If you are in the garden, I will dress myself in leaves. If you are in the sea I will slide into that smooth blue nest, I will talk fish, I will adore salt. But if you are sad, I will not dress myself in desolation. I will present myself with all the laughters I can muster. And if you are angry I will come, calm and steady, with some small and easy story.
– MARY OLIVER –
When I was small, I’d avoid the monsters who secreted themselves at the clothes in my closet by staying up all night; I’d hide under the bedcovers with a book and a flashlight. Nevermind the fact that I read Stephen King novels. Those were psychological spooks I could manage by taking a break with a Betty & Veronica comic. As a teen, I avoided phys ed classes by joining jazz band, so as to avoid any game involving a ball (which was every game when I was in school) thus pointing out my devastating hand-eye coordination along with ridicule from the cool athletic girls. My cheeky attempts at skipping the conversations I couldn’t handle in my youth, be it ghouls or teenage girls, fostered my love of literature and musical aptitude. I wouldn’t be who I am today had I gone to bed when asked or obliged to playing team sports.
My parents worried over me in elementary school when they discovered I ignored all the kids to sit on the bench and read The Chronicles of Narnia at recess and lunch. I’d remove myself from any situation I didn’t prefer, crafting ways to opt out of classes I didn’t enjoy and skipping social settings where I felt uncomfortable.
My avoidance is a character of suffering; a result of my inability to come to terms with how I feel and sit with all the sensations we experience in life.
I still prefer to witness and revel in the conflict of characters marked by the turn of a page, which caused me a major step in development. Conflict is necessary to develop boundaries, discover your voice and personal power, and more importantly, the skills to resolve disagreements. I never established such skills in my youth, and what little skill I did cultivate, wasn’t strong enough to match my super power of avoidance. I’m not alone in my distaste for sticky situations in relationships, but there has to be a space where you acknowledge all of these uncomforting, sickly, swollen, belly-aching emotions in yourself and with others. There has to be room to express the full spectrum of emotions in the darkness and the light for you to truly face all that you are and the space you take up in the world.
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life —
is the source from which self-respect springs. – Joan Didion
I avoid tricky conversations with others to escape how I feel. It has little to do with the other person and it isn’t personal. As a kid, instead of saying “I’m scared,” I said, “I’m going to read my book.” As a teenager, instead of saying, “I suck at sports, my feelings are hurt,” I said, “I’m going to join the school marching band.” And now, as an adult instead of saying, “this relationship doesn’t work for me, here’s how I feel and why,” I say, “everything’s fine, I just need space.”
Same coping tactic, same character, same storyline; just a few different twists thrown into the equation to thicken the plot.
The Kleshas and Our Bondage to Suffering
In Buddhist and Hindu traditions, removing the self from dukkha, suffering, is the ultimate goal to attain enlightenment, or samadhi. Suffering is caused by the five afflictions or mental states, known as kleshas. In Sanskrit, kleshas translates to the form of poison as they are toxic and cause mental suffering through bondage. The five kleshas were identified by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
The five kleshas are: Avidya (Ignorance), Asmita (Egoism) Raga (Attachments), Dvesa (Aversions), Abhinivesa (Fear).
- Avidya is wrong knowledge, or ignorance. Each of us approaches life with preconditions ideas based on our culture, education, social conditioning, past experiences, expectations, values and preferences. We create our own reality based on these judgments and believe this to be the true reality when in fact, it’s subjective. Our subjective identities are important in shaping who we are and giving us our independence and yet we need to live in harmony and co-exist with each other to survive. Acknowledging our own ignorance, that what we believe to be true may not in fact be, creates less suffering.
- Asmita is the ego-self, the small-self that clings to attachments and desires, acting from a place that serves the singular self over others. We need our ego for survival and to develop emotionally and psychologically, but an ego-centric individual takes everything personally, feels disconnected from others, and sees only a very small portion of what reality is. Understanding asmita would mean acknowledging others, striving for selfless service, and seeing the vastness of the universe and the connectedness of all beings and events.
- Raga is the pull toward attachments and desires. Attachment affects our behaviors, moods, and actions, causing suffering through stress and anxiety when things don’t go as we hoped or planned. Addiction is a very big component of attachment as we become addicted to things that bring us instant gratification inclusive of food, drugs, sex, technology, relationships, and the like. When we become so dependent on something outside of ourselves, we suffer when we don’t receive or attain it. Overcoming attachment would mean welcoming all the experiences, and learning to sit with how we feel.
- Dvesa is the avoidance of the things we don’t like and works with raga in a tug-of-war to avoid negative sensations and pursue positive affirmations. Labeling things as good or bad is a judgment based on our past experiences and cultivated in our upbringing. What resists, persists. It is important to face our emotions as they arise, especially sensations we don’t ‘like’ such as sitting in our own fear, resentment, anger, shame, guilt, sadness. Avoidance provides insight to look into why we are feeling how we feel, our triggers, and why we feel this way. It’s a crack to peek through to examine our misinformation and judgments of the world and how we may shift our perception.
“Aversion (dvesa) is the opposite side of attachment (raga). It is a repulsion that leads to enmity and hate, like the same poles of two magnets pushing away from each other. ” – B.K.S. Iyengar.
- Abhinivesa relates to our fear, the fear of the unknown and ultimately the fear of death itself. Examining our lives and accepting our eventual departure from this world can bring joy to the life that we’re living. When we accept death we have to opportunity to see the blessing we have in this life, in this moment. The fear of the unknown requires a deep trust in the universe and greater powers outside of the self, outside of your ego, and coming to terms with being present and open to all that the world offers.
“There is only one reality, but there are many ways that reality can be interpreted.”
– B.K.S. Iyengar
Examining the way the kleshas appear in your world is the first step to seeing how ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear keep you tied to patterns of suffering. B.K.S. Iyengar believed in the power and practice of yoga to heal the body, mind, and soul. Meditation, yoga, and studying Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is a way to align yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally to transform your limited perceptions of the world.
The Stoics on Avoidance and Obstacles
Buddhist and Hindu traditions weren’t the only cultures to identify the avoidance of pain in causing immense suffering. The Stoics believed in the virtue of judgement to lead a contented life. Stoicism was practiced and preached by Zeno, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius in the early 3rd century BC. Stoicism was founded on the idea that we don’t control our surroundings, all is in constant flux, and the only way to manage the uncertainty we live in is to rely on ourselves and our response to our external environments.
The Stoics believed strongly in transforming obstacles into moments of opportunity. Avoidance was not an option; those who chose a stoic life would welcome hardship and use challenges to strengthen their character. Acceptance was a virtue of the highest regard and management of the self through sound judgement, discipline, and control of emotions. By observing the emotions and responding accordingly, and welcoming hardship and using conflict as a means to express and resolve, Stoicism is still a relevant guide to live without bondage to suffering.
In Conversation with Your Avoidance
A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel that deals with a character’s psychological growth. Some of my favourite books of this genre include Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch, John Irving’s, The World According to Garp, and Wally Lamb’s, She’s Come Undone. The main characters undergo considerable spiritual development and are repeatedly confronted and challenged by the five kleshas. This is one of the ways the authors created memorable characters who evoked the readers empathy.
When you confront your patterns of ignorance, avoidance, ego, attachment, and fear, you create the space and power to shift your cycles of suffering. The only way to overcome this cycle is to see it for what it is and accept it and move through it.
Last year, I started seeing a therapist who specializes in professional development more so than sifting through childhood traumas. I went to one appointment where I was asked questions concerning how I feel about my current lifestyle, what I desire most in life, and what steps I could take to get to where I desired. I went on to repeatedly cancel and reschedule the following appointment on three separate occasions. Seeing my pattern, my therapist messaged me to say, firm and polite, that she did not work with people who wouldn’t commit to themselves. Her message hit hard and I’ve kept my original appointments ever since and made a conscious effort to sit with how I feel instead of running away.
“The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.” — Joan Didion.
Commit to yourself. Find something that helps you meet your character of avoidance and break the cycle of suffering. For me, it’s through writing. Unlike the characters I meet in fiction, I cannot escape who I am once I’ve committed words to paper. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is one way to understand the world and how you operate in it. Yoga is so much more than asana practice, it’s a way to unite your body, mind, and sense so you may accept and align with yourself within the greater context of the universe.