Using the five kleshas to understand and eliminate prejudice.
In yoga philosophy, the kleshas are five poisons or impurities of the mind that are false and prevent us from attaining liberation. The kleshas are ignorance, ego, likes, dislikes and fear. By understanding these mental tendencies we can better understand what creates prejudice and thus reduce those qualities in ourselves. Becoming aware of our own tendencies is the first step in shifting towards more loving thoughts, words and actions. At the same time, by seeing how these kleshas affect all of us we can practice compassion for those who continue to discriminate against others based on external factors such as race, age, ability, religion, sex, gender identity/expression or sexual orientation.
The first klesha is ignorance. Ignorance literally means a lack of knowledge or information. When we don’t have awareness of ourselves or knowledge of others, we don’t have all the information and can’t make the best choices. Often prejudices derive from a lack of understanding or a misunderstanding of someone who we perceive as being different from us. Different cultures, races, ethnicities or nationalities have different standards and practices based on their unique experiences and histories. For instance, a fellow yoga teacher shared photos of insects being sold as food. My first reaction was to think, “Eww, gross,” since bugs are typically thought of as dirty and disgusting in America. However, I also know that in much of the world bugs and grubs are an abundant and valuable protein source and are eaten regularly. Based on a lack of information, we may unfairly judge a person as being primitive or disgusting, when in reality it is our own ignorance of their culture that creates the prejudice in our minds. By always keeping an open mind and striving to learn more than our limited worldview, we can help to reduce our own ignorance.
The second klesha is ego. Here the term is used not as meaning synonymous with narcissism or selfishness. Instead it is the “I” that we relate to as individuals. We all have it, and we all need it to some extent. The problem comes when we let ego take over and influence us. Ego tells us we are what we have, what we do, and what people think of us. It tries to convince us that we are separate from others and from the Divine. Ego emphasizes the differences between us rather than the similarities. When we get caught up in ego, we start to find things that make us feel like we are better than, or worse than, others. Stereotypes come from the ego’s attempt to categorize and thus further separate people. Some stereotypes make us feel better than other people, as in the example above about eating insects. Others make us feel we are worse than others. For example a young girl may think she can’t pursue a career in the STEM (science, techonology, engineering and math) disciplines because of messages from her family, society, or the media that tell her girls aren’t good at math. Both are equally insidious because they further the separation between us and our fellow human beings. Ego often bristles and says, “How dare you?” implying entitlement often based on the perception that our “group,” whether it be that of race, religion, orientation, etc., is better than another group. In the famous “blue-eyed, brown-eyed” experiment of 1968, teacher Jane Elliott allowed her students to experience a taste of what it is like to be discriminated against based on an arbitrary external factor, in this case by the color of their eyes. One day she told the class of third graders that blue-eyed people were better than brown-eyed people. She subtly enforced this “eye-ism” all day by commenting when a blue-eyed child did something good or when a brown-eyed child did something bad. The next day she reversed the status of the eye colors. The children caught on and participated in the discrimination alarmingly quickly. Some people criticized her, and in one famous letter a member of the public protested by saying, “How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children.” Clearly they missed the lesson of the experiment, and were speaking directly from their ego.
The next two kleshas are often discussed together, as they are two sides of the same coin. Likes and dislikes cause us to try to obtain or avoid things, experiences, or people. We don’t have to give up the things we like or accept the things we don’t, but we must become aware of our attachments and aversions and recognize their influence on us. These two kleshas can cause an inability to understand and therefore empathize with someone whose likes and dislikes are different from our own. Notice the subtle difference in the following statements: “I dislike broccoli,” compared to, “Broccoli is gross.” It is easy to begin to label things as good or bad based on whether we like or dislike them, and in turn label another person as good or bad depending on whether they share our opinion. However we each have different tastes and preferences, and as long as your choices aren’t hurting someone else, then it is your prerogative. In my experience I have at times looked down on forms of yoga that weren’t my preferred practice. I bought into stereotypes and thought I knew what “real Yoga” was. I equated my “likes” with good and my “dislikes” with bad. In reality, each individual has different preferences and those likes and dislikes don’t change the fact that they are fellow humans with the same Light inside them as me. A common example of prejudice stemming from likes and dislikes is the issue of sexual orientation. A heterosexual male may think kissing another man is unappealing, and he is entitled to his preference. However when he says that two men kissing is gross, and that gay men are gross for doing it, he is then projecting his dislike onto another and judging them based on that, which is prejudice.
Finally, the fifth klesha is fear. Fear is the opposite of love, and when we act from a place of fear we crowd out love. Often people experience fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. Ignorance of the other person’s situation can lead to fear of them, which prevents us from acting with love. Instead we act from our fear and choose to discriminate against them. Even if we don’t fear the other person, we may experience fear of being ridiculed or rejected for standing up for a person or group of people instead of going along with the discrimination. As Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Deciding not to support someone who is being discriminated against, choosing to be silent in the presence of injustice, can be just as detrimental as participating in the act. There were times in my past when I was afraid to speak up when someone was being discriminated against. I have also walked through my fear at times and spoke the Truth with Love. As with all the kleshas, it is an ongoing challenge to recognize and overcome it.
Acceptance that we have a problem is the first step towards healing. By examining our minds through the context of the kleshas, we can see where we have gone wrong and how we can better ourselves. Although ignorance, ego, likes, dislikes, and fear are a part each of us, we can work towards letting go of these illusions and instead embrace the truth of love, acceptance, and compassion for all.