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:
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,
“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:
- Safety (through the presence of someone the traumatized person knows, likes and trusts)
- Time without stress and
- 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
“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!