Pratipaksha Bhavana – Another Valuable Tool from the Cognitive Branch of Yoga

bee414eef889b9309cee502f077a8f27In today’s article here at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we explore another valuable tool from the Yoga tradition for making better choices and experiencing greater peace.  Known in Sanskrit as pratipaksha bhavana, or “mindfulness of opposites,” and it actually offers two powerful approaches that we can use any time we find ourselves contemplating non-constructive behavior – techniques we can use to shift to a healthier mindset and in turn experience the better choices that mindset brings.

What Pratipaksha Bhavana Is Not

Before diving into its two forms, it can be helpful to first clarify what pratipaksha bhavana is not.  The term is often translated as “substitution of opposites,” but this can be misleading.  This approach is actually quite common in the modern self-help movement, but it is seldom truly helpful and is definitely not what Patanjali or the yogis were advocating.

If you’ve ever attempted to use this technique, you’re probably very aware that the mere negation of our thoughts generally doesn’t work.  If your mind is saying: “I would like a piece of cake,” simply asserting: “I do not want cake,” not only doesn’t change our mindset, but actually builds friction and even enmity between us and our minds.  The accuracy of this observation can easily be seen in the fact that we would never consider using this approach with others – for example, a child, friend, or co-worker.  If your daughter said: “I want candy,” you would never say: “No you don’t,” even in the most polite of forms, just as you would never simply negate the thoughts of a fellow employee.  The reason we don’t use this approach is because we realize such actions not only wouldn’t change their behavior but would most likely very strongly alienate us from them.

For this reason, it is important to understand that pratipaksha bhavana is not the mere negation of thoughts, but rather a distinct and far more effective pair of approaches.  As you will see, these techniques not only don’t build the friction with the mind as found in mere “substitution of opposites,” but in fact involve working with the mind, using the power of logic and reasoning to move in a more healthful, constructive direction.

Pratipaksha Bhavana 1: Choosing to Focus on Constructive Alternatives

The first form of pratipaksha bhavana begins with the understanding that, any time we find ourselves drawn to thoughts or behavior that we do not think would serve us, we can choose to shift our attention to constructive alternatives.  At first, the difference between this and what we were just discussing might seem subtle, but when considered in detail both the distinction and merits become very clear.

Again, if we take the thought: “I would like a piece of cake,” substitution of opposite would be simply asserting “I do not want cake” – a thought that puts us in opposition with the mind and leads our minds to question our accuracy.  By contrast, an example of our first form of pratipaksha bhavana would be to shift our focus from the cake to the desire for something greater.  In other words, rather than simply trying to convince our minds that we don’t want cake, we draw the mind to an even more positive and enjoyable alternative – for example how good we will feel if, instead of cake, we eat something delicious but better for our bodies, or if we engaged in a healthy activity.

As you can see, rather than denying the desires of the mind, in the first form of pratipaksha bhavana we are drawing the mind’s attention to a higher desire – in this case, the desire to be healthy.  Obviously, this is dramatically distinct from merely controverting or suppressing our thoughts.  Instead, we are using the energy of the mind as well as its powers of rationale to shift direction.  Rather than saying: “No, you are mistaken, you don’t want cake,” we are saying: “I know you want cake, but I think if you reflect a bit further, you’ll realize there is something that you want even more than that.”  In this sense, we are not fighting with or denying the energy of the mind but rather helping it channel itself toward a greater and more constructive goal.

Continuing the Shift…

Of course, part of the power of our cravings comes from the fact that our minds naturally reinforce or even amplify them.  Again, rather than fighting this, we can actually make our practice of pratipaksha bhavana even more powerful by using this aspect of our minds.  Just as we intensify our unhealthy desires by dwelling on and embellishing them, we can do the same with our more positive alternatives, consciously focusing on the positive feelings around them in order to intensify our commitment.  This will keep our momentum moving in a constructive direction and prevents us from simply reverting back to our original thought when our attention fades.

Again, using our above example, after the thought: “I would like cake,” our normal pattern is to continue with thoughts of how good the cake will taste, what type of cake we will have, how we can get it, and so on.  Just as we can shift our original thought, we can also shift these amplifications, for example thinking about how good we will feel if we have some healthy food, how good those delicious but healthy choices will taste, how good we’ll feel about ourselves when we make a healthy choice, et cetera.  In this way, by filling our minds with positive thoughts and feelings around our more constructive option, we are building positive momentum rather than simply trying to suppress an unhealthy desire.

Pratipaksha Bhavana 2: Reflecting Fully on the Impact of Our Choices

If our first form of pratipaksha bhavana can be seen as a type of “positive substitution,” the second form could perhaps be described as a type of “constructive negative-reinforcement.”  This approach originates from the realization that, most of the time that we choose actions that are not beneficial for us, we do so because we haven’t really allowed ourselves to think beyond the immediate pleasures the action might provide.  On the other hand, if we can pause long enough to really think through the full ramifications of the choice and imagine the consequences just as vividly as we imagine the enjoyable parts, we are far more likely to choose a healthier alternative.  This is the second form of pratipaksha bhavana, in which we simply are taking the time to follow our initial (unhealthy) craving or thought all the way through to its full consequences, including both the pleasurable and the less-pleasant.

For example, if we are considering joining friends for a night of celebration and drinking, it is natural to focus on the pleasurable parts – delicious food, laughter, and the chance to relax.  However, if we take the time to think not only of the enjoyment but also some of the other less-pleasurable elements – how our bodies will feel in the morning, or how it will feel to lose a peaceful evening at home with family, or even just the unnecessary expenditure – we will be more inclined to make better choices.

Again, you will notice that, as with our first form, we are not in any way controverting the mind – trying to convince it that it doesn’t feel certain cravings or that certain things wouldn’t be pleasurable.  Instead, we are once again using the power of the mind to look beyond its initial assumptions to the full potential ramifications of its actions.  In this way, once again, rather than fighting with or suppressing the mind, we are actually aligning ourselves with it, helping it use its natural wisdom and insight to make the choices that will best serve both it and us.

In Conclusion…

A final observation about pratipaksha bhavana that may be of help: as with other techniques of Yoga, you might find that one of these forms is generally more effective for you than the other, in which case it might serve to keep it in mind.  Again, we all have different dispositions, and therefore some of us respond more favorably to positive reinforcement (the first of our two forms), while others are more powerfully motivated by reflecting on the consequences of less-than-ideal choices.  For this reason, if you find one form feels more natural and constructive for you, it might serve to purposefully build your skill with that technique, reflecting on its applications during times of relative ease so that you are more prepared to apply it at times of challenge.

Whichever form you might favor, we hope this article has provided you with some helpful ways of working with the mind rather than against it – using our natural powers of reflection and discernment in order to make the best choices we can.  Until our next article, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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