The Kleshas in Detail: Abhinivesa or Fear

tame_your_fear_PBse-300x300This week at “The Living Yoga Blog” we conclude our exploration of the five kleshas or obstacles to realizing our inherent peace with a more detailed look at abhinivesa or fear.  We’ll look at the various and perhaps unexpected forms fear can take, how it distorts our worldview and causes distress, and the ways we can use awareness of abhinivesa to reduce our tendency to fall into misunderstanding and the suffering it causes.

The Grounds of Fear

Again, the first thing to understand about abhinivesa is that, just like our other obstacles, it is rooted in avidya – that is, fear ultimately derives from misunderstanding of ourselves and our relationship with the world.  In fact, in the Yogic view, all fear is false because there is nothing to fear in life, for the simple and profound reason that the material world cannot impact the soul.  As Krishna expresses in The Bhagavad-Gita: “Swords cannot pierce it, fire cannot burn it, water cannot wet it, and wind cannot dry it.”  While these things obviously impact the body, they do not touch the true Self, which is completely unassailable by the world of matter.  For this reason, in the Yogic view, any time we experience fear we are falling into misunderstanding.

Obviously, given how prevalent fear is in our lives and how powerfully it impacts us, understanding this simple but significant fact can have a transformative influence on our daily existence.  However, this is not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish.  In fact, Patanjali tells us that “fear exists even in the wise” – that is, knowledge and learning are by no means proof against its influence.  By better understanding the reason behind this difficulty, we can put ourselves in a better position to overcome and transcend this powerful obstacle.

Fear, Its Impact & the Downward Spiral

Perhaps the single most important aspect of fear is the fact that, when we are under its influence, we lose the ability to think clearly.  Current research confirms what we’ve all experienced – in a state of emergency, our cognitive function literally shifts from the more conceptual, reasoning part of our brains to the unconscious or instinctual mid-brain, which means we lose the ability to process in a reflective and clear fashion.

Long before modern science, the Yogis observed this same phenomenon, noting that under the influence of fear we lose both the ability to discern the best course of action and to recall our past experiences – that is, being in a state of fear essentially negates what we have learned.  This means that, once we are consumed by fear, it is very hard for us to think clearly in order to reverse the process.

Not only that, but there is a downward spiral that naturally follows.  Obviously, if we are not thinking clearly, there is a tendency to act rashly and from our conditioned states of attachment or aversion, which naturally intensifies our fear.  We make more bad choices, only to be consumed by the consequences as well as the guilt over repeated mistakes, and so the cycle deepens.

For these reasons, it is crucial to learn to avoid falling into fear in the first place.  To achieve this, we need to get better at observing our mental patterns (a skill we develop when we commit to a regular practice of meditation and self-study), as well as a better understanding the grounds and development of fear itself.

Fear & Its Predecessors – Abhinivesa & the Other Kleshas 

As mentioned throughout our discussion, all the obstacles have a common origin as well as a shared destination – that is, they all arise from avidya or misunderstanding, and they all ultimately result in fear.  As a result, the more fully we can understand the connection between the obstacles – especially those to which we have a greater tendency to succumb – and the end result of fear, the more prepared we will be to see and shift this development before we reach the point of abhinivesa itself.  Let’s take a look at each of our three “intermediary” kleshas between avidya and fear, so we may better understand this natural process.

Starting with asmita, the link between egoism and fear should be quite clear – especially when we consider the grounds of each.  Again, according to Yogic thinking, fear is inherently false because nothing in the material world can affect the “true Self.”  However, when we fall into egoism, we make the mistake of thinking of the material parts of ourselves (.e.g., body, possessions, occupation, etc.) as who we are.  As each of these things is in fact vulnerable to the impact of the external world (in contrast with the purusha or Self), fear is a very natural consequence.

A similar pattern can be seen with both ragas and dvesha: when our likes and dislikes begin to define us and to consume our view of the world, it is natural to fall into fear.  If I need something to happen or feel I “must” avoid an outcome in order to be happy, then I increasingly live in a state of anxiety, consumed by fear of failure and the resulting pain.

Again, the good side is, once we realize this, we can let these earlier obstacles serve as “warning signs.”  We can say to ourselves: “I’m starting to fall into egoism (or attachment or aversion), and I know that un-checked this will lead me to fear – and once I am in a state of fear, I know I won’t be thinking clearly.  So before it goes too far, I’m going to catch and reverse that pattern.”  This can also give us greater motivation to stay conscious of our mental patterns – in short, turning the “downward spiral” referred to earlier into an upward one, leading us toward greater awareness and peace.

Abhinivesa vs. Prudence

Now that we have a better understanding of both the impact and the grounds of fear, it is worth clarifying a few aspects of abhinivesa in terms of what it is not.  As with each of our other kleshas, it’s important not to fall into a simplistic understanding of fear and as a result see it as a call to “recklessness.”  Simply put, just because fear itself is groundless does not mean prudence and discretion don’t have their place.

Just as the critique of egoism doesn’t preclude honoring our individuality, so the admonition against falling into fear doesn’t excuse negligence or carelessness – either toward ourselves or with respect to others.  In the Yogic view, we were given our senses including the sense of pain so we can know there are certain things that are harmful to our bodies – bodies for which we are responsible.  Similarly, we were given our powers of discernment so we can learn from our mistakes as well as those of others in order to better safeguard ourselves.  In this sense, the falsity of fear does not diminish our responsibility for self-care and for supporting others in the same – it simply means watching for the tendency to fall into anxiety or distress in the pursuit of that well-being, especially given the fact that, in such a case, that anxiety is inherently self-defeating…

Abhinivesa in Daily Life

To conclude again on the practical side, let’s take look at some concrete ways to recognize and shift fear when it begins to manifest in our daily lives.  Again, because fear tends to disrupt our thinking, it can generate challenges not only with respect to stepping out of fear but even recognizing we have fallen into it.  For that reason, it is valuable to be aware of the link between body and mind and the powerful tools this provides for addressing both of these issues.

To begin, we know fear manifests physically – often before we notice it emotionally.  As Patanjali observed, disrupted breathing, weakness, muscular tension, and restlessness are all symptoms of fear.  By learning to watch for these physical signs, we can often identify fear in its initial stages, before it becomes fully active and before we fall into the poor choices it can induce, in turn helping us avoid many of the repercussions.

Further, we also know the mind-body link goes both directions – that is, we can use conscious control of breath and body to shift the tendencies of the mind.  Again, this is a powerful tool, especially when we know our problem-solving skills are in a compromised state.  As a result of our fear, we may not be thinking clearly enough to solve the situation, but we can work with the body in order to reduce the fear.  By slowly stilling our restlessness and consciously directing the breath, we can gradually allow the mind to return to a less fearful state, in turn allowing ourselves to regain the mental composure required to address the situation constructively.  In this way, we can gently take charge of the situation and mindfully return to our natural state of peace, serenity, and security….

In Our Next Article…

Now that we’ve concluded our discussion of the kleshas, in our next few installments we’ll shift format a bit as we share some audio clips our Living Yoga Immersion at Old Town Yoga Studio of common questions that arise on the Yogic path.  We hope you’ll find the topics of interest and the change in format an enjoyable break [Symbol]  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


Fatal error: Uncaught Exception: 12: REST API is deprecated for versions v2.1 and higher (12) thrown in /home2/yogalife/public_html/thelivingyogablog.com/wp-content/plugins/seo-facebook-comments/facebook/base_facebook.php on line 1273