I am leaving in a few weeks to attend a Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) training and my preparations have me thinking a lot about all the relentless ways in which we pursue what is wanted and avoid what is unwanted. Addictions of most types involve this dynamic and when we think about it in this way, maybe we are all addicts on some level.
We are motivated more by aversion to the unpleasant than by a will toward truth, freedom, or healing. We are constantly attempting to escape our life, to avoid rather than enter our pain, and we wonder why it is so difficult to be fully alive. ― Stephen Levine
The clinging mind can be very obvious as when we are hungry or thirsty or too cold or too hot. We feel a profound sense of longing when we deeply desire something, like a love interest or an accomplishment. We often experience restlessness and even agitation when we desperately want something unpleasant or unwanted to change.
Our desires and discontentment can also be quite subtle as with simple preferences, needing things to go our way to feel okay, rigid adherence to certain views or ways of doing things, blind spots, or things we dismiss as irrelevant or unimportant. These subtle forms of grasping and clinging involve cherishing ourselves or certain people, objects, or experiences above others.
You may ask, “But, isn’t it important to prefer some things over others?” I invite you to explore for yourself the reasons why you are more important than your neighbor, or why your child is more important than someone else’s child, or why chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream. Beyond issues of safety or survival, when we look closely, it is hard to find a solid reason outside our own subjectivity. Since these concepts are subjective, it means we have some choice in them, which means they are worth examining.
Much suffering can arise out of the cycle of attachment and aversion. When we aren’t mindful, we can be unconsciously dragged around by our desire for happiness, chasing after things we think might fulfill us and pushing away from things we think will bring us unhappiness. Should we manage to grasp what we desire, our habit of mind is to consider it our own. It gets personal and we become attached. The object of our desires may even feel like a part of our identity – so parting from it feels like a real loss. And because of habituation (the tendency for our responses to diminish over time), our initial burst of pleasure in external things cannot last. We ultimately feel compelled to go searching for new pleasures.
Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless… – St. Augustine
At the same time, we have a hard time tolerating discomfort. In our culture of quick fixes and numerous options, we have little patience for discontentment. So, we tend to reach for the first thing that might make us feel better. Many of us have forgotten what it is like to feel bored because we have so many distractions at our fingertips. We lose sight of the fact that just as our pleasure cannot last, neither can our displeasure. Everything will change in time, yet we rarely experience this for ourselves because we are so quick to intervene.
It can be an interesting exercise to observe the many ways, both subtle and obvious, in which we grasp after pleasures and push away discomfort each day. I invite you to see if you can notice the thoughts, feelings, sensation and urges around grasping and aversion in your daily life. Can you spend time with these experiences and really get to know them? How does the noticing impact the experience, if at all? What happens when you decide not to react? How does it play out? In my own case, I have noticed that when I am mindful, I see things more clearly, allowing me to step out of the self-perpetuating cycle, if only for a moment.