I don’t wanna get out of bed. I gotta have a piece of chocolate. I don’t wanna do my yoga practice. I gotta get around this slow car. When you hear these kind of thoughts going on in the head, you know you have a case of the “I don’t wannas” and the “I gotta haves”. In a culture that capitalizes on obsessions, impatience, and addictions through media, peer pressure, and pop trends, this kind of thinking is common, and can drive us to distraction and agitation. In yogic terms, these thought forms are referred to as “Raga” and “Dvesha” – attachment and aversion.
Dvesha, the Sanskrit word for aversion (literally “hate”, “dislike”, or “distaste”) is the avoidance of all those things that we don’t want to experience. These are the things that to us seem intolerable, or at least so unpleasant that we might invest a considerable amount of energy to avoid them.
When we’re uncomfortable, impatient, or perceiving something as unpleasant, Dvesha rears its head. Some of us can’t stand lima beans, so we avoid them. Others become irritated with loud noises, impatiently obsessing over how to shut up someone’s screaming child, or outraged with a slow driver ahead of them. When Dvesha arises in yoga class, we may have thoughts like, “I’m afraid to do Handstand, so I’ll just hide over in this corner,” or “I don’t like Savasana. I’d rather be doing something more challenging. Actually, I’ll just leave class early.”
Dvesha could also be something we don’t like about ourselves; I can’t stand how I look, move, act, what comes out of my mouth, etc. When we get caught up in Dvesha, we avoid things by not doing something: not talking, not allowing other cars to go ahead of us, not going out in public, not doing a certain yoga pose.
Attachment – Raga
Then, we have the other side of the coin: Raga, which is attachment. These are the things we want to do, keep, have, feel, experience. In modern terms, it’s much like the pleasure principle – there’s a strong attraction to what brings happiness.
Sometimes, we want these pleasurable things so much that we cling to them when we have them. The ice cream may be delicious throughout the first scoop, but try as we might, we can’t retain that same taste sensation through the third, or fourth, or tenth scoop. At some point, the pleasure will fade although we may desperately try to retain it.
Raga causes us to endlessly chase after our desires. We love that yoga top, that sportscar, the ability to do Headstand for 10 minutes, having our calendar booked with dates, or having free time. Raga keeps us unsatisfied even when what we want is in our lap, either by trying to retain it or by the impulse to want more.
We cling like a barnacle to the things that we’re comfortable with and make us feel good when Raga asserts itself. When we can’t have them, or worse yet when they’re taken away (like a relationship breakup or getting an injury when you’re attached to running 5 miles every day), Raga can cause restlessness, despair, and havoc in the mind.
Flipping the coin – Dvesha
Raga and Dvesha are two sides of the same coin. If we have a strong attachment to something, we usually have a strong aversion related to that. If we really want to be in a relationship, we may also avoid being alone. If we fear connecting to others, we may find ourselves hoarding time for solitude.
The flipping of the coin can be somewhat subtle and deceptive; occasionally, our mind tries to convince us that either the attachment or the aversion is acceptable to have. For example, we may have an attachment that is a “good” attachment: “I really want to exercise for an hour”. Sure, that’s a good thing to do. Yet, when we know that we need to wash the dishes and suddenly have a strong attachment to remaining on our yoga mat or out on our bicycle to avoid cleaning up, we’ve begun to play into the push and pull of Raga and Dvesha.
Additionally, things we avoid suddenly can become something we cling to when a stronger aversion arises. How many of us cleaned house when a paper was due in school or a project needed to be finished for work? “I don’t wanna” rears its ugly head, like a mental temper tantrum. We give in and give that kid inside what it wants, rather than deal with the discomfort of letting go of an attachment or facing an aversion.
Causes of suffering
In Patanjali’s yoga sutras, one of the main texts of yoga philosophy, Raga and Dvesha are described as two of the five main causes of affliction and suffering. These causes of affliction, known as Kleshas, are said to be the primary obstacles to our spiritual growth. It is only when we overcome them that we are able to experience a transcendent state of being.
But wait a minute, we think. Some things are good to avoid – like touching a hot stove, or going into an unsafe neighborhood by yourself at night. And some things certainly are beneficial to do. I don’t want to give up my attachment to doing yoga, or taking a shower, or eating fresh vegetables. Are the ancient yogic sages asking us to stop doing these helpful things? Are they asking us to be willing to do things that hurt us, so as not to avoid them?
Certainly not! We know that we need to make choices that are for our well-being and highest good every day. After all, we know that practice is what leads us to develop skill in yoga, to overcome bad habits, or to attain goals we have in life. And it’s not helpful to put ourselves in dangerous situations merely for the purpose of not avoiding them. We don’t seek out a rattlesnake and encourage it to bite us, just because it’s something we’d typically avoid. That’s not spiritual practice; that’s just foolishness.
What Patanjali and the great yogic masters are suggesting is that we learn to maintain even-mindedness, no matter what lies before us. When we’re flipping back and forth between Raga and Dvesha, we find ourselves at the mercy of mood swings, stress, rage, and anxiety. Something that we label as “bad” happens, and we’re in despair and feel hopeless. Even elation can be an obstacle on our path. Often, it’s when we are elated or ecstatic that we get ourselves into the greatest trouble – impulsively going on spending sprees or rebounding into another relationship, jumping into situations that we later regret.
Even-mindedness, which can also be thought of as non-attachment, allows us to be accepting of whatever situation arises, make sensible choices in the face of that situation, and keep a sense of balance within us. We begin to detach from our expectations of what certain people, objects or experiences will bring us.
Associations with pleasure or pain
The reason why we experience happiness with certain objects is because of the association we give it, not because of its inherent value. Many of us may enjoy the taste of cake or its associations with celebration, like a birthday party. We believe that cake makes us happy. But this has nothing to do with the cake – the cake itself is neutral, simply being what it is.
How do we know this is true, that it isn’t inherently a source of pleasure? Because we know that our attachment or aversion towards that object can change. For example, let’s say that we have a birthday party, and we love the cake so much that we eat too much of it. Way too much. We feel sick to our stomach. “I gotta have” goes out of control. The next time we see that cake, we have an aversion to it – it makes us feel ill to think of eating it. The attachment changed to “I don’t wanna” have that cake again!
What happened to the happiness that the cake had previously brought? It disappeared, because our association with the cake changed to that of sickness, suffering. But the cake didn’t change at all. We tend to attach similar associations with people in our lives. Yet, objects, situations, and people that we are attached to or avoid are not the sources of our pleasure or pain, although we project our associations on them all the time.
Many spiritual traditions teach us that happiness lies within, not in external circumstances or objects. We can choose to eat the cake and be happy within, and we can choose not to eat the cake and also be happy within. Or unhappy.
When we are able to detach from the thoughts of whether something will bring us pleasure or pain, fulfillment or disappointment, happiness or sorrow, then we can begin to experience our own innate inner fulfillment. This is our true nature – already fulfilled, content, and peaceful. We have lost our connection to that through many, many years, and even lifetimes, of “I don’t wanna’s” (Dvesha) and “I gotta haves” (Raga) being the source of our happiness.
There is a wonderful fable in the ancient yogic texts about this inner happiness that Swami Satchidananda shares in his commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is about the musk deer. He says that this deer has a scented spot above its forehead that gives off the musk fragrance. “This deer runs here and there in search of the scent, not knowing the scent comes from its own forehead. Just like that, happiness is already in us.” We are running here and there, trying to find it, and miss that it has been within all the while.
Witness and recognize them
How does Patanjali suggest we develop this desired even- mindedness and find our inner happiness? You probably guessed it – meditation. Meditation gives us the opportunity to witness these “I don’t wannas” and “I gotta haves” as they arise in our mind, and to see them for what they are – thoughts, projections, associations, but not essential reality. Eventually, we can begin to perceive peace and a sense of well-being that is beyond the events, relationships, and
objects of our lives. We become less attached to what happens, what we have, and who is around us, and much less aversive to things we previously determined to be causes of our suffering. This allows us to be happier and more satisfied no matter what comes to pass.
When the Ragas and Dveshas rear their heads, try to see them for what they are – colors that you are painting over external things. Notice if they’re turning your mind topsy-turvy. Whether you sit in formal meditation or you just take a moment to observe, breathe, and get some perspective, you’re already taking steps towards finding that source of satisfaction within that is not determined by what exists outside your own Self. Then, maybe you’ll be able to have your cake – whether or not you eat it, too.
Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Constance L. Habash