Generally, we have the idea that the holidays should be a peaceful time of reflection, relaxation and enjoyment, however, they are often anything but. And unfortunately for many people the holiday season evokes the manifestation of our worst and deepest faults, specifically the aggravation of addictions. Addiction is the beastly offspring of behavior patterns described as attachment and avoidance – in yogic terms. But before I go any further I want to clarify that I’m not just talking about addictions to drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. I’m talking about addictions big and small, addictions that countless people suffer from: shopping addictions, eating addictions, exercise, sex, gambling and gaming addictions. Most of the time these patterns of behavior aren’t so severe as to warrant the title of “addiction” as it is commonly used, but none the less are patterns of behavior that we cannot control. Now I’m not saying the solution to overcome your sugar tooth is to devote your life to the journey towards spiritual enlightenment, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to consider it. In this brief treatise on patterns of attachment and avoidance I discuss a lot of spiritual elements of yoga which may be new to you, or seem “a little out there”. But I encourage you to keep an open mind anyway; some of you will be able to relate to these principles in a profound way.
Here is the scenario: Its the run-up to the holidays and you are overrun with stresses of all kinds – extra work, family, shopping, travel, endless preparations, not to mention the pile of expectations you and your loved ones place on you to make it all “turn out right”, and at the end of it all you plop yourself down in an environment surrounded by countless forms of indulgences like food, alcohol, and material possessions. This is an environment in which you can easily plunge into greater depths of imbalance. And you do.
The effects are ugly. Perhaps not to the rest of the world, but internally a bitter darkness has taken hold. You have succumbed to your desires (even though you’d promised you wouldn’t) and not only are you disappointed in yourself, you’ve aggravated your desire to indulge and squandered your energy needed to overcome desire. You are no longer in control.
I think everyone can relate to this scenario on some level regardless if you suffer from a severe addiction or simply a few “bad habits”. The source is the same. The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali discuss the elements of raga and dvesa - patterns of attachment and avoidance, which are two of the five basic afflictions that disturb the balance of human consciousness or awareness. Stepping back for just a moment, one of the basic precepts of yogic philosophy is that human consciousness is layered. Beginning with the outermost layer, the ordinary mind is the level where we process the external world around us, the level of the five senses, the superficial mind. At the core, the innermost layer is known as the Self, the seat of pure consciousness. This is the level where true, lasting happiness and contentment dwell independent from cause or reason. However, most of us are completely disconnected from this deepest level of consciousness. Our daily thoughts and actions driven by the ordinary mind cloud our vision of the Self. We mistake the daily dramas we entangle ourselves in for our true selves and remain ignorant of our deeper consciousness – apart from when we sleep.
These dramas of the ordinary mind are the seeds of attachment and avoidance. During our development, a sense of attraction is ignited within us by dwelling on pleasurable experiences which results in attachment to pleasure at the level of the ordinary mind. The ordinary mind becomes absorbed by the pursuit of pleasure and addicted to gratification of the senses. In fact, most of us dedicate a large percentage of our time and energy (if not all of it) to chasing pleasurable experiences. Conversely, dwelling in the memory of pain, sorrow and misery trigger a chain of hate or aversion to experiences that displease the ordinary mind, effectively trapping the ordinary mind in a cycle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain – attachment to pleasure and avoidance of pain.
Going back to other end of consciousness, the Self, the deepest layer of consciousness is an experience of pure contentment or bliss that emanates from within. This awareness is a very different experience than pleasure from external gratification; and even though one moment of pure bliss of knowing the Self amounts to greater satisfaction than a lifetime of seeking external pleasure, we resist just the thought of giving up external gratification. Yet, it is our actions of seeking and avoiding that keep us ignorant of the Self and the contentment it offers. But we are afraid to give up this pleasure/pain game because we are afraid of losing. We are afraid that without external gratification a void will arise, a void that will certainly consume us with sorrow and grief. The most difficult task for the ordinary mind is to recognize that this very sequence of thoughts is what keeps us chained to our pattern of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain; and ultimately keeps us from experiencing pure satisfaction of the Self.
Even though the joy or happiness we sometimes experience through external pleasures is at its source a refraction of pure bliss from the Self; it is inherently tainted, fleeting and impermanent. Just like a sugar rush, we experience external pleasure very intensely for a while, but inevitably the source of this pleasure changes or goes away and we experience the “crash” after the sugar high. We feel loss of pleasure which we interpret as pain, suffering or discomfort, the very same feelings we spend so much time and energy avoiding. External pleasure and suffering are always connected. Pure contentment that emanates from the Self, however, lasts as long as we are aware of its existence. It is contentment that is free from pain or suffering.
So why then is it so difficult to free ourselves from our patterns of pleasure seeking and pain avoidance? Why are addictions so difficult to overcome? Why can’t we simply reason our way out of this cycle?
Even though the real Self – pure intelligence and true contentment – is always there, our awareness of this Self is usually obstructed like a layer of clouds blocking the sun. Our ordinary mind is usually so consumed by thoughts of the external world that we don’t realize this inner layer of ourselves exists. We mistakenly believe that “who we are” is a collection of our actions, our material possessions, our achievements and our failures. By giving these things so much thought and energy we create the perfect storm that continually blocks our awareness of the undying Self which is simply pure awareness. The Self does not experience spikes in pleasure like the ordinary mind, nor does it fall into valleys of pain. It just exists, undying and unchanging.
To free ourselves from these patterns of the ordinary mind we must create enough “distance” between our current state of awareness and the ordinary mind to view the roller coaster of addiction in its entirety, not just through the eyes of the passenger – the eyes of the ordinary mind. This is the process of meditation, the process of quieting the mind long enough to realise that the Self exists, that there is a dimension of awareness beyond our five senses (which are susceptible to the cycle of pleasure and pain).
Unfortunately, quieting the body and mind through meditation can feel like an insurmountable task. Particularly for people with overactive minds the experience of sitting quietly can be completely overwhelming. Because as soon as we take a step back and see the constant convulsing of the ordinary mind and we get a glimpse of the roller coaster the mind protests. Its like the very first dizzying moments after you’ve stopped spinning, the whole world continues to spin around you and the result…nausea. But after a while the dizziness stops and you can enjoy being still again. Attempting meditation as a beginner is akin to this experience. Its not easy, but as you sit through the initial reaction of quieting the mind and become aware that the Self exists you will begin to see the world through the lens of the Self. You have an alternative to simply riding the roller coaster of pleasure and pain. You can learn to experience the world around you on an even keel. Its possible to experience pleasure without riding the roller coaster all the way to the top and conversely avoid the plunge to the bottom. Lasting contentment can begin to shine through. Through the eyes of the Self we can look at our addiction to pleasure as something separate from ourselves, something we can control and make decisions about. Yes, addiction is a part of you, but not the whole you and it doesn’t always have to be the driving force steering your actions and making decisions.
Alhough, I have to say that this is easier said than done. While these are just words on a page, the only way to change your patterns is through experience and experimentation. I can sit at my computer and write about the Self as long as I’d like but I will never do justice to the experience of meditation. That’s what yoga is, an experiential science. This is the difference between faith and yoga. Reading about yoga will not improve your life, practicing yoga will.
If you are interested in learning more about meditation and yoga, or want to begin a meditation or yoga practice feel free to contact me and I can help you locate the resources you need to get started. In the meantime here are some suggested readings to learn more about meditation and addictions:
Seat by the Fire by Sri Shambhavandanda
Meditations for Addictive Behavior: A System of Yogic Science with Nutritional Formulas By Mukta Kaur Khalsa
The Seven-Day Total Cleanse: A Revolutionary Juice Fast and Yoga Plan to Purify Your Body and Clarify Your Mind By Mary McGuire-Wien, Jill Parsons Stern
A month ago I had the wonderful opportunity to be a camp leader at RG‘s summer camp for adults with spinal cord injuries at Valjieviken in the South of Sweden. There I met many fantastic people (leaders and participants), many of whom were very genuinely interested in yoga for people with spinal cord injuries. I learned so much from my experiences there, especially the time I spent with everyone outside the gym/studio. Most importantly though, I am able to answer one question a little bit better: In what ways can yoga bring relief to people who have suffered a spinal cord injury?
One of the camp leaders (and former participant) said to me during a conversation something like this “After their injuries, patients spend months in the hospital retraining their bodies, healing physically as much as possible before returning to life at home. But the parts of us that are most broken – our mental and emotional selves – receive little or no care.”
But what is it exactly that has broken apart from your body? Why are the mental and emotional injuries as, or more painful than the physical? Because, I think, up until the moment of injury you have spent your whole life building an image of yourself – creating an answer to the question “who am I?” And for those of us who grow up in Western societies, generally that answer relates to the world around us and how we see ourselves in it. We spend years creating a definition of ourselves, who we “are” and who we “aren’t”.
“I am Johnny and I enjoy mountain biking and skiing. I am a high school math teacher. I have a dog and a girlfriend and an apartment in the city. I am 185 cm tall with brown hair & blue eyes. My favorite color is green and I don’t like to eat onions.”
This wouldn’t be an unusual response to the question “who are you?” But the trap we unwittingly set for ourselves lies in the fact that all of these attributes are temporal, external and ultimately unlasting. The image we have of ourselves changes dramatically throughout our lives. Sometimes these changes make us happy, they make us feel like we’ve gained something. Graduating from university, for instance, and entering into the “real world” can give us the sense that we are maturing, that we’ve achieved something momentous and this creates and internal sense of satisfaction. On the other hand however, there are some things that cause us to change our image of ourselves in a way that is painful. The loss of a job, for example, can be extremely painful not only for the loss of income and stability, but because “If I’m not a teacher…than who am I?” In the same way, the loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend causes us pain because “he/she was everything to me”. To some extent, even losing a favorite jacket can be painful because “that jacket really expresses who I am”. We hurt when we lose these things because we feel that we’ve also lost a piece of ourselves.
We constantly set ourselves up for this kind of injury by defining ourselves with external elements that in the end we cannot control. And that is where you find yourself after an injury, counting up the losses of those little things that you used to think defined who you are…those things that you no longer have. For a while at least, what you are left with is a lot of used to’s. “I used to be a fantastic skier”
But we can choose to know ourselves and understand ourselves and come to think of ourselves in a different way. Yoga is (and I mean the whole of yoga, not just the physical practice of asana) the journey of realizing that who you are is something so much more profound and lasting than those things you believe have come to define you.
We use yoga practice to quiet our self-dialogue long enough to see ourselves for who we really are, not just who we think we are. When we stop defining ourselves by our external attributes and our similarities or differences to other people, that is when we can experience freedom from our suffering. I believe the process of healing the heart after an injury can begin with re-thinking who you are altogether.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that one shouldn’t enjoy the world and what it has to offer. By all means be passionate about your work, go skiing, love your girlfriend/boyfriend, be glad that your jacket keeps you warm and dry. Just don’t choose to let these things define you, don’t cling to them. And if they leave you, do not feel that you have lost yourself. The you, the real you will continue on unchanged for a long time to come.