Originally published Type A Yoga Blog, Jan 2014.
Lately a lot of people have been “checking in” with me. They’ve been worried about the stress of moving a business, the stress of the reasons behind the move, and all of the associated catastrophes that come with small business, let alone the holidays. This time of year is filled with changes, reflections, transitions, and stressors for all of us, so I thought I’d share my secret for coping: pratipaksha bhavana.
Bhavana is a word found in a variety of Yogic traditions, including Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. Its direct and associated meanings vary but include ideas of becoming, causing to be, producing, manifesting, forming in the mind, right conception, contemplation, meditation, ideas, intention, attitude, feeling, creating, and cultivating. It is often used to designate a type of meditative practice, such as cultivating an attitude of lovingkindness in Buddhist metta-bhavana (maitri bhavana in Sanskrit), and Jainism’s barah bhavna (Twelve reflections or thoughts). Pratipaksha is a word combining prati, “against or opposed to” and paksha, “wing, side, faction, half of”. The phrase is usually translated as opposite side, although I rather like “other wing” as Nicholai Bachman notes it.
The Yoga Sutra-s (specifically 2.33 and 2.34) advise that whenever you find yourself absorbed or disturbed by negativity, practice thinking about the opposite. If you are feeling down, focus on what you have to be grateful for. If you are feeling angry, think of things that make you joyful. If, as sometimes happens during the holidays, you have to be around people that cause negative emotional responses to arise in you, consider their viewpoints or positions as fully as possible in order to interact from a place of empathy. All of these are examples of the practice of pratipaksha bhavana.
It might be tempting to think of this as merely a Pollyanna “Shiny Happy People” delusion or “Think Happy Thoughts” brainwashing. If you over look the bad things in the world and simply only think happy thoughts, what happens then? It can be challenging to practice acceptance when it sits so nearby complacence. People who have been in situations where they have seen abuse of authority, powerlessness, or victimization can often find it blindly optimistic or ignorantly blissful to expend effort to think more positively. This reaction overlooks a key aspect of the sutra.
Sutra 2.33 does not state to continually force yourself to think happy thoughts, but rather says to practice this as a technique to keep yourself balanced. The sutra specifies using the practice when troubled or disturbed by a thought that is adverse to logic, ethics, creates a negative attitude or outlook, or that will lead to harmful behavior. The practice is not a numbing agent; it is a salve.
So then, why is it a practice, something that you return to again and again whether you want to or not, something that starts as a forced behavior until it becomes an effortless habit? That is the power of cultivation. You take the time to mortar your abode, brick by brick, so that it stays strong in the storm. You undo the stitches you made by mistake, redo them, and keep on, so that you have what you need to keep warm when winter comes. You practice the habit so that in times of high stress and low spirits it is already there and arises instinctively.
Recently I have seen good people engage in bad behavior when in stressful times. Perhaps they think they are like the pauper who steals bread to stay alive, but their ethics caved too quickly and easily under much milder duress. The fact is sometimes it is hard to stay strong and flexible in rough times, and our present times have seen economic, political, and social turmoil unlike any other. It takes energy to continue to stand tall and unshaken like a tree when you are surrounded by clamor and high winds.
Sutra 2.34 expands on the behaviors to watch out for, those that are against the yoga concepts of “yama” and are harmful to the self or others. Greed and desire, anger, delusion, theft, lying all yield poison fruit. Sooner or later the truth comes out and the damages are paid; the longer coming the consequence the more serious it usually becomes. Checking in with yourself regularly to make sure you are staying true to your values is a vital way to keep from behaving in ways that do not serve you in the long run.
In these two passages, I am reminded when to stay strong and when to yield. I remember to give myself the extra energy I need when I am forcing a practice, and I remember to observe when I need to engage my practice to maintain strength in adversity and calm in chaos. Abhyasa is defined in Sutra 1.13 and refers to continued and steady effort. Sutra 1.14 states that the practice becomes firmly rooted through time. Abhyasa and vairagya are the two balancing forces in yoga. Practice is the thing that keeps you going; vairagya is what keeps you from going too much or for the wrong reasons. Vairagya is usually translated as non-attachment, and refers to the ability to let go of desire or clutching at objects of the perceived world.
I don’t actually say the Sanskrit (or Pali, as bhavana is present in both) in my head, as I have a strange flipping of letters whenever I try to recall it, like certain words I’ll never spell properly. I can remember “cultivate the opposite” and I mumble it in my head when I feel my inner compass indicating I’m getting blown off course. If I notice anger, frustration, despair, or petulance arising I begin to think about how I may be misperceiving a situation or giving it more energy than it is really due. I use this tool to disengage for a moment from whatever is harming me or disturbing me, so that I might better observe it as it is: a thought or behavior that exists or an event that is happening with no innate value of good or bad. The positive or negative aspect is simply the one I am supplying, the face of the coin I choose to look at.
Cultivating the opposite allows me to take a moment to detach from the coin toss and see that it is merely a coin. If my perception and my brain are what create the outcome, practicing pratipaksha bhavana makes sure it always lands on the right side up.