At 12:00 am on January 1st, 2017, I sat in silence and watched a Buddhist nun ring a gong three times. I was in bed by 12:30 am, a little cranky, a little stiff and achy, and exhausted
Let me give some context. From the end of December until the first week of January, I was on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, hosted by the nuns of Aloka Vihara. I had gone on silent retreats with these nuns before, but this was the longest I had ever done. For ten days, I lived as though I were in a Buddhist monastery: very little speaking, no eating after noon, no entertainment whatsoever, and lots and lots of meditation.
The nuns encouraged us to make everything part of our meditation, even when we were off the mat. That meant staying sharply present and attuned to everything arising in the body and mind while eating, while walking, while showering. It creates a great opportunity for insight to arise, and every time I head into retreat, my mind creates a mental laundry list of expectations. This will be a great time to find solutions for life problems A, B, and C, unpack my PTSD from bad memories X, Y, and Z, and then I can be zen AF. Ok GO!
Inevitably, what actually arises in me on retreat ends up being much deeper, much more profound, and no, it doesn’t always leave me zen AF. After only a few days of observing my inner life, I came to the realization that our minds are constantly being pulled between two simple extremes: desire and aversion.
The Slippery Slope of Aversion
I’d start my day at 4:30 in the morning, and what would follow through my mind was a constant back and forth between the two: aversion to getting out of bed, desire to get dressed and warm, aversion to stepping outside into the cold, desire to get back into a warm building, aversion to sitting in meditation for an hour, desire to move my legs, aversion to the pain in my back, desire to eat breakfast, aversion to having to wait at the back of the line, desire to have caffeinated tea, aversion to the tea not being warm enough, and so on and so on and so on.
This back and forth dominates our lives. We feel averse to something and strong desire to get away from or rectify the aversion. We gravitate toward and cling to the good, and we push away the bad. Every day. Ad infinitum.
It didn’t take long before I started zero-ing in on the experience of aversion itself. I noticed where it lived in my body, and the physical sensations that arose. I started noticing what kind of circumstances and behaviors triggered it. And most disturbing, I noticed that if someone else did something that triggered aversion in me, it was a very slippery slope to judgement, criticism, annoyance, and even ill-will toward that person. I was finding myself holding grudges against people I hadn’t even spoken to!
This slippery slope of aversion and judgment is something that has come up all the time not only in my own relationships, but in those of my clients and friends as well. There’s the all-too-common experience of being on the receiving end of aversion-based judgment and criticism from people who don’t understand non-traditional relationships, but it doesn’t just come from people on the “outside.”
The “Correct” Way to Do Poly
For those of us in non-traditional relationships, there are plenty of opportunities to feel aversion, judgment, and criticism toward others in the community, and even toward our own partners. There is no defining script for how non-monogamous relationships are “supposed” to be. This is an incredibly freeing thing, but it also lays the foundation for everyone to take ownership of their particular brand of polyamory as being the “correct” way to do things.
This can happen inside relationships as well. Feeling aversion toward your own partner’s relationship choices or practices can spurn a strong desire to criticize or police, neither of which make for healthy, happy relationships. I’ve often seen relationships wherein one partner prefers seeking casual, low-maintenance relationships while the other partner only seeks deep, tightly-entwined romance. Unless both people are naturally full of compassionate understanding for the other (a rare occurrence in human beings), there’s often mutual disapproval, misunderstanding, and flat-out aversion.
It wasn’t until I placed my own experience of aversion under the microscope that I discovered it’s not all black and white. It comes in a variety of flavors, some more repugnant and others more wholesome.
A woman sat across the table from me in the dining hall and began eating. I didn’t know this woman, but it didn’t really matter because we wouldn’t be speaking anyway. I briefly regarded her and was about to return my focus to my own meal, when I suddenly noticed what she was doing.
This woman was eating with her hands. And I don’t mean that she had made a sandwich or some other kind of hands-on food. She had a plate full of lasagna and salad. In horror, I watched as she methodically scooped up morsels of food and placed them into her mouth, licking and sucking on her fingers in between. It was like a car wreck; I couldn’t look away.
The wave of aversion consumed me, and in my mind, the thought arose loud and clear: This person is disgusting.
The minute I became aware of the thought, I was surprised by its harshness. I had just made up my mind about this stranger’s character because of the way that she chose to eat in that given moment.
Instead of leaving it at that, I chose to dig deeper (and also make myself stop watching.) I sat with the feelings of aversion, and after only a few moments it became clear to me. I felt this aversion not because this woman was doing something wrong, but merely because she was doing something that I myself didn’t want to do.
The realization is simple, yet powerful. I quickly ran through a list in my brain of all the usual judgments I leveled at others. The majority of them fit that same kind of aversion: nothing fundamentally wrong, just something that I wouldn’t do for myself. This included people who ate or drank differently than me, people who lived in cities I found repulsive, and people who conducted their relationships in ways I would never dream of considering.
When I mentally noted that there was nothing being done to me and no one actually making me do something that I didn’t want to do, I suddenly found myself able to step away from judgment and into compassion and understanding. This has immensely improved my relationships, as it has allowed me to step back from the temptation to police my partners and tell them what they should or shouldn't be doing in their other relationships. (Which is a phenomenal accomplishment for someone whose job it is to dole out relationship advice.)
But Isn’t There Healthy Aversion?
On the other hand, isn’t it healthy to feel aversion to behaviors that you disagree with? Doesn’t aversion help keep us inside the lines of our own moral code and personal boundaries? Surely there isn’t any relationship where it’s possible to be aversion-free 100% of the time!
It's true that there will always been some level of negativity and aversion that will arise even in the most solid of relationships. It's also true that aversion can help to protect us and guide our path. If I feel aversion when my partner has a one-night stand, that may just be because it’s not my style, and doesn’t merit berating my partner over it. However, if my partner has lied to me or to someone else in order to manipulate his way into that one-night stand, that crosses into the realm of boundaries.
It is extremely important to be clear on what your personal boundaries are, as well as taking the time to define what your personal code of morals or ethics looks like. If you know where your lines are, it’s easier to tell when someone has crossed them and it’s time to say something.
So the next time you feel aversion, take it as a cue to pause, reflect, and examine what’s really going on. It may save you a lot of unnecessary arguments, plus you get the bonus of getting to know yourself a little bit better. All without having to watch someone suck leftovers off their fingers.