Sometimes the strangest memories stick with you through the years.
This month, as I sit here trying to start writing about samskaras and patterns and, y’know, the topics I believe are relevant and important, I find myself instead back in college, in my French literature class. There’s one poem that I remember the essence of, but not the name – in which the author spends the entire first half railing at the paper for being blank, and insisting he will conquer it with his words.
Immediately after those four lines, there is: a big blank space.
I vividly recall my professor laughing out loud at the joke, explaining that, after all the poet’s bluster, the blank page still won out, for a few more moments at least. And although the poet eventually filled the rest of the page and finished his poem (I do wish I remembered the title), I’ve been sitting in front of my modern blank page, wondering if the monthly post will ever grace the document.
I’ve sat here staring. I’ve gotten frustrated and angry. I’ve written terrible starts and deleted them all. I’ve complained to friends, and sought advice, and tried walking away for a few days. But the blank page still mocks me.
I’ve never felt so much sympathy for a French poet.
Ironically, amid all the stewing and frustration about the blank page, I recognized that its very blankness offered an access to explaining this month’s theme. (Not gonna lie, I kind of hate it when that happens. Feels like the Universe is playing a little joke on me.) Because ultimately, in addressing samskaras and applying ourselves to Yoga, we’re looking to get our awareness back to the perfect blankness of an unwritten page.
Samskaras are Written Below our Awareness
Samskaras are latent impressions or patterns in the mind. You can think of them as old programs that your internal machinery runs, or perhaps the impressions and markings left on a page as you pressed firmly with a pencil. These patterns are always there, under the surface, ready to pop up and influence our behavior almost without our knowledge.
Let’s work with a nature metaphor – that of planting a seed. The seed, or latent impression, was left from a previous action, and exists underneath awareness, more or less dormant. When conditions in your life come together in the proper combination (such as rain, nutrients, and sunshine for the seed), the samskara bursts from the ground (erupts into a thought), flowers (as an action), and produces more seeds (impressions) which bury themselves in our subtle space, and wait to germinate again (thus becoming latent). And the cycle continues.
The more of a particular pattern we indulge in, the more deeply ingrained it becomes, and the more it affects our thoughts (and from there, eventually, our words, actions, habits, and ultimately, life). One of our goals in creating a quiet mind is to get to a point where, even if we still have samskaras triggered and flowering, we are able to cease sowing new seeds of habits. Or, with our writing on a page metaphor, we might put down the pencil we use to write, carefully erase its markings, only to be left with the impressions on our page.
This process is not, unfortunately, very scientific. There are no measurements of how many samskaras one has, or how deeply the impressions are instilled. No one can predict exactly what ‘triggering’ a samskara looks like, or precisely how to interrupt it. Experiments cannot be conducted, and results cannot be duplicated. Each of us is on a completely unique path, and must address our internal garden – our gentle journey to a blank page – with the tools of our own awareness.
And while the Sutras don’t give us an easy solution, they do give us a place to start. First, we continue to strengthen our awareness and focus, cultivating our discrimination (viveka) and sharpening our avanced meditation practice (samyama). Then, we seek out and encourage moments of peace and clarity. Over time, we tie them together so that moments become minutes, become hours, become ever-longer stretches of time. By creating a habit of stillness and calm, we’re able to intensify our efforts of complete freedom and release – freezing the ground where those latent seeds are stored.
You can’t wait for a perfect condition to begin – the conditions are ever-changing, and actually in service to your journey, as each samskara triggered offers an opportunity to notice and interrupt it. Sometimes, you have to start writing even when the blank page appears to be mocking you; similarly, if you wish to uproot your samskaras, you must bring self awareness and discipline to cultivating mental stillness, no matter how impossible it seems. What patterns do you know yourself to have? Which ones can you interrupt? How do you start rewriting towards calm?
I don’t have the answers, but I’m starting now. One day, one line, one blank page at a time.