Why is it that change is so difficult? Why do most of us find it so hard to create and sustain a new, positive habit? Or to uproot an old one?
WILLPOWER VS CONDITIONING
You decide to change.
You workout four days a week for an entire month. You write for an hour every morning for 20 days straight. You go through a whole 24 hour period without succumbing to anger or irritability.
Then fatigue sets in. The excitement that fueled your initial progress fizzles out. What follows is inevitable.
All of your old habits and conditionings begin to creep back in. They were there all along, of course, hiding under the surface while your conscious mind struggled to override them.
Willpower fended them off for a while. But willpower is a fickle thing. No one carries an unlimited supply of it. And the moment that supply is tapped, you fall back into default mode.
Your default mode is the autopilot system that runs your life when your conscious mind is on break. It’s the part of your operating system that is programmed over the course of your lifetime (or lifetimes) by all your past experiences.
DEEP PSYCHIC IMPRESSIONS
Each day you take in hundreds of thousands of sensory inputs which can be viewed as tiny experiences. And most of those experiences are not so different from the ones you had the day before. And the day before that. All of that repetition continues to reinforce your habits and conditionings.
Sometimes, an intense situation arises that is either painful or pleasurable. In either case, the force of the incident is too much for you to digest. So your system takes that undigested material and stuffs it deep into an unconscious part of your psyche.
Yogic philosophers refer to those deep psychic impressions as samskaras. Samskaras created by painful experiences produce aversions and fears. Those created by pleasurable experiences generate attachments and desires.
Sensory stimuli that were present when a samskara was created can trigger that samskara when experienced again. For example, the sound of an ice-cream truck can provoke a desire for sweets that wasn’t present before the sound was heard. Or, walking into a hospital can spark anxiety and fear because of negative experiences you had in a similar setting as a child.
THE DANCE OF SAMSKARAS
Most often, it’s harder to trace a reaction back to its samskaric source. Maybe you had a teacher in third grade who humiliated you in front of the class. That teacher wore a unique style of glasses. One day, you are in the checkout line at the grocery store and are suddenly filled with a mixture of embarrassment and anger. You have no idea why. But below your conscious mind, a samskara was triggered by the vaguely familiar type of glasses the cashier was wearing.
Throughout the course of a day many moods dance across our field of awareness and exit stage left. As soon as one bows to the audience, another bounds out into the spotlight. Sometimes two twirl around together. On some occasions, entire troupes compete in dramatic dance-offs.
We have little control over this process. Stimuli comes in, triggers a samskara, which then provokes a cascade of thoughts and emotions.
As I said before, most of this is off the radar. It doesn’t become apparent until you strive to eradicate a negative behavior such as smoking. And then you’re hit over the head with it.
You finish dinner and the craving arises. You sit down for a coffee and it pops up again. You go to a bar and there it is. Every break at work, every commute back home, every person you see light up — all are triggers. And as anyone who has gone through this knows, each craving is accompanied by persuasive thoughts and emotions.
No wonder 80% of all New Year’s resolutions fail.
Changing course requires that you swim upstream against the raging current of your attachments and aversions, your likes and dislikes, toward a greater state of freedom. This takes a tremendous amount of effort which you can only sustain for so long before the tensions wear you down and your samskaras take back over.
Think of it like this: your conditioned behaviors have etched the riverbeds through which your thoughts, emotions, energy and attention flow. This is what a habit is — your life energy flowing through a particular pathway over and over again. The more often it flows through a pathway, the deeper that pathway gets. It’s a feedback loop that further strengthens a habit, whether that habit is positive or negative.
You want to change your actions. You want to rid yourself of negative habits and create positive ones. To do this you must consciously redirect your energy out of old, deeply set pathways, into newer, freshly dug ones.
Sustain this work with enough depth over a long enough period of time, and your new streams will grow in size and strength. Eventually, you’ll have healthier feedback loops through which your creative energy can flow.
All of this takes work, of course. Deep conscious work yields radical transformation. There is no other way.
But this doesn’t mean that you must take on the influence of lifetimes with sheer willpower alone. There are time-tested methods that can level the playing field.
DEFEATING YOUR INVISIBLE ENEMY
If you desire to change you must understand the invisible enemy that stands in your way. By now, you’ve learned the enemy’s name (Samskara) and know a little about how he functions. Now, let’s take a look at what we can do to undermine him.
A samskara lurks below the surface level of awareness. It sends out troops of soldiers — thoughts, emotions, and biochemical agents — who are tasked to neutralize any rebel forces (the forces of change). When those rebel forces resist, there is conflict and struggle. If they grow tired of the struggle, the samskara emerges as the victor and no change takes place.
It’s hard to battle an unseen enemy. To gain some advantage, you must expand your awareness. And the best method for doing this is meditation.
The type of meditation we practice will help you develop a sensitivity to what is taking place below the surface level of your being. It will allow you to sense the shift that takes place when a samskara is triggered. And it will train you to stay open and nonreactive when flooded with emotion.
Stay open and nonreactive when the enemy strikes and two things will happen:
- You won’t reinforce the samskara.
- You will weaken the samskara and take back some of the energy it holds captive.
In other words, you don’t win the war in some epic battle on an open field. You win by starving the enemy out. The hungrier he gets, the more of his forces will defect and join your side.
MEDITATION AS TRAINING
One of the purposes of meditation is to train you to stay open through stressful situations. There are many forms of meditation, and each has its specific purposes. One effective technique used in kundalini meditation is to bring your awareness into areas of tension, and then allow that tension to dissolve.
As tension dissolves, energy is released. That energy can then be used as fuel for your spiritual growth. It can help you overcome limiting habits and acquire healthier ones.
An easy place for most people to feel subtle energies is in the heart chakra at the center of the chest. When you’re in love with someone you feel a sense of expansion here. When you’re angry with someone you feel a contraction, a tightness.
If you’ve trained yourself to relax the tension in this area and create a sense of expansion there, you will be able to notice the moment it begins to tighten. To see how this may help in your quest to change, let’s come back to our example of breaking the habit of smoking.
It’s been a week since you’ve had a cigarette. You’re on your way home after a stressful day at work. You pull up to a stoplight and the guy next to you has his window down and clouds of smoke are billowing out. The smell of tobacco hits you. You glance over to your right and see the neon sign of a gas station ahead.
A common reaction to this situation is to turn into the gas station, purchase a pack of Marlboros, and light up. But if you’ve been training to stay open you will notice the constriction in the heart the moment the craving for a smoke is triggered. You’ll take a deep breath, open inside, and release your tension. Then you’ll continue on past the gas station.
This minor victory doesn’t mean you’ve won the battle. You’ll have to keep breathing and releasing over and over again with every craving that arises. Each time you do this your samskaras associated with smoking will weaken.
In the same way, if you want to get in shape and are trying to establish the habit of working out four days a week, there will be days when nothing in you wants to go to the gym. The common reaction to this resistance is to come up with a justifiable excuse for not going.
Remember, you’re attempting to swim upstream. For the past ten years you’ve sat down in front of the TV every night. And now you’re trying to talk yourself into doing an hour of crossfit. After two weeks of this you’re going to tense up at just the thought of another burpee.
But again, this is when your meditation training can kick in and help you to release your resistance to the new habit. You breathe, open, break down your old patterns and divert that energy into a new directional flow.
Each time you release tensions and overcome resistance to change, you weaken limiting samskaras. This is how lasting transformation takes place.
Spiritual work is the process of dissolving all of your limiting habits and conditionings — your karma — so that you can live as a Self-realized, free being. When seen in this light, all you do becomes part of your spiritual work.
This is an endless, but beautiful process, because when you work in this way you never remain stuck. Each day becomes a new and creative experience.