That which feels good (or promises to), we do, we seek, we grasp for. That which is unpleasant or which promises discomfort, we move away from, fast as we can. This behavior, which we share with our animal friends, helped us to grow and thrive as a species over time, aiding us in avoiding threats and in seeking and securing food and mates. At the primal level, this automatic craving and aversion can serve us. As humans however, we experience this on more than one level, and not only to our benefit.
Imagine how you react to the sound of nails scraping down a chalkboard. Imagine how you react in the split second that sugar hits your tongue. That's level one. Now imagine how you tend to self-soothe or self-medicate when you're really feeling low, or how you tend to behave towards a partner or close friend when you feel misunderstood or judged. That's level two. In level one reactions, we have immediate, primal reactions of like or dislike. These we can feel and observe in ourselves (usually as strong movements of or sensations in the body) though they remain otherwise outside of our conscious control. The responses we make at the second level, while they can certainly feel as powerful, compelling, and mysterious as automatic primal impulses, are actually strong habits based upon past choices, and are therefore habits we can work with. And change. Really. Before looking at how we can work skillfully with these second level craving and aversion responses, let's take a look at how they come into being and why they appear on the surface to be automatic or intractable.
Let’s say that I give a disappointing performance at work, come home feeling crummy, and eat a pint of ice cream. I feel partially soothed and comforted, and some part of me logs this away as “how to feel better on a crappy day”. The next time I come home feeling crappy, I reach for the ice cream, feel a little better, and this relationship between the impulse to feel better and the act of eating ice cream become fused. I may no longer even really notice that I feel sad, frustrated, angry – I may simply think “ice cream!”. This isn’t serving me in a few ways. First, I’m not noticing the true cause of my distress, and therefore cannot create a solution. Maybe I need to ask for more support at work, maybe I really need to find another job, or maybe I simply need to learn how to handle disappointment in more constructive ways. In mindlessly following my craving when it arises, I won’t have access to any of that understanding, and at the same time I’m now gaining weight, which leaves me feeling even more poorly about myself.
Not all craving and aversion behaviors are so clearly unhealthy. Let’s say, for example, that every time my partner and I encounter conflict, I go for a run. It helps me blow off steam, clear my head, and calm myself so I don’t escalate the situation or say anything I might regret. This was a very beneficial response the first time I chose it, it helped me feel better and created some peace in the relationship, and I logged it away as “how to handle anger”. The next time conflict arose, I chose it again. And again. Pretty soon, without even considering the needs of that particular moment or the fact that I have other options, I head out the door when the first sign of a conflict arises. Now, important discussions and healthy conflict are no longer happening in this relationship, my exit happens sooner every time, and I’ve lost touch with the fact that there are many alternate responses I could offer (both internally and externally) that could be more appropriate to this moment and might allow for a different outcome. My relationship is slowly disintegrating and I’m increasingly unable to meet my needs for connection, but nobody is fighting and no obviously destructive habits are present.
Every time we choose a response to our internal impulses of craving or aversion, the relationship between the stimulus and our response strengthens. Our experiences and responses literally shape and re-shape our brains over our lifetime. The good news? Our brains are still changing, can still change in ways that better serve us. We can use our attention to change our behavior and our brains. How can we do this? Our meditation practice gives us the tools we need here. We slow down. We recognize. We accept. We investigate. We note what is happening, without identifying with it. Throughout all of this, we extend kindness toward ourselves and curiosity toward our experience. We're in this together: our habits, our minds, our attention. We're a team! That's the spirit from which we begin.
Slowing down is key here, so we can take a few deep breaths. When working with habits that seem automatic, allowing time to notice what is happening moment-by-moment is necessary, in order to catch the pattern. When we notice that we’re entering the behavior pattern that we wish to work with, we slow down or stop. We recognize that craving has arisen. This is wonderful! We have an opportunity to work with our pattern, and already we have taken the step of noticing that it’s in play. This, already, is progress.
We allow or accept what is happening. Rather than berating ourselves, trying to smash away the truth of the presence of our pattern or trying to distract ourselves away from what’s happening, we just accept that what is happening for us, is happening. This is what is happening right now.
We investigate. We get curious. What is happening in the body in this moment? What does it feel like in my body when I begin to crave ice cream? What tensions or sensations are present? What does it feel like in my body when I head for the door? What is happening inside? We might immediately notice bodily sensations, or we might instead answer that it feels like “anger” or “hunger”, “anxiety” or “emptiness”. If this is the case, we can investigate further – what does “anger” feel like, and where in the body is it located? What does “emptiness” or “hunger” actually feel like, in the body, right now?
We stay with our experience, and we remain curious about how this pattern plays itself out within us. We keep breathing and we keep observing. On some days, we’ll be able to stop and watch long enough and intently enough that our old impulse passes without applying our old response. These are moments to celebrate! They're also moments to notice how we feel when we don’t do the old thing. At other times, we’ll be able to notice and stay curious up to a point…and then ultimately do the old thing once again. This may be part of our process. Still, we went into our pattern with greater awareness, and we may have even been aware of the moment of choice. We stick with this process. Perhaps next time, we’ll be capable of even more space, even more patience, even greater curiosity. Whether we’re able to avoid applying our old solution to this moment or not, we allow our experience - whatever it is - to remain in our awareness, and we continue to extend kindness towards ourselves.
And we begin again.
Practicing in this way does not typically change us overnight. We will experience the discomfort of seeing how often we're making choices that cause suffering for ourselves and for others. The beginning stages of working with any craving / aversion pattern can be very difficult for just this reason. But the more we practice, the more we learn about our real needs and desires, our strengths and vulnerabilities, our potential and our options. It may start out feeling painful, but it becomes enormously empowering. We do not need to live our lives on repeat, following the dictates of habits we hardly remember establishing. Today's actions are shaping tomorrow's brain, and we have choice in what that looks like.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.