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