Habits, Rituals, and Samskaras #classnotes 5/27

The human animal is a creature of habits and patterns.  You can see this in our symmetry, our schedules, and our thinking patterns.  Neurologically speaking, this has to do with neural pathways.  We 'learn' or discover a thing and the specific nerves and brain cells that were activated lay down a path, like a railroad track.  The next time the same scenario is hit on, the track gets relaid.  Deeper.  Over time, much of the process is 'skipped' as the brain adapts and makes cognitive leaps: smoke = fire, touch a hot thing and get burned, or chocolate makes me feel better.  Some of this process is available to conscious thought, but most of it happens below and inside us on a level we are not aware of...driving us to become creatures of our own habits.  On a fine, mysterious level of reward and inhibition hormones, instinct and survival, belief and cognition, our characters are laid out in patterns and whirlwinds of cycles. What western science is beginning to show, now, is that neural pathways are not the end of it; our muscle tissue and fascia, even our organs, have similar 'memory' structures.  This is how we learn to walk or throw a baseball.  This is how we can type or wash dishes or drive to work 'on auto pilot'.  It is also how we begin responding to the other sex, to family members, to times of stress or fear, to hunger.

And then we wonder why we feel stuck.  Why change is so hard.  Why we seem to do the very things we no longer want to do.  We wonder why we don't feel like 'ourselves'.

Yogically speaking, these patterns are called samskaras, or 'deep impressions'.  The image of a wheel, a knot, or again the traintrack and riverbed worn down by time are helpful metaphors.  Samskaras are energy patterns, both good and bad.  Yoga recognizes that patterns are part of what it means to be human; the point is not to 'rid' oneself of patterns (or the 'ego') but to see it for what it is.  To begin to replace harmful patterns with meaningful rituals.

For we are more than just those patterns.  There is something else.  Something under.  There is a more true self, longing for expression and connection.

A life lived on the level of samskara is superficial and alienating.  Samskara - which is sometimes addictive, sometimes coping skill, sometimes judgement, sometimes expectation or attachment - are part of the mind structure.  Most mind states (planning, recalling, worrying, even some levels of dream) are made of habits, and those very habits add up to what we call 'a life'.  Yet such a life has the sense of being caught in a wheel that spins and spins.  Our psychological and physical holding patterns keep us bound and spinning in a world of conditioned experience.  We become alienated from our true self as all we seem to experience are these superficial layers, these uncanny habits and suffering, this incorrigible self.

The practice of yoga can be hard, because it reveals our patterns so clearly.  I promise you, how you act in life is how you will act on the mat.  How you think day after day is how you will think on the mat.  It becomes louder and more obvious because we are practicing attention and awareness: it isn't making those things up, but showing you what is in there all along.  If you are a person who retreats in the face of something new, you'll probably do so when new or awkward poses come up.  If you berate yourself for illness, weakness, or fatigue, you'll do the same thing on the mat.  If you compare your self to others, you will be driven mad by those other bodies in class.  If you have a tendency to try to muscle through a hard place, just work harder to fix all problems, you'll try to practice that way, too.

This is hard.  I will never, ever say it isn't hard.

Yoga is a powerful and unstinting mirror.

But yoga is also honest and truthful, and once we see these things we can begin to accept them.  By accepting them, we begin the process of actual change.  We have the opportunity of actual choice.

There is a tremendous amount of power to samskara, and a key element of being human.  Once we truly accept this, we can begin to lay the foundations of something deeply meaningful and authentic.  We begin to study power and energy and to use it, to move with it, rather than try to control or manipulate it.  We become, this way, more effective and graceful.  We have a new skill in action.

One of the reasons people feel frustrated, stuck, or helpless is a result of ignorance of the powers and habits and patterns within us.  Instead of working with the grain, we try to invent a new grain.  We deny our actual being for what we think we should be, instead.  This is both profound and very very simple.  Human beings are not meant to sit in chairs all day long, for example.  Nor are we meant to work for 8 (or 12, or 16) hours a day.  We have internal rhythms of peak performance and recovery.  Throughout the day, about every two hours, our brain (and dominant nostril) switches from left to right.  We try to be efficient and concentrate at times when our body is trying to rest and restore, or we try to work harder when what our patterns need is to intersperse 'work' with 'gratification'.   We binge and purge, or diet and crash, or over work and get sick, or procrastinate and give up, when learning and abiding within the context of strong patterns, meaningful rituals, would make us more powerful and fulfilled human beings.

Rituals create energy, feed all our subconscious drives, sooth and restore and inspire us.  It is important to have rituals.  Rituals answer many of our deepest longings.  When one has rituals in place, the things become deeply meaningful and restorative, they affirm who we are and encourage us to full use of our capacity.  When what we have are chores, to-do lists, or 'breaking habits', we tend to deplete ourselves and run over and over and over the ground of suffering.  Our life spins out and our energy is depleted in things that are self-limiting, self-sabotaging, or simply apathetic and numb.

Think, for a moment, of things that are ritualized in your life already.  Brushing your teeth is usually an easy one: it is something you don't even think about, but miss horribly if it's interrupted.  You have a way of doing it that is absolutely unique to you...the way others brush their teeth would feel 'wrong' to you. You don't have to consciously go through the process: your inner reserves are free to wander and play and get creative while your biological needs are met and what needs to be done, gets done.

Think of other 'rituals', and how deeply they affect you.  There are songs that will bring you back immediately to old memories.  There are sights and smells that affect you deep in the gut.  There are words and images, sacred or profane, that speak straight to the soul of who you are.

What if you began to create rituals for yourself, ones that became so deeply engrained they happened like brushing your teeth?  How far toward personal change could you go?  How much energy could you restore to yourself, away from self-chastisement and blame and the belief that we need to accomplish great things perfectly and completely, all at once?  How would your day to day experience of being yourself change if you initiated and practiced rituals you believe in and adore?  Rituals of creativity, of relationship, of solitude and prayer and imagination.

Rituals of yogic practice.

Things to try or imagine:

1. When I first got sober, I was advised over and over again to focus on the simplest things.  To focus on what I could change and let go of what I couldn't.  I was told to stop thinking about 'forever' or in terms of years and lifetimes, and focus instead on doing one thing at a time.  I was told to make my bed every morning.  To pray - not in some pansy assed thinking about doing it but to literally get down on my knees and spend time there, just a few minutes, every single day.  To go to a meeting.  To call three sober women.  Yogis added there own: get to a practice; no matter what happens there or what you can or cannot do, just get there.  Drink more water.  Eat.  Rest when you need to rest.  Focus on your breath.

Oddly, things that seemed to have nothing to do with 'the point' gave me a way to 'the point'.  How making one's bed everyday should help you get over years of self-hatred and a physical addiction is mostly unconscious and uncanny, but it worked.  I learned in a very personal, very experiential way that it is not our intentions, not abstractions, and not accomplishments that matter in the end.  It is the way that we spend our time.

So, maybe practice making your bed every day.  Or stretching when you wake up.  Or taking five deep breath before you get out of the car.  It doesn't matter what it is, the script has to come from your own life.  The point is, change and happiness happen as we moment by moment align ourselves with what is and free up our creativity, love, and power.  As the clutter of samskara becomes the ornament of samskara, and the self below becomes more prominent.  Authenticity lies this way.

2. Simply watch yourself being aware of the human trait of habit and samskara.  Watch, in particular, your relationships to food, to sleep, to anger, to That Which is Hard For You.

3.  Allow, really allow, your yoga practice to become a ritual.