Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Samskaras: Part I

There is this wonderful Sanskrit word I just love: Samskaras. It actually has around 20 meanings (almost literally, check the The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga by Georg Feuerstein). My favorite translation is “mental permeations”. It refers to having a set mental pattern. In other words, we think the same way every time the same thing happens. You always feel annoyed when your Dad tells that story from when you were young. You always feel irritated when the person in the cube next door begins to talk loudly on the phone. You always feel stress and tension when you see traffic ahead. Interestingly, in studies done on the brain, researchers have found that the more we think something, the stronger that thought pattern becomes. Our brain literally builds more connections for that path! The stronger the pattern becomes, the easier it is to go down the same path.

I like to see a samskara as an African mudhole. You know when you drive through mud, ruts appear. The more you drive through the mud, the deeper the ruts become. Once the ruts dry, it can be incredibly difficult to choose a different path.

If you do choose a different path and try to come out of the rut, you may fall right back into the track, but you have shaved a bit of the rut away in the attempt which makes the next attempt a bit easier. Each time you choose a new thought, a bit more gets shaved away as a new track forms. Interestingly, that is just what brain researchers have found. When you choose a new path, a few links of the old are broken, weakening the old pattern a bit.

I use this analogy frequently with coaching clients and my yoga students. It can feel frustrating when you think you have “failed” at changing thought patterns. Success is not evaluated by completely letting go of the old thought pattern and using the new one, success is each time you are conscious of the old pattern and changed it a bit. Each time it changes, you have weakened the old thought pattern.

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