There’s nothing more radical than the moment you realize that it is actually possible to change your life. I am not talking about the changes you can make on the outside–moving from Iowa to California or leaving your job to work for Doctors Without Borders. I’m talking about reconfiguring your mental and emotional attitudes—the kind of inner shift that turns a pessimist into someone capable of seeing the perfection in everything; that lets an angry person channel rage into creative energy; that makes you happier, more peaceful, more in touch with the love and wisdom at your core.
This sort of transformation is the crux of the inner life. It’s the reason we do every kind of inner work. Yet it’s essential to understand what kind of change we’re really after, and also to understand what that level of change requires. We don’t want to limit our own possibilities by expecting too little from our practice. At the same time, we don’t want to indulge in magical thinking or in the kind of spiritual bypass that makes us think we can simply meditate our way out of life issues.
Change Your Mind
Given yoga’s fundamental premise—that all of us, at our core, are made of the same powerful, loving intelligence that gives rise to all life, and that this intelligence is fluid and infinitely creative—it should be theoretically possible to change just about anything about ourselves. Some New Age teachers actually give that impression—they say, for example, that we can harness our power of intention to transform anything about our lives that we want to fix. But can a strong intention really change, for instance, our financial situation or romantic patterns? Can we heal a chronic or terminal illness by transforming our attitudes? Can we change our personality?
To these questions, yoga says yes and no. On the one hand, certain aspects of our basic personality and physical constitution seem to be ours for a lifetime—which is why even enlightened people famously express such individualistic personalities, and why no amount of stretching will lengthen your thighbones. On the other hand, there’s no question that when we enter deeply into our consciousness, extraordinary shifts take place.
What yoga can definitely help us change (and, by extension, dramatically shift our experience of life) is the texture of our own mind, the stickiness of certain emotions and views, and above all, the quality of our inner state. The most powerful shifts occur when we experience a change in the way we identify ourselves—when we are able to see ourselves as the Self, the unchanging consciousness behind the mind, or when we are able to identify ourselves as the witness to our thoughts rather than becoming our thoughts and feelings.
Arguably, the core of our yoga practice is the work that we do to purify, reforge, and replace the inner patterns that in Sanskrit are called samskaras. Samskaras are the accumulated impressions—in scientific terms, the neuronal patterns—that create our character, our ways of thinking and acting, and our perspective on life.
The word samskara can be translated just the way it sounds in English: “some scars.” Samskaras are energy patterns in our consciousness. I always picture them as mental grooves, like the rivulets in the sand that let the water run in certain patterns. Samskaras create our mental, emotional, and physical default settings.
The tendency to think “I can’t do this” when you’re faced with a new challenge is a samskara, and so is the confidence that develops once you’ve mastered something that was hard for you. The tension lump that shows up in your right shoulder when you feel stressed is a samskara, and so are the song lyrics that pop into your mind unexpectedly.
Neurophysiologists mapping neural pathways in the brain report that each time we react in a certain way—getting angry, for instance, or procrastinating yet one more time—we strengthen the power of that pathway. The yogic texts make the same point. The bottom line in each case is that the way we feel, the way we react, and the behavior we manifest at any given moment is the result of samskaras, or neural connections, operating under the surface.
Once the samskaric pathways have been set, most people just keep running down them, like rats in a maze, reacting with the same old patterns and feelings every time they find themselves in a situation that seems to mirror whatever the original trigger might have been.
You probably know, intellectually at least, how this works. When you’re feeling abandoned because your friend hasn’t called you in two weeks, you might understand that it isn’t because he’s stopped liking you. You may even realize (especially if you’ve done some therapy) that his silence is triggering one of your old samskaric grooves—perhaps a childhood memory of abandonment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily stop you from reacting. Samskaras are powerful, which is why knowing better does not always change our behavior. There’s a weight to those accumulated impressions. They are, on a daily basis, the reason we think and feel the way we do.
That’s both good news and bad news. The bad news about samskaric grooves is that as long as the negative ones are in place, it’s hard to escape the limitations imposed by our personal history. The good news is that we can change those grooves. The brain is so fluid and malleable, so prone to take and hold impressions, that when we keep leading it into new pathways, the accumulation of new insights, practices, and experiences will eventually overwhelm the old ones and, given the right circumstances, even eliminate them entirely.
Heed the Call
I recently had the opportunity to watch one of my students go through this process. Dale, a magazine editor, routinely took out her frustration at work by criticizing her subordinates.
One evening she read a book by a contemporary spiritual psychologist in which the writer defined evil as “using power to avoid spiritual growth.” Quickly, she realized that her outbursts toward others came from precisely this impulse—she was off-loading blame onto other people rather than looking at the sources of her own pain and frustration.
That night she lay in bed, filled with confusion and remorse, asking herself, “What can I do to change this?”
To break a pattern in ourselves, we often need some sort of shock, a wake-up call from outside. That’s because inner patterns tend to self-perpetuate. Unless something comes along to shake us up, make us aware of our pattern, or push us out of the trough, we often go on looping around in the old grooves forever. The aftermath of such a shock creates a powerful field for change.
In fact, any moment during which we acutely feel the need for change is fruitful. Intense motivation fuels spiritual breakthrough, as we can see from the stories of sudden enlightenment that come out of so many traditions. When people ask me how they can change the qualities in themselves that create suffering—qualities such as anger, intense jealousy, or fear—I often say, “Desperation! ” To paraphrase the poet Kabir, it’s the intensity of the longing for change that does the work.
Strong aspiration not only motivates us to act, but it also attracts help. Sri Aurobindo, a great spiritual thinker of the early 20th century, used to say that human aspiration calls down the force of divine grace and that force is what brings breakthrough. Grace comes from many sources, of course. When it comes from within, we experience it as inspiration. Grace also comes in the form of help we get from other people. In fact, others can be a major source of grace that leads us to change.
This was certainly Dale’s experience. She decided to treat her anger as if it was an addiction and ask for help. She told her coworkers that she realized her sharp tongue was difficult for everyone and she wanted to stop being mean to people. She asked them to help her by giving her a signal when they saw her being harsh. They agreed. After a few days, in which signals came several times an hour, Dale realized she spoke with a certain tone when she was being coercive with others.
Make Your Break
At that point, she came up with an internal self-inquiry process that any of us might find useful for breaking a samskaric pattern. Here’s how it worked:
Dale would pay attention to the tone of her own voice and notice when it sounded coercive or angry. Then she would recall the feeling that had come up just before her voice changed. She realized that her urge to say something harsh always began with the same set of feelings—part anxiety, part frustration, but more surprisingly, a self-righteous feeling of excitement and power that she rather enjoyed. That sense of power would impel her to raise her voice and say things that made other people wilt.
Once she’d identified the feeling, she began to try to recognize it each time it arose, before she acted it out. Then, she’d stop and ask herself a question, “Do you really want to say what you are about to say?” or “Are things really the way you think they are?”
Because of her deep desire to change, and her willingness to work at it, Dale found herself on a transformative fast track. Within weeks, her coworkers were commenting on how much nicer she seemed, how much easier she was to work with. “I was so much happier,” Dale said. “I think it was the first time in my work life that I felt people actually liked being with me.” In fact, for a while, she felt sure that she’d accomplished a miracle—an instant turnaround in her way of being.
As it turned out, it wasn’t quite that simple. But Dale had actually stumbled on one of the basic formulas for inner transformation, or breakthrough. First, she’d received a wake-up call. She’d let it penetrate, and she’d discovered in herself a powerful motivation. Second, she had asked for help in making her desired change—in this case, from the people around her. Third, she’d found a method, self-inquiry, which enabled her to identify her patterns so that she could become aware of exactly which behaviors and reactions she wanted to change. There was an essential yogic principle at work; just as the Yoga Sutra counsels, Dale was combining practice with strong aspiration, and the result was allowing her to bypass her old samskaric grooves and create new ones.
Create New Grooves
One of the best ways to create new samskaras is to keep consciously shifting your behavior and ways of thinking out of negative patterns and into positive ones. This idea is the basis of many of the transformative practices we do in yoga—for example, the practices of truthfulness and lovingkindness, or Patanjali’s practice of countering a negative thought or feeling with a positive one. Suppose that every time you feel angry, you make a point of remembering love, or of finding the energy behind the anger, or of looking inward and asking, “Who’s angry?” or even of reminding yourself that there might be another way to look at the situation. After doing any of these for a while, you’ll notice a shift in yourself. You might still fall into the anger groove, but along with the anger samskaras, you’ll have developed an alternative set of samskaric grooves that will rise up along with your anger and remind you that there are more expansive ways of approaching the situation. Your practice will have created a positive “field” inside you that, in time, will become as strong as the negative one. You now have more choices about how you react.
Moreover, most of the core yogic practices—asana, meditation, study, mantra repetition, visualization, Pranayama—not only create new, positive samskaras, they also have the power to wash away the old, limiting, pain-producing ones. Here, meditation is especially effective because it can literally flush old samskaras out of your unconscious. When mental static or strong emotions surface during practice, beginning meditators sometimes think they’re doing something wrong. In fact, a rush of thoughts and emotions is part of the natural process of samskaric burn off, in which some of your layers of buried impressions come up to be released. There’s a reason why a period of meditation or yoga will leave you feeling calmer, clearer, and less emotionally cluttered—even if your mind did not become noticeably calmer during the meditation itself. Simply practicing has cleansed your unconscious of some of its burden.
The classical practice for purifying samskaras in the Indian and Tibetan traditions is mantra repetition. When I was beginning spiritual practice, I used to be periodically assailed with painful emotions—guilt, confusion, and feelings of being inadequate or “bad”—as my samskaric backpack unloaded itself. If I could sit with the feelings in meditation, they would eventually dissolve, as if removed from my being by the energy of meditation. The process seemed to go even faster when I introduced my teacher’s mantra into the mix.
When I offered the mantra into the vortex of mental turmoil, it soothed, focused, and actually cleaned out the buzz of mental static and the sticky residue of guilt and resentment. When I repeated it with intense focus, I sometimes felt as if it were washing my mind like a subtle Fantastik spray. After a couple of years of repeating the mantra regularly, my once uncontrollable mind had an entirely different texture. Even my body language seemed softer, more open.
One way to chart your “progress” is by observing a growing ability to stay out of certain samskaric grooves. The first time I noticed this kind of shift was after I’d been practicing intensely for a couple of years. I went to spend an evening with an old friend who had always seemed to know just how to trigger my feelings of inferiority and insecurity. This time, despite the fact he was his usual hypercritical self, I didn’t get bent out of shape by it. Two years of practice had disarmed my own inner critic to the point where I could be around critical people without taking everything they said personally.
All this takes time. Even when we notice that certain tendencies and ways of thinking are definitely disappearing, we’re often discouraged because other, deeper tendencies seem slow to shift.
A few months after Dale’s initial breakthrough, under the pressure of a sleepless night and a hard deadline, she heard herself calling one of her coeditors an incompetent, talentless idiot. The editor was crushed and told Dale that she hadn’t changed at all. Dale was disappointed in herself. “What’s the point?” she asked me. “I work so hard, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”
At times like this, it helps to understand that real transformation is not a linear process but more like a spiral. When you make a breakthrough in yoga practice or have an especially deep meditation or let go of a layer of anger or pride, it’s often followed by an internal backlash. You might feel dry, irritable, discouraged, or disinterested in practice. You may find that you’re drawn to foods that aren’t good for you, or you’re simply aware of a host of flaws and shortcomings. In my early years of practice, whenever this happened, I’d feel as if I’d somehow fallen or relapsed or completely blown it.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that these relapses are actually part of the process of integrating new states. Our brains and bodies can’t integrate too much change at once. So every time we make a real leap, there’s a necessary period of recalibration. But even when it feels as if you’ve taken two steps backward for every step forward, if you look carefully, you’ll see that you’ve actually landed in a new default position. A spiral moves gradually upward, cycling back to a position that looks very much like the same place you’ve been but is actually at a different level altogether. When you look carefully at yourself, you may notice that you have more awareness, so that when you catch yourself in an old pattern, you can move through it quickly. Perhaps the reactive pattern is simply less intense. Or perhaps you realize that even when you notice your own imperfections (or other people’s), you’re still able to stay in touch with your center, your inner self. Perhaps you have new compassion for yourself. In short, you haven’t moved backward at all. You are simply moving forward in a spiral rather than in a straight line.
Transformation is a long-term process. The big changes rarely happen overnight. At the same time, every effort you make on the transformational journey is exponential in its effects. Each time you consciously counter a negative samskara, remember the beauty of your inner self, or limit your reactive behavior to five minutes instead of five hours, you shift not only that pattern but thousands of related patterns as well. One day, you look at yourself and discover that you’re living from an entirely different platform—you realize how much power you have and how miraculously fruitful a transformative journey can be.
That’s when you realize that Krishna wasn’t kidding when he told Arjuna, in the Bhagavad Gita, that on this path, no effort ever goes to waste!
Identify the Change: Determine one pattern that seems most important to you and connect with your motivation for change. Work with one issue or behavior at a time. The more deeply you want to change—and the more you focus on that pattern or issue—the more quickly change can come.
Enlist Support: Reach out to friends, family, and coworkers—anyone who loves you and can gently (and nonjudgmentally) remind you when you’re acting out on old patterns.
Peer Inward: Practice looking inside to identify the signs—feelings, thoughts, body language, shifts in your voice—that reveal you are thinking or acting out of an old pattern. Remember, though, to do this as an observer, not as a judge.
Focus on Feelings: When you notice the triggers of your negative patterns, focus on the deepest level of feeling you can identify. This brings awareness to the energetic source of the behavior. Then, work with a practice that can help you disrupt the patterns at the moment. This can be as simple as stopping and taking a deep breath or talking back to a negative thought.
Make a Commitment: Stick with your practice of self-inquiry and experiment with different ways of working to shift your state at the moment.
Stay Joyful: Take pleasure in even the subtlest changes (and remind yourself that each one has an exponential effect), and practice compassion for yourself when you experience setbacks.