Approach or Avoid

living-with-pain-approach-avoidance-conflict.jpg

“Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace. Let yourself feel.”  ― Vironika Tugaleva

I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with scholar and author Robert Wright, who writes in his new book, Why Buddhism is True, the Science and Philosophy of Mediation and Enlightenment, that humans are hard wired to be perpetually dissatisfied. Evolution, he writes, rewards people for seeking out pleasure rather than pain. In order to pass on genes to the next generation, we need to eat and procreate. We couldn’t do that if we were permanently satisfied by food or sex, so we’re condemned to always want things to be a little different, to always want a little more. He then makes the case that some Buddhist practices (specifically mindfulness meditation) can help us overcome this biological pull towards dissatisfaction.

“That explains a lot,” said a good friend after I sent her the interview link. I agreed.

One of the things that struck me was Wright’s discussion of “approach and avoid.” Approach and avoid, he said, were the two most fundamental tendencies of even the simplest organisms. “Either you move toward something that’s good for you, like nutrition, or you move away from something that’s bad for you, like a toxin or a predator. These fundamental behaviors correspond to good feelings and bad feelings, so by our nature, we seek out good feelings and avoid bad feelings.” He pointed to mindfulness meditation as a method of disempowering those biological levers so that we no longer automatically respond to this fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and to always seek the thing that’s gratifying. “Mindfulness meditation,” he said, “can teach us to choose the feelings we want to follow or not follow, which not only makes us happier, but helps us treat others more compassionately and see the world more clearly.”

It made me think of a relationship I have with a difficult family member and how the feelings that come up for me when I’m with her have led me to avoid her more and more over the years. It also made me think of my yoga practice and how sticking with a difficult pose or transition helps me to practice approaching and then choosing, rather than automatically avoiding, when I’m off the mat.

“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.” ― R.D. Laing

What feelings/circumstances do you tend to avoid? How does avoidance help or hurt the situation? What might change if you choose to approach rather than avoid?

Susan JohnsonComment