Suffering and your Samskaras – a way to Liberation

We often view yoga as an activity. The way we speak about yoga reflects this assumption. We often hear the phrase “I am doing yoga” or “I am going to yoga class” and this language is part of our common social vernacular.

However, yoga is in fact a state. Patanjali describes yoga as a state of oneness, pure consciousness… unity. At the beginning of the yoga sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as a state of “calming the fluctuations of the mind” (YS 1.1).

The term yoga derives from the Sanskrit root word “yuj” which means “to control, yoke or unite”. So yoga is actually a term to describe a state of integration: harmony with ourselves, others and the world.

It is of course difficult to attain this state of yoga! We live in a world which teaches us to live in a state of desire. We are encouraged to believe that the more things we possess, the happier we will become. We begin to adopt this ‘future happiness’ belief that “if we have this, then I will be happy; if I get that car, then I will be happy; if I get married or have children; then I will be happy”. This desire in fact creates more suffering or dukkha (“bad space”) and the more we desire, the more we suffer!

The purpose of yoga is to overcome current and future suffering and ultimately attain liberation. So what is it that can be causing our suffering? Let us first consider what we are influenced by in life.

We are conditioned by the world that we inhabit by our:

  • Personal experiences
  • Birth circumstances
  • Influences of friends and family
  • Influence of chosen interest groups
  • Influence of belief system whether chosen or imposed.
  • Subconscious programming/subliminal activators (samskaras)

The first few factors are quite self-explanatory. We are influenced by our experiences and life circumstances. But what exactly are these subliminal activators known as samskaras?

Basically, a person has an experience. This can be positive, negative or neutral. Every experience leaves behind an impression or imprint in the mind called Samskara (subliminal activator).

These samskaras can be dormant in the mind (citta) and recede into the subconscious mind, lying low. They manifest when associations arise, like, for example, a certain place reminds you of a special time in your life or being with a lover or a certain smell reminds you of a place you have travelled to.

For positive and negative experiences, there are a number of associative factors that are obtained by the five senses. These can be the people who were involved in the experience, music, taste, smell and feelings associated with the experience. These associative factors create a Samskara a subliminal impression which basically develop into “patterns”. They form little seeds in your mind. So whenever you come across that seed, it brings back a memory.

Have you experienced a time when a smell reminds you of a particular time in your life or event? Or a song takes you back to a distinct place and time in your life? In these cases the sense of hearing or smell has awoken your Samskara. You listen to that song again because it takes you back. Then you listen to it again, and again; each time you do the action that awakens a Samskara, you reinforce or strengthen the Samskara.

So gradually each time you repeat the action, you create a stronger impression and eventually this impression comes to be a vasana (habit). You find yourself wearing this special perfume over and over because of the Samskara you have formed. This habit (vasana) then creates your svabhava (part of your nature). And when something becomes a habit, it can form an addiction. You cannot leave the house without spraying this perfume! This addiction can apply to both positive and negative experiences.

Some vasana (habits) can be important. Like when you first learn to drive a car; at the beginning it is challenging. You must give complete attention on the skill of driving. I remember I couldn’t even listen to music when I first learnt to drive! But after some practice and skill-development, you are able to drive while having a conversation, listening to music and even eating!

This vasana (habit) has now become part of your nature (svabhava); as though it is part of who you are. We even drive in “auto pilot” at times because of our habit! Consider the addiction of smoking or drinking alcohol. It starts with one taste, or one inhale of the cigarette. Each taste or puff strengthens your Samskara and before you know it, one develops an addiction/habit for smoking or alcohol.

It’s important to note that vasana is not only referring to habitual action (like driving a car); it is also referring to habitual thoughts. Our habitual thoughts that are negative can cause us deep suffering. If you are familiar with using negative-self talk; this builds a strong negative Samskara about how you see yourself which in turn affects your self-confidence and positive view of yourself.

Our suffering in life can often be attributed to our negative samskaras. We need to work on our negative samskaras that cause us suffering. So we ask the question, what is causing us suffering? Can you identify any negative samskaras in your own life?

Often people don’t want to identify their negative samskaras because it is not always pleasant to deal with them. Many people suppress them. However if we don’t deal with them, then we cannot improve ourselves or remove what is causing us suffering. Or at least reduce our suffering! What is causing you dukkha (bad space)? What is making you unhappy?

Once we recognise our negative samskaras, the question becomes: how do we break these patterns or subliminal imprints in the mind?

By cultivating a sustained yoga practice.

Meditation helps us deal with negative experiences. We often view meditation as a very peaceful, calm state. In fact, meditation may ultimately assist one into a calm state, but we need to go through turmoil in order to reach that calmness! “Face your demons” so to speak.  In meditation, your mind churns! If you have meditated before for sustained periods, you may notice that the first thoughts that arise are the negative ones. It is important for us to acknowledge the negativity and not deny or suppress it. It is important to recognise them and let them go.

In yoga therapy, “reliving the experience” or “de-briefing” is not always necessary. It in fact can potentially reinforce your Samskara. In yoga therapy, instead of de-briefing, the focus is on breaking the vasana (habits) which naturally will break the negative Samskara.

We need to work through our negative samskaras which inhibit us from functioning in sukha (good space or happiness) by allowing the negative experience to come up (not necessarily reliving it); just simply accept it. Avoid being attached to it.

Patanjali mentions we need to cultivate “vairagya” (dispassion) in order to calm these fluctuations of the mind (YS 1.12). What exactly is dispassion? It is about becoming neutral; not denying the thought or the pain that arises. Simply observe it, accept it and let it go. So become non-attached to your negative stuff. This is a big skill and takes a lot of time.

An analogy to go by is to visualise yourself sitting in a coffee shop and looking out the window, watching and observing people walk by. Avoid judging or forming opinions of them. Rather, be an observer. If we start to judge, we run with those thoughts! One judgemental thought leads to another. So the skill of meditation is the skill of looking at the thoughts, facing them and letting them go. Allow them to come and go but do not “hook” onto that thought.

Patanjali says that through sustained practice, we can achieve this steadiness of mind (YS 1.13) which ultimately removes our samskaras. It is through sustained effort that one can achieve this steadiness and harmony of the mind! It is a regular practice a lifetime(s) practice! (YS 1.13-1.14)

Patanjali also says that this vairagya (dispassion or non-attachment) is achieved through humble motivations. Your motivation to remove your samskaras and have a calm mind should not be for worldly gain, benefit or pleasure (YS 1.15). Patanjali warns us not to be motivated by rewards heavenly or worldly!

The motivation should be for the practice itself; the here and now is the focus. By doing the practice, we become better people which then make the world a better place. Our efforts yield rewards here and now.

Do not be attached to the outcome! By being attached to the outcome, our happiness is dependent on that outcome. What happens when or if it doesn’t turn out that way? We develop dukkha (bad space/suffering)!

The greater our expectations, the more dukkha we create in our world and therefore the more suffering we have.

Our motivation should just be for the practice itself.

Practise for the practice.


2 thoughts on “Suffering and your Samskaras – a way to Liberation

  1. Really enjoyed this post. Thank you, Grace!


  2. Fantastic write up . Crystal clear


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