Free yourself from destructive emotional patterns and behavior. We can help you do it with these six simple strategies
From Yoga Journal, March/April 2005
When I was in my twenties and taking my first tentative steps along the inner path, I spent a few months working with a Jungian analyst. I went because I felt stuck. I had a novel to write that I couldn’t seem to focus on, a boyfriend who didn’t seem to love me the way I wanted to be loved, and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with myself. The analyst used to have me lie down on her couch and take deep, full breaths for what seemed like hours, triggering my first experiences of real relaxation. But the most memorable thing she did was to introduce me to the concept of transformation. It happened one afternoon after my deep breathing, when I was lying on her couch going on about all the things that weren’t working in my life. “You know what your real problem is?” she asked me, “You don’t understand that it’s possible to change.”
I was shocked. “What do you mean?” I said.
“You think that the way you are now is the way you have to be. That isn’t true. You can change all of it. You can change your relationships. You can change the way you do things. You can change the way you feel.”
There is nothing more radical than the moment you realize that it is possible to reinvent your life. I’m not talking about superficial reinvention, like changing your grunge look for all-whites and mala beads, or even about doing something more serious, such as leaving a regular job to work for Doctors without Borders. I’m talking here about reconfiguring mental and emotional attitudes, shifting your vision of life–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 us happier, more peaceful, more in touch with the love and wisdom at our core.
This sort of transformation is the crux of the inner life, the promise of yoga, of meditation, and of the various forms of inner work and self-inquiry we undertake. 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. On the other hand, 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 our life issues.
How Much Can we Really Change?
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 theoretically be possible to change just about anything about ourselves. Some New Age teachers actually give that impression –saying, 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 and 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 the 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 deeply enter into our own core of consciousness, extraordinary shifts take place. What yoga can definitely help us change, (and in changing, 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’re able to see ourselves as the Self, the unchanging consciousness behind the mind, or when we’re able to identify ourselves as the witness to our thoughts rather than becoming lost in every thought and feeling that arises.
Arguably, the nuts and bolts of yogic practice is the work we do to purify, re-forge, 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 way of thinking, and our perspective on life.
The word “samskara” can be translated just the way it sounds in English: as’some scars.” Samskaras are energy patterns in our consciousness. I always picture them as mental grooves, like the rivulets in sand that let 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 and that–in my case at least-often reveal themselves to be the perfect comment on the situation you’re in at the time.
Neurophysiologists mapping neural pathways in the brain report that each time we react in a certain way–falling into an anger pattern, for instance, or putting off completing a report yet one more time-we strengthen the power of that pathway. The yogic texts make the same point. The bottom line in both cases, is that the way we feel, the way we react, and the behavior we manifest at any given moment is the result of the samskaras (or, in scientific terms, the neural connections) that are operating under the surface.
Once the samskaric pathways have been set, most people 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 feel 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. But that doesn’t necessarily stop you from reacting. Samskaras are powerful, which is why knowing better doesn’t always change our behavior. There’s a weight to those accumulated impressions. They are, on a daily basis, the reason why 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, however, 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 even, given the right circumstances, eliminate them entirely.
The Wake-up Call
I recently had the opportunity to watch one of my students going 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.” As an ex-Catholic, it was the word ‘evil’ that got her. She saw that her outbursts at others came from precisely the impulse the book was describing –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 wake us up, show us our pattern, or push us out of the trough, we’ll 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 in which we acutely feel the need for change is fruitful. Intense motivation fuels spiritual breakthrough, as we 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 like anger, or intense jealousy, or fear– I often say, “You have to deeply want to change.” 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, it also attracts help. Aurobindo, the great Indian teacher of the early 20th century, used to say that human aspiration calls down the force of divine grace, and that this force is what brings breakthrough. Grace comes from many sources, of course. We experience it coming from within as inspiration. Grace also comes in the form of the help we get from other people. In fact, others are a major source of the grace that leads to change.
This was certainly Dale’s experience. That night, as she lay in bed, she decided to treat her anger like an addiction, and ask for help. The next morning, at the daily office touch-base, she told her co-workers that she realized her temper tantrums were difficult for everyone and that she wanted to stop having them. 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 the signals came several times an hour, Dale realized that when she was being coercive with others, she spoke in a particular tone of voice.
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 or cruel always started with the same set of feelings –part anxiety, part frustration, but more surprisingly, a kind of 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 and recognize it each time it arose, before she acted it out. Then, she’d stop and ask herself a question, like ‘Do you really want to say what you’re about to say?” or “Are things really the way you think they are?”
Because of her burning desire to change, and her willingness to work at it, Dale found herself on a transformative fast-track. Within weeks, her co-workers were commenting on how much nicer she seemed, how much easier 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 turn-around in her way of being.
It turned out not to be quite so 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. Then she’d asked for help in making her desired change –in this case from the people around her. Third, she’d found a method, self-inquiry, that 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 Yogasutra-s counsel, Dale was combining practice with strong aspiration, and the result was allowing her to bypass her old samskaric grooves, and create new ones.
One of the best ways to create new samskaras is to keep consciously shifting our 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 loving kindness, 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 finding the energy behind the anger, doing a self inquiry process like ‘Who’s angry?” or even remembering that there might be another way of looking 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 looking at the situation. Your practice will have created a positive ‘field’ inside you that in time becomes 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 a power to wash away the old, limiting, pain-producing ones. Meditation is especially effective here, because it can literally flush old samskaras out of your unconscious, and dispel them. Beginning meditators sometimes think, when mental static or strong emotions surface during practice, that they’re doing something wrong. In fact, a rush of thoughts and emotions is part of the natural process of samskaric burnoff, 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 didn’t become noticeably calmer during the meditation itself. Simply practicing has cleansed your unconscious of some of its burden.
The classical practice for purifiying samskaras in the Indian and Tibetan traditions is mantra repetiton. When I was beginning spiritual practice I used to be periodically assailed with painful feelings –guilt, confusion, feelings of being inadequate or ‘bad’–as my samskaric back pack 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 stickiness of residual 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.
Surviving Falls From Grace
One way we chart our “progress” in the inner life is by noting 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 J, an old friend who had always seemed to know just what to say to trigger my feelings of inferiority and insecurity. This time, despite the fact that 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 sometimes feel 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 co-editors 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?” Dale 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, 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, uninterested in practice, drawn to foods that aren’t good for you, or 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,’ blown it.
Yet these ‘falls’ 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 backwards 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 which 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 a new compassion for yourself. In short, you haven’t moved backwards 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, or 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. That’s when you realize how much power a human being has, 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!
What to Do When You Realize Its Time for Inner Change
First: Identify the change that seems most important and connect with your motivation for change. Work with one issue at a time. The more deeply you want to change, and the more you focus on one issue or pattern, the more quickly change can come.
Second: Enlist the support of friends, family, co-workers –anyone who loves you and can gently (and non-judgmentally) remind you when you are acting out old patterns.
Third: Practice looking inside to identify the signs –feelings, thoughts, body language, shifts in your voice that reveal that you re thinking or acting out of an old pattern. Do this as an observer, not as a judge.
Fourth: When you notice the signs, focus on the deepest level of feeling that 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 in the moment. This can be as simple as stopping and taking a deep breath, or talking back to a negative thought.
Fifth: Commit yourself to the practice, and experiment with different ways of working to shift your state in the moment.
Sixth: Enjoy even the subtlest changes and practice compassion for yourself when you experience setbacks
© Copyright 2003-2006. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Date Last Modified: 8/3/06