Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny. Lao Tzu
The word samskara comes from the Sanskrit sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause, or doing). Samskaras are deep impressions,marks, burrows, grooves if you will, ideas, and/or behaviours etched within us. When taken together, as a whole, samskaras make up our conditioning or our general pattern of behaviour. Our modus operandi, if you will. Repeating samskaras reinforces them each time, deepening a groove or impression that, over time, becomes difficult to resist. We feel like we are at the mercy of our habitual thoughts, reaction or behaviour. That somehow, we can’t change because it’s just who I am. It won’t come as any surprise to find out that the English word scar comes from samskara – meaning a mark that has been left from an experience, or a wound.
Taken all together, within each of us, these samskaras form an identity that we come to know as me, myself and I. An identity constructed, piece by piece, layer by layer, over the entirety of our lives – first by our parents, then society and culture. With every experience, another layer is added on. And over time, this construction becomes who we are, who we identify as, who we bring forward into life – into every situation we encounter, every person we meet and every experience we have. And we begin to believe that is truly who we are.
But is this really who we are? The answer is no. Who you are is what lies beneath the surface identity. How do we begin to deconstruct or disentangle our seemingly messy bundle of samskaras?
First, we meditate. This is how we gain access to our deepest Self. To discover the truth that lies beneath, the true Self (self with capital S) which is pure and untainted by anything that has happened to us or anything we may have done. This is also how we begin to soften the samskaras, gently allowing them to unwind and release from us. When that happens, we find space and our true Self begins to emerge.
When I follow up with students a month or two after they first learn to meditate, I’m often told ” my partner tells me I am much nicer now that I am meditating” or “I feel happy for no reason at all, its weird and good at the same time” and “I am not as cranky/angry as I used to be.” Are these unusual responses? No. Based on feedback I receive and the feedback received by fellow teachers, these are common responses. Why?
When we take the time to meditate, we give ourselves the opportunity to release the samskaras that we’ve built up over the course of our lives. When the samskaras soften, loosen and release, what’s happening is that we are releasing our long held habits, belief patterns and behaviours that we have been at the mercy of for such a long time that we cannot remember a time when they weren’t part of us, or who we are, or part of our character. It’s just who I am. When, in fact, character is simply an amalgamation of repeated habits (positive and negative).
Your character is not pre-determined, it is not fixed and unchanging. We can essentially reset ourselves. We can find new ways of speaking to ourselves within. We can change our habitual responses. Since these habituated responses reside in the non-dominant side of our brain (right brain for right-handed people, left brain for left-handed people), what some would call the unconscious, these changes can happen only over time, through repetition and continual attention. But they can and do happen. There are many books on the topic – way too many to reference here – including Super Brain by Deepak Chopra and Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Transcending the Levels of Consciousness by Dr David Hawkins.
What these books recommend, as a necessary supplement to the daily conscious work of slowly shifting the way our minds behave, is to cultivate a practice of meditation. Meditation defrags our nervous system, systematically unwinding the stresses, making our systems more plastic, more malleable, so that we can be more easily moulded into new configurations, new ways of thinking and new, healthier, more creative and fun approaches to life.
Then in our day to day living, we remind ourselves continually that we are not our thoughts or our thinking. Each time, we find ourselves getting into thoughts, stories or speculation, we place our attention to the present, to what is in front of us, rather than our habitual thoughts about what is. We get present to who is in front of us, rather than our thoughts about each other. We get present to the world, to everything and everyone in the world that life throws at us, reminding ourselves that at any moment, when we choose to stop falling back into the grooves of our old habits of thinking and reacting, we are giving our true Self, the self who resides below the surface, below the thoughts and the stories, waiting to be recognised, an opportunity to make itself known to us.