From the earliest moments of childhood we come to know that there are things we like and things we don’t. Our caretakers cement these preferences through a system of rewards and punishments. If you are “good,” you get what you want, whereas if you are “bad,” you typically don’t. As we grow up, our likes and dislikes become so ingrained that they seem to define who we are. “Hi, I’m Sindy and I like long walks on the beach and curling up on the couch with a good book.” This is all well and good until we don’t get what we want and/or do get that which we don’t want. And of course, both of those eventualities are inevitable.
According to Vedanta philosophy, the oldest path of knowledge that predates all religion, we humans are made up of a body, a mind, and an intellect. The intellect is that part of us that can reason, discern, set higher values in life, and make choices of action to support those values. The mind, on the other hand, is the home of our emotions, our likes and dislikes, and our personal preferences. And the body, of course, is the vehicle through which we move through our days based either on the preferences of our minds or the reasoned choices of our intellects.
It is a wonderful thing to have emotions, to laugh, to love, to find joy in the world around us. But we must also use our intellect to set strong boundaries for our actions so that we do not live just seeking pleasure and avoiding pain in an indiscriminate manner. The world is in a constant state of change – everything in it first arises, then abides, and finally dissolves. For example, the daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset, the rise and fall of the ocean’s tides, the changing of the seasons, the trajectory of our own lives. Understanding this, we can see how merely following our likes and dislikes will create internal agitation and suffering. Things cannot always be as you want them to be. That’s simply not the nature of the world. And even if you get what you want, two things are certain: it will change, and you will want something else before too long.
The question thus becomes how we manage the reality of our likes and dislikes. As an initial matter, understand that chasing likes and avoiding dislikes will always result in mental agitation and upset. With this knowledge, practice softening your attitude towards them when you notice they arise. Say, for example, it is too hot for your liking on a summer day and you feel physically uncomfortable. Notice if you get caught up in a story about your discomfort that clouds everything else you are experiencing, like the company of a loved one or the beauty of the clear sky. Then, simply soften. Cling a little less tightly to the idea of what you want the outside temperature to be. Accept a little more the weather conditions just as they are. These are examples of using the power of your intellect to rise above the agitation of your mind.
Softening, accepting, unhooking – these are all useful words to call to mind to ease the inevitable suffering that comes from chasing likes and avoiding dislikes. Contemplate them and consider what they mean to you. Practice them and notice what they feel like in your body. Then, with skill and discernment, open yourself up to the peace that lies beyond liking and disliking.