Samskaras are the “indelible imprints in the subconscious left behind by our daily experiences – whether conscious or unconscious, internal or external, desirable or undesirable.” (1) We are subconsciously forming impressions each time we experience something, say something, think something, or do something. Collectively, these impressions (our samskaras) account for our predispositions, our habits, & our subconscious motivations.
Exposure to similar experiences and similar thought patterns gradually builds up into habitual ways of behaving and thinking. In fact, this is the nature of practice. In asana class, we explore over and over again the various yoga postures. Over time, as our bodies develop new, healthier habits – difficult poses become easier. On the other hand, if you routinely allow yourself to complain about your co-workers, you will become increasingly pre-disposed to finding reasons to complain further about them. “If you expose yourself to many angry thoughts, you will develop angry samskaras. With angry samskaras you will be pre-disposed to find occasions for anger in your daily life.” (2)
As the quote at the beginning says, every one of our experiences “whether conscious or unconscious, internal or external, desirable or undesirable,” leaves behind a seed that makes us susceptible to certain patterns of behavior in the future. We are constantly living out and responding to the influence of our samskaras, while we are also constantly creating new samskaras. Our thoughts, words and actions in this moment have been shaped by our past. Our thoughts, words and actions in this moment will influence our future.
So, how do we slow down this cycle and live in a more conscious manner? While you practice your yoga poses, talk to a difficult coworker, or drive across town, ask yourself “What precedents am I setting for myself in this moment?” “What old habits am I responding to in this moment?” Consciously reflect on the influence of your past, and carefully consider the effects for your future. Eventually we can even become predisposed to asking ourselves these questions. Often, in moments of frustration or fatigue we indulge ourselves with sloppy behavior – we may allow ourselves to be rude or snippy to people that we love and respect, or we may roll through stop signs, or soothe ourselves by eating loads of junk food. None of these actions will immediately cause anyone’s spiritual downfall, but when we are able to ask ourselves “What precedent am I setting for myself?” – we can catch ourselves in time and choose to alter our way of thinking and behaving. The habit of conscious awareness gradually replaces the habit of unconscious behavior.
In this way, by increasing the time and space between impulse and action… we can begin to change course and redirect ourselves toward chosen and conscious ways of being. This is so exciting! We all know the sort of person that we would like to be. We know the traits that we admire and respect in others, and that we aspire to for ourselves. The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali (3) tells us that at any given moment, our samskaras are either emerging or are being restrained. When we are not we are calling them under examination, we are prey to their influence. Naturally enough, we each have our challenges and our shortcomings – but this method of considering the habits and tendencies that we are currently responding to, as well as the precedents that we are setting for our future selves, gives us a means to begin becoming that person that we hope to be.
1. Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga, by Georg Feuerstein
Back to Essays Page
2. How To Know God, by Christopher Isherwood
3. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is considered one of the most fundamental and influential ancient texts on yogic philosophy.