Samskaras and Burning the Seeds of Habit

The first time I heard the word samskara, I was on a 10-day Vipsasana retreat at an SN Goenka Center. In some of Goenka ji’s talks he mentioned that the practice of meditation, or more precisely, the experience of insight, can actually burn up or purify the samskaras. Even though I only barely touched what Goenka-ji was getting at, what he said stuck with me. Recently, this topic has come to the foreground of my yoga and meditation practice, as it is a central theme in the Yoga Sutras. I am exploring what gives rise to habit, thought, and the formation of a sense of self. With reference to my own experience, this essay explores the nature of samkaras how the Sutras and contemporary masters describe the process of  “burning the seeds” of habit, leading to real freedom.

What is a samskara?  Samskara is a Sankrit term used in both Buddhism and classical yoga philosophy. Samskaras refer to imprints or impressions left on the mind by experiences, also called “subliminal impressions.” Subliminal, in this context, means in the impressions are lodged in the unconscious and subconscious mind. B.K.S. Iyengar writes that memory and samskaras are not only stored in the brain, but also in the body and in each cell (since the spinal column and the nerves which enervate each cell are an offshoot of the brain). In short, samskaras are impressions piled and stored in the unconscious and subconscious mind and body which propel us towards certain behaviors and their consequences.

The cause of samkaras or subliminal impressions can come from perception, inference, choices, practice, interaction with others, thoughts, intent, willful actions, education, background, culture, upbringing and even dreams and past lives. Samskaras manifest as habits, behavior (acara), character (silam), tendencies, and psychological predispositions. Actions based on samskaras can be skillful or unskillful, yet habituation based on samskaras is ultimately the cause of our limitations and a small sense of self (i.e. identifying with what we like and dislike, identifying with our habits or personality: “This is just how I am”).

Within Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, samskaras are also the seeds which cause rebirth and endless transmigration in samsara, the ocean of life and death or wheel of time, whose essential characteristic is suffering, disease, or unsatisfactoriness. 

The theory of karma is essentially the principle of cause and effect – that actions of body, speech and mind bear fruit.  From our actions of body, speech and mind, whether negative positive or somewhere in between, we reap corresponding results. Furthermore, the subtle imprints or “grooves” in the consciousness created by our actions become deeper and more enforced by repetition.  Repetition is a key factor in the formation of habits, whether positive or negative. In a sense, it is easy to change our habits — we merely need to repeat certain actions of body, speech and mind over a period of time and the habit will change, or new habits will be reinforced.

In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar gives a down-to-earth example of how samskaras work, and how to break free of habitual patterns.  B.K.S. Iyengar uses the example of coming home to ice cream in the freezer after a hard day’s work. After returning home from work and seeing something pleasing to eat, the hand impulsively reaches for the tub — knowing the the immediate feeling of eating ice-cream is pleasurable, based on past experience. This impulse can easily overpower the mind, especially if the “groove” is deep enough. Here is where the mind and intelligence can intervene in the usual habit pattern.  Analysis and reasoning (vitarka) and reflection and consideration (vichara) are the first mental steps in overcoming habit energy. The mind needs to observe and reflect on whether an action is skillful or unskillful and anticipate the long term effects of the action, not only the immediate gratification. This process leads to discernment (viveka). After discernment has been reached, the mind is in a position to use its will (iccha) to act. This action, though likely more positive and skillful, is still in the realm of karma, and one reaps the corresponding effect, such as not feeling terrible after indulging in a tub of ice cream. After repeating this process the mind can create new, positive samkaras (or neural pathways). One is still not free from habit energy altogether, though the samkaras are being changed from negative to positive habits. However, the process of transformation has begun.  In relation to this, I found this writing from Swami Chidananda, from the Sivananda lineage:

First comes Vichara (reflection), then comes Viveka (discrimination). Through Vichara and Viveka flowers Vairagya (non attachment, dispassion). Observation stimulates inquiry. Inquiry creates the ability to discriminate. Through discrimination, one begins to see the difference between the mere passing appearances and the permanent changeless Reality. So comes Vairagya. 

Over time, the effort to observe, reflect, discriminate and act bears fruit – one is no longer in the sway of the senses, habits and impressions. One is in a genuine position of choice and freedom as vairagya (non attachment) blooms. Vairagya can be understood as a subtractive principal – letting go of that which is unhelpful in the path. Whereas Abhyasa can be seen as the additive principle – repeated practice of cultivating the positive qualities which are helpful in realizing our deepest aspiration.

I have experimented with this practice of observation and reflection followed by discrimination and willful action to overcome habit energy.  Getting up very early in the morning has often been challenging for me.  One morning, I pressed the snooze button and turned over a few times and then the passage from Light on Life came to mind, where B.K.S. Iyengar writes that one has to use tremendous will to overcome the especially deep rooted habits (the Hatha of Hatha Yoga, also means will, or force). For me, one of these habits has been turning over in bed and sleeping another hour, when I could be ready to get up and practice. So I experiment, use will and get up and begin the day with meditation. Sometimes, this practice does not go as well, and I turn over to sleep. Sometimes I need the sleep, and sometimes habit prefers this comfort. This experiment of working with habit truly takes time and fortitude.

The following Yoga Sutras may be applied to overcoming unskillful habits:

 II. 33 vitarka bhadhane pratipaksa bhavanam

When you are disturbed
by unwholesome
negative thoughts or emotions,
cultivation of their opposites
promote self-control
and firmness in the precepts. trans. M. Stiles

Principals which run contrary to yama and niyama are to be countered with the principals of knowledge and discrimination. trans. B.K.S Iyengar

and Sutra I.33 maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhkha punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadana

Through cultivation friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent. trans. B.K.S. Iyengar 

Both of these Sutras indicate that our troubles and afflictions are rooted in unwholesome activity of body, speech and mind, which are themselves rooted in ignorance of the true nature of reality. These positive cultivations are a powerful practices and are helpful in overcoming habitual, unskillful states. Additionally, according to the Sutras, burning the seeds of habit, requires transformational insight (prajna), and breaking through all duality of good and bad habits into the realm of the unconditioned. B.K.S. Iyengar elucidates this in Sutras I.48 – I.51 with the dawning of rtambhara prajna – a seasoned intelligence or mature wisdom accompanied by intense insight.

Sutra I.50 tajjah samskarah anyasamskara pratibandhi

A new life begins with this truth bearing light. Previous impressions are left behind and new ones are prevented. Trans. B.K.S Iyengar

I bring in this Sutra in to inspire and give a vision that such things are possible, even for all of us beginners, if we persist. That such a penetrating insight can prevent the arising of future suffering, is an inspiring reason to practice. The Yoga Sutras go on to say that even this powerful insight must be relinquished, for it too is a seed, though a very positive seed.

Even this distinctive knowledge of insight (I.50) has to be restrained, subdued and contained. Then, as a flame is extinguished when the wood is burnt out, or as rivers loose their existence on joining the sea, all volitions and impressions of the unconscious, subconscious, conscious and superconscious mind cease to exist. All these rivers of consciousness merge with the ocean of the seer.

However lofty this may sound, this ultimate freedom is within the reach of each person if the aim and means are present. The yogic practices outline the path towards freedom, through seeing, knowing, discerning, practicing and letting go — the path to becoming free of habit and limitation. Our habits and our difficulties can be our teachers, if we use them to study the self and as a starting point for transformation. This does not happen over night, but the yogis have shown us the way… now it is our turn to walk the path.

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana at the Hermitage of Bharadvaja: Folio from a Ramayana Series

Here is a distillation for ways of working with habit:

  1. Identify the habit.
  2. Identify what is deeply and spiritually important in your life.
  3. Analyze and reflect if the habit is helpful or hurtful in both the short and long term – prioritize the long term in relation to your spiritual path and deepest yearnings.
  4. Set your mind to be aware of the habit and the impulses of mind.
  5. Practice not reacting to impulses.
  6. Cultivate positive habits over a long time, until they become natural.
  7. Practice friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity to yourself and others.
  8. Persevere and do not lose sight of your aim.
  9. Practice observing the mind in meditation, go deep.
  10. Continue, repeat, let go, surrender to higher self.

Om shanti, shanti, shanti

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