As a younger yogi, I craved enlightenment (yes, I see the problem there). Like many people, I was drawn to yoga because I was suffering. When I first learned about attachment and aversion in yogic philosophy, I thought, great. If I want to be happy, I just have to stop liking and disliking things.
In other words, want nothing and have nothing to live for.
I knew the things people believe will eliminate suffering don’t eliminate it, at least not for long. On some level, I’ve always known this, which left me wondering early in life what to do with myself while I live in this body. I skipped a lot of the usual things people do, because they seemed pointless. So, what did I do instead?
For a moment, yoga seemed to be saying the answer was to want nothing.
Attachment and Aversion As Obstacles to Enlightenment
I haven’t thought about it in a while, but recently on a weekend retreat, a yoga teacher’s dharma talk brought the idea of suffering, the causes of suffering, and what to make of it all back to my monkey mind for a while. I was compelled to take another look at attachment and aversion.
I’ve written about the obstacles to enlightenment before. Or the causes of suffering or roadblocks to peace if you prefer to look at them that way. Patanjali called them the five kleshas, and they can be translated as ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear of death.
They can be translated other ways as well, as often happens with words. But let’s leave it at that for now.
The kleshas (and samskaras) were the philosophical focus of the weekend.
And oddly, even though it might seem like a bit of a downer to focus on suffering and all the ways we can screw up our lives, bringing these things into awareness can create true joy.
The 5 Kleshas Are Clues to Where We’ve Lost Our Joy
In a nutshell, ignorance of who we are (or what’s true in some interpretations), mistaking our egos for our true selves, wanting things and being miserable when we don’t get them, avoiding what we don’t want and being miserable when we can’t avoid it, and the inability to accept impermanence are collectively why human beings lose touch with joy for long stretches of time.
As a yogi you probably know joy is already within you, even though you may not experience it as often as you’d like.
And as yogis, we continue a maddening, thrilling, awesome journey we know we won’t complete in this lifetime. Why? Because it offers more opportunities to find joy than any other path we’ve traveled.
If you’re on the path, you know what I mean.
Attachment and Aversion And Those Other Obstacles to Enlightenment
Once we know we’re not who we think we are—that our being doesn’t end with the story of this lifetime and our thoughts can play hideous tricks on us—we can stop trying to make that limited being happy. That in itself is a relief. But something even better happens!
The possibilities for realizing something greater and connecting with truth in ways that uncover the joy already within us expand with our expanded understanding of who we are.
There are still attachments. And there are still aversions. And if we forget to notice them and maybe even be amused by them, we fall back into the suffering they create.
As I joked over the weekend with the teacher who asked me if I’m enlightened (no, I’m still working on that), I often find that when I decide something is true, something that seems to contradict that truth is also true.
Often, not always.
Sometimes Aversion is Not Aversion
Those yogic warnings about the pitfalls of aversion ruffle my ego’s feathers when I confuse aversion with avoidance. (I once heard someone suggest a path of saying yes to everything. But that isn’t the conclusion I believe we’re to draw from awareness of aversion.)
I say this because—and I suspect you can relate—there are times the inability to say no keeps me stuck in a place that’s not enlightening. This happens, for example, when someone I care about wants me to do something, and I say yes even though I know it will cause me to suffer.
I feel so strongly about this caveat (like, I’m so attached to this idea) that I feel the need to point it out even though it’s not necessary. It’s true that saying no to something new because we’re not sure how it will turn out can deprive us of opportunities to grow. And running away from discomfort rather than learning to work with things that aren’t pleasant can do that too.
But continuing to do something that makes us miserable just makes us more miserable. So, no you don’t have to say yes to everything.
Aversion is not avoidance. It’s a feeling about something that leads to the idea that we can’t be happy because something in life isn’t perfect. It seems we need more information—and wisdom—to decide whether to let that feeling guide how we act.
Before You Decide What’s Happening, Watch It With More Curiosity
The concepts of attachment and aversion stood out during my recent yoga weekend because something in my life isn’t working. My attachment to my vision for how I’d like it to be may be causing me to suffer, but so (it seems) is the situation as it is. Staying in the situation I’m currently averse to may be hindering my spiritual growth.
Or maybe it’s facilitating it.
I don’t know which is the case yet, and recognizing that gives me space to observe before I act. Talking about the kleshas inspired me to observe with more curiosity—to look for the place where aversion that causes suffering becomes aversion that facilitates growth.
I’m calling them the same thing, but surely the aversion of the kleshas isn’t the aversion of self-care or the aversion of avoidance. They need different names the way Self that means soul and self that means ego do.
We can sit with discomfort while we figure it out. And we can do that with joy.
The cool thing is this work never ends. Just being aware of the ways attachment and aversion create suffering frees us from suffering. Not completely, but enough—for me at least—to stay on that maddening, thrilling, awesome journey toward enlightenment.
Hi, I’m Maria. I created Yoga Circles for you if you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy, practice, and life-changing effects of yoga. I’m also a writer and editor who helps small business owners, wellness professionals, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and connect with readers, clients, and students. Visit my website (link below) for more about that. I’d love to hear from you!