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Finding My Saṁskāras: A Year in Review

I'm not really one for making New Year's Resolutions (although, having said that, my next blog post may be about intention-setting for 2020), but the year drawing to a close is a good time to take stock of what has happened this year, the changes that have been made (or not made), before I think about what I might do moving forward, whether it be the same or different.

This past week in the Yoga For Life+ class, going through Michael Stone's:The Inner Tradition of Yoga: A Guide to Yoga Philosophy for the Contemporary Practitioner, we came to the chapter on Saṁskāras. I was taught that this word means "training" or "making ready", or "scars"; Michael Stone says that it comes from the roots sam: to come together; and kr: action — it's the action that occurs when a situation and our ideas about that situation collide. The subtitle of the chapter is: Webs of Mind and Body. These webs of mind and body are our Saṁskāras, our trained responses, our patterns of behaviour, our biases that we get caught in when we encounter a person or a situation.

We make assumptions, jump to conclusions, about situations, about people. Sometimes doing this is not a problem: your partner walks into the room, and you smile because you love that person. Sometimes it can be a problem: what we think is a familiar phone number calls us and we have a panic attack. The problem with these patterns is that we aren't making decisions about how to respond based on what is happening around us, but on what is happening inside of us. Road rage, or Twitter/Facebook rage is a really common example of this. If you're having a good day and someone cuts you off in traffic you might respond with worry (I hope that those people don't cause an accident!), but if you are angry about the argument you had with your partner before you left for work that morning, you will likely respond with the anger that you are already feeling (What a jerk! I hope he crashes his car. — If you're really acting from inside instead of in response to the outside, you might do something aggressive in return.).

Saṁskāras can serve us. When I was growing up I played the piano — a lot. At 11 years old I was practicing 2 hours each day. At 14 that went up to 3 hours. By 19 it was often 5–6 hours a day. I can sit and do something, the same thing, in repetition, for long stretches. I have great concentration. That is a pattern of behaviour in my mind. I have been able to apply it in many things in my life. I once made a quilt in 4 days. The same saṁskāras can also be a problem for me. I can concentrate on what I'm wanting to do to the exclusion of things around me that probably should have my attention. I miss the cues because I'm so involved in what I'm doing. It's two sides of the same coin. The ability to focus for a long time is fine, but I also need to be able to tend to other things as they occur.

What is happening inside of us? When we come into a situation, we quickly take it in, and then we start to categorise it, to connect it to other things we've experienced. "The mind follows sensations in the body with preference, interpretation, and conceptualization." (p122) We're constantly putting ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions, and the stories we tell ourselves in the middle of everything that is happening. It doesn't take very long for the thing that we are experiencing to become about us. We become "wedded to context because it reinforces our sense of self." (p125) Have you ever wondered, "What did I do?" when you come across an upset person? Why do you think you had any part of that? We do it because we see the world through the lens of "I, me, mine"; we understand things around us as being connected to us. We try to relate to every situation we find ourselves in so that we understand it better, except that all we are doing is understanding our own interpretation of it better.

So how do we start to respond instead of react? We need to begin with the recognition of the process. Noticing that something has happened, then noticing what is arising within us — usually a felt sense, or a bodily sensation, like a tightening in the throat or a weight in the pit of the stomach, shoulders rising. These bodily feelings are the manifestation of the emotional response we are having to the situation. If we don't take the time to become aware of them, we will react to them instead of respond to the situation. It's important to not disregard the emotions — they will give us information, and that is really important, but it might be disinformation. Take the time to investigate. After we have taken account of all of the information, we can choose our response.

If we find that we are behaving in a way that doesn't make sense from the outside, we need to look inward to find the cause of the action. Causes can be hard to find, but they are the only lasting fix. If you want to behave differently, just deciding to be different might not be enough.

"Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing." — Laurie Buchanan (from the blog Tuesdays with Laurie). It's okay to not change everything, just be certain that you are not changing because you are choosing. What have you chosen this past year? What have you chosen by default because you didn't look for the cause of your actions. It's hard, can be painful. It's not always fun to investigate the sensations that we know are associated with unpleasant feelings, but if we do, we can find a way through them.

So, over the next few days, I am going to do some reflection on the past year. I'm going to sit with some discomfort and consider some patterns, some saṁskāras, in my life. As Michael Stone ends this chapter, so will I end this post:

When we are in a deep groove, it is hard to see a way out, or sometimes to even know that we are actually in a groove. However, when we begin to learn about our conditioning, we can see these patterns and how they limit our experience. Then we can be open to the alteration of these grooves that the present moment requires of us. Discovery is always a process of redefinition. —Michael Stone, The Inner Tradition of Yoga, p 116

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