Severing the Roots of Our Discontent – The Buddhist Way

B. Alan Wallace on how the kleshas or “mental afflictors” keep us from realizing the true nature of our mind, and how we can begin to get to the root of our discontent by recognizing the kleshas for what they are.

By B. Alan Wallace

Image by Paul Zoetemeijer

I have noticed with some concern how often the Buddhist Sanskrit term klesha is mistranslated as an “afflictive emotion,” “negative emotion,” or “disturbing emotion,” or even as “passion.” Psychologically, emotions are defined as conscious mental reactions (such as anger, fear, or sadness) subjectively experienced as strong feelings usually directed toward a specific object or event and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body. “Passion” is psychologically defined as a strong inclination toward an activity that people like (or even love), find important, in which they invest time and energy, and that is part of their identity. Indeed, passion can fuel virtuous motivations, enhance well-being, and provide meaning in everyday life. So, in contemporary usage, passions are not necessarily harmful, whereas kleshas always are. 

Conversely, neither “emotion” nor “passion” covers the full range of kleshas. These mistranslations are not merely academic errors, which might have few practical consequences. On the contrary, if our understanding of kleshas—which, according to Buddhism, are the root causes of all suffering—is limited to “disturbing emotions,” then if we feel we are not experiencing any afflictive emotions, we may conclude that we are free of kleshas. But nothing could be further from the truth. Moreover, some kinds of kleshas, such as lust, greed, and arrogance, may even feel pleasant, but their impact on our minds, conduct, and well-being is detrimental. Thus, all translations of kleshas as emotions obscure the broader and deeper meaning of klesha. The most accurate translation of this term is “mental affliction,” or even more precisely, “mental afflictor.”

Under the influence of our mental afflictions, even as we seek to be free of suffering, we are driven by outwardly-directed desires to escape from what we mistakenly view as the primary causes of unhappiness in our bodies, social relations, and environment. 

In the Buddhist analysis of dukkha, a Sanskrit term that refers to the entire spectrum of pain and suffering, its fundamental roots are identified as karma and klesha. The first of these terms is literally translated as “action,” but it refers specifically to those kinds of actions of the body, speech, and mind that are aroused by kleshas, which are viewed as the fundamental causes of all dukkha. So, in the Buddhist view, the roots of all our discontent are kleshas. A widely accepted definition for “klesha” in Buddhist psychology is “mental processes that have the effect of disturbing the equilibrium of the mind.” In so doing, they obscure and distort our views of ourselves, others, and the world at large. Thus, kleshas are so-called because they harm or afflict the natural peace of the mind, causing all manner of psychological imbalances and distress in ways that lead to harmful, or unethical, behavior. Physical afflictions, including disease and injury, cause distress in the body, while mental afflictions result in mental distress, whether directly or indirectly (through the actions they incite us to perform).

All sentient beings share a common trait: we all wish to be free of pain and suffering. However, as human beings, we possess a distinctive quality that surpasses that of all other species, and that is our intelligence, which enables us to seek out the true causes of suffering, rather than simply react to suffering itself. Focusing first on the reality of physical pain, we know that there are many outer causes in our environment as well as inner causes within our bodies that lead to pain, and we have many methods for addressing them. But in the end, we are all subject to aging, illness, and death; and so as long as we are embodied, varying degrees of physical distress are inevitable.

The inner and outer causes of mental distress are subtler and more difficult to identify. Many outer conditions in our environment, our social interactions, and our physical health may lead to mental distress. However, we know that not everyone reacts emotionally in the same way to the same physical influences, and, indeed, we can experience mental distress even when we cannot trace it to anything in our physical environments or our bodies. If we use the term “discontent” as an umbrella term for the whole range of mental distress, from mild malaise to debilitating anguish, then we must look beyond external influences, for people can experience extreme discontent even when their living circumstances and physical health are excellent.

Physiologically, it is important to distinguish between the specific symptoms of physical pain and its underlying causes, namely, disease and injury. The same is true psychologically: forms of mental distress such bewilderment, low self-esteem, frustration, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, boredom, anxiety, emotional instability, paranoia, phobias, post-traumatic stress, depression, and apathy are all symptoms of mental imbalances. But to heal them, one must look to their underlying causes, which are not found externally in our physical environments, social relations, or brains. These outer conditions may contribute to mental distress, but the primary causes of our discontent are to be found internally in those mental processes that disrupt the equilibrium of the mind.

Using Western psychological terms, we may classify mental afflictions as being of four kinds: cognitive, conative, attentional, and emotional. Buddhism traces the root of all kleshas to ignorance and delusion, specifically to ignorance and delusion regarding the nature of our own identity and regarding the true causes of mental distress and genuine well-being. While each of us exists in interdependence with all other beings and our physical environment, we are fundamentally unaware, or ignorant, of the full meaning and implications of this interdependence. Then, we actually believe our ignorant view and go on to hold the delusional view that we are autonomous and exist in some way that is independent of everyone and everything around us. Likewise, while the true causes of our discontent and of genuine well-being lie within our own minds, out of delusion, we attribute them to outer influences in our bodies, social relations, and physical environment. Such forms of ignorance and delusion are cognitive afflictions, and they are the root of all other kinds of mental afflictions.

Under the influence of our mental afflictions, even as we seek to be free of suffering, we are driven by outwardly-directed desires to escape from what we mistakenly view as the primary causes of unhappiness in our bodies, social relations, and environment. Likewise, in our pursuit of happiness, we seek to modify our bodies, social relations, and environment so that they provide us with pleasure or comfort, but such happiness—if it is acquired at all—invariably turns out to be fleeting and, therefore unsatisfying. All such desires and intentions, stemming from ignorance and delusion, are forms of conative afflictions, by which we end up devoting ourselves to unwise choices, which turn out to be causes of our own and others’ misery. We mistakenly think that behavior driven by such conative afflictions will lead to happiness, while we shun the true causes of genuine well-being as if they were of no value.

As a result of cognitive and conative afflictions, insofar as our minds are under the influence of this relentless, outwardly-directed pursuit of freedom from suffering and the experience of worldly pleasures, our attention is bound to be chronically disturbed by agitation and distraction, or attentional hyperactivity. This leads to chronic stress and exhaustion, which, in turn, results in mental laxity and dullness, or attentional deficit. These are forms of attentional afflictions.

As long as we are dominated by the whole range of cognitive, conative, and attentional mental afflictions, emotional distress is inevitable. Depression, anxiety, and stress are bound to arise, and while these may indeed be viewed as disturbing emotions, according to Buddhist psychology, they are not regarded as kleshas, but as forms of duhkha, which do not necessarily impair one’s fundamental mental health or balance. These disturbing emotions are the results of mental afflictions, but are not the afflictive causes themselves. 

Moreover, just as the experience of physical pain can alert us to the need to seek a cure for the illness or injury that causes it, rather than resorting just to pain-killers, so may the experience of such kinds of mental distress motivate us to seek out and heal their inner causes in our own minds, rather than suppressing those symptoms with drugs or sensual pleasures and other distractions. To apply the word “emotion” correctly in its contemporary usage to Buddhist psychology, the emotional afflictions that are actually kleshas are those mental processes that disturb the mind by causing it to (1) emotionally overreact or involve, (2) become emotionally withdrawn or unresponsive, or else (3) emotionally react in toxic, inappropriate, or irrational ways to a given situation. Some examples are hatred, rage, resentment, contempt, jealousy, cruelty, and delight in others’ misfortunes.

The first step to overcoming mental distress and discontent is to identify their true causes. The second step is to apply effective remedies, first to attenuate and ultimately to completely eliminate mental afflictions; and since these primary causes are internal, their remedies are also to be found internally, by healing the mind through the cultivation of cognitive, conative, attentional, and emotional intelligence. These are all developed through the practice of what Buddhists call bhavana (Pali/Sanskrit), which literally means “development,” “cultivation,” or “production” in the sense of “calling into existence” mental qualities that counteract mental afflictions and nurture wholesome mental processes that result in genuine well-being. This is the real meaning of the term “meditation” as it is understood in Buddhism. 

When we mistakenly reduce the whole range of kleshas to “disturbing emotions,” in manycases we are confusing emotional symptoms resulting from mental afflictions with their true causes, which lie in the mental afflictions themselves. We begin to get at the root of our discontent only when we see cognitive and conative afflictions for what they are—always entailing an ignorance with respect to reality and then mistaking what is not there for what is. This is the perennial sequence of ignorance: simply not knowing the nature of reality—giving rise to delusion—and then creating our own fictions and taking them to be real. Attentional afflictions, which are so very prevalent in the modern world, with all its stress and agitation, invariably stem from cognitive and conative afflictions, and in dependence upon these three, the resultant dysregulated, disturbing, and often unrecognized emotions (some of which are not actually kleshas) are bound to dominate our lives. To find the inner peace and emotional balance that we all seek, we must look inward to the fundamental causes of mental distress and sever them from the root.

B. Alan Wallace

Dynamic lecturer, progressive scholar, and one of the most prolific writers and translators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, B. Alan Wallace holds a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford University. He is founder and president of the  Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies  and the  Center for Contemplative Research .