The Five Mental Poisons and The Power of Choice


Yogis say that any kind of problem and pain roots in some kind of wrong judgment about ourselves, our lives, and the world.

This Ignorance, or Absence of Correct Understanding (Avidya), is the first and most powerful of the five „poisons“ (Kleshas) that can cloud our minds and subsequently our lives.

The other four poisons spring from Ignorance or Avidya: they are a sense of I-ness, or Ego (Asmita), Attachment (Raga), Dislike (Dvesha), and Fear (abhinivesha, also defined as fear of death/clinging to life in a wrong way).

When we are poisened by the Kleshas, we feel unhappy, insecure, disconnected, and discontent.

Many times our wrong understanding cannot easily be seen, but we can assume that it is present when we feel one of the above symptoms.

~*~

Recently, I have been called to explore the nature of the five Poisons, and I’d like to share with you some insights I got from my own and my students‘ practice.

A student of mine fell ill after practicing Extended Side Angle Pose – Utthita Parsva Konasana – in my class.

I have noticed this asana works like a hyper-sensitive measure of my health. I may feel 100% healthy, but Utthita Parsva Konasana will bring to the surface any hidden weakness or illness in my system.

I told my students to come into this pose with alertness and compassion. I told them that their ego („I have to get my hand to the floor!“) might make them completely insensitive to their anatomical or energetical limits.

A few days later, I heard that one of my students had gotten a fever the next day and was now in bed pondering my words :)

Now, I won’t say I’m happy my student fell ill, but I still thought that this was a great experience – for her and me. Falling ill after asana- or pranayama practice has taught me valuable lessons, too.

In this simple event, one can see the five kleshas at work in our minds:

  • The Ego (Asmita) is the one that may tell me or my student: „I have to prove something, because the worth of my being will be measured by the degree to which I can get into this pose. If only I could get a little deeper than my neighbor to win this competition!„Underneath this is Avidya, a wrong understanding of our personal worth, and a wrong understanding of the reasons for which we practice. This poison causes separation.
  • Attachment (Raga) makes us desire a specific outer form, or maybe makes us want to repeat something we were able to do yesterday. Underneath this is insufficient understanding of our true needs. It is our inability to feel our needs in the present moment that causes us to be attached to something outside of us. Most of our attention is pulled towards fitting our bodies into a specific shape, so we can’t actually feel our individual expression in a pose.
  • Dislike (Dvesha) leads us to ignore sensory information and reject some parts of ourselves that do not fit the ideal we are attached to. Attachment and Dislike have to go hand in hand.Underneath this is a wrong understanding of how the world nurtures and supports us. We believe that life will not provide us with the experiences and relationships we need to prosper, so we think we have to control life by clinging to some things, while strongly disapproving of others.This misunderstanding leads to a split mind and heart, since we are incessantly pushing away some parts of our being, while clinging to others. It causes us to loose our stability because we are pulled between desire and disgust.
    These two poisons cause fragmentation and discontent.
  • Fear (abhinivesha) makes us push to hard; and it makes us insensitive to the signals of our minds, bodies, and feelings. We are secretely afraid of losing affection and love of others if our bodies do not perform in the way we defined as the ‚right one‘.

    Underneath this is a wrong understanding of the nature and purpose of our bodies. Because we are oscillating between attachment and disgust, we are cut from the fluid continuum of our natural feelings and sensations which make up our reality. Because we cut ourselves from the power of NOW, we give meaning to meaningless things, like the shape of our body, or the distance between our nose and our knees. We hope to derive some kind of happiness from that.

    We are afraid of loosing the meaningless things.We confuse
    the loss of the Meaningless with Death. But actually, the process of ridding ourselves of the Meaningless would connect us to Life. It is wrong judgment that makes us become afraid of life, and makes us cut ourselves from the nurturing flow of Life-Force.

    Our deep intelligence knows this attitude won’t get us anywhere important, and that it would be dissolved the moment we step back into the present moment.

The Power of Choice

I can assume the Five Poisons are at work when I feel unhappy, imbalanced, cut from myself and others, and discontent. I can assume that behind this unhappy state lies some kind of incomplete understanding of my situation.

The nice thing is that I do not have to know what I do not understand. All that is needed is a conscious choice to be open and receptive to my truth. Pretty cool, eh?!…

For instance, when I started feeling pain in my hip joint 2 years ago; or when I suddenly got fevers after practice; I did not exactly know where it came from.

But after some struggle I was willing to accept that the way I had approached practice was obviously wrong. I accepted that my pain was a signal I was doing something wrong, and that I could simply decide to let the right way be shown to me.

I made the choice to be open to learn my truth.

This choice was all it needed. Through it, I could let life and my body take over.

I was now able to see the Five Poisons at work in similar ways as desribed above, causing injury and pain on many levels.

With this deepened understanding, I could develop a more suitable and healthy practice. The Power of Choice made me understand and see the previously unknown.

My choice made me humble. I had to acknowledge that I had been overriding signals in my hips during rigorous forward bending practice, causing the joints of my hips and sacrum to get dislocated. All this because of a wrong self-image, and a wrong understanding of what it meant to be a Yogini.

The Poisons had me made willing to sacrifice my health in order to conform to some ideal.

I was surprised to see that Avidya was so strong in me that I could seriously not feel some of the warning signs, like the painful yanking in my hip sockets.

Without Choice, I would not have had the courage to admit to myself I had such wrong understanding.

The choice to be open to Wisdom and a more correct understanding of my situation (Vidya) is a simple, yet extremely powerful antidote to the Five Poisons.

To choose to be open to right understanding means that I allow myself to have solutions come easily. It means I simply stop poisoning myself and let myself be healed through deep, but simple Insight.

If there is pain, there are Poisons. If there is poisoning, there is wrong understanding.

When I feel physical or psychological pain or discomfort, I can assume that I’m believing in something that is wrong.

Then, I can simply choose to open up to a more complete view of the situation, and Wisdom will follow.

3 Antworten zu “The Five Mental Poisons and The Power of Choice

  1. I like this expounding on the the five poisons. It seems to me that these are the things in life that seems to hold us back from living the Eightfold Path of Buddha. Once we learn to correct or eliminate some of th poisons than we can move on.

    When it comes the ego it applies to the physical body. So killing off the ego isn’t possible unless you are not in your physical body. But we can live through spirit and making sure our ego stays in check. Thank you for your post.

    • Thanks for your comment, Patrick.

      I think that once the poisonous effects of Ego – the sense of „I-ness“ – have been identified in us, we can actually use the tool of „separatedness“ to melt the Ego away.

      The poisonous Ego tells us that we’re separate from everything and everyone, and believes in power struggle, or struggle in general. It is threatened by anything that is embracing, wholesome, or SIMPLE. The poisonous Ego is separating us from our true nature.

      I haven’t come across any positive view of „I-ness“ in Yogic texts as yet. (By „positive“ I don’t mean the mainstream-psychology positive view of the Ego, either.)

      My feeling is that once the poison is immersed in Grace, we can tap into the power of Separation/Ego very CONSCIOUSLY. It will help to distance ourselves from all the things we recognize as not in alignment with our true identity.

      My personal feeling is that transsubstantiated Ego is Separation totally subdued to Love. This separating power will help to recognize that many previously autonomous behaviours and thoughts, are NOT us; and that in fact, their only purpose was to keep us from realizing our all-inclusive, all-loving identity.

      That’s another definition of Ego or „I-ness“:
      to know what we’re NOT (e.g. separate or inferior/superior to others) and to distance ourselves from it.

      Just my two cents :)

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