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The Kleshas in Detail: Dvesha or Aversion

The Kleshas in Detail: Dvesha or Aversion

We continue our exploration of the five kleshas – the obstacles to realizing our inherent peace – with a more detailed look at dvesha or aversion. We’ll look at the various and perhaps unexpected forms aversion can take, how it distorts our worldview and causes distress, and the ways we can use awareness of dvesha to reduce our tendency to fall into misunderstanding and the suffering it causes.

Defining Dvesha

Beginning again with Patanjali, much like attachment he defines aversion as: “Identification with what we don’t like” – that is, when we start to define ourselves and the world around us in terms of what we think is wrong or “bad.” Again, you’ll notice this isn’t a simple matter of disliking things – an aspect of human consciousness which the Yogis realized is natural. We all have certain things we prefer and others we’d like to avoid, and the Yogis weren’t suggesting this was something we needed to correct. Again, exactly like attachment, the opinion turns into obstacle when our personal preferences begin to consume our view of the world.

To give an example, while we all have thoughts of things that could be improved in our world, we also know people who allow what they consider to be problems – whether political, economic, or religious – to become the focus of their thoughts. There is something they believe is the primary cause of their unhappiness, and they expend a great deal of energy ruminating about it and sharing those thoughts with others. This generates a great deal of discord for them and the people around them and exemplifies the form of identification Patanjali is speaking of when he describes dvesha.

Aversion vs. Discrimination

Once we have a basic sense of dvesha, the next step is to understand the nuances, particularly in terms of what aversion is not. In our last article, we talked about the ways in which avoiding attachment can easily be misunderstood as an advocacy of apathy. Similarly, it is possible to misunderstand the critique of aversion as a call to “universal acceptance,” but that again would be a distortion of the Yogic ideal.

Once more, aversion is when we let our dislikes distort our view of and relationship to the world, but obviously this is very different from distinguishing between what is healthful for us and what is not. In fact, one of the key principles of Yoga is viveka or “discernment.” In its most common form, viveka is used to refer to awareness of the distinction between prakriti (the material) and purusha (the Self), but an equally important form of viveka is mindfulness of the distinction between things which serve us in our spiritual growth and those which do not.

In this sense, “conscious avoidance” definitely has its place on the Yogic path – we can see this everywhere from the Yogic view of dietary choices (e.g., avoiding foods that dull our senses or aggravate us) to classic principles on the company we keep (e.g., the ideal of satsang or choosing to spend time with people striving for similar goals). Again, in the case if dvesha, the issue is not with “choosing mindfully” but rather watching for the tendency to unconsciously shift from personal preferences to “absolute judgment” – a shift that leads to a dualistic world-view and all the pain inherent therein.

Aversion & Acceptance

A related issue is the connection between dvesha and the ideal of acceptance. In previous articles we’ve discussed the ethical principle of isvarapranidhana or “embracing what is…” – a principle that directly relates to the challenges inherent in aversion. In the Yogic view, while it is natural to have personal preferences, it is crucial to be able to move beyond those preferences in order to embrace the things in life that we cannot change.

We can use this idea of isvarapranidhana to better understand the distinction between discernment and aversion. When we understand both principles, we more clearly see the distinction between, on the one hand, a fixation on personal tastes that leads us to fight things that are beyond our control, and, on the other, a balanced mindset that allows us to honor our preferences while also accepting the reality of the world around us.

To give an example, if we happen to prefer sun over rain, it is fine to choose to live in a place that is sunnier such as Colorado rather than a place like the Pacific Northwest. However, if we allow ourselves to get upset by atypical periods of rain or because our work requires us to travel to a less pleasant, we are failing to honor isvarapranidhana and are falling into dvesha.

Dvesha in Daily Life

Again, the most important part of understanding aversion is the ability to apply it in daily life, so we can better avoid misidentification and the pain that it causes. For this reason, we’ll conclude with a few examples that highlight how we can distinguish between “healthy discretion” and the unhealthy form found it dvesha, as well as how we can use that awareness to shift our outlook and behavior.

As mentioned before, one of the crucial challenges of aversion is that it leads to a dualistic view of the world around us. Under its influence, we increasingly think of circumstances in a black and white way – “good” situations and “bad” situations, successful results and failure. This view naturally creates tension, anxiety, and fear – emotions that not only reduce the quality of our lives but also cloud our judgment, making it harder to see our mental patterns in order to shift them.

Through awareness of dvesha, we can learn to notice when we are falling into this dualistic view – thinking of events or outcomes as right or wrong, “essential” or “unbearable” – and take time to reconsider. When we note this pattern, we can pause and ask: “Do I really need this to turn out a certain way? Is it not possible that the very opposite might not be perfect for me in this situation and that I can maintain my peace in spite of it?” By seeing our patterns and redirecting, we can avoid moving into pain and return to our natural state of ease and joy.

Related to this aspect of dvesha is the tendency to judge others. Just as aversion leads us to divide situations into “good” and “bad,” it also leads us to think of people in terms of those who agree or disagree with our views. We start to think of people as either “part of the solution of part of the problem” – a view which is both limited and limiting. Again, by learning to see when we fall into this way of thinking, we can give ourselves the opportunity to retrace our steps – as discussed previously, to examine the grounds of our assumptions, looking for the various forms of avidya that are at the heart of our other kleshas. Ultimately, this allows us to shift our thoughts, our feelings, and our quality of life.

A third sign of dvesha is, once again, the tendency for “internal story-telling.” Just like attachment, one of the most powerful aspects of aversion is when we allow negative feelings to take us out of the present and into worry about the future. When we start to identify with our dislikes we become preoccupied with what may come and lose sight of the here and now. Again, this pattern prevents us both from dealing constructively with the challenges in front of us as well as enjoying the blessings and joys that are also present, even amid very real difficulties. By noticing these inner monologues, we can catch dvesha in its tracks and choose to return to the present and all the opportunities it affords.

This leads us to a final aspect of dvesha which in turn will serve as an avenue into our last klesha, and that is the link between aversion and fear. Again, the more we dwell on what we dislike, the more we naturally fall into fear and anxiety about what lies ahead. Just like storytelling, we can use awareness of this fear as a reminder to trace our thoughts back, from fear to dwelling on dislikes to the misapprehension/avidya at its root. In this way, we can reverse the process, returning once again to our natural state of wholeness and peace and, through our example, supporting those around us in doing the same….