Everything we see, feel, think or do leaves an impression on our minds. It seems almost tautological to say that. Human brain is always looking to automate stuff into habit patterns to make life easier by saving computational time and energy. We are a walking bag of habits. What’s inside the bag we carry dictate who we are, how we are and what we are.
The tricky thing about the bag is that much of its contents are acquired without awareness. Some inherited. It is vast and deep and it is difficult to audit what’s inside.
The good thing, however, is that we can reengineer it!
The oldest, effective and robust technology for changing the contents of the bag is known as Yoga.
These habits, tendencies, predispositions to think, feel and act have a technical name in Yoga. These are called Saṁskāras.
In the language of neuroscience, Saṁskāra is a pattern of activation of the neurons or neuronal circuit(s) in the brain. This pattern may or may not result in an immediate and observable physical action. As we know, these patterns can be inherited as well as cultivated. From neuroscience research, we also know that we cannot just change these patterns overnight.
Self transformation in Yoga is essentially creation and destruction of saṁskāras. It is the great war within that the Bhagvad Gīta talks about.
The Gardener and the Garden
A person on the path of self-transformation (whatever the objectives of the transformation may be) is like a gardener. Her mind is the garden. The saṁskāras are the plants that inhabit the garden.
The gardener here chooses to water those saṁskāras that will aid in her pursuit. She does not water those that will not aid her goal (weeds). Just chopping of the weeds does not work as they have roots under ground and will always grow when they get water.
This is why practices outlined in Yoga Sūtras go beyond the psychological tools like talk therapy to effect self transformation. I outline here why one cannot just talk one’s way out of trouble. Constantly just chopping up the weeds is not fun and ultimately the gardener burns out. As they say, she lets go!
The gardener also takes care not to plant seeds of weeds. Here is where the tools of Yoga help her the most. The tools of Yoga cultivate in her an acute sense of discrimination that weeds out the seeds of weeds.
Here is a fun exercise.
List down all your habits – patterns of thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions. While this seems easier said than done, this can indeed be done!
While you might want to ask others to share with you what they have observed you do habitually, i suggest you keep the list private. Destroy it after the exercise!
Start with your daily activities. For example, ‘every morning on my way to office I pick up a grande skinny cappuccino at the Starbucks next to my office‘.
List all your likes and dislikes (people, places, objects, etc).
List familiar reactions to the common triggers. What annoys you without fail? What makes you smile? What makes you eat? For example, ‘I just hate it when ——‘.
List also more recent patterns and less frequent patterns. For example, you might have just joined a crossfit gym. You might have an annual pilgrimage to some place (a mountain resort, a temple, etc).
This might take a few days. The list may run into tens of pages. Once you have done your list, get yourself some quiet time and write down what you have been trying to accomplish (goals and objectives). May be you are aiming to attend medical school. May be, you are an investment banker trying to get an MD promotion. Perhaps, you are simply trying to lose weight, get a good night sleep and look and feel better. List anything important to you from the short term to long term.
Just to know what is in your bag is a greatly illuminating. It is not a trivial exercise as our mind plays tricks, lays down fences and dark alleys that are no go zones in order to protect the neat story that WE are. The introspective elements of the practice of Yoga is meant, by expanding and deepening our perceptive powers, to help us see what is in the bag.
Once you have a list, check each item in your bag against your objective. ✓ it if it helps your objective and ✗ if it impedes. ✓✓ if it is a strong habit for you (e.g. you don’t need a iPod and an ideal weather conditions to go for a run).
Now here is the Yoga way of going forward. Focus on doing the ✓✓ patterns more often. Find out what other patterns that are not in your bag now and would have gotten a ✓. Work towards getting them in your bag and making them ✓✓.
And yes, don’t bother about the ✗.