‘Becoming the Change:’ The Practice of Liberation

Habitual patterns of the mind were a strong theme of the Wednesday meditation session I attended last week. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said,

“Sow a thought and reap an action

Sow an act and reap a habit

Sow a habit and reap a character

Sow a character and reap a destiny.”

The core of the yoga and meditation practices is arguably the work we do to purify and thereby transform what are called samskaras in Sanskrit, or sankaras in Pali (the ancient language of Gautama the Buddha). These samskaras are like habits, in that they constitute the accumulated impressions – scientifically speaking, the neuron patterns – that determine our character, ways of thinking and behaving and overall outlook on and approach to life.

I like Yoga Journal writer and meditation teacher Sally Kempton’s interpretation of samskaras as “some scars.” Kempton describes samskaras as energy patterns in the consciousness, mental grooves that are like rivulets in sand that allow water to run in specific patterns. She often talks about how samskaras create our ‘default’ mental, physical and emotional settings. The thought “I can’t do this” when faced with a new challenge is a negative samskara that can be replaced by the confidence you feel when you finally master something that was initially challenging.

Neurophysiologists who map neural pathways in the brain reveal how every time we react a specfic way, such as by becoming angry, or overeating, we strengthen the power of that behavior pattern. The yogic texts describe the same phenomenon; Master Patanjali (author of the treatise “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras”) is often referred to as a master psychologist. The way we think, feel, react and behave at any time are due to samskaras, or neural connections that function in our subconscious minds. Once our samskaric pathways are molded in place, most of us run around in them, like mice spinning around endlessly in a wheel, going absolutely nowhere with great fury.

In between the poles of expression and repression, there lies a third option of mere observation. The real work of yoga and meditation, then, is to learn to develop equanimity toward negative samskaras, developing awareness to be able to observe as countless impurities arise in the mind (as thoughts) and in the body (as physical sensations) that will all ultimately pass away. Patience is key in this purification process, as is persistence.

A wakeup call is necessary to ignite this process of transformation. Often, we are not aware of the negative patterns, or wheels we spin around in until a moment of crisis occurs. We have a car accident. A severe health problem. A significant life relationship breaks up. It is difficult to be grateful for life’s challenges, but crisis situations truly provide the opportunity for the deepest healing to take place.

Many people wonder how they can change the qualities in themselves that create suffering – anger, hatred, fear, jealousy and all sorts of addictive behaviors. Master Patanjali answers this question in the 21st verse of the first chapter of his Yoga Sutras:

Teevra-Samvegaanam Asana

This literally translates to:

“Liberation comes quickly when the desire for it is intense.”

The great early 20th century Indian spiritual teacher Sri Aurobindo said that human aspiration beckons the force of divine grace, which fuels spiritual breakthrough. Grace often either comes within as inspiration or from without as the help and support we receive from others.

The essence of yoga and meditation is really the effort to accumulate as many new positive samskaras as possible to overwhelm and eventually get rid of the old ones. Developing a daily practice of yoga and/or meditation is a great way to build positive samskaras. One of the main benefits of these practices is the heightened level of awareness they develop, which enable us to consciously change our negative ways of thinking and behaving to more positive thoughts and behaviors. Every thought and physical sensation on the body (which are linked, at the deepest level) become opportunities for transformation.

Master Patanjali offers another aphorism for transformation in sutra 33 of the second chapter of his Yoga Sutras:

Vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam,

This translates,

“When negative or harmful thoughts disturb the mind, they can be overcome by constantly thinking of their opposites.”

After practicing thought replacement for a while, every time you experience fear, for example, you will have developed an alternate set of samskaric grooves that will come up with your fear to remind you of more positive ways to address the fear. Over time, this set of grooves will become as strong as your fear and provide more choices about how to respond instead of just blindly reacting.

I recently attended a very interesting trauma training with the Mind Body Awareness (MBA) Project, an organization I teach meditation in juvenile hall through. The presenter illustrated the cycle of trauma with a downward-pointing curve. When a person is in homeostasis, the reaction to an external threat is automatic and intelligent. For example, if you see a lion on the horizon, you will turn and move away if you’re far enough, or try to climb up a tree if not.

As a traumatic experience escalates, one moves into the activation stage of trauma, in which he or she makes a ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ decision to react. In severe cases of trauma, at the height of the activation stage, one transitions into ‘freeze’ mode. One training participant pointed out how the word ‘free’ is contained within ‘freeze’ – and frozen people can indeed look as though they are enlightened and liberated!

One can never find freedom until they go through the deactivation stage, however. The presenter shared how physically shaking is a potent way of resolving trauma: it exemplifies the willingness to be vulnerable to one’s own experience and is a neurological way of completing the stress response to return to homeostasis. Not being ‘shaken up,’ then means one has not left freeze mode. Another participant pointed out how so many people remain perpetually in freeze mode. Corporate executives are often as physically stiff as the big prison inmates, as trauma is nothing but compounded stress: a sadly widespread phenomenon in modern times!

The things that are required for deactivation to successfully occur are:

  1. Safety (through the presence of someone the traumatized person knows, likes and trusts)
  2. Time without stress and
  3. Giving one’s body permission to react however it wishes, even if it is uncomfortable.

The more trauma and stress that accumulate in the system, the harder and longer it is for deactivation to occur.

An interesting insight from the training was how the key to the success of yoga in healing trauma was that people counted the seconds they held the postures for. This enabled them to acknowledge the reality of change as the only constant in the practice – as in life. This is very aligned with the wisdom of aniccha, a Pali word that literally means ‘not everlasting’ and symbolizes the cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death through which every living being must pass.

People who become traumatized never escape moments of trauma and stress – that is what it means to be frozen. Yet, change is the very essence and nature of life on earth. Plants, insects, the moon, stars and galaxies are constantly dying and being reborn. Death and birth are an eternal dance – dissolution and creation are a constant reality of the material plane of existence. The more comfortable we can become with the cyclical nature of life, the more fully we are able to live, without holding back or holding onto cravings or aversions. In embracing all that comes our way in this detached manner, we can discover the complete and total freedom (moksha in Sanskrit) that the yogis and sages call Self-realization.

The key to discovering this inner freedom lies in, as Pancho astutely pointed out, the practice of cultivating ahimsa, or compassion. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, chapter two, verse 35 states:

Ahimsa-Pratisthayam Tat-Sannidhau Vaira-Tyagah

This translates:

“When non-violence is firmly established, hostility vanishes in the yogi’s presence.”

Gandhiji is a golden example of a person firmly rooted in nonviolence, who radiated this conviction to others, and continues to do so now after even death. He was so powerful that not even violent thoughts could exist in his presence, as is verified by the many people who report that their lives changed drastically upon catching just a glimpse of Gandhiji. I personally experienced a deep transformation of consciousness when I met a modern hugging saint from Kerala called Ammachi (who many call a modern Gandhiji).

Dinesh Uncle (in whose home the weekly meditation takes place) wisely pointed out how crucial the constant cultivation of consciousness is, as meditation is really just a way of practicing and preparing for the moment of death. So that when it is our time to go, we can transition out of this life cycle with as much compassion and equanimity as possible, to gain upliftment and even final freedom and liberation for our soul. This was Gandiji’s greatest legacy in my eyes: how he was able to fold his hands in a prayer even as he was conscious of the fact that he was about to be assassinated – and actually blessed his murderer. Though this example illustrates the tragic limitations of violence disappearing the presence of someone firmly established in ahimas, it provides incredible inspiration to keep practicing, indeed!

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5 Comments

  1. Manvi says:

    Beautiful Ripa, I really liked it. it made me think and I will come back to it and will go more slowly over some stuff. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Mitch Hall says:

    HI Ripa,

    Your reflections on the samskara flowed beautifully. Regarding the three conditions you mentioned for releasing the frozen energy of trauma, it is most often important that an empathic,, caring, understanding witness/facilitator be present in order to provide the safety and assurance about the healing direction of the reactions that can be scary. Thus, I recommend that you consider a fourth factor in your model. The example you gave of how Ghandiji faced his assassin is very moving. At the same time, it calls, I believe, for greater reflection concerning the scope and tragic limitations of the quotation concerning how hatred disappears in the presence of a person firmly established in ahimsa. I value all you have written and thank you for sharing your meaningful thoughts.
    Peace and warmest wishes,
    Mitch

    • inspireyoga says:

      Hi Mitch,

      Thanks so much for writing! YES, the presence of someone you know, like or trust to go through the deactivation stage was definitely part of the model I learned (not “my” model by any means!) – I’m glad you reminded me to include that.

      And yes again, it is so true that there are indeed tragic limitations to how hatred disappears in the presence of a person firmly established in ahimsa, as Gandhiji was indeed assassinated. I like how you put that, as it is something that crossed my mind but I didn’t quite know how to articulate properly. So thank you!

      Gratefully,
      Ripa

  3. Mitch Hall says:

    Hi Ripa,

    Thanks for your welcoming response to my comment on your excellent posting. The model of healing from trauma that you presented sounds like it is based on Peter Levine’s work. He calls his approach, in which he trains practitioners, somatic experiencing (SE). I’d like to add a few more reflections to this dialogue, and my focus will be on some of the subtle dynamics of interpersonal influence, as I understand the issue.
    In the case of supporting a person’s healing from trauma, the helper needs to be attuned with empathy to the traumatized person’s feelings and to respect that person’s own natural resources for healing. The empathy and respect may communicated verbally, behaviorally, and energetically. The mirror neuron system makes it possible to sense what the other person is feeling, on both sides of the relationship. The helper who is well centered can influence through being present the healing person’s stress response system. The stress response networks in the brain are closely associated and interconnected with the networks that medicate interpersonal relationships. The energetic communication is especially subtle. The human heart has been found to transmit electromagnetic frequencies both within a person and between persons. The beating heart generates two and a half watts of electricity. The resulting electromagnetic wave is “…at an amplitude from 40 to 60 times greater than that of brain waves…” (Pearce, p.56), and the currents radiate from 12 to 15 feet beyond the body, while being strongest within a three-foot radius (Pearce, 2002). The strength of these cardiac waves is approximately a thousand times that of brain waves (Eden, 1998, p. 156). Because of its predominant power, “…the heart tends to pull the brain and other organs into synchronization or ‘entrainment’ with its rhythm…” (Eden, 1998). The heart’s electromagnetic field is configured like a torus that arcs out from and back to its source in the protective thoracic cavity. This torus is organized around a roughly vertical axis that extends through the torso from the perineum to the crown of the cranium (Pearce, p. 57). It has been found that the electromagnetic field generated by the heart of one person can even entrain the brain waves of another (Pearce, 2002, pp. 245-246). Linda Russek, a scientist at the University of Arizona, interviewed–as part of a study conducted with her colleague Gary Schwartz–individual men who had previously rated themselves as having been either well nurtured or not in childhood. Within a brief time, the brain waves, as measured by EEG, of the men who perceived their childhoods as positive became synchronized with Russek’s heart frequencies, as measured by ECG. “The EEG patterns of the subjects with negative childhoods showed a much slower-forming and weaker correspondence to the interviewer, if any at all” (Pearce, p. 246). This research has so many important implications, I believe. Similarly, Schore (2003) has integrated research that shows how areas related to social-emotional functioning in the right hemisphere of an emotionally healthy therapist’s brain unconsciously induce healing structural and functional influences in the right hemisphere of the client’s brain. The heart’s electromagnetic field may be one of the ways these changes are induced since there are unmediated connections between the human heart and the right hemisphere.
    These considerations and the research of Russek and Schwartz shine light on one aspect of the tragic limits to the influence of a person rooted in ahimsa. Some people, such as Gandhi’s assassin, are impervious to that influence because they have disorganized attachment systems due to early, pervasive, severe, and enduring traumatic abuse and/or neglect. Their hearts and brains cannot become entrained to the peaceful emanations of the spiritual person who has cultivated ahimsa in his or her heart, mind, and behavior. It is so important, I believe, for humanity to awaken to the need to provide secure attachment to children from the beginning of life so that they can grow into adults who will be caring, altruistic, and nonviolent. Attachment researchers have indeed found that compassionate feelings and altruistic behavior is more likely to be found among securely attached people (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005).
    I hope, Ripa, that some of these reflections and references will be of interest to you and other possible readers. I have not had as much time as I would have liked to develop these ideas as fully as possible. References are below my signature.

    Namaste,
    Mitch

    References
    Eden, D. (1998). Energy medicine. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

    Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P. R. (2005). Attachment security, compassion, and altruism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (1), 34-38.

    Pearce, J. C. (2002). The biology of transcendence: A blueprint of the human spirit. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

    Schore, A. N. (2003). Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York:
    W. W. Norton & Company.

  4. Maxine says:

    Hey! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 4! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the superb work!

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