Causes of Suffering – Klesha #2: Asmita (egoism)

In our previous post we learned about the five kleshas, or causes of suffering, according to yogic/Buddhist tradition.  If you missed that post, check it out here!  The five kleshas are mental afflictions that distort our perception of reality and cloud our judgement.  Although the kleshas originate in the mind, they manifest in behavior on both an individual and global level.  The kleshas cause suffering for us when they direct our energy in directions that aren’t meant for us and keep us from experiencing our true selves. 

The kleshas are defined in the Yoga Sutras, written between 200 and 500 B.C. by the Indian sage Patanjali.  The Sutras are the most referenced book on yoga, and they are all about how to transcend suffering through mental liberation.  In this post, we’ll reference the Sri Swami Satchidananda translation, available here.  The five kleshas, as defined in the Sutras, are:

Sutra 2.3: avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśā kleśa

Ignorance (avidya), egoism (asmita), attachment (raga), hatred (dvesha) and clinging to bodily life (abhinivesah) are the five obstacles. (Swami Satchidananda translation).

In this post we’ll continue our exploration of the five kleshas with a more detailed look at asmita, or egoism.  We’ll look at how egoism can manifest in our lives, often in unexpected ways, and how we can use awareness of asmita to reduce our very human tendency to fall into its trap.  With acknowledgement, awareness, and mindful action, we can free ourselves from the suffering we create in our minds. 

Asmita causes dualistic thinking, the incorrect assumption that we are separate from others, that we are not connected on a spiritual, energetic level. 

What is Asmita?

When we hear the word ‘egoism’, we think of arrogance, of someone who has a high opinion of themselves and considers themselves superior to others.  But that is only one aspect of asmita. 

Egoism refers to the image of ourselves we create in our minds, and how identifying with that image creates a false sense of self.  From an ego-based worldview, we think of the conditional and ever-changing aspects of ourselves as our true self, failing to recognize the unchanging, neutral soul. 

Asmita causes dualistic thinking, the incorrect assumption that we are separate from others, that we are not connected on a spiritual, energetic level.  With asmita, we develop an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, however subtle, and fail to recognize our interconnectedness with our true selves, others, and nature. 

When we think in this way, we develop a sense of loneliness and of being on the outside looking in.  We feel apart from that which is around us and miss out on the deep feeling of belonging that comes from understanding our true selves and our connection to others. 

Egoism causes the erroneous belief that our immediate experience of ourselves, our daily ‘stuff’, is an authentic experience of life.  But the type of understanding that yoga aims for looks far beyond the immediate experience.  Our true self is only something that can be experienced in the present moment, and by surrendering to the process of life.  Asmita creates a veil between our perception and reality, and only by removing that veil can we experience life to its fullest. 

How Asmita Hinders Us

Change in life is inevitable, but when we’re affected by asmita we attach ourselves to things that naturally fluctuate.  We will change jobs, we will end relationships and start new ones, we’ll be healthy and we’ll be sick, people will die.  When we attach ourselves to these things and make them our identity, or our ultimate understanding of ourselves, we experience suffering when things change or are taken away.  We fail to see the big picture in life and become resistant to its flow.  

When we identify with our ego, we set expectations of ourselves that often go unmet.  This creates a sense of mistrust of ourselves, so we look for approval from others to assure us we’re on the right track.  If we pride ourselves on our occupation and someone tells us we’re doing a good job, our belief that the job is what makes us ‘good’ is validated.  When we mess up at that job or become overwhelmed, we feel as though we have failed. 

If you are affected by asmita, you might experience any of the following:

  • Over-attachment to titles/roles
  • Inflated self-esteem or the opposite, very low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of fulfillment
  • A feeling of disconnection from others
  • Jealousy
Overcoming asmita doesn’t mean relinquishing our possessions, our titles, our family role.  It is accepting and understanding that these things don’t define the true ‘us’, nor do they define our purpose here on Earth. 

Ways to Decrease Asmita in our Lives

Yoga doesn’t say that our ego is evil or shouldn’t be there, but rather that we can use it as a valuable tool to lead us toward a more fulfilling perspective on life.  Our ego isn’t necessarily bad; it’s our over-identification with it that causes suffering.  Overcoming asmita doesn’t mean relinquishing our possessions, our titles, our family role.  It is accepting and understanding that these things don’t define the true ‘us’, nor do they define our purpose here on Earth.

True understanding of this truth comes from self-reflection and connection to our spiritual selves.  There are tons of ways you can go about this, and it can be a unique experience for everyone.  In our post about avidya, we mentioned things like meditation and reiki (energy healing), and those practices can be applied for each of the kleshas.  The key in overcoming these mental obstacles is taking time to connect with our higher selves. 

At Inspiring Actions, we offer asana classes and special events to help you on your healing journey.  Visit our schedule here for a full list of our classes, and our events page here to check out our upcoming events like sound healing, reiki, and so much more!  Do you feel like asmita has been affecting your life, or have you seen it manifest in the lives of others?  We’d love to hear your thoughts; comment below on this, or any of the kleshas and better yet, join us at our studios in Hudson and River Falls, Wisconsin for a class!

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