About the Vrittis and Kleshas
Updated: May 4
People who have some familiarity with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras know something about the Vrittis and the Kleshas. There are five Vrittis and five Kleshas. They are often included as topics in teacher trainings and other immersions and retreats. Memorizing the lists of these concepts is often encouraged. That may be helpful, but really understanding them requires study of some of yoga’s foundational ideas.
Yoga assumes that at our center, in our core, within our innermost self, there is a calm, peaceful, divine awareness that has been there our entire life. It is the life force, the spark that embodied a spirit into the bodies we identify as our selves.
Yoga sees the body and mind as a system. The body perceives with its senses and the mind processes all of the information that the senses collect. The mind first records the information, then classifies and organizes it, and then processes the information to construct the functional reality in which we live. This mental activity is ceaseless. It requires essentially our complete attention at all times. At the same time, the thoughts are usually scattered, unrelated, and seemingly random. This pattern of mental activity is sometimes described as “fluctuations of the mind”. In Sanskrit, these fluctuations are called Vrittis.
Patanjali describes the five Vrittis as either painful or painless. Embedded in that dichotomy is a perspective that is essential to yoga. Most of us would think that what balances pain is pleasure. In our day-to-day lives, without any thought, we act either to seek pleasure or to avoid pain. How much pain can we endure? How much pleasure can we experience? For how long we can experience pleasure and avoid pain? These questions have no answers. This perspective on life is so self-focused that much of life passes us by without our noticing that there is more to life than pleasure and pain.
In addition, striving to find pleasure and avoid pain leads to an endless circle of effort. If we are not experiencing pleasure, our dissatisfaction triggers desire which triggers action, which is either successful in achieving satisfaction or not. If not, we remain dissatisfied; the circle repeats itself with different actions every time as we strive to find a solution with more pleasure and less pain. If our initial effort succeeds, we develop a desire to preserve and protect our satisfaction. This triggers more action that is either successful preserving and protecting our pleasure or not. Either way, the circle of striving continues.
This view of life accepts pain, but only in exchange for an experience that includes pleasure. We accept these terms even though we know the pleasure is elusive, uncertain, and fleeting. Because we live in this self-centered, time limited perspective, focused on avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure, we lose sight of the expansive, peaceful, and joyful elements of life. Our divine essence is seldom noticed. Yoga helps us find and maintain a more expansive, timeless, not self-centered perspective on life that recognizes and nourishes our ever present and unchanging inner divinity. Yoga identifies this as our True Self, that awareness that has always been and is at all times present within us.
The idea of divinity of course is everywhere. Every religion, tribe, and sangha share recognition of the divine, “that which is of, from, or like God or a god.” Feeling the divine is an attainable human experience. For many of us that aspiration remains theoretical. Feeling divine is not a regular part of our everyday life. Householders cannot devote all of their attention to the divine; survival requires that we nourish and shelter our bodies; efforts to that end draw our attention away from the divine as we handle every day, necessary tasks that are mundane, ordinary, not divine. Yoga gives us reliable tools that we can use to create space in our everyday lives to find and explore the divine and possibly to keep our True Self in mind as we go about our less than divine daily tasks. Access to such reliable tools makes it possible for a Householder to lead a life where the divine can balance the mundane.
Patanjali identifies five categories of the Vrittis. They are: right knowledge, misperception, conceptualization, sleep, and memory. The first three concern how we acquire information, the fourth is the absence of any efforts to acquire information, and the last is how we store the acquired information.
· Right knowledge is painless because it does not obscure our perspective on the divine. We acquire right knowledge through direct perception, inference, and authoritative sources.
· Misperception is when our senses misinterpret what is presented. The most common example is the coiled rope in a poorly lit room that is mistaken for a snake until the lights are turned up. Misperception is often needlessly painful. The rope is alarming even though it is not a snake. We are disappointed that what looked like a $1,000 bill was just a piece of paper.
· Conceptualization is knowledge based on language alone, independent of any external object. Conceptualization can be painful or painless.
· Sleep refers to dreamless sleep, the time when all the other Vrittis are suspended; we remember only that which we perceive, so deep sleep is not the mere absence of mental activity. It is a time when the mind can rest and rejuvenate.
· Memory is the recollection of experienced objects. Unlike the other Vrittis, it concerns the past. Without it, we could not learn from experience.
Vrittis that are painful obscure our ability to see our True Self. Vrittis that do not interfere that perception are painless.
Unlike Vrittis that can be painful or painless, Kleshas are nothing but pain. They are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to bodily life. They are painful Vrittis with common characteristics.
Ignorance is the root cause of the other four Kleshas. The Sanskrit term for ignorance is Avidya, which means “not seeing.” Sutra 2.5 describes ignorance as the failure to see that what we think is permanent is actually impermanent, that what we think is pleasant is actually painful, that who we think is our True Self, in fact, is not. All things change. Nothing is permanent. Neither pain nor pleasure is permanent. Striving for power, wealth or fame is, in effect, worshiping false gods. Whatever solace or peace may be acquired will change with time. What begins as a pleasant experience can turn into a painful experience. The pleasure of intoxication becomes the pain of a hangover. It is ignorance that causes us to be aware of the mortal, constantly changing self that is awash in attainments and possessions and to forget the divine, ever present Self that is the real foundation of our existence.
The other four Kleshas--egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to life—are specific examples of obstacles that obscure our perspective on life; all four originate with ignorance. Our experience of life is based on what our senses provide and what our mind perceives from them. This egoism limits awareness to our body-mind system. Because there is more to life than that which we can perceive, egoism limits our view of life and obscures our ability to see our True Self. If we perceive pleasure, we become attached to the sensation and want to retain it and fear losing it. If we perceive pain, we act to avoid it. Clinging to life is understandable. All we know is based on our processing of sensations by our body-mind self; we fear ceasing to exist as that. It is said that even The Wise cling to life, but all of us must venture beyond our attachment to life as we know it.
Sutra 2:2 explains how yogic life sees the Vrittis and Kleshas. The practices of yoga, and there are many, “help us minimize the obstacles and attain samadhi.” Samadhi is a topic for another day. For now, focus on this: the purpose of yoga is not to add something to us as a remedy for what is inadequate in us, but rather to remove the obstacles that obstruct our realization of an already present divine, peaceful, joyful, blissful state that is our True Identity, our True self.
The purpose of yoga is to quiet the fluctuations of the mind so that we recognize our divinity, our True Self and abide in the state of joy and peace. Nirodha is the Sanskrit term that describes both the process of the quieting and the state when quieting is accomplished. Yoga quiets the fluctuations of the mind so that we can see beyond our constructed reality based on the perceptions of our senses and find pure awareness, peace, joy, and bliss as we acknowledge our True Self.