The Kleshas in Detail: Avidya or “Misunderstanding”

AvidyaThis week at “The Living Yoga Blog” we continue our exploration of the five kleshas – the obstacles to realizing our inherent peace – with a more in-depth look at avidya or “misunderstanding.”  We’ll look at the four primary forms of avidya and how misapprehension can be seen as the foundation of all the other kleshas, as well as the ways a deeper understanding of avidya can help us reduce our tendency to fall into misunderstanding and the suffering it can cause.

The Root of Avidya & the Four Forms

To start with the foundation, the root vidya means “knowledge” or “understanding,” while the prefix a- is a negator.  In this sense, avidya can be seen to have two primary meanings: either the absence of knowledge – that is, when we are unaware of a fact – or false/inaccurate beliefs.  As noted in our last article, the Yogis remind us each of these is equally disruptive to our peace and is something we need to watch for, particularly at any time we experience friction in our lives.

Of course, both of these concepts are quite extensive, which means it can be somewhat overwhelming applying them to our daily thoughts.  For this reason, the Yogis found it helpful to further divide avidya into four major forms – this way, we can look at our thought-patterns through a more “manageable” lens, as it were, asking ourselves whenever we experience tension if we are falling into one or more of the four forms.  Let’s next explore them one at a time.

Transience & Permanence 

The first form of avidya is mistaking the transient for the permanent. This is a particularly common and insidious form of misunderstanding, and it is once again important to understand it has two interconnected components.  In this type of misconception, we are allowing ourselves to develop feelings about a situation based on the false belief that either our circumstances or our feelings regarding them are unchanging, when in fact we know both are constantly shifting.  This can range from the minor to the more significant – for example, a challenge in the work place or a health issue or a difference of opinion with a loved one that we have dramatized in our minds.

We all know what it’s like to get worked up about a challenge only to have it suddenly disappear – the difficult coworker who suddenly quits or loud neighbor who unexpectedly moves.  When this happens, it reminds us that we generate our own discomfort or pain through our (false) assumptions.  We also know what it’s like to create friction in our lives based on our beliefs only to find over time that it is not our situation but our feelings that change – for example, a business decision at work to which we were dramatically opposed ends up making great sense after all.  Through awareness of these two forms of avidya, we can use inner friction as a reminder to pause and examine our thoughts, reminding ourselves of the transient nature of both circumstances and beliefs so we can return to our natural state of peace.

The One-Dimensional & the Multifaceted 

The second form of avidya is mistaking the part for the whole – that is, when we become so focused on a single aspect of a person or situation that we blind ourselves to the many other elements that are present.  The literal form Patanjali uses to express this is: “Mistaking the impure as pure…,” but this is meant not in a moral or judgmental sense but rather in the literal – in other words, thinking of just one piece of a person or situation when of course everything is a vast and incalculable blend.

For example, if a coworker is a bit less efficient than others, we may start to think of him or her as always behind or even “lazy,” when in fact we know he or she like all of us has many different attributes.  Perhaps his or her pace has more to do with thoroughness or thoughtfulness, or simply other challenges in life, than it does degree of application.  When we realize this, again we can broaden our view, often finding ease in a situation that had originally seemed difficult or frustrating.

The same principle also applies to circumstances – when we focus strictly on what we perceive as a “negative” aspect of a situation, we blind ourselves to all the potential good.  Again, through awareness of this aspect of avidya, anytime we experience tension or dis-ease we can ask ourselves if we are thinking of a person, situation, or even an idea in a limited way, in turn shifting our thoughts before missing out on the positive and pleasurable aspects of the events around us and creating further pain….

Pleasure & Self-Deception

The third form of avidya can be seen as an extension of this idea, and that is focusing on pleasure to the extent of overlooking potential unpleasant consequences — in other words, when we allow our emphasis on the pleasurable aspects of a situation to keep us from staying in touch with the negative components that may reside as well.  Again, this challenge can be seen in situations ranging from the material to the more conceptual – for example, when we focus on how good something might taste without thinking about how we might feel afterwards or the pleasures of a promotion without duly contemplating the obligations and demands that might come hand-in-hand.

Of course, this form of avidya is often applied retroactively – that is, once we have experienced discomfort or challenge, we may need to look back and see if our focus on the enjoyable aspects of a choice led us to overlook or ignore other consequences with which we are now dealing.  Again, the better we get at observing these patterns, the better we get at seeing and shifting them before they even arise in the future.

The Four Overlooked Challenges of Pleasure

Because pleasure can be a powerful distraction, the Yogis again offer further ways of breaking down this form of avidya so we can stay more aware of its multiple forms.  Patanjali reminds us that any time we become attached to a thing or an ideal, we in fact potentially set ourselves up for future pain in four distinct and powerful ways:

Four Ways Pursuit of Pleasure Can Cause Pain 

Pursuit of Pleasure Can Fail… – To begin, we know that every time we set a goal we might not achieve it, no matter how great our efforts.  Further, the harder we struggle, the more intense our frustration and pain tends to be.  This is the first potential source of pain in the pursuit of pleasure, but it is only the beginning – even if we do achieve our goal, Patanjali notes there are still three ways it can lead to subsequent pain:

Once Acquired, We Fear Loss – We know everything is transient: the beautiful car gets damaged and rusts; the lovely home ages, the “perfect” job is jeopardized when our company is bought or needs to downsize.  Again, the more we struggle for an outcome, the more we can find ourselves pained by the inevitable “deterioration” or possible loss of our achieved objective.

The Human Mind Tends Toward Dissatisfaction & Seeks Constant “Improvement” – Again, even when we achieve our goal, often even before it can itself “fade,” things tend to lose their luster in the human mind.  Our nature is to perpetually seek “better” – we get a promotion only to imagine the next level; we take a vacation only to dream of retirement.  Again, in and of itself this is not in the Yogic view a “bad” thing, it is just part of how our minds work – the key is to realize it about ourselves, so that when our minds say: “But surely this would make everything better!” we can lovingly remind it of all the times it’s said that before as well as how great everything is right now, regardless of our accomplishments….

When We Achieve Transient Goals, We Renew & Intensify Our Desire to Repeat Them – Finally, with things that are ephemeral — such as food, entertainment, or exciting experiences – the Yogis realized achieving our goals tends to intensify our cravings rather than reducing them – in other words, rather than satisfying a desire, we actually end up simple strengthening our addictive patterns of thought and action.

Once again, by being aware of each of these four forms, we can get better at noticing when we fall into false assumptions about goals we are pursuing.  This gives us an opportunity to shift our assumptions and avoid the negative consequences they can cause.

The Ego & the I 

The fourth and final form of avidya can be viewed as the culmination of the first as applied to our sense of self, that is mistaking the transient & limited parts of ourselves for who we really are.  Again, when we define ourselves based on the conditional or pleasure-oriented parts of ourselves, or simply let a limited subset of who we are dictate our overall sense of identity, this naturally causes friction in our lives and even a sense of alienation from our selves.

Obviously, a limited or inaccurate view of ourselves creates exactly the same pain as false beliefs regarding the people or events around us.  In fact, you could say the repercussions are even stronger, since without accurate self-awareness it is even more difficult to address our limitations and misperceptions.  For this reason, learning to be mindful of the various forms of misidentification of the self, as well as our own particular tendencies to fall into some patterns more regularly than others, can be a powerful tool for reestablishing harmony with ourselves and the world around us.  In this sense, this form of avidya can be seen as very similar to the classic Greek maxim: gnothi seauton — “Know Thyself….”

Avidya & the Subsequent Veils

This last form of avidya actually dovetails with the second klesha, which is asmita or “egoism.”  In fact, as noted before, Patanjali stresses the fact that ultimately all the remaining kleshas can be traced back to avidya.  For this reason, whatever our challenges we may face in terms of the later forms, it can be beneficial for us to have a strong understanding of each of the primary categories of avidya in order to better understand the roots of our more “individualized” challenges.

Again, this not only can help us untangle some of the more elaborate forms of misunderstanding we can generate in our lives and reduce the tendency of repeating them, but it can also help increase our empathy for those around us.  By seeing how seemingly distinct challenges ultimately arise from the same cause – that is “misperception” and “misidentification” – we can reduce our own personal tension and dis-ease while also increasing our compassion for those around us….

In Our Next Article…

Now that we have taken a look at avidya, we’ll continue in our article with an in-depth look at asmita or “egoism,” including the Yogic understanding of how it arises, the ways it can manifest in our lives, and how we can use that greater awareness to increase our peace, our compassion, and our productivity.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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