What are Samskaras?

What are Samskaras?

Think about something you do without thinking about it, like making breakfast in the morning or driving to work. You don’t need to think about the individual actions that make up those processes because they are habitual. This is a good thing when you are developing habits and mental processes that are helpful or positive, but it can be less helpful when pain, trauma, avoidance, and other bad experiences trigger samskaras, or habits, that serve to perpetuate negative cycles.

Samskaras are deeply held tendencies in our minds that show up in our daily lives through our automatic responses to experiences. Samskara means “impression,” “recollection,” “planned action,” or “inclination.” Think of samskaras as grooves, like ruts in a road, that are reinforced through our daily actions. Imagine you drive down a dirt road every day. Over time, your tires make ruts in the road that get progressively deeper. Eventually, it will be very difficult to drive anywhere except those ruts in the road. This is an illustration of samskaras – ingrained habits that are challenging to change.

As an example, imagine that every time you look in a mirror, you criticize your appearance. Over time, those criticisms will come automatically to your mind as you get harder and harder on yourself, and that habit will get progressively harder to break. However, there is good news – in the same way that samskaras naturally occur as habits form, you can form new samskaras with intention and discipline.

There is a scientific equivalent to the concept of samskaras, and that is the theory of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the idea that the brain is malleable, or “plastic,” and able to change, adapt, and heal. Before neuroplasticity became more widely accepted, it was generally thought that the brain was hard-wired a certain way and it could not be changed; the theory of neuroplasticity challenges that notion with the idea that “what fires together, wires together.” As you repetitively perform a certain action or think a certain way, whether it is positive or negative, the synapses in your brain that “fire” or activate together regularly form stronger connections. As habits get more ingrained, those “neural pathways” become more established so that you no longer have to consciously think about what you’re doing to take the same action.

Changing those patterns takes a lot of work. Think of the way a river cuts a groove in rock to flow to the ocean; changing the flow of the river requires conscious planning of a new route, one that doesn’t cause more problems than it solves. The Grand Canyon was created by the movement of the Colorado River over millions of years, which illustrates how much more challenging samskaras could be to change if they’ve been lifelong – imagine how difficult it would be to change the route of that river!

As part of the concept of karma, there are also some schools of philosophy that believe that samskaras hold through subsequent lifetimes, so that would mean your current samskaras are not only the result of your current habits but of habits and thought patterns from previous lives.

Fortunately, every habit can be broken (or built) and every thought pattern can be changed. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can be effective tools in affecting your samskaras. The heat and discipline associated with a practice of tapas can help you change the habits and tendencies that make up current unproductive samskaras.

While the following steps are theoretically simple, this is an ongoing journey that will not be “completed” quickly, if ever. The first step in changing negative or unhelpful samskaras is to recognize them. You may already see your triggers and unproductive habits and know what you want to change, or that awareness may come later. The second is to plan what you would like to replace those habits or reactions with. How do you want to talk to yourself in the mirror? How do you want to react when your partner/parent/child/friend challenges you? Or what kind of fitness/nutrition/confidence/work habits do you want to begin? Finally, with mindfulness, the challenging part is to practice new behaviours in familiar situations. Over time, your actions, reactions, and thought patterns can and will change, but it takes discipline, focus, and awareness.

Every action, intent, and preparation leaves an “impression” in the mind, and actions performed with awareness make the deepest impressions on our minds. When you are conscious, generous, and compassionate in your intentions, you are actively making yourself a more conscious, generous, and compassionate person.