Aversion, or dvesha, is considered an obstacle to spiritual growth. It is one of the five kleshas, or afflictions, listed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Simply put, aversion is that feeling of dislike and internal pushback when we are confronted with something that has brought us pain in the past. Not wanting to repeat unpleasant experiences — be they physical, psychological and/or emotional — causes us to feel aversion.
Here we'll explore how aversion comes about in the first place, then ways to handle such experiences in a more positive way.
How Aversion Manifests
Aversion can manifest in the subtlest of ways. Recently, I was invited to dinner with friends at a restaurant where I had previously had a poor experience with the food. Despite my initial hesitation, I accepted the invitation and decided to go anyway. As I walked into the restaurant and greeted my friends, I felt my jaw clench and my shoulders tense in anticipation. I noticed I was having a full blown internal conversation with myself about how the food had sucked last time and how it was probably going to suck this time. It was similar to a panic attack, but about food! In retrospect, it sounds ridiculous, but there it is. What I was experiencing was a strong sense of aversion.
The reason aversion is so powerful is that when we attach our personal identity to our likes and desires, our mind becomes rigid and inflexible. Not unlike it’s sister klesha, raaga, or attachment, aversion is a grasping on to our personal preferences. It is rooted in a deep desire to avoid repeating painful experiences. This fear and rigidity can prevent us from experiencing life fully. It pulls us out of the present moment and throws us into the churn of our thinking mind. This can happen subtly and without drama, manifesting itself in the most benign of situations. Think about the last time you had to file your taxes and you waited until the first week in April to get them done, despite swearing that this year you'd file early. Doing your taxes is not an inherently enjoyable task for most of us. We are averse to it because it's just no fun! Most of us can easily find an example of aversion arising in our lives on a daily basis.
How to Handle Aversion
The goal of yoga isn’t to obliterate aversion. Personal preferences are natural and part of what makes us human. According to the Yoga Sutras, even the most advanced yogis experience remnants of kleshas even after years of mastery. The aim of mindfulness training is to instead begin to notice more and more that sensation of internal pushback when things don’t go our way. Mastery is in acknowledging that aversion is arising within us, giving it an internal nod of recognition and then consciously choosing our actions. Our intention as yogis is to free ourselves from having our choices controlled by these thoughts and feelings. Awareness and mindfulness training will break the cycle.
In extreme cases, aversion leads to judgment. Judgment leads to dehumanization of individuals, which then leads to dispute, hatred and war. By categorizing people or situations as fundamentally good or bad, we continue to foster a false dualistic image of reality.
Nothing is ever entirely good or inherently bad. Think about the Chinese symbol of yin and yang, or the Hindu union of Shiva and Shakti. Where there is light there is also dark; where there is dark there is also light. Where there is male there is feminine; where there is feminine there is male. We cannot have one without the other. Human existence is a spectrum of experiences, but when we fall into the trap of believing this, we end up promoting our own suffering.
I am not advocating universal acceptance here. There is still discernment happening. This is to say that if we witness something that we feel a strong aversion to, we shouldn’t blindly accept it and do nothing. No. This would be a misunderstanding of the principle of aversion. However, when our personal opinions become obstacles to compassion, we end up living our lives out of fear-based patterns instead of fully in the present moment. Our resistance to pain or discomfort keeps us stuck in the past. This is what we are seeking to change when we begin to feel our preferences begin to influence our view of the world.
Acknowledge Aversion and Attain Inner Freedom
Through yoga and meditation, we can begin to train ourselves to become aware of our aversion to people and situations. By tapping into our awareness of dvesha and bringing our attention to our personal preferences as they arise, we can begin to cultivate a habit of non-judgment and create space for a more flexible mindset. This is where our true inner freedom lies.