Practice makes perfect. That’s what we all heard when learning to ride a bike, to play an instrument or to master a pose. The first time you try it seems hopeless, there are just too many things you have no control over: coordination, balance, rhythm, strength. Yet somehow you keep trying and trying and there is a day where you stay upright on the bike, you play a song, you do a handstand. It wasn’t there until it was.
Behind this triumph is the hugely complex and truly mind-blowing work of our brains. The more often nerve cells communicate, the stronger the exchange between them will be, facilitating the resulting action i.e. the bike ride or the handstand. Constant repetition of this connection over a long period of time will likely result in permanent changes on the related nerve cells. That’s why we say that we never forget how to ride a bike. Just think of how much effort walking costs us in the beginning, and how completely automatic it has become. Everything we master and can do with ease is a result of nerve cells communicating wonderfully with one another.
Scratching the Same Itch
As wonderful as it is that we conserve vital life energy through automation, that we don’t need to think about every step we take or every move we make, there is a flip side to this story too (isn’t there always!). Synapses – the structures responsible for making our nerve cells communicate with each other – get stronger with repetition, and we have been repeating all kinds of behavior for a very very long time. Say you have a tendency to doubt yourself and think nothing is ever gonna work for you every time things get a little shaky in your life. Somewhere in your brain there is a connection between nerve cells that generate the same response every time that particular stimulus kicks in. It comes with fear of an imaginary future where everything goes wrong, fear of being alone and destitute. All those fears and emotions are being triggered in your brain by the same process you’ve been through so many times. Thinking like this is like a bad habit we find very, very hard to get rid of. Like scratching the same itch that has made you bleed before, you know it’s gonna hurt and leave a nasty scar but you scratch it anyway!
We could argue that every addiction, which is a hugely complex event and should not be over-simplified, has some aspect of this. As does any behavior we would like to change but we don’t seem able to. Nerve cells have been connecting to each other so many times they have created a pattern, a pattern they now seem to follow all by themselves when the trigger is there and we have little control over it- or do we?
Yogis Call These Patterns Samskaras
Samskaras can be immensely positive and helpful, at least for a while. The habit – or samskara – of meditating every day for instance has carried me to my cushion many mornings when I just wanted to stay in bed. The pure force of habit took me there. I cannot, ever, regardless of how tired I am or how late it is or where I am in the world, go to bed without brushing my teeth. It’s such a strong habit, it takes care of itself.
The problem is, of course, when the samskaras do not lead us to behaviour that is beneficial or healthy or good. Why do you keep falling for the wrong guys? Or why do you seem to always be struggling with money? Why do you get so angry all the time, or depressed, or afraid? Why do you eat stuff you know is bad for you, or drink, smoke, gossip, etc. The list of stuff we do even though we would rather not is truly huge.
Many times, those questions are at the heart of what leads many of us into therapy, the feeling we are stuck somewhere we do not want to be and can’t seem to get a handle on it…
Samskaras’ Best Friends
It gets even more complicated because samskaras can become complex clusters of emotions, including the incredibly powerful emotion of shame. Shame is such a crippling feeling that most of us will unconsciously create stories to justify our behaviors so we don’t have to be confronted by it: enter justifications. Justifications are the stories we create to justify doing what we shouldn’t have done, or to justify not doing what we should have done. They are not sincere insights but stories fabricated by our ego to keep its reign of unconscious impulses. Instead of saying “sorry I yelled at you, I was so frustrated and failed at controlling my temper”, which is a very relatable and honest experience, we say “you yelled first” or “you drive me crazy”. Instead of saying “I spent too much money on unimportant things because they give me a fleeting feeling of joy” we say “I work hard and I deserve it”. It’s not a lie per se, but it isn’t an honest observation either. Those are silly examples, but using excuses for justifying our behavior is an instinctive feeling and many times we have absolutely no awareness of doing that. The problem is that justifications keeps us trapped and stuck in the same place: every time I give myself an excuse it’s Samskara 1 and Honesty 0. And to top it off, the samskara just got a little bit stronger again.
The Most Important Yoga Prop
To really affect some change in this cycle of suffering, we need unrelenting, complete honesty when looking at ourselves. The only way out is in. The first time it can be quite overwhelming, like you are standing naked for all to judge. That’s the ego and its obsession with control. Gradually, you feel that honesty actually makes it easier to breathe, to see the other stuff too. You’re naked and imperfect, that’s all. Welcome to the most populated club on earth. Vulnerability is super scary for the ego, but when you look the worst monster in the face, he gets less scary and his power diminishes. Believe me.
And honesty also has a best friend: compassion. Being ruthlessly honest only works if you can also receive your crap with loving, compassionate arms. “I yelled again just because I was irritated”, making up an excuse is just going to trap me in the behavior. Feeling shame will just paralyze me. Look at it, understand what motivated you to do it and tune in to what it feels like and look for a different course of action and commit some time to explore it. Be determined to change and also be generous in the process. I sometimes cannot believe how ignorant I am, how flawed. Then I remind myself that my determination is to leave this life a little less ignorant and flawed and I’ll always be working towards that.
My job is not to pretend I’m great nor to remind myself again and again how unworthy I am, but to take full responsibility for my actions and, as Krishna says, cut the crap (my words) with the sword of wisdom and goodness.
Cover photo: Photo by Seyed Ahmadreza Abedi