The problem with preferences

 

 

One of the core insights we come to through the regular practice of meditation is recognizing the nature of impermanence. This insight is valuable because it helps to free us from the suffering caused by grasping and clinging and wanting things to stay the same.

One of the easiest ways to have such an insight is to observe how a tree loses its leaves. But for many of us, seeing a tree lose its leaves sets off an inner complaint: Oh, winter is coming and I don’t like winter. Why can’t it stay warm and light always?

Whatever our personal preferences are, they get in the way of simple observation, and the gift of insight into the nature of being.

We don’t need to make an enemy of preferences — in fact, doing so would be just another barrier to awakening — but it is helpful to recognize preferences when they show up and see their nature. We can see how they can take any moment or situation and find fault with it. It would have been a perfect vacation but it was too…(fill in the blank). One small preference unmet can sabotage the whole experience. It gnaws at us so we become blind to all the beauty and wonder that is there for us in every moment.

We all have lots of preferences; so many, in fact, that we don’t take the time to see if they are true. Sometimes our preferences go so long unrecognized that when we do take the time to notice, we might discover we no longer ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the food or condition or whatever we have been claiming to feel so strongly about.

Let’s take the example of some treat we claim to love. Perhaps we describe ourselves as a chocoholic or addicted to ice cream. Because our thoughts are so full of attachment to this idea of ourselves, with all judgments we may have about this long-accepted preference, we are often so mentally embroiled in anticipation, anxiety, guilt, etc. as we approach the food itself, that we can’t taste it. We devour it to be done with it and past this complicated set of thoughts and emotions.

Can we slow down really taste the treat we claim to love. Is it really delicious? Great! Or when mindfully attended, without the urgency and all the entangled thoughts and emotions, is it not quite so delicious as we assumed? Perhaps there are even some aspects of the flavor or texture that are actually unpleasant. If the food is not the best choice for a meal, then this may feel like a wonderful discovery to recognize that we are addicted to the mental and emotional patterns of anticipation and the nostalgia of foods and experiences often more than the food or experience itself.

When we pay attention, we see how preferences, like everything else, change. That may feel discomforting if we believe that our accumulated combination of preferences define us. And we feel unloved if someone forgets our preferences. Is that true? Well, let’s check. Are your feelings hurt if someone who professes to love you forgets that you don’t like, let’s say, mushrooms? If so, then you are entrenched in the idea that your preferences are intrinsically you.
They are not! The Buddha put together a whole list called the Five Aggregates that gently but firmly walks us through all the things that we are not, and our preferences are second on the list. [READ MORE]

We don’t have to get rid of our preferences, but it really helps to notice and question them. Preferences are often rooted in fear. If we have a preference for a certain temperature or kind of weather, we may have positive associations, sweet memories, nostalgia super-charges our preferences. We can be closed off from many experiences because they are unfamiliar, so there may be something to fear, something to make us uncomfortable, something to make us feel insecure.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do anything new to have insights. We just come to our senses: to see, hear, taste, smell, touch as if every moment is new. Because it is! It may seem the same, but because of the nature of impermanence, the world presents itself fresh to us in each moment, never to be replicated! The Symphony of Now.

Since this is the way of things, and nothing we do can make it stay exactly the same, why not acknowledge and even celebrate impermanence.

Certainly when we have a great loss, impermanence seems cruel. But that same impermanence helps us to survive the loss, and over time to ease our grief and heal from the wound of what may feel like an amputation.

Impermanence delights us when it brings on something we enjoy: blossoms in the garden, a beautiful sunrise, etc. But if we are not open to all of impermanence, even those moments are tinged with sadness because we can’t keep it like this forever.

Our extreme preference for certain aspects of impermanence and our loathing of others is something to notice. Can we be compassionate with ourselves when we feel the dread of changes we don’t like? Can we be tender without being indulgent? Can we practice being present with whatever arises just as it is, and greet it as the wonder it is?

Think about your own preferences. See if you can notice them when they arise. See whether they are as true as you thought. See if you cling to them as an intrinsic part of what makes you you. See if your preferences cause you to suffer in any way. And then see if you can hold your preferences more lightly.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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