Causes of Suffering – Klesha #3: Raga (attachment)

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 kleshas are considered mental obstacles to enlightenment.  They are states of mind or being that cause unnecessary suffering in our lives and can be overcome by conscious insight and reflection upon our individual mental patterns. 

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 raga, or attachment.  We’ll look at how attachment causes suffering in our lives, often in unexpected ways, and how we can use awareness of raga 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.

What is Raga?

Raga is attachment to things that bring us pleasure.  The suffering from raga comes not from the pleasure we receive, but from the subsequent seeking that it creates.  When we find something that brings us pleasure, we file that experience away in our minds as favorable, and we subconsciously (and often consciously) seek it out.  With raga, we are taken out of the present moment and authentic enjoyment of life as our minds seek to satisfy the desires our preferences have created.     

The Sutras say:

“Attachment is that which follows identification of pleasurable experiences.”

Raga is attachment to things that bring us pleasure.  The suffering from raga comes not from the pleasure we receive, but from the subsequent seeking that it creates. 

The concept of attachment doesn’t mean that desire is evil, or wanting a particular possession or situation is bad.  It doesn’t mean that experiencing pleasure means we are not spiritually sound.  Raga is when we become preoccupied with obtaining things that make us feel good and avoiding those that do not. 

Attachment, especially subconscious attachment, increases the disconnect between our perception of ourselves and our true selves that starts in the previous kleshas of avidya (ignorance) and asmita (egoism). Raga causes us to further identify with external things, therefore taking us further away from our true selves and our true purpose.

To overcome raga, we need to find mental balance in the form of understanding healthy versus non-healthy attachment.  We need to learn to wear the world as a loose garment, and to spend our energy seeking out the things that truly matter in life. 

How Raga Hinders Us

Raga causes us to direct our energy in ways that might not be meant for us.  It takes up a great deal of mental energy to construct our lives in a way where we constantly seek our what we like and avoid that which we dislike.  When we seek out people, places, and things because we believe they’ll make us happy, we are projecting our minds either into the future, as we think of ways to get what we want, or the past, as we remember the pleasurable feeling that arose whenever the like/dislike association was made. 

The first two kleshas, ignorance and egoism, develop a sense of separation-thinking.  We see ourselves as separate and disconnected from everything around us, and we act accordingly.  Attachment furthers that dualistic worldview by categorizing things into good and bad, desirable or undesirable.  Rather than see the world and our lives for what they are and accepting both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, we see the world through the lens of our preferences.   

Raga operates on two strong emotions that we all experience: happiness and fear.  When we find something we like, or something that temporarily makes us feel good, we feel happy.  It might be a job, a favorite TV show, relationship, a state of mind.  But since we experienced this happiness, we become afraid of losing it.  That’s where raga becomes problematic in life.  The fear of losing whatever it is that we’re attached to affects our thoughts, words, and actions and, if unchecked, our path in life. 

It’s important to differentiate between ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’.  Happiness is temporary and conditional, and it’s what we’re experiencing when we find ourselves attaching to people, places, and things in our lives in unhealthy ways.  True joy is lasting and fulfilling and transcends the surface-level feelings we get from things that bring temporal pleasure. 

Only when we are free from attachment can we truly enjoy things as they were meant to be; raga clouds the true essence of life experiences.

Ways to Decrease Raga in our Lives

Learn the difference between healthy tendencies and attachment.

Avoiding attachment doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take pleasure in things, or that having desires is wrong in some way. It means we understand that most things in life are fluctuating, ever-changing, and that when we rely on these things for our happiness and fail to get to know our true selves, we suffer.

Only when we are free from attachment can we truly enjoy things as they were meant to be; raga clouds the true essence of life experiences. With attachment we experience fear, but with letting go we experience peace and understanding. 

Monitor your inner dialogue.

Since the kleshas originate in the mind, it makes sense to monitor our thoughts for hints of attachment thinking to help us become aware of how raga might be affecting us.  By paying attention to our inner dialogue, we can see if our thoughts tend to be directed by our desire to obtain something.  We can use this awareness to investigate the desire and approach it with curiosity and mindfulness rather than the blind action that attachment creates. 

Evaluate your relationships with anything in life you’d be devastated to lose. 

Take an honest inventory of your life and try to identify ways in which you might be unhealthily attached.  This is a difficult one because when we think of things like the death of a loved one, it’s hard to imagine practicing non-attachment.  Start smaller.  Evaluate your possessions, your relationships, your hobbies, and even your goals and see which ones would cause you a great deal of pain to lose.  Once you’ve done that, you can look at what might be motivating the attachment and address the issue on a deeper level. 

Final Thoughts

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the five kleshas with us so far!  Next we’ll take a closer look at what is essentially the opposite of raga, dvesha, or avoidance.  With attachment, we learn to seek out things that bring us pleasure.  With avoidance, we expel the same amount of energy, but we do so in order to avoid things that we find uncomfortable, unpleasurable, or difficult.  We’ll learn about the ways avoidance causes suffering in our lives, and what we can do to become aware of and work with it. 

If you’ve enjoyed learning about the kleshas with us so far, join us next time as we take a closer look at the opposite of raga, dvesha, or avoidance.  If you’ve been thinking about incorporating yoga into your holistic health practice, we invite you to join us at Inspiring Actions!  Yoga is an invaluable tool we can use to overcome the mental obstacles that keep us from authentically enjoying life.  We have classes and special events in our studios in Hudson and River Falls, Wisconsin, and some of our classes are offered online! 

New to yoga and have questions?  Visit our FAQ page here and our blog post just for beginners here!

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