The unconscious is a hot topic lately, with scientific literature increasingly demonstrating the extent to which we are influenced by subconscious biases, prejudices, and orientations. Yet, long before Freud and other psychologists posited that implicit orientations and patterns subconsciously guide behavior, the yogic concept of samskara provided a sophisticated explanation for the causal forces that shape our unwitting actions and future responses. While we cannot escape the creation of these unconscious imprints, we can work to overcome them through conscious awareness and self-reflection. In this way, we can transform our lives from being driven by unconscious habits and tendencies toward more fulfilling ones.
The word samskara derives from the Sanskrit sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause, or doing). It is commonly translated as “mental impression,” “habit pattern” or “recollection.” They rest in the unconscious inner-self and form the basic inner drives that influence and effect future actions.
Samskaras are impressions or imprints formed from previous life experiences. These impressions are often thought of as seeds planted in our subconscious minds, waiting until we need them to grow into our conscious thoughts and behaviors. They can also be thought of as habits or patterns of thinking and acting that become ingrained over time. They can manifest as a habitual tendency or an innate disposition of one’s personality.
Yogic philosophy states that every act of karma can create an impression in the deeper structure of human mind. When these karmic impressions are repeated, they become stronger and create deeper grooves. When these patterns are strong enough, they begin to influence how you think about yourself and your life. In this way, the samskaras are like roots that bind us to the past and prevent us from moving forward with new ideas and experiences. To free ourselves from these patterns, we must first understand what they are and why they exist in the first place.
Creating mental impressions
A samskara starts as a vritti (whirlpool, thought-wave), a thought, emotion, or sensation that arises like a wave on the ocean of conscious awareness. In response to internal or external stimuli, the corresponding thoughts, emotions, and reactions settle into the subconscious mind (chitta), where they form sensory impressions, or samskaras. Such impressions are analogous to neural pathways, which form new connections upon repeated exposure to a given stimuli. As “neurons that fire together wire together,” vrttis and samskaras that are repeatedly deployed form more enduring samskaric pathways, or patterns.
Samskaras, much like the experiences they reflect, can be either maladaptive or adaptive. Adaptive or positive samskaras generate kind and virtuous actions, birthing us more fully into the present and aligning us with divine truth. Maladaptive or negative samskaras engender craving, delusion, and aversion, strengthening the bonds of karma and halting liberation (self-knowledge).
According to yoga philosophy, our memories, sense of self, worldview, and actions mirror these sensory impressions, which derive from our current and past lives. In default consciousness, these impressions are hidden and represent action potentials, awaiting cyclical re-activation in the form of vrttis. Swami Sivananda posited that any conscious thought or action stems from our underlying samskara, although we typically believe our actions derive from conscious free will.
Such beliefs in absolute free will are a form of maladaptive samskara, masking the reality that our actions and behaviors most frequently result from prior conditioning. From the perspective of yoga philosophy, denying that our actions are impacted by samskara is delusory.
Tools for navigating daily life
Samskara can also be viewed as heuristics that assist us in navigating an otherwise unknown and unpredictable world. After having experienced something once, we form expectations (samskara) that guide subsequent experience. In such a way, one cannot eat an orange without comparing it to other oranges. Samskaras allow us to believe the world and our place in it is predictable, while preventing us from fully experiencing present moment reality. Much of our life is spent asleep at the wheel, blindly careening from one filtered experience to the next as our samskara man the helm.
Samskaras color our perceptions of self and others, creating an identity based on what we have experienced. Our personality traits are largely shaped by how we view ourselves and the world around us, as well as by the people we interact with. We often fail to see the impact of our own thoughts, emotions, and actions because they are so familiar. If we do not recognize that our mind has created certain views, it becomes difficult to change those views.
In order to awaken to our true nature, we must first become aware of the negative behavioral patterns that have shaped our worldview. Once we recognize their influence, we can begin cultivating new samskaras that support greater freedom and happiness.
The first step towards breaking free from a samskara is seeing and recognizing it. This means being able to identify an habit pattern and trace it back to its roots of creation. When we are aware of these emotional patterns, we can begin to understand how they affect us and have the power to decide to not act upon them. It takes practice, mindfulness and awareness, but when we can step back and watch our samskaras, we can begin to let them go. We cannot change what we don’t know.
How do you know if you have activated a samskara?
- You feel an unusually strong emotional, mental and physical reaction.
- It is very difficult to let go or lessen this strong emotional, mental and physical reaction.
- You feel stuck in a loop of thought and emotion that does not lessen or stop over time.
- This strong reaction can be traced back to past experiences.
- It feels impossible to shift your mental focus away from these overwhelming thoughts and feelings.
- You feel trapped in a cycle of self-destruction and are helpless to break out of it or find relief.
Journaling is a great way to document samskaras as they become conscious. By writing down what you think, feel, and remember when they are activated, you can get a clearer picture of your unconscious repetitive patterns. You may find it very helpful to refer back to these entries when you activate these habit patterns again. It will also be helpful to note anything that helped you move quickly and gracefully out of a state of reaction and turmoil.
The path of yoga offers a systematic method to foster self-awareness, and to replace maladaptive samskaras with healthier patterns of orienting. Healthier samskara can be formed by actively replacing maladaptive patterns with more wholesome responses (for example, when experiencing feelings of not being good enough, sending oneself thoughts of loving-kindness and perhaps stating an affirmation such as, “May I know that I am enough”). Some find it helpful to write these affirmations on sticky notes and place them around their home as a reminder. Another method is to write positive and negative vrttis on slips of paper, throwing away or burning the negative slip and placing the positive slip in your pocket or wallet.
One of the most potent yogic practices for dissolving habit patterns is dharana (mental concentration and awareness) and dhyana (meditation). While dharana can help us notice our thoughts and feelings, dhyana helps us transcend them. Through meditation, we learn to stop reacting to external stimuli and start responding to them rather than being controlled by them. Meditation allows us to look within and find the source of our suffering. Both processes require effort and persistence but allow us to separate ourselves from our emotional reactions and gain insight into its true cause.
Yoga instructor Yoganand Michael Carroll once said that many of us are like congealed lumps of cold spaghetti when we first initiate yoga practice. Each time we show up and practice, we warm the spaghetti and mix in sauce. While we may not notice the difference in one class or even five, a year later we may start to notice ourselves interacting with the world differently as our samskara are transformed and burned. Although samskara continue to exist in the self-realized practitioner, they no longer hold the power to bind or influence action or behavior, having been brought into the light of awareness. Such is the experience of liberation.