santa Fe would allow us to enjoy every day the pleasure we had experienced in our visits. Of course, had we moved, we would soon have had to face the reality that we wouldn’t be living in the pleasure zone constantly. Sometimes getting what we desire can cause suffering as well when the past pleasurable experience diminishes. Think about the experience of someone addicted to alcohol or drugs.

While we most often think of attachment in relation to material things – food, sex, honors, drugs, achievement, travel, relationships – it can also be in relation to the spiritual as well. Imagine someone so attached to the teachings of a guru that he leaves his family and his job to live on an ashram.

A problem with living in a state of raga is that takes away our ability to experience things as they are. We don’t live in the present because the desire that is created is foremost in our mind. In my mind, my life would begin when we bought our house in Santa Fe and moved. Until then, my life was on hold.

Something shifted, however. I accepted that I was not going to be moving, and I would have to build a life where I am now. That shift created detachment from the dream of a life in Santa Fe.

The Yoga Sutra suggests we practice kriya yoga to deal with any of the klesas or afflictions, such as raga. Kriya yoga offers tools to help us move toward positive change, and in doing so our attachment or raga diminishes. We will explore the concept of kriya yoga in a later post. In the meantime, notice if any excessive attachments cause you discomfort or pain.


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

Accentuate the Positive

Accentuate the PositiveAutumn marks the transition to longer hours of darkness. While many of us welcome the beauty and cooling temperatures of the season, many start to anticipate, with some anxiety and dread, cold, snow, and barren landscapes.

Yoga teachings tell us that “everything changes” – everything that is part of the material world – seasons, weather, the phases of the moon, the habits of animals, friends, our bodies. Even though we recognize this, we often greet change with resistance, especially if we like things the way they are. Let’s face it. If cold weather means our joints ache or the increased hours of darkness leave us depressed, embracing the seasonal changes marking winter’s approach is difficult. Yet, hanging on to the way things are in the face of change inevitably causes anxiety and pain, as we no longer live in the moment but in anticipation of what suffering may come.

Yoga also teaches that while change comes, a place within each one us exists that is unchanging, eternal, and it is called purusa. We can think of purusa as our inner light. When we are able to recognize and identify with purusa as that which is truly who we are, our perception clears and our decisions tend to have positive results. We can experience peace and joy in the face of our ever-changing life and circumstances.

For most of us, however, life fills with tasks, 24/7 news, on-line social connections and activities, advertising telling us what we need and how to live. All of this can fill our minds and engage our emotions in not so pleasant or helpful ways. The concept vrttis in the Yoga Sutra refers to the activity and fluctuations of our mind and our emotions. When the mind fluctuates from the ever-growing “to do” list, to worries about our children, life situation or what is happening on the other side of the world, vrttis with negative effects dominate. We feel overwhelmed, confused, or out of balance. Decisions we make when in that state may be based on faulty understanding and lead to painful consequences.

When the activity of the vrttis so mires the mind, our identity is not with purusa, but rather with what constantly changes around us. A veil covers our inner light.

So how can we deal these negative vrttis in our lives as the realities of our lives involve taking care of ourselves, caring for others, working, being informed, suffering losses, participating in the society in which we live?

“Accentuate the positive” is a simplistic yet realistic and yogic answer. Yoga is not just stretching our limbs. Yoga seeks to move the activity of mind/emotions – the vrttis – in a positive direction. Suppose, for example, we decide to consciously practice the recommended ethical practices of the yamas – compassion, truthfulness, moderation, not stealing, non-hoarding. Living in an ethical and conscious way connects us to positive thoughts and values and causes the negative vrttis to diminish as the positive grows.

The Yoga Sutra offers wisdom to help us better understand ourselves and live with greater awareness, harmony, and joy. I invite you to return to the Yoga 4 Healthful Living Blog as we continue to explore these teachings and relate them to our lives.