On Monkeys and Kleshas

Swami Anandakumar Saraswati

There is a story that in some places there is a way to catch monkeys. A sturdy glass jar is put out and made secure. The opening of the jar is just wide enough and no more for a monkey-sized hand to pass through. Inside the jar is placed some delicacy that is very attractive to monkeys. The monkey comes along and sees the temptation in the glass jar. He finds the opening and puts his hand in and grasps the delicacy inside. Then the monkey-catcher comes. The monkey sees the monkey-catcher and tries to withdraw his hand, but because it is now holding what is in the jar, he is unable to withdraw his fist through the narrow opening. As the monkey catcher comes nearer the monkey panics, but is unable let go of the delicacy, which would allow him to take out his hand and be free. So the monkey-catcher simply picks up the monkey, jar and all, and goes off.

Rather die than let go

This story can make us smile, because it’s funny – silly monkey! – but it is also a knowing smile because we recognize that monkey-behaviour quite well. To be more precise, we recognize that kind of behaviour in others and we may be ready to admit that it is possibly in us as well, but how it actually manifests we do not know.

It is much easier to recognize a strong character trait in others than to see a similar kind of behaviour in ourselves. One very salutary awareness to have is to be able to see what is in that glass jar, that one particular thing that makes us seize it, and then not be able to let go, no matter how much pain it may cause. We’d rather die than let go. And, if someone says, “Hey, all you have to do is let go and you’ll be free,” we would say, “I’m not not free, I’m not holding onto anything.”

Looking in the mirror

We are unable to see that we are often the instrument of our own misfortune. In this sense, we are strongly addicted to pain because it reinforces the sense of identity that we have unknowingly chosen for ourselves. That one thing we cannot let go of is so strongly attached to our sense of self-identity that without it we feel we would almost not exist, we might evaporate or fade away. So we would rather hold onto it and the pain that goes with it because it makes us feel we are somehow more real.

Of course, it is a simple delicacy that is attractive to the monkey. For us the issue is usually more complex because it is so closely related to our sense of self-worth. For example, it may be an identity with a religion or a cultural group, with a career or profession, or being well-known or wealthy. It may be how intelligent we are, how much knowledge we have, the depth of our intuitive insight, or simply how attractive or beautiful we are.

All the yoga practice in the world may not make any difference. It is possible to practise yoga for years and years and in the end only reinforce the grip on the delicacy in the jar, often in the name of yoga or of helping others. That grip has really become a prison, but is not seen for what it is because it has no walls.

The kleshas or afflictions

This may be seen simply as recognizing certain character traits based on amateur psychology. However, it is also a form of yoga psychology if we look at it from the point of view of the five kleshas, the afflictions, barriers or limitations that were outlined by Sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.

It begins with avidya. Avidya means ignorance, but it is a most complete kind of ignorance. It can be considered to be the fundamental error that lies at the root of all human suffering: confusing the stuff and substance of mind for the reality of consciousness. Mind is part of consciousness, but consciousness can never be contained in mind. Consciousness is too much to contain. It is in everything, and beyond everything. It is universal, cosmic, divine, and at the same time in every last particle in creation.

In comparison, the mind is like a computer and the stuff and substance of the mind is like its hardware and software, programs and files. This is the mind that presumes to know consciousness! And that is the fundamental error – avidya, the underlying ignorance of and separation from the true nature of reality, and mistaking the content of the mind for that reality.

Once this error is made then the mind, which now presumes itself to be the highest awareness in creation, gives itself an identity. This is asmita. It is the ego which personalizes and compounds that original error so that now the universe is not cosmic, not universal, it has a centre and that centre is this individual I – me! We are the centre of our own universe, are we not?

As this identity is taken, there arises at the same time, in the same proportion, the fear of losing that identity, the fear of the ego losing the sense of individuality, of separateness, it has given itself. This is abhinivesha, which is called the fear of death, of becoming extinct, of not existing. And it is the individual’s fear of consciousness itself because that is where individuality must end.

The power of attraction and aversion

Through a misidentification of the mind, the ego has an identity, which it fears to lose. When that ego mind engages the objects and experiences of the material world through the senses, it will naturally make certain choices based on its perception of its own survival. This gives rise to raga, which is a sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, selection in favour of all those things that bring delight and reinforce the ego’s sense of security. At the same time there is a sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, rejection of all those things that threaten the ego’s security, that displease the ego’s sense of comfort within itself, that challenge the ego’s right to exist. This is called dwesha.

So although the concept of avidya, the original error, may be a little esoteric to get our mind around and may not appear to have any relevance at all in the life we lead; actually, every moment of the day is governed by it through each choice we make that is dominated by raga and dwesha. Our instinctive reaction is to acquire and hold onto what we like, agree with, or consider to be good for us, and to avoid, reject, deny what we do not like, do not agree with, do not consider to be good for us.

The result is that we are not in control of our lives, not at all. We are dictated to by our sense of like and dislike, as surely as a despot rules his people; and the final experience of this running between raga and dwesha is pain. Pain which we feel physically sometimes, pain that we feel mentally and emotionally sometimes, but pain that is always there emanating in the background, in the unconscious. It is like the noise of traffic in the city, so present that we take it for granted and therefore don’t know it really exists.

Freedom from pain

So then the question arises: how to be free from pain? First is to recognize and admit it is there; to make what is taking place unconsciously become a conscious awareness. This is the real purpose of meditation practice. Meditation can never bring anything sustaining, no matter how nice our individual experiences may be, unless we have realized the tyranny of raga and dwesha – of attraction and aversion.

Swami Niranjanananda has called meditation mind management. Our mind is a dictator ruling according to the whims of raga and dwesha. To practise management of the mind is to see through the power of these two opposites, which can never bring peace. The aim, whatever the technique, is to recognize, nurture and continually refine the ability to be fully aware of the stuff of the mind as it reveals itself in our lives, so that we are able to see through the power of raga and dwesha. If we are not drawn to our impulsive likes, if we do not avoid our impulsive dislikes, then surely the ego will no longer fear the loss of its own identity, and that is where the real freedom must lie.

If we are able to see raga and dwesha in a different light, we will begin to realize that we have a greater range of choice in our life than we ever thought possible. If our first priority is not to have pleasurable sensory stimulation and avoid unpleasant sensory stimulation, then we are not automatically dictated to by our first instinctive reaction. After some time of practising this awareness, the first reaction, the spontaneous reaction, will no longer be instinctive, but be based on a higher understanding. This is the path to wisdom, which is simply the path that lies between the dual polarities of raga and dwesha.

If we look at our own lives, we should be able to discover the things that we are particularly attracted to and repelled by. And it may be possible to discover what that one thing is that we hold onto as the most vital manifestation of our sense of self-identity – and realize that we can let it go. And at that point, it never really existed anyway as anything of real substance, but was just a construct of the imagination, and there is nothing to hold onto. Then we can take our hand out of the jar and be free.