This is one of the most important lessons I learned recently on my 10-day silent meditation retreat.
Imagine any possible situation where you’re not feeling emotionally good.
Maybe your partner left you, or your big project at work failed, or you went to make coffee in the morning and remembered you forgot to buy milk.
No matter what the painful situation is, one of only three possible things is happening:
- AVERSION: You want something to change (by decreasing). It’s painful or uncomfortable. You want it gone right now!
- CRAVING: You want something to change (by increasing). It’s so pleasant that you want more and more of it — an unlimited, neverending supply!
- FIXATION: You want something to NOT change. It’s perfect exactly as it is, so it must never be different. Stay just like this forever, no matter what!
That’s it. Every negative feeling boils down to one of those three.
Don’t believe me? Let’s try some examples:
- Your life feels unfulfilling and you wish you could be happy like everyone else seems to be — CRAVING (you want more money, impact, success, etc.) or AVERSION (you hate feeling empty inside and you want that feeling to go away)
- You feel rage when your partner cheats on you — FIXATION (you wanted things to stay just as they were) or AVERSION (you want that other person out of their life immediately and forever)
- You feel annoyed whenever you have to deal with a stupid co-worker — AVERSION (you don’t want to be around them) or CRAVING (why can’t your workplace be filled with more competent people)
When you’re feeling bad, this framework can help you explore that feeling more deeply and get to the root cause.
What’s actually happening here?
- Does this feel most like aversion, craving, or fixation? Is it some combination?
- Which is the deepest, most important one? What’s the root cause of this unpleasantness?
- Is the worst part that you want more of something you already have? Or that you don’t have enough of something else? Or that you want something to go away? Or for something to never change?
Practice noticing and investigating.
Now, let’s go one layer deeper.
Say you’re sad or frustrated you didn’t get that promotion at work. You might frame it in several ways:
- CRAVING (for the extra money/prestige you wanted),
- AVERSION (to having your value ignored), or
- FIXATION (on your self-image as a star employee who deserves promotion).
You might have noticed: All are sides of the same coin. Now, what do they have in common?
In each case, the real problem is that you’re strongly attached to a certain outcome. You want things to be a specific way (even if you have little control over the situation).
So what’s the opposite of that?
Letting go. Accepting things as they are — not as you’d like them to be.
Don’t get me wrong: You’re still allowed to have preferences and desires.
But notice the difference between “strong attachment” and “equanimity”:
Attachment (fixation/craving): “I can’t function without coffee. The most important thing in the morning is to get my fix — it’s my non-negotiable ritual. I absolutely cannot fully wake up until I’ve had it.”
Equanimity: “I love coffee. I look forward to it in the morning. But if I run out sometime, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll just have tea or something else instead.”
Attachment (aversion): “I hate this person at work. They’re such an idiot. They make my life hell and ruin every project I’m on with them.”
Equanimity: “My co-worker can be pretty challenging to deal with. I often feel tension in my body around them, so I try to take care of myself by taking deep breaths.”
Attachment (craving/fixation): “If my partner left me, I’d be completely devastated and could never recover. When they’re out with friends, they should text me regularly so I know they’re thinking of me.”
Equanimity: “My partner is so important to me. I want them to enjoy their time with friends, and I also want to appreciate every moment the two of us have together (who knows when it might end).”
Now, practice noticing whenever you feel bad in some way: Are you experiencing too much attachment (i.e., craving, aversion, or fixation)?
Can you move toward more equanimity instead?
To reduce your suffering in life, practice attaching less firmly to specific outcomes.
The problem is not that you have desires, preferences, and goals.
The problem is STRONG attachment to things being different than they actually are — especially things outside your control.
- “I want to be rich.” ATTACHMENT: If I’m not able to become rich (which I can’t fully control), I suffer.
- “I want them to change.” ATTACHMENT: If they don’t change (which I can’t fully control), I suffer.
- “I want every day to be exactly like this.” ATTACHMENT: If something changes (which I can’t fully control), I suffer.
Here’s the easiest way to practice all this day-to-day: Notice if you’re “squeezing.”
Does it feel like you’re pushing hard against resistance? Like you’re engaging your metaphorical muscles? Like you’re creating tension?
- Squeezing to pull something/someone toward you? (CRAVING)
- Squeezing to push something/someone away? (AVERSION)
- Squeezing to hang on to something/someone? (FIXATION)
Those three point in different directions, but they all feel like squeezing. So the opposite of all three is letting go.
Do you feel agitated? Look for tension in your body. Is your jaw tight? Your shoulders? Your gut?
Where are you squeezing?
Maybe it’s more in your brain. Does it feel like you have too many thoughts squeezing together? Like you’re pressing your mind hard to think of a solution to a problem?
All of that is causing you suffering.
How can you relax and let go, accepting things as they are?
You’re allowed to have goals and preferences, but hold them loosely. Who knows what the future holds?
Yes, point yourself in a desirable direction. But practice acceptance and equanimity when you stumble along the way or if the path changes unexpectedly.
And yes, sometimes it makes sense to fight against the river current.
If injustice is happening, if others are suffering, then yes — maybe the right thing to do is engage your muscles and push against resistance.
But that’s at the macro level. At the micro level, keep practicing releasing and relaxing. You’ll be more effective at fighting the larger current if you’re not strongly attaching.
When the game clock is counting down and it’s up to you to make the winning throw, will you be more successful if you’re relaxed or tense?
Take some deep breaths, calm your body, and let go of any specific outcome. That’s how to win.
Key things to remember:
- Check out the chart at the top of this post to see how all of this fits together.
- When you’re feeling emotionally bad, practice noticing what exactly is at the root of it. Is it craving (wanting more of something), aversion (wanting it to go away), or fixation (wanting no change)?
- Where do you notice the squeezing?
- How can you practice equanimity, acceptance, and letting go — right here, right now?