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Samskaras and Neuroplasticity
Does your family put your spiritual practice to the test?
Have you been making leaps and bounds through your yoga or meditation practice – feeling better day to day, learning to take a breath in the challenging moments, and ultimately living life more freely from a place of joy? The Yoga practice helps us move in that direction, and then we go back home for a holiday gathering with our family and suddenly we are right back where we started. Why is that? What is it about family, caretakers, or being in the home we grew up in that pulls us back into our old patterns of thought, emotions, or behaviors? According to the yoga tradition, it’s because of Samskaras.
What ARE Samskaras?
A samskara is often translated as the groove or pattern of the mind and directly relates or corresponds with our actions or behavior. Samskaras begin forming at the very moment we step into our bodies. Our parents, or the ones who raise us, largely play a major role in the forming of our Samskaras. When we were children our lens of perception was colored for us; we were taught to see the world the way our parents, teachers, and society saw it. At some point in our journey, we woke up and began to self-reflect, recognizing that perhaps the lens we’ve been looking through is not the truth. Let’s look at this lens of perception as a window. The window has a lifetime of dirt and grime, and the yoga, meditation, and self-inquiry practice help to clean the window little by little, allowing us to see life more clearly so we can experience it as it is rather than as we believe it to be.
The analogy I use in the video below is another way of understanding Samskaras. I explain that Samskaras create grooves in the mind like the groove of a river in a mountain side. The river carves out the earth little by little through repetition and time and eventually becomes powerful. Our mind (thoughts, emotions, beliefs, perception) is exactly like the river. Starting when we are young, the mind begins to look for like and unlike experiences and collecting them as beliefs and perception. This helps us to determine safe and unsafe situations, and forms our communication: “When I cry, caretaker brings me food,” or perhaps “when I cry, no one responds.” Through repetition, these observations become our perception or the grooves of our mind. We may then form the opinion that it is good or bad or effective or ineffective to express ourselves a certain way. We form beliefs about others and the world we live in.
Now that you have begun your yoga practice, you have likely begun the process of burning away your Samskaras. How do you know? If you are behaving differently: more patient, kind, respectful, loving, emotionally stable or vulnerable, light-hearted, joyful, etc. Burning Samskaras or old patterns allows us to live in the now, where the magic of life exists, and the world feels exciting and new again.
WHY DOES BEING AROUND FAMILY MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I HAVE NOT GOTTEN ANYWHERE?
Because the vast majority of Samskaras were formed at a very young age, they have had a lifetime to get stronger. Like the river that has been digging its way into the earth, the longer it has been flowing, the deeper the groove. The samskaras that were formed as a child are triggered by experiences that are closest to the ones that formed them in the first place – typically your parents, siblings, or caretakers. Or you might be most triggered by people in your life that most resemble them which could be your boss, teacher, in-laws, friend, etc. You may have been working on yourself for quite some time, burning away the outer layers, only to show up at a family gathering or holiday dinner and notice your blood boiling, ready to argue, run away or just plain give up. There is a saying that goes something like, “if you think you are enlightened, visit your family.” How perfect that statement is as a reminder that yoga is a practice, not a one-time product purchase to solve your issues. We need to continuously stoke the fire of transformation to experience freedom from our Samskaras.
Burning Samskaras is recognized in modern psychology as Neuroplasticity – our brain’s capacity to change our neurological patterning. While much of our childhood patterns are formed without our awareness, it is awareness that allows us to burn what no longer serves us. Awareness is also what allows us to choose how we want to feel, act, think, and exist in this world. Awareness is a state of being that floods our conscious mind when we are present in the here and now. Have you ever watched yourself think a thought, or witnessed the sensations of your body, or decided to take a breath instead of reacting? The part of you that is aware of thoughts, emotions, and actions is awareness–and awareness is something you can strengthen just like a muscle. How do you strengthen it? The 4 main practices are Yoga, Meditation, Breath Work (pranayama), and Self-Inquiry. Self-Inquiry is also the result of the first three practices, as it is our “awareness” that creates the inquiry. Self-inquiry is the process of asking yourself questions, observing your thoughts, emotions, and behavioral patterns, and reflecting upon your actions and reactions. Through repetition, your awareness builds strength and awareness slowly burns away old patterns. Literally, the brain forms new neurological “wiring” which changes the way we act or react in any given situation.
There is much that is beyond our control such as life circumstances and outcomes of our actions, but what we do have control of is the inner landscape of our mind and our actions. That might seem like a large task, and it does take time and routine practice of yoga and meditation (see Elements of Mastery for both), however, there is one thing you can do right now to help you maintain your ground when you step back into the all too familiar family dinner or holiday celebration.
“Create an Anchor” This is what I call having an intention, but I use the imagery of an anchor so when the seas get rough, you hold tight to the ocean floor and stay deeply grounded in your intention. The questions to form your intention are
- How do you want to feel?
- How do you want to act?
Anchor yourself into the answers to these questions by asking yourself how you want to feel/act the moment you start to feel your blood boil under the surface of your skin or when you just want to run or hide. When you notice yourself falling back into your old patterns, hold tight to your anchor and do not let go. You may need to excuse yourself and take a few breaths or do a quick sun salutation, and that is ok! Be compassionate, the river is incredibly strong but you are indeed stronger.
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