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Yoga to overcome attachment & aversion (raga & dvesha)

Reprinted from my Tumblr blog.In an earlier post, I mentioned how our perceptions can be colored, leading to false assumptions. In the yoga tradition, when these tinted, biased thoughts (klishta) form disturbances in our mind (vrtti), we bring about our own suffering. Part of the practice of yoga is training your mind to observe the causes of these discolorations. According to the earliest text to provide a step-by-step practical description of this internalized, philosophical practice, the Yoga Sutra, all of these biases can be traced back to a klesha, one of the five primal causes of suffering.

Just as we have a regular, continual practice of asana, the physical pose-based practice, yoga tradition asks us to maintain a reflective, philosophical practice to observe these klesha-s. Over time, as we observe them, we are able to avoid get “sucked in” to the biases more and more and avoid identifying our whole sense of self with one tiny aspect. Two klesha-s in particular form a binary between two magnetic poles, continually pushing and pulling people between them: raga and dvesha.

The magnetic poles that mess up your True North

Raga is the draw and lure of past pleasures, sometimes translated as attachment. We recall happy memories, past friends, long-gone experiences and in doing so are drawn to avoid new experiences for fear they won’t be as good, or try to recreate a moment that only existed because of the factors present in the past. As Thomas Wolfe (and Ella Winter) famously said, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” and yet humans keep trying.

Dvesha, on the other pole, is the clinging to suffering and dwelliing in past grievances. Just as raga prevents you trying new things for fear of disappointment, dvesha can hold you back for fear of repeating a past negative experience. Dvesha’s pull is more subtle and complicated because it acts both in the same way as a magnet pulling toward a complementary as well as a magnet repelling an opposing pole. Dvesha is both translated as clinging to a past suffering, such as when you recall a grudge, or aversion from something that has caused you pain, such as a fear dating back to a negative experience in childhood. Either way, it is holding on to the past and sustaining the pain inside of you that dictates your direction, rather than your mind itself.

The way to gradually free yourself from this magnetic field is to reduce the power these klesha-s have over your thoughts through reflection and practice. There are many jokes about doctors and the word “practice”, but in yoga the word “practice” is apt. There is a recurring, sometimes ritualized system of thoughts, behaviors, and perspectives that we repeat frequently and regularly with varying degrees of success. But we keep repeating them, keep trying them, keep pulling ourselves up off the floor and standing back up when we fall, because over time those thoughts and behaviors become instinctual. Jon-Kabat Zinn wrote Full Catastrophe Living, his text for a clinical, secular form of meditation based in the Buddhist vipassana tradition he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In it he says that we practice repeatedly and continually, reprogramming ourselves ritually and maybe even mechanically or by rote, because we are weaving a parachute that will be ready for us when we need it.

The yoga tradition includes the idea of “kriya-yoga,” something that has come to mean a variety of things in a number of yoga traditions in the 2000 or so years since the Yoga Sutra was compiled. In the sutra, this refers to a tripartite practice of self-reflection & study (svadyaya), a continual, regular, determined practice (tapas), and the surrender of control (ishvara pranidhana), sometimes translated as “devotion to the Lord” in non-secularized practices. Over time this continual practice of looking inward, svadyaya, fueled by tapas, while maintaining an attitude of acceptance & observation rather than judgement or a rush to “fix” everything, ishvara pranidhana, can help you alter the power of these klesha-s.

Practical Practices…

This may sound complicated, but it doesn’t have to be! Here is an example of some ways I practice these:

Morning reflection

At the beginning of the day, maybe 5 minutes before you get out of bed, reflect on the prior day’s events. Think about what may have thrown you off course. Allow yourself the space to feel any emotions that arise. Emotions, like thoughts, are just noises in your head, so don’t feel like you have to engage or identify with them— imagine you are watching a weather forecast. These are events that happened, regardless of how they made you feel, and ignoring whether it was rainy or sunny entirely doesn’t change reality!

As you observe an emotion, see if you can mutate it, rather than attach to it (raga) or avoid it (dvesha). Can you reinterpret it? Is the cause of your extreme response really just an assumption or innocent misunderstanding? Does this perspective ultimately serve you and your intentions? Or does holding on to the emotional burden weigh you down and keep you from feeling fulfilled?

Notice the quality of the emotion: is it active and strong when you relive the memory? Is it cut off from you, in that you don’t experience it in this moment, but still attached to the experience itself? Is it dormant and sleeping, waiting for the right fertilizer to spring up? Does it feel attenuated, weakened (i.e., “Beneath the stains of time, the feeling disappears…”)?

If the feeling is weakening, your practice is easier. If the feeling still arises, ask yourself why you are holding onto a memory with such conviction. What need does it fill? What aspect of your self is being served, and is that an aspect of yourself that you want to have control your responses?

If the feeling is fresh, sit with it and try to build up a tolerance, confident in the knowledge that it will pass and you don’t have to identify with it. Use your breath, slowing down and elongating the exhalation, to maintain your internal stability as you revisit these disruptive areas. Cultivate the opposite response, trying to look at the situation from new angles until you can see the humanity in the circumstance: If you see enemies, try to find the friendly intentions that led to an unskillful outcome. If you see grievances, try to reflect on how you may have unintentionally caused harm and work to practice forgiveness and compassion. If you find your own grievance or grudge, try to find a way to be happy for the other person as independent of yourself. Being happy for someone else doesn’t mean you are invalidating your own feelings and experiences— it means you are rising above them.
If it is challenging to be able to do this on your own, use a meditation that works for you. (Here is some more info on one that works for me…) Over time, you may find it helpful to engage in the same reflective practice in the evening, and perhaps add on a 5 minute self-check in the afternoon, etc. until it becomes a continual, background self-observation.

Conquer the Dvesha Mountain

When we have a klesha that is active, it can be a challenge to overcome. Similarly, however, we may have many, many dormant, low-level klishta-s we have identified but are unable to weaken their hold. Sometimes it can be an element of our self-care practice to set an intention of overcoming them. Because this can be emotionally draining, it is important to make this a long-term practice and give yourself plenty of opportunities to recharge your emotional battery.

Suppose you observe a fear in yourself that is hindering you. Obviously this fear is not useful, by our own definition. If it is not serving us, why should we keep holding onto it? When we have reached the conclusion that the fear is irrational, and not actually protecting us from harm, it frees us up to overcome it. We can determine steps to take up small challenges which allow up to build up our confidence. Over time, as we have less negative experiences with the object (whether a physical object or a concept) we are less likely for its magnetic pull to draw us off course.

When I observe resistance to something in myself, whether it be an action on my part or something a friend likes and I don’t, I work to flip the feeling and see what it would feel like to be attracted toward it. When my fear of flying arises, I think about why my husband (a pilot’s son) loves the freedom of travel and the view from the sky. When I hear a song I can’t stand, I ask the person who loves it to explain why and genuinely try to understand. I’ve taken a singing class because I had no rational reason to be terrified of singing in public, and pursued a degree of respectable competency in fields and subjects I hated and skipped in high school.

Letting Go of Raga

When taking on Dvesha, one starts from a position of tapas, the fiery determination that keeps you going. When taking on Raga, one stays grounded in ishvara pranidhana, surrender of control. Our clinging to pleasured experiences and our attachment to objects is sometimes an effort to recreate an experience that is long gone. Surrendering this sense of control and realizing we can never successfully recreate a moment allows us to discover new moments fully.

Like many westernized kids who grew up in the materialistic 80s, I have an unhealthy attachment to stuff. Objects, like the TVs that raised us or the Right Jeans/Shoes that bribed kids to be nice, held symbolic values that can be challenging to overcome. Just as our quiet reflection allows us to attenuate our aversions, we can use our reflections to rechannel energies away from symbolic objects and toward the long-past sources that need to be disconnected from our behavior.

One meditation that can be extremely helpful, IMO, is a meditation on the nature of the self. What are you? If your objects were not here, would you still be you? If you ceased playing the roles your play, would you still be you? If your appearance were different, if you did something else, if you lived somewhere else or in a different time, would you still be you? If your beliefs changed, your likes and dislikes changed, would you still be you? If your lost one or more of your senses, would you still be you?

By practicing this simple exercise, I find I detach from the false identifications we are all plagued with in our society. I am not merely one thing, nor do the objects in this world define me, but actually reminding myself of that on a daily basis prevents developing some of these mis-attributions to begin with. Those of us who have attachment to food, money, addition, or relationships that do not serve us can sometimes forget that even after all of those things fade or decay, as they inevitably do, whatever it is that makes us our “self”, whatever it is that has been behind our eyes this whole time, will remain.

After a while of actually using my brain to parse through this process, I developed the ability to do it more rapidly, only needing a trigger phrase to remind me that I am more than any of these individual attachments. In the thousands-year-old Vedic tradition, it is believed that we are born innately attracted to the sound of this idea, and it is a “natural mantra.”Mantra-s are words and sounds that traditionally have mystical or spiritual significance, and in some traditions the practice of them can be very controversial. (One might note the comments in this video of the mantra, and the emotional attachment people have to only one group being allowed to practice and there being only one way to do so, as they incorrectly believe was determined by their living, trademarked, copyrighted guru…)

Although cultural tradition holds that some mantra-s are highly dangerous and should not be practiced lightly or without the guidance of a teacher— in fact, one conservative, orthodox view holds that women are prevented from chanting a common one as it may make them too masculine— I do not know of any such admonition against So Ham, and I  believe as a natural mantra people benefit from the practice of it. Through this simplified practice of inhaling, exhaling, and breaking my self-concept to its most refined and purest state, I am able to let go of the things I not only don’t need, but will ultimately go away on their own anyway. [N.B. I’m avoiding the word “essential” here, because I’ve noticed our society’s admirable desire for minimalism has turned reductive, and started using the word “essentialist” to describe its connection to essential rather than essence, as though we only just invented the word and it doesn’t already have a history of meaning.]


But what if your Aversion is to the process of Letting Go?

Sometimes we avoid practicing self-study and acceptance because we are afraid of what muck we will find as we dig into our own soil. Sometimes we avoid letting go because we are afraid we will forget our hard-won lessons. Sometimes we are afraid of forgiving because we don’t want to repeat history or have our good graces abused. If we begin to value our suffering, we can become not only attached to it and identify with it, but become complacent to its continual presence.

My personal attachment to attachment was based in the fear that if I accept things as they are, I will lose the drive to improve them. Over the course of my life I have always been a very passionate person, and I noticed others often didn’t work to change themselves or their world in the same ways I did, which made me fear becoming someone who quit caring. I frequently brought up this idea in my teacher training, to no avail: Where is the line between practicing non-attachment and not speaking out when we need to?

I have since come to terms with this in my own way, although it may not help anyone else in the world. My answer is thus:

Does it serve me? Does it serve my intention? Does it serve what I perceive my purpose to be in this moment? Can I still stand as a warrior for social justice, freedom from intolerance and oppression, and the change I wish to see in the world if I accept that all of the things I am fighting against have happened and exist? Of course.

Almost exactly twenty years ago I knew someone who used to say “Acknowledge; Move on.” Part of the reason I wouldn’t want to interact with this person now is how this philosophy tainted and manifested in bad behavior. Acknowledging that it rained and then moving on does not prepare you for future storms any more than accepting the fact it rained makes every future rain a storm of the century, or any more than ignoring the fact makes it less likely to rain again. The act of “moving on” was not an empowered overcoming, but a suppressed avoidance of the pattern itself.

Accepting that it rained neither approves of it or discourages it. Accepting it means you acknowledge not the experience or moment but the fact it happened and you can’t do anything about it anymore. It also acknowledges the fact that your experience of a moment is mediated by perception, and that your perception of a moment is not necessarily reality or truth for everyone. It is also accepting that events will come and go, that change is inevitable and if you don’t like the weather, all you have to do is wait a little while. You don’t have control over what comes and goes around you: you only control your own response or reaction to it.

According to my understanding at this time, my practice of acceptance is like watching the weather report calmly, knowing that I can’t keep it from raining on my parade the next day, but also not resenting the people who live in briefly sunny spots or wallowing in the loss of my imagined sunny expectations. I know now that if I lose my equanimity to those useless emotional quagmires, I’ll forget my umbrella, leaving myself temporarily open to the fleeting, damp chill while waiting for the inevitable break in the clouds to come. Of course, when I do forget, I always survive the discomfort, but how much easier it is when I use the protection I can control instead of investing all of my attention in the things I can’t.


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