How Pleasure and Pain Cloud the Mind

Understanding the Subconscious Forces Behind our Decisions

By Ida Jo

Everyday we make countless decisions. Some we carefully plot, weighing our options before finally enacting well-laid plans. Sometimes we act fast, responding in the heat of the moment. Regardless of the situation, our decisions become our actions, laying the foundation for our lives. One decision gets stacked on the next until we have careers, homes, families, possessions and all the other defining characteristics of our lives.

If we look closely, we can distinguish between the actions we take and the sometimes unseen motivations behind them. While we can easily look back and sift through the consequences of our past actions, it is more difficult to figure out what was actually driving our decisions in the first place.

If we can recognize and understand the motivations behind our actions, we go a long way toward realizing what makes us human, and we can refine our purpose and direction in life.

The study of yoga philosophy helps us to decipher these driving forces.

clean cosmetic productsLet’s begin with an observation that may be obvious: Every action we take and every decision we make stems from thoughts in the mind. The mind has habits—some good and some bad—that have a huge impact on our decisions. These mental habits are called afflictions, or kleshas, and the Yogasutras of Patanjali names five of them. They are conditions of the mind that drive our thoughts and actions even though, for most of us, they remain subconscious. They impact our lives without us noticing or understanding. This is why we sometimes make decisions that we don’t understand or even regret, only later realizing that we were subject to our subconscious habits.

One of the goals of yoga is to illuminate the habits of the mind, gradually making the subconscious conscious. When we can recognize and identify our mental afflictions, our decision making becomes much clearer. It becomes much easier to adjust our thoughts and therefore our actions. We learn to control our thoughts instead of our thoughts controlling us.

The easiest afflictions to recognize are a pair: desire and aversion. (In Sanskrit they are called raga and dvesha.) Generally these refer to our desire for pleasure and our aversion to pain or discomfort. They are powerful enough to impact nearly every decision we make. Just think about some decisions you’ve made today. Without too much effort, you can probably trace the origins of your decisions to a desire for pleasure or an aversion to pain: I put sugar in my coffee to make the taste sweet because sweet things give me pleasure. I leave 15 minutes early for work to avoid rush hour because being stuck in traffic is stressful and frustrating. I work hard to satisfy my clients because my boss might compliment my work, and I feel good when my worth is recognized and affirmed.

We all have unique relationships with pleasure and pain, and most of our decisions and actions can be traced to one or the other.

Our desire for pleasure is tricky, because pleasure is almost always accompanied by pain. When we have a delicious meal, the next meal is disappointing since now we have higher expectations. When we buy a nice shirt, we become afraid spilling something on it and ruining it. Each time we achieve the goal of our desire, we also experience the fear of its loss or the disappointment of its consumption, as in the case of sensual pleasures like food, vacations or any enjoyable experience.

Yoga also teaches us that the desire for pleasure will always be unsatisfying because it is limited. As soon as we experience pleasure we inevitably crave more of it or we crave something new entirely. This growing spiral of desire is the cause of addiction to substances, food, shopping or any other pleasure-creating action. The more we stay in this cycle, acquiescing to the growing and evolving desires, the more we strengthen our raga.  

Aversion, or dvesha, is quite easy to understand. Of course we do not like to experience what is uncomfortable or painful. However, our aversion to discomfort can easily become a driving force behind our decision making. We may accumulate wealth and status, property and titles, even love, in a subconscious attempt to prevent future suffering or insecurity that we imagine to be uncomfortable.

All of this is not to say that decisions driven by desire or aversion are wrong. Out of necessity, our lives are a series of actions and no amount of philosophy or understanding can change that. However, with practice and study we become more aware of these mental tendencies and begin to discriminate between decisions that are helpful to us and those that are just a response to our subconscious mental habits.

As you go through your day, consider each decision you make. It can be as simple as the decision to check your email or Facebook. Or what to have for lunch, or how you greet a loved one at the end of the day. Can you link it to attraction or aversion? Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it is disguised by the tricks of the mind. It is not necessary to act differently, especially at first. The goal is simply to notice what is driving your decisions until the subconscious habits become conscious.

Before too long, you will find yourself thinking with greater clarity, able to recognize how attraction and aversion affect your decisions. Better decisions lead to better actions, and better actions lead to a better life.

Publisher’s Note: Ida Jo holds the title Yoga Acharya and is head teacher of Ghosh Yoga