Pratipaksha bhavanam


A friend often suggests “cultivate the opposite” as a way to approach growth or problem-solving. I believe she picked it up from her teacher; like a lot of this kind of wisdom, it actually comes from the Yoga Sutras. In this case II.33, Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam. In the face of negativity, cultivate the opposite, or in the translation, uncertainty concerning implementation can be overcome via orientation with the reverse. But the way my friend uses it is more like behavioural resistance training. You like to talk? Try being silent more often. Like to lounge? Take more walks. Tend to be busy? Plan a simpler schedule. It works for all things, good and bad. Any opposite can be cultivated. It’s also kind of an ear-worm; since she introduced it, I have started thinking of it all the time. How can I embrace the opposite of what I am doing?

(In my case, I tend to be susceptible to catchphrases, or to cognitive gimmicks with potential to sweep all my cognitive mess under the rug. This blog post is just one more bit of evidence for that, and in the spirit of cultivating the opposite I will work on a balancing contribution another time. But for now, I’ll follow this thread).

I like this one because it is layered – just identifying an opposite takes a lot of research. Knee-jerk reactions like immediately pouncing on whatever you usually do and ceasing to do that thing are probably a kind of level one engagement. For example, I love peanut butter and always crave peanut butter and am an immoderate consumer of peanut butter so what is a good exercise for me? Eliminating peanut butter. Or, I tend to avoid eating anywhere other than my house when I am alone, so I could try to enjoy a solo meal at a restaurant, or at the dining hall at university, or someplace that is not my couch.

But these level one challenges change behaviours, not mindsets. (See this genius column on the similarities between training marine mammals and getting your husband to keep track of his keys for a hilarious meditation on this truth). There’s always several higher orders of change available. Instead of eliminating peanut butter, I could try training myself to use it moderately. Maybe that could be having it only at breakfast, or only on weekends, or only when baked into other things, or whatever; the real opposite would be to go from thinking about peanut butter a lot to thinking about peanut butter no more than I think about any other food item. I have no problem consuming porridge oats or lentil soup moderately, so why should peanut butter be an issue? But to do this I have to get into the inner workings a bit more.

I do not think that Patanjali was thinking of nut butters when he composed this sutra. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we get serious about yoga we often experiment with food. The daily process of choosing what to put into our bodies and what to refuse makes for a beautiful experimentation process with recognising, modifying, and eventually earning the ability to play with our tastes and tendencies as a means toward eventually freeing ourselves from them. Hamish Hendry put it bluntly at a workshop once: “Who’s the boss, chocolate or me?” Identifying the tendency, and then putting in the work to cultivate its opposite, starts loosening the grip of habit or expectation or samskara on us. It does this at first by bringing the samskara into view by giving it a name and letting us see just how deep a groove it has carved out through our letting it repeat.

Food, then, is probably not a very advanced samskara to work with. I’m imagining for myself a much greater challenge, attempting to adopt, deliberately, personality traits that I find repellent. I struggle with sanctimony, in that I find it objectionable when people praise their own moral stances as if they are the only conceivable choice for a thinking individual. If they do so without humour, all the worse, as far as I am concerned. In fact I attempt to cultivate the opposite, to approach my own stances and choices with levity and skepticism. Jokes at my own expense always make me laugh. But I cannot even be sanctimonious about my aversion to sanctimony: as I write this, I am haunted by the image of my junior-year high school English teacher, who once scolded me over a self-deprecating joke. “Stop!” she said. “Take yourself seriously.”

Now, more than a decade later, I would like to take her advice. And I will, I am sure, as soon as I can find a way to describe it in a metaphor involving peanut butter.