Raga & Dvesha: Attachment and Aversion

Extreme attachments and extreme aversions are both obstacles on the yogi’s path to freedom. Both of these are emotional responses that alter our ability to see the world around us clearly and accurately. This state is called avidya, or non-seeing. In a state of non-seeing, we mistake pain for pleasure, impermanence for permanence, and the profane for the sacred. Someone or something that seems wonderful can later turn out to be a cause of much suffering. And, in our state of non-seeing, or ignorance, we mistakenly pass up on situations that could have granted us peace and insight.

Attachments (raga) arise from our previous experiences of pleasure and happiness. Aversions (dvesha, or dvesa) emerge from previous experiences of pain and suffering. Over time, our sense of self-identity is largely formed by a long list of such likes and dislikes. We define ourselves as a collection of our previous emotional experiences.

We can become subconsciously driven to seek opportunities to repeat previous experiences of pleasure over and over. This is the seed of addiction. The object or person or experience that originally generated pleasure becomes the symbol or substitute for the pleasure itself. Greed and lust and addiction are all downfalls of excessive attachments.

We can also become subconsciously driven to avoid previously painful experiences. Our desire to protect ourselves limits our options in life, and clouds our ability to see clearly. As in the case of attachments, we mistake the person or situation or object that caused us pain with the painful experience itself. We can go to great lengths to avoid situations that we are afraid of – whether they are physical, emotional, or spiritual. Fear and hatred are the downfalls of excessive aversion.

In both instances, there is also the great downfall of ignorance and non-seeing. Applying our powerful emotions from past experiences to our understanding of the present moment places a filter over our ability to see things as they truly are. We may see one aspect of something, and yet remain blind to many other aspects. Without active effort, our own emotions become hoarded and accumulated, and our filters become thicker and more distorted. These filters alter our judgment, and our ability to respond with clarity.

Through the practices of self-observation, self-inquiry, and reflection, we can gradually increase our sense of self-understanding. First we become aware of our powerful preferences and distastes. Then, we become aware of the sources behind those tendencies. And over time, we are able to cease the behaviors that amplify such obstacles, and instead we liberate ourselves – opening ourselves to new ways of seeing and being in the world. And in so doing, we cease to form our self-identity so heavily on our emotional past – and are able to build a sense of self that radiates with something deeper and more universal. The filters through which we look and act become increasingly transparent – and we are able to look both inward and outward with greater precision and clarity.

It is also worth noting that the excessive passions and aversions that we are discussing here are very different from the careful and well-considered choices we are also capable of making. The journey of yoga is one that helps us become aware of our unconscious thoughts and actions… and gradually move toward a life full of consciously-chosen thoughts and actions. So we may well feel drawn toward situations that nourish our spirit… And we may also feel better avoiding situations that leave us feeling depleted or empty. However, it is an important and difficult distinction to make – such choices often emerge from our subconscious desires and fears. And so it is, that through the practice of yoga, we are providing ourselves with the opportunity to practice acquiring skillful knowledge without hoarding and accumulating our emotional responses. We work hard in the postures, we accept struggle and frustration, we accept triumph and progress… and we also try to neutralize our powerful feelings of shame and pride that can accompany such moments. Each posture and each breath gives us a fresh opportunity to distinguish between skillful, conscious decision-making and subconscious motivations of fear and desire.

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Updated March 22, 2006   amey@yogawithamey.com