Working with aversion

One of the challenges we face in our often busy lives is that many of our habitual patterns and coping strategies are happening below the level of our conscious awareness. We might promise ourselves, for example, to cut down on sugar, and yet suddenly here we are, an ice-cream in our hands, and we barely know how it happened. Or we have every intention of being more patient with Aunty Frieda next time she rings, and yet the conversation finishes with the usual recriminations and blame games. To change those patterns which are unhelpful to us, we first need to be aware of them, then we have to notice what our usual coping strategies are, and then we need to have the internal recourses to come up with, and implement, new ways of being with our discomforts and distress. In psychology this is known as affect tolerance – being able to tolerate a range of emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.

Mindfulness meditation, and in particular the sitting meditation, helps us with all four steps of this process. One of the questions we can ask ourselves from time to time during meditation is – ‘what is really happening right now’? Often we might notice, for example, feelings of anxiety. These could be subtle, or quite intense. Anxiety is one of those feeling states we’d do almost anything to escape from. And yet what happens if we don’t reach for our usual coping strategies, and sit with the anxiety instead? Where do we notice it in our bodies? We can take the time to really tune into the physical sensations of anxiety. Sometimes it might be the stomach churning, or a tightness of breath, or the heart seeming to beat very fast. Over time, as we practise meditation regularly, we can gain confidence in sitting with anxiety for a while, rather than immediately needing to reach for that glass of wine or spend the rest of the evening watching mindless TV. This can be very empowering, and is often one of the benefits of meditation which those who are starting out often appreciate the most.

There are times when meditation, or at least meditation by itself, is not going to be the answer to our problems. We might have suffered significant trauma, or a profound loss, and need counselling and other supports for a while before we can begin to sit quietly with our pain and anxiety. The coping strategies we use are there for a reason – they’re the best we could manage at the time. We need to do this work in our own time, with the right supports in place. Yet it’s probably fair to say that there are few of us who wouldn’t benefit from learning more about our usual coping strategies, and finding new and more skillful ways of being present with ‘life as it is’.

Weekly practice idea:

Set aside twenty minutes for a quiet meditation. What kind of emotions, thoughts and body sensations do you notice during that time? What happens when you don’t react to unpleasant feeling states, but simply remain present with them?

Anja Tanhane

Aversion

So far we’ve looked at the first of what are considered the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, which is desire. The second hindrance is aversion, and in both Buddhism and mindfulness, learning a new and different approach to our aversions is considered both fundamental and also very therapeutic. On the other hand, aversion can be difficult to work with, as most of us have a normal and healthy wish to be safe and happy, and to avoid danger, pain and unpleasantness.

There is nothing wrong, of course, in trying to avoid pain and things which are unpleasant. The difficulties can arise when we choose unskillful means of escaping pain, or when we find ourselves in a situation where pain can’t be avoided. Sometimes the ‘cure’ can become as problematic as the original difficulty – for example if we choose to numb emotional pain by drinking a lot of alcohol, and end up with a whole range of social and health problems as a result.

In the context of meditation, aversion is seen as a hindrance when we try to escape in some way at the first hint that something unpleasant may be occurring. We might have settled into a comfortable position, and be enjoying watching our breath, when we notice that our left leg isn’t quite as comfortable as we thought. We remember the instruction to not fidget, so we try to sit still for a few more seconds, but eventually it just becomes too distracting and we spend quite a few minutes working out what the best position for us should be. At last we think we’ve got it, and we once again settle into watching our breath when, would you believe it, the neighbour starts up his noisy car. It is really most annoying, and we spend quite a bit of time stewing on the fact this shouldn’t be happening right now, it’s meditation time after all, and why does the engine have to be so noisy anyway, there should be laws etc etc… At last he drives off and you spend a few more minutes thinking about this neighbour more generally and other incidents in the past, which segues neatly into an issue at work, which keeps your mind occupied a little longer. At some point you recall yourself to the fact you’re supposed to be meditating, but by now your back is feeling quite uncomfortable, so once again you adjust your posture. You’ve found it at last when – ah yes, here is the bell for the end of meditation.

It’s easy to see why aversion could be seen as a hindrance to meditation. What we are really saying, when we’re avoiding/suppressing/escaping, is that the present moment is in some way flawed and inadequate. Unfortunately, in the course of a day, this can add up to a lot of flawed and inadequate moments. There is usually no shortage to things we could conceivably have an aversion to! Staying with ‘life as it is’ can be challenging, and next week we will look at some ideas of how we can practise this on the meditation cushion.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of something you have a slight aversion to, such as a task at home or at work. Make an effort this week to be as present as possible during the task, performing it slowly and mindfully, and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane

Urge surfing

I’m sometimes asked by students whether they ‘have’ to practise sitting meditation, or whether doing yoga or Tai Chi is enough. The answer really depends on why someone is choosing to do a mindfulness practice in the first place. Yoga and Tai Chi are both ancient practices which are whole and complete in themselves. Anyone who practises them regularly will benefit enormously – physically, mentally and spiritually.

The benefit of a sitting meditation is that it teaches us to remain still and centered in the midst of our countless different thoughts, emotions, body sensations and desires. Most of the time, we have a tendency to move away from unpleasant experience – we try to avoid it, or pretend it’s not there, or distract ourselves, or do our best to numb ourselves so we don’t have to feel the full impact of what is happening. There are times when any of these strategies are quite appropriate, but if they become our main way of dealing with life’s challenges, the solution can sometimes become as problematic as the initial problem we were trying to solve.

Say for example that you’ve had a shocking day at work, and when you come home you’ve just got to have a glass of wine. You instantly feel a little better about life. The situation at work deteriorates further, but in addition you’re now also having to deal with an elderly aunt who is no longer able to live independently, but refuses to even discuss a nursing home. Soon that glass of wine becomes three or four, but then you don’t sleep well, and so you drink one coffee after the other to get you through the next day, which is making you even more anxious. You know you’re in a pattern which isn’t helpful or sustainable, but when you get home you’ve just got to have that wine, and the thought of getting through a day at work without regular coffee breaks seems unbearable.

A regular sitting meditation teaches us the skills to notice the arising of unpleasant thoughts, body sensations and emotions, without needing to get up and implement our usual coping strategy. When we sit regularly, we soon notice that every sensation comes and goes. Even the most intense experience doesn’t actually last all that long – sooner or later it abates, transforms, or we start to think about whether we should have bought more milk.

In the practice called ‘urge-surfing’, we approach each desire like a wave coming into the beach. We notice the wave by tuning into our physical sensations. Where in the body do we feel the urge – is it large or small, what sensations are associated with it, how does it change? We notice the sensation becoming more intense, like riding the crest of a wave. But instead of being overwhelmed by the wave, we simply follow its journey to the shore and then get on with the rest of our day. We can practise becoming more familiar with the urge by also noticing the kind of thoughts and emotions associated with it. After a while it will become familiar, and we will have developed greater internal strength by learning how to stay with the urge without giving in. Sometimes it might be easier to practice urge surfing with something simple, like the urge to fidget during sitting meditation, before moving onto more powerful desires like smoking or whatever else is particularly challenging for us.

Sitting meditation teaches us that we don’t always have to instantly respond to every feeling, thought or urge which life brings us. So instead of saying – ‘don’t just stand there – do something!’, we might sometimes say instead – ‘don’t just do something – sit there!’

Weekly practice idea:

Pick a small habit you would like to change, and practise urge surfing with it this week. How does it feel?

Anja Tanhane

Wanting what we have – Part 2

‘We can eventually stop using practice in the service of a curative fantasy of being made out of stone, immune to the pain of the world.’

Barry Magid

We’re not made out of stone – it’s very normal for us to have desires which are slightly addictive, to be caught up in patterns of wanting more than is necessarily good for us. I was speaking with a worker at an alcohol and drug rehab facility recently, and he thought the next addiction they may need to treat is the addiction to smartphones. The way most of us use our smartphones may not be ruining our lives, but can easily pull us away from being in the present moment. Our addictions can be escapism, or a form of self-medication to try and cope with deep emotional pain. It’s often easy to identify addiction in others – your boss is addicted to work, or the son of a family friend is living on the streets and taking ice. It can be much harder to pinpoint it in ourselves. What mindfulness meditation asks us to do is notice the often very subtle ways in which we are pulled away from presence and into some kind of numbing – whether it’s the fourth glass of wine, the compulsion to buy more than we need, or the fact we once again spent a lot longer on Facebook that we’d originally intended.

Mindfulness can assist us in two ways. For a start, it can help us to identify the patterns in our life which pull us away from being present. These can be strong, such as in a full-blown addiction, or quite subtle. Both are challenging to work with – a full-blown addiction obviously has a great deal of power, and we need a lot of support and time in order to heal from it. The subtle addictions, on the other hand, can be very elusive. After all, there is nothing wrong with the occasional escapism, or making ourselves feel better by indulging in a treat, or avoiding something unpleasant to focus on more positive interactions. When are the escapism and avoidance just a normal part of life, and when do they become problematic? Mindfulness meditation can help us to become much clearer about what aspects of our life are helpful in the long term, and which are holding us back and limiting our potential for present-moment awareness.

The other way in which mindfulness can be helpful is by developing greater resilience, and the ability to stay with difficult feeling states instead of always having to escape or block them out. In psychological language, this is called building greater affect tolerance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers for the clinical uses of mindfulness in the West, describes a practice called ‘urge-surfing’, which will be the topic for next week’s blog.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit down for ten minutes in a quiet place, and notice the flow between presence and distraction. What does it feel like for you? Is there anything which stands out for you in particular?

Anja Tanhane