As fireworks sizzled through the sky this Fourth of July and sounds of celebration rang — or were those just drunk people? — the revelry, for me, highlighted areas of life where I felt stuck, or unfree.
We often think of freedom as something outside ourselves, but most of us are trapped by our minds. We become prisoners of self-talk that’s laced with fear and feelings of unworthiness. This clouds our perceptions and influences the way we interact with the world, sometimes unconsciously. When our perceptions are clouded, so are our actions.
Conversely, when our mind is free of suffering, so are we.
That’s why true freedom is not found outside. It’s found inside.
Yoga teaches that all obstacles are in the mind. A Course in Miracles teaches approximately the same thing, with miracles being nothing more than a shift in perception. And once we identify these limiting, often fear-based perceptions, they lift and usher in boundlessness. Freedom.
And that’s the thing — our perceptions and beliefs encage us, keep us small or in resistance mode, and prevent us from looking at life through a lens of love. Instead, we may live as victims or in fear, and often we adopt psychological complexes to protect us, but these ways of protecting ourselves sometimes keep us from enjoying the very things we’re afraid of losing.
Samskaras, mental patterns that inhibit freedom
In yoga, people have what’s called samskaras. A samskara is a mental impression of this past. This can be a positive or negative emotional pattern or conditioning that influences how we interact with the world. Negative samskaras perpetuate suffering and unwittingly reinforce themselves.
For example, when I was younger I felt really, horribly lonely. I cried all the time and didn’t really have anyone to talk to. Because of samskaras, I thought that I was clinically depressed, fundamentally flawed, and generally not a good person. These incredibly hurtful beliefs stopped me from seeking out healthy relationships and influenced how I interacted with the world. (And no wonder I was depressed. Hello?!)
With limited healthy relationships — platonic or romantic — the idea that I was flawed and undeserving of companionship dug an even deeper hole in my soul. It took a long time for me to become my own best friend and begin to pluck out, one by one, each thought and behavioral pattern, each samskara, associated with these horrible feelings of loneliness. Over the Fourth, I realized that my work is still not done.
This is incredibly difficult for me to talk about, but I feel it’s an important step in helping to normalize my emotions because I know I’m not the only person who feels lonely from time to time. Or who has samskaras.
Anyway, the task through spiritual growth is to become aware of our thoughts and behaviors. This shines the light on all the ways we perpetuate our own suffering, create our own mental prisons.
Keep in mind that this is a life-long process. We must cultivate both compassion and fearlessness so we can face our inner demons with honesty with but also kindness.
Here are a few ways to identify and unwind samskaras.
You may have a network of samskaras you would like to unravel, but pick one. You may find they’re all connected to the same root system, anyway.
Let’s say you struggle with not feeling worthy. Pick a simple declarative sentence that encapsulates the samaskara. I feel unworthy because… And then just free write based on that declaration. Let your mind go wherever it wants to go, cataloguing your thoughts on paper without judgement.
If you get stuck, ask a question. Let’s say you’re not sure why you feel the way you do. Simply write, “Why do I feel unworthy?” and write whatever comes to mind, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. This method resembles psychoanalysis, so it’s highly beneficial.
Set a timer for at least five minutes, and continue writing for that time. Just see what comes up.
Many times, you’ll be able to trace the samskara back to a specific relationship or incident. Maybe that incident was really minor.
In my own life, a small incident from high school has messed up my mind for years and I’ve never fully dealt with it. I’ve had much bigger tragedies, but this small incident held so much power over me. Because the incident was so small, I have underestimated its power.
Maybe in the course of journaling, you’ll find a similarly small incident. You know what it is, the thing that’s holding you back. I guarantee your mind has run over it in the course of your thoughts, but maybe you dismissed it, deeming it irrelevant.
Trust your instincts. They’re so important when it comes to spiritual work. Our instincts tell us what needs to be healed, which direction we need to go. Sometimes the smallest things cause the most pain.
2. Forgive and accept
Is there something for which you need to forgive yourself or someone else?
Forgiveness is not saying an action is acceptable; it’s accepting that the past will not change. It is what it is. When we hold anger, it’s often connected to hope that the past will change. But it can’t. It already happened.
If you need to forgive yourself, considering writing in your journal, “I’m sorry for x.” Continue free writing, digging a little deeper into why it happened. You might find greater compassion for yourself and feel lighter.
If someone else hurt you, write them a letter. You don’t need to send it, only write and get your feelings on the page.
Sometimes all we need is to acknowledge with awareness the things that cause us so much pain. Awareness is love consciousness and this light is so powerful that it can burn any and all darkness away.
Healing is a mental and emotional process. It requires sitting with your feelings as well as digging through all the ways we mentally sabotage ourselves.
If you’re not sure how to proceed when digging up a samskara, it may help to meditate on it. Ask yourself, “why do I feel this way?” and just sit and breathe. Try and let go of expectation and just see what thoughts arise.
4. Practice honesty and compassion
Total honesty is essential for the spiritual path. It’s one thing to claim victim consciousness in our lives or with other people, but if we stay in that victim consciousness in our minds, there is no chance for healing.
Sometimes our samskaras are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them. However, all the roots of suffering, all samskaras, eventually come to light as we develop higher levels of awareness.
We must examine our thought processes in an impersonal way. This is when compassion is critical. It does no good to punish yourself, you’ve probably done enough of that. Just honestly look at the things holding you back or causing you pain, and ask yourself why while journaling or meditating. Develop this light of awareness, and continue to go deeper and deeper.
Burn through samskaras to experience freedom
Ultimately, we face the pain, face the places where we aren’t free, so that we may experience true freedom, the inner freedom that comes from clear sight, unclouded by samskaras, free from the stories we tell ourselves.
When we clear our mind of self-sabotoging habits and thoughts, we act in clearer, more authentic ways. We’re not acting from a place of unworthiness, aggression or fear. As our actions gain greater authenticity, we reduce the potential for future suffering.
While life may throw us curve balls, we don’t run the things that happen to us through the dirty lens of a samskara-filled mind.
We process life through pure awareness, pure love, and don’t take things so personally. This reduces suffering and creates freedom.
5. Envision a new way forward
Samskaras can be positive too, so contemplate what life would look like when you have positive beliefs ingrained, like I am worthy of happiness. I am full and complete.
How do you act? How do you feel? Work to cultivate this positivity as earnestly as you work to ferret out the negative and painful states.
Cheers to your freedom.
What are some of your samskaras? What part of this article resonated with you? Share in the comments below.
Image by megawheel360 via Flickr