aversion

Four crucial things to consider if you have goals in your spiritual practice

man silhouetted in the fog

I see a lot of confusion about whether it’s OK to have goals in spiritual practice, and in meditation in particular. A lot of people think it’s wrong to have goals, and think of being goal-oriented as a peculiarly western phenomenon. I disagree on both counts.

The Buddha was supremely goal-oriented, and he encouraged us to be likewise. His last words were “Strive conscientiously.”

He opens one sutta with the words, “And how, monks, does a monk cultivate the heart’s release by loving-kindness? What is its goal, its excellence, its fruit and its outcome?” In a conversation with a monk he says “It’s good that you understand that I have taught the Dhamma with total liberation [parinibbana] through lack of clinging as its goal [attha], for I have taught the Dhamma with total liberation through lack of clinging as its goal.”

There’s a lot more like that! The Buddha taught us to have goals and to pursue them, so I don’t think this is a western phenomenon by any means.

The question is whether or not there are attitudes of grasping, aversion, or delusion involved in our desire to pursue goals.

With grasping we want to be there now!

With aversion we can’t stand being where we are now, or we’re angry with ourselves or our practice because we’re not where we want to be.

With delusion we think that we can achieve peace and calm by using means that destroy peace and calm—for example if we just try hard enough to change, or give ourselves a hard enough time, or just want to change enough—then it’ll happen. Or our goals may be unrealistic—setting a goal of having zero distractions in meditation is just not going to work. It’s like setting the goal of churning water in order to produce butter.

Approaching our practice through craving, aversion, or delusion make us unhappy. But we don’t have to relate to our practice in this way.

Here are four crucial things to consider if we want to relate healthily to goals:

  1. Are we able to accept where we currently are as we work toward our goals?
  2. Are we able to move toward our goals in a spirit of patience, kindness, and even playfulness?
  3. Are we able to have a goal without being disappointed that we’re not there yet?
  4. Are our goals realistic?

So if you’re cultivating lovingkindness, then (obviously, I think) you have a goal of becoming kinder. If you’re practicing mindfulness of breathing, then you have the goal of being mindful of the breathing, or you may even have very specific goals, such as staying with the experience of the breathing for ten full breaths. These things are fine, as long as we’re approaching them in the right way.

Of course it’s not possible for us to instantly banish craving, aversion, and delusion from our lives! This means that we’ll inevitably find that we do bring these things into the pursuit of our goals. And that’s something we just need to accept. That’s just where we are. That’s just where we’re starting from. Accepting that, we can let go of just a little of our grasping, a little of our aversion, a little of our delusion—and in this way make progress.

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Enlarging our tribe – seeing behind appearances

Homeless man sitting in a subway station with a sign saying "Seeking human kindness."

In the mid-1970s I worked as a tenants’ rights activist with poor families in Worcester, Massachusetts. Through organizing tenants’ unions we would try to pressure landlords into assuring fair rents and decent living conditions.

One of these unions was comprised of families renting from one of the most notoriously callous slumlords in the city. The union’s leader, Denise, was a forceful and articulate woman who worked hard to galvanize the group into action to fight a steep rent increase that no one could afford.

Over the many months it took to build the union, I had become friends with Denise and her family. I joined them for dinner, played with the children and was privy to their struggles. Their apartment had been vandalized several times, and there was no way to keep out the rats and cockroaches.

Denise’s oldest son was in jail; another was a drug addict. Her current husband was unemployed and they were in debt. Feeding and clothing her young children and keeping the heat on were challenges she faced regularly. I admired her willingness to put such a dedicated effort into her role as union leader when she had so much to handle at home.

Two days before we were about to begin a rent strike that Denise was coordinating, she left a note under my door, saying she was leaving the union. I was surprised and disappointed, but had an idea of what had happened. Landlords frequently co-opted tenant leaders as a way of crippling the unions. As it turned out, Denise had been bought off with the offer of a new double lock, a rent break, and a part-time job for her son.

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The other tenants, feeling betrayed and demoralized, called Denise “two-faced” and “spineless.” Whenever they saw her on the sidewalk, they would cross to the other side of the street. They didn’t let their children play with hers. She was an outsider, one of “them.” In the past, when union leaders had been bought out, I’d felt the same. They were obstructing our progress.

With Denise, it was different. I understood how desperately she was trying to help her family. I’d seen how, like me, she felt anxiety about her life, how she too wanted love. The poet Longfellow writes, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” I had read enough of Denise’s secret history for her to be real to me; I cared about her.

On the other hand, while it was possible for me to feel openhearted towards Denise despite her actions, I certainly didn’t feel the same toward the landlords. They were in my “bad guy” category.

A number of years later, I had the perfect opportunity to face someone in this category and look more deeply. A friend of mine knew a CEO from a very large corporation who wanted to set up a mindfulness program for his company’s employees, and wanted me to discuss the program with the CEO over lunch.

The CEO fit exactly my rich white man stereotype. He’d been the focus of a well-publicized class action suit for systematically denying women the same opportunities for upward mobility as men. The discrimination was particularly egregious towards African American women. Reluctantly, I agreed to talk with him, feeling uncomfortable about the meeting, expecting that we’d be coming from very different and unfriendly planets.

Yet, close up, he turned out to be quite human and real. He bragged a bit and was obviously eager to be liked. His mother had had triple bypass surgery several weeks earlier. His oldest son had juvenile diabetes. On the weekends his wife complained that he didn’t play enough with the children. He was crazy about them, but invariably urgent calls on his cell phone would pull him away from the barbecues, games of ping-pong, or the videos they were watching together.

He wondered, “Can mindfulness help me to relax when everywhere I turn is another demand?” It didn’t matter that we probably disagreed on most political and social issues. I liked him and wanted him to be happy.

Even if we don’t like someone, seeing their vulnerability allows us to open our heart to them. We might vote against them in an election; we might never invite them to our home; we might even feel they should be imprisoned to protect others.

Still, our habitual feelings of attraction and aversion do not have to overrule our basic capacity to see that, like us, they too suffer and long to be happy. When we see who is really in front of us, when we can glimpse a bit of their “secret history,” we don’t want them to suffer, and our circle of compassion naturally widens to include them.

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Attention: The most basic form of love

ants on a leaf

On my son Narayan’s sixth birthday, I gave him an ant farm. He spent hours watching with fascination as the little creatures magically created their network of tunnels. He even named several, and followed their struggles and progress closely.

After a few weeks, he pointed out the ants’ graveyard, and watched with wonder as several of them dragged the bodies of their dead comrades and deposited them there. The following day, when I picked Narayan up after school, he was visibly distressed: on the playground, the kids had made a game out of stepping on ants. My son couldn’t understand why his classmates were hurting these friends he so admired.

I tried to comfort him by explaining that when we really spend time with any living beings—as he had with the ants—we find out that they are real. They are changing, animated, hungry, social. Like us, their life is fragile and they want to stay alive. His playmates hadn’t had the chance to get to know ants in the way he did, I told him. If they had, they wouldn’t want to injure them either.

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Whenever we wholeheartedly attend to the person we’re with, to the tree in our front yard, or to a squirrel perched on a branch, this living energy becomes an intimate part of who we are.

Krishnamurti wrote that “to pay attention means we care, which means we really love.” Attention is the most basic form of love. By paying attention, we let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.

We care about this awakened heart because, like a flower in full bloom, it is the full realization of our nature. Feeling loved and loving matters to us beyond all else. We feel most “who we are” when we feel connected to each other and the world around us, when our hearts are open, generous, and filled with love. Even when our hearts feel tight or numb, we still care about caring.

In describing his own spiritual unfolding, Ghandi said, “I hold myself to be incapable of hating any being on earth. By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody. I know this is a big claim. Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.”

When we look at our own lives and at the history of humanity, we realize that hatred, anger, and all forms of dislike are a pervasive and natural part of being alive. Aversion arises because we are so deeply conditioned to feel separate and different from others. As Ghandi found, only by dedicating ourselves to some form of intentional training can we dissolve this tendency, and embrace all beings with acceptance and love.

For Mother Teresa, serving the poor and dying of Calcutta was a practice of viewing each person as “Christ in his distressing disguise.” By doing so, she was able to see beyond the differences that might have hardened her heart and to serve with unconditional compassion each person she touched.

Through meditation practice, as we train ourselves more and more to pay attention with an engaged and open heart to see past surface appearances, we too begin to recognize a perennial truth: we are all connected to one another; our true nature is timeless, radiant, loving awareness. With this realization we feel our belonging with ants and redwoods, hawks and rivers. By deepening our attention, we are naturally moved to take care of this living world–our inner life and all those we touch.

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Overcoming resistance to meditation

Young man pushing a heavy cable spool

No matter how much experience we have of meditation being beneficial in our lives, and of not meditating making life harder for us, we can still end up experiencing resistance. And resistance to meditation can be very painful, especially when we get caught between that feeling that we “should” meditation and the feeling that we don’t want to.

Sometimes there’s a hidden agenda at work. We might on some level think that meditation is selfish. Or we might be worried about “not getting things done.” Or we might be afraid of change. If you can become aware of the underlying reason for your resistance you might be able to work at rediscovering your sense of motivation, but in some ways it doesn’t matter what the content of the resistance is.

One thing I’ve found very successful is to become mindful of the feeling of resistance. Where is it situated in the body? How large is it? What “texture” does it have? What kinds of thoughts does it give rise to? Notice those things, and just be with the resistance. Turn the resistance into an object of mindfulness. At that point you’re already meditating, so you might as well get on the cushion. Or you could just stay where you are, let your eyes close, and notice the breathing at that same time as you observe the resistance, or notice the resistance and send it your lovingkindness. In this kind of approach the specific content of your resistance isn’t important, because you’re not meeting your rationalizations on their own level. You’re not arguing with them; you’re outsmarting them by surrounding them with mindful awareness.

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If truly want to meditate daily, but find that the resistance goes on day after day, then set yourself a low bar for what constitutes a day in which you meditate: five minutes works fine. That may not sound like much, but regularity is ultimately more important than the number of minutes you do each day. Do feel free to do more, but don’t try to impress yourself with how much meditation you can do. It’ll just lead to more resistance.

You want to get, as quickly as possible, to the point where you don’t even have to decide to meditate every day. It shouldn’t be a decision. It should just be what you do. So I have a mantra: “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” If you want to meditate absolutely every day, then keep reciting that mantra (and meditate for at least five minutes each day, although preferably more) until you start to believe the mantra on a deep level. If you miss days at first, that’s OK. Just keep repeating the mantra: “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.”

It works!

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Aversion: the far enemy of joyful appreciation (Day 59)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

I’m sure you can think of days when you’ve been driven crazy by someone else’s good mood. They’re happy, and smiling, and bopping around with a spring in their step, and you’re inwardly grumbling; “What’s he so happy about!” That’s what Buddhism calls arati.

Sometimes we’re resentful of others’ good fortune. I remember to my shame being with some friends when I was in my twenties, when they won the main prize in a raffle — a flight to Paris for the weekend, plus hotel accommodation. Susie, who was one of the people who won the prize, came dancing up to me with her eyes sparkling and a huge smile on her face. “I won a weekend in Paris!” she said, almost exploding with joy. I was so jealous and resentful I couldn’t even smile back. That’s also what Buddhism calls arati.

And there’s the old saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It seems there’s always someone willing to criticize when you volunteer to do something that benefits others. That’s arati too.

Arati is what’s called the “far enemy” of mudita, or joyful appreciation. The “far enemy” is a term meaning “the quality that is the direct opposite of the quality being considered.”

I’ve been referring to from time to time to a first century meditation manual called the Path of Liberation (the Vimuttimagga) as we explore lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), and joyful appreciation (mudita) — the first three of the so-called “immeasurables” or “divine abodes” (the fourth being equanimity, which we haven’t reached yet).

The Path of Liberation, which may be Buddhism’s most ancient meditation manual, says that the manifestation of joyful appreciation is “destruction of dislike.” So dislike (arati) is the opposite of joyful appreciation.

A later commentarial text, the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) says something similar, namely that aversion (arati) is joyful appreciation’s far enemy. Aversion is an enemy in that it destroys joyful appreciation. And therefore joyful appreciation destroys aversion.

Arati is a Pāli word with a gramatically negative construction: it combines the negative prefix a- (not, or un-, or dis-) with the word “rati” which means love, attachment, pleasure, liking for, fondness, or even delight. (The Pāli expression “ratiṃ karoti” means “to make love”!) So we’re talking about the lack of all those qualities.

The far enemy of joyful appreciation isn’t as strong an emotion as ill will or hatred, which is the far enemy of lovingkindness. Arati is milder. It’s more like discontent, or even just a lack of engagement. It’s an inability to take pleasure in something wholesome, a lack of interest in it, or a turning away from it.

This becomes clear in a comment that the Path of Purification makes about arati:

So gladness should be practiced free from fear of [aversion]; for it is not possible to practice gladness [joyful appreciation] and be discontented with remote abodes and things connected with the higher profitableness simultaneously.

What the Path of Purification is getting at here is that we can’t have joyful appreciation if we can’t enjoy simple things (“remote abodes”) and if we don’t value and appreciate the good (“things connected with the higher profitableness”).

But arati can be more subtle than this. It can be any kind of resistance or aversion to beneficial things. When you can’t be bothered meditating, even though you know it’s good for you and makes your life better, that’s arati.

When we’re in a state of arati beneficial things are perceived as dull, or as an annoyance, or as a source of painful boredom. The Path of Purification talks of an inability to enjoy “remote abodes”; our modern-day equivalent might be a day retreat at our local Dharma center, which seems like a great idea when you reserve your place in advance, but as the day approaches your heart sinks. Going on retreat now seems like a dull chore. And yet, if you overcome your resistance and go to the event, you find that a day hanging out with cool, interesting, emotionally positive people is a delight. You find that practicing and talking about the Dharma is engaging and inspiring.

One thing you can do to overcome aversion is simply experience the resistance with mindfulness, letting go of and choosing not to believe all the stories you generate about why you’re tired, and it’s going to be boring, and you really need to catch up on your laundry, and you just do the good thing you know is best for you; feel the aversion and do it anyway!

Arati is a state of suffering, so you can notice this suffering, being aware of where it’s located in the body, and send it thoughts of compassion: “May you be well, may you be happy.” This can help soften and dissolve the closed off tight feeling that comes with arati, and open us up to feeling genuine joy for the other person.

Or you can reconnect with gratitude and appreciation in order to counteract your disengagment. You can consciously call to mind the positive. I’ve talked of various ways we can do this. We can name the positive qualities of other people and wish that those qualities, and the happiness that comes from them, grow and develop. We can count our blessings, saying an inward “Thank you” for all the things we normally take for granted, ignore, or even grumble about. We can bear in mind people with positive qualities and allow ourselves to be inspired by their example. Even just wishing ourselves well, reminding ourselves that we want to be happy and want to avoid suffering can help.

This is all work that we need to do to overcome the mind’s negativity bias. But it’s noble work. And it’s necessary if we’re to live joyfully.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Getting to know our feelings

Vimalasara

Buddhist author Vimalasara discusses how we respond to unwanted feelings.

When we are angry a whole host of vulnerable feelings percolates into our hearts. These are so physically uncomfortable they feel as though they are choking us, and all we want to do is move away from them rather than sit with them until we feel something else.

Our aversion to such feelings can be so strong that we believe they need brute force to push them down or purge them. In fact, I have come to realize that, if we can experience all the levels of what we are feeling, and then have the courage to acknowledge and sit with them, our uncomfortable and vulnerable feelings will not get a chance to fester in this way, and in time they disappear of their own accord.

Instead, we often use anger as a distraction from what we are feeling deeper down. Then we end up holding on to those very feelings we fear and avoid — until they become poisonous in our hearts.

So what happens in our bodies when we experience anger? First there is the trigger or the event, then comes the moment when our bodies are invaded by painful, prickly, tense, tearful — even itchy — feelings. These can feel so uncomfortable that we instinctively try to push them away.

The body is a great teacher, so it is important to recognize what is happening in our bodies. Sometimes our bodies become so tense we don’t feel they are ours any more. We can shake, get sweaty armpits, groin, and palms, feel stiff in the neck or shoulders, our hands make fists, our heart beats faster, and so on.

Alternatively, when we are angry we can become so disconnected as to be completely numb to ourselves, our feelings, and everything around us. We can’t hear ourselves think or breathe. Our feelings get lost, and we create a wall around us, not letting anybody in. Our anger keeps everything and everybody out. We can’t listen to anybody, or even consider another point of view. Some people have out of body experiences.

In response to these feelings, a critical voice often steps into our minds and tells us (in our own vernacular) that it’s ridiculous to be feeling so vulnerable, it tells us to grow up, or get a grip. Our bodies become tense during this process of trying to push down the feelings, and we feel tight — most commonly in the throat, jaw, shoulders, fists, stomach, and bowels. Our bodies tense up in order to choke back the feelings that make us feel vulnerable, shaky, and tearful. But instead of becoming lighter, and calmer, our bodies feel heavier and pumped up with adrenaline.

Here is a check list of physical responses to anger. Which ones resonate for you?

  • I feel out of breath or choked
  • my heart beats faster
  • my voice becomes high or shaky
  • I have dangerous thoughts
  • I clench my fists
  • I raise my voice
  • I wave my hands about
  • I make myself bigger
  • I grind my teeth
  • I can’t hear or see anybody else
  • I lose control

Feelings are energy. They evaporate if we trust that they will arise and cease of their own accord. We maintain the lives of our feelings by attaching them to another person, to ourselves, or to objects. Watch yourself the next time feelings of anger arise. See what you do with them and see what you attach them to.

Connecting with the physical sensations in our bodies in this way can be a strong practice. When we pay attention to our bodies, we are beginning to connect with our inner feelings. Anger is energy, and it becomes alive and toxic when we project it internally or externally.

We give our feelings longer life by attaching them to something, including ourselves, and they often turn into toxic stories that poison our hearts. For example, when feelings of anger arise, the anger becomes toxic when we place it on another human being or ourselves in the form of judgmental thoughts and interpretations. If we just sat with the feelings of anger, paying little attention to our thoughts, they would not attach to anything, and the feelings of anger would cease of their own accord. It is a practice of patience.

Learning to sit with our feelings without holding on to them, without pushing them away, without chasing after them, and trusting that they will cease is, I believe, the best teaching of all. By becoming alert early on to the fact that our body is tensing up, or becoming numb, we may be able to take preventative action. We can try to relax physically and see what effect that has on our emotions, take a few deep breaths, and slow down our thoughts. Taking deep breaths has delayed me from acting unskillfully and allowed me to pause, preventing me from saying something I might regret.

Another strong reason to take note of our bodies’ messages in this way is that our anger can manifest in more extreme forms. Most people who work in alternative therapies have found a link between anger and a number of physical illnesses and life-threatening diseases. I realize now that the back and shoulder ache I used to get was connected with my anger. I have no more pain, and when I feel my shoulders tense up I tell myself to let go. Engaging with our anger involves coming into relationship with our bodies.

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