Rewiring your brain – How to change samskaras to create more freedom in life
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Victor Frankl
What are samskaras?
Each moment we experience is a choice point. How we respond to something, internally or externally can be based off of conscious decisions. We have the ability to become aware of our subconscious mental processing and thus change it. We can become free to choose our responses to whatever comes our way. First, we need to understand how these mental processes function and then we can begin to start the practice of sitting in awareness and choose responses which help us .
Samskara are habits created when thoughts and actions become impressions on the mind. They are the result of repetitive behavior that strengthens neural pathways which can unconsciously affect our reactions to stimuli.
This process begins with a single input – a thought, emotional reaction or sensation. Our brains use patterns to repeat things we’ve learned. If something we think or do is repeated enough, over time, this builds up a pathway in our brain. Our neural tissue forms to make these pathways faster and more efficient for daily functioning.
For example, when someone calls our name, our attention is drawn to it. While this is a very convenient function, we can develop patterns that are harmful. For example, if someone feels hurt by another person’s words and responds by hurting that person, it will strengthen the pathways that support this action. Statements that offend them will lead to lashing out in pain. This eventually becomes habitual and they no longer consciously choose to do this. We only need to pause to notice what’s going on to change this.
How can we change our samskaras?
Practicing meditation or yoga is a perfect way to cultivate this aware state of mind. Pause. Take a breath. Observe your thoughts, emotions and sensations. Continue what you’re doing. The practice of noticing ourselves builds the pathway that reminds us to pay attention to what we’re creating. Once practiced enough, this awareness can be carried in each moment.
We begin to notice that our habits can be helpful or harmful. Helpful samskara can bring us more fully into the present moment and cultivate feelings of compassion and gratitude, guiding us towards happiness. Harmful samskara can cause suffering and at extremes, mental illness. A repetitive harmful thought can create a habit that is extremely hard to overcome or change. In this way, we can get stuck in a pattern of harming ourselves. This can lead to anxiety or depression.
When we attempt to change our harmful habits, we discover where we really desire to put our focus. We can begin to ask ourselves what we really want. “Do I want to cause harm?” “Will doing harm make the situation better?” “How can I feel freedom and peace in this moment?”We cannot dismiss what we notice in the moment, but we can decide what to do because of it. We can choose to reinforce the pathways that we want to build. When an initial response to something is fear or anger, we can respond with compassion and choose to act in a way that reinforces who we want to be and what we want to experience.
When we begin to sit in a state of heightened awareness, we gain the ability to choose our responses. This noticing gives a space in which a decision can be made. Our response to a stimulus becomes a pause and an evaluation of how to cultivate what we truly desire. Over time, old habits fall away and are replaced with responses that help us and make us feel good. We create a mind that responds to pain with love and understanding instead of anger and malice. We begin to find peace in each moment, empowered to make the choices that we actually want. We become free.
Reese Hart is a RYT 200 who also teaches meditation with the University of Waterloo Meditation Explorers and strives to exemplify the freedom that it can offer. Reese believes that practicing yoga helps to offer a strength and ease in all parts of life, leading people to immerse themselves in the present and find a healthy way to live. She is currently devoting herself to emotional growth, self-compassion, honesty and trust. She loves nature, hiking, dancing and exploring new experiences. Reese hopes to inspire others to be free, love often, feel grateful and accept all of the challenges of an open, connected life.