This week my intention was around the yogic belief of Samskaras, or repeating cycles of behaviors (positive or negative). When I first recognized and understood my Samskaras, it helped me change some habits that were holding me back.
To help you understand Samskaras, I have included an excerpt from the book "Yoga Mind” by Suzan Colon. This was where I first learned about Samskaras, and where I was able to begin making changes!
I highly recommend this book! It talks through yogi philosophy as the author Suzan looks to find ways to help her friends Francesco and Marnie handle illnesses through the practice of yoga.
19. Samskaras (sahm-SKAR-as): Repeating cycles of behaviors.
For a long time during my study of yoga, I thought samskaras were like the movie Groundhog Day, starring negative behavior. At the yoga studio, some of the students would talk about how they kept doing things they didn't want to do, like eating things they’d sworn off. The teacher listening would nod and say, “Samskaras. You're in a cycle.”
According to yogic philosophy, samskaras, or cycles of behavior, come with us from past lives. (I personally have never had a sense of a past life; the current one is more than enough for me to handle). We keep repeating these patterns over and over until we learn from them, and then - at last! - we achieve Moksha, or liberation from the cycle. The idea of repeating behaviors again and again over lifetimes, made me regard samskaras with fear. As I learned more about them, though, I came to view them with respect, and even gratitude.
My own version of samskara was the on-again, off-again relationship I was in at the time I was in teacher training. I didn't see it as an unhealthy pattern. I thought if we (meaning he) could just make some changes, we (meaning I) would be fine. My list was long if he could just open his mind to commitments, if he could only be more ambitious, if he'd only be more sociable, I complained yet again to a friend. “So basically” she said, “if he could just become a completely different person.” That's about what I was asking of him.
He and I discussed our sticking points endlessly. We compromised, we gave in, we got angry, we fought, we broke up, we missed each other and the good parts of the relationship, we got back together, and we would go through a time we were briefly happy, before something would come up and set us off. And the cycle would start all over again.
When we're in a samskara, it's hard to see it. As my friend Alice puts it, you can't see the picture if you're in the frame. We tell ourselves - something about this time is different. We really mean it now, or we believe that the other person does. Or we swear that this is it. Or this time we blame it on someone or something else. Then the snake eats his tail again and, like Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day, you realize that nothing around us is changing. That's because we are the ones who need to change.
The first new thing I learned about samskaras is that they're not scary purgatories or a punishment for bad behavior. They’re teachers. Like fear, samskaras are smoke alarms, drawing our attention to habits and reactions that need to evolve. Samskaras occur with the goal of promoting Svadhyaya, self-study, provoking questions: do you see the result of this action? Are you ready to make a change?
That different way of thinking about samskaras, as teachers, led me to my second realization: they're not all negative. Samskaras are defined as repeated behaviors not exclusively harmful ones. It's just that we don't talk about the good ones as much as our bad ones. In fact the only time we really talk about habits and behaviors is around December and January, the time we are conditioned to make New Year's Resolutions. Then the focus is all in the bad behavior we will swear off and the saintly, perfect behavior we promise we'll take up.
The lesson samskaras had for me got lost in fits of self-condemnation & oaths that I would achieve perfection in an imagined future. My focus wasn't beating myself up for being late to work again, cheating on diets, drowning my sorrows too much, not meditating enough. This only had the cycle, and I’d boomerang back with higher expectations and harder falls. Samskaras asked me to take a less egocentric view: I was not damaged, but the behavior, and the repetition, meant there was an issue I needed to address appropriately. Thinking of the samskaras as teachers helped me see I needed to make healthy changes. See the cycle. This became a habit over time. Don't get sidetracked by shame; become open to change.
Next I focus on positive samskaras. Meeting with Francesco had become a regular habit interrupted only by his journeys to participate in studies and treatment around the country and the globe, visiting him regularly was a cycle that benefited us both. Other good habits I routinely met were my work deadlines, and flossing every night had to count for something. Those repeating behaviors help me view myself with more of a sense of balance.
Some lessons were learned more quickly than others. I did return to my samskara relationship again, but this time I understood it as a cycle trying to show me something. What I found was fear. Francesco's accident and Marnie's diagnosis of a potentially terminal illness had removed the ground from under my feet. Their treatment over the months meant there was no immediate resolution. I lived in a constant state of hope and desperation. And so we look for something solid and familiar, even when the familiar could no longer be confused for comfortable. Although I wasn't ready to release this particular cycle just yet, becoming aware of the samskara, and my willingness to see its lesson for me, helped make me receptive to change.
This helped me so much in my life, and hope it helps you too! Leave a comment with a line you liked from the text, or your reactions /questions about the text.