7 steps to breaking negative habits and creating positive ones
Samskara is the idea of imprints left on the mind, or developed patterns, due to life experiences. Modern science refers to these patterns “neural pathways”, which become more stuck and embedded as we repeatedly use them over the years. These patterns are learned- they develop rapidly while we’re children, and make life easier for us. Once you’ve learned how to do something, you eventually become proficient at it. That’s the benefit of our learned patterns.
But what about negative patterns? These, too, are learned, and become even more challenging to break after a long period of repeating them over and over. Think about any bad habit you’ve had. Maybe it’s something like smoking, or your morning coffee ritual. Or maybe it’s the reaction you have when you hear someone yell in anger due to childhood trauma. It can even be a belief that doesn’t serve us, but has been taught to us by our parents or even our society.
Samkaras can be helpful, like good habits. Our brain creates these pathways to make our daily habits more functional and simpler, it makes what we have to do easier to do. (Should you really have to set a reminder or have a checklist for brushing your teeth every night?) But some of our bad habits re just as strong, and don’t serve us.
Despite their strength, we can rid ourselves of them. It takes practice, and especially determination and discipline. But breaking old habits and creating new ones can be done! Following are the steps we can take to clear out old, negative samskaras:
- Intention (sankalpas) – We first must decide that we need to change something before we can actually create that change. Think about a habit that you’d like to be rid of. Pick one to start off with- you don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Once you’ve decided to make the change, we move to step two.
- Discipline (tapas) – Nothing truly worth doing is easy, and ridding ourselves of old habits is certainly a challenge! So maintaining your resolve is imperative.
- Slowness (shani) – Slowness sounds counterproductive to most of us, but when you think about our automatic responses, they happen in a flash. Perhaps your habit is to lose your temper when your spouse asks you to do something you feel isn’t your responsibility. In an instant, we can become angry, irrational and even lash out. When we apply slowness, we can actually take a moment before the trigger can cause our negative response. Which bring is to step four.
- Awareness (vidya) – Once you’ve slowed yourself down, you can actually take a moment to become very aware of what is triggering you, and sometimes even WHY it is. You begin to notice exactly what is happening in the moment- is your heart racing? Is your chest tight? What is your breathing like? What emotions are you feeling in this moment? This can be difficult to go through, but it is necessary. Also, it’s important to be aware of what we are truly responsible for. Often times, when we react poorly to a situation, we place blame on others. Notice if that’s the case for you. Sometimes a victim mentality is a bad samskara in and of itself.
- Fearlessness (abhaya) – When we slow down and bring awareness to our feelings and emotions, sometimes very unpleasant stuff comes up. Our natural instinct is to avoid uncomfortable feelings. We block it, close ourselves to it. But we have to be brave and actually let these awful feelings pass through us. I’m not saying that it’s easy, but it’s incredibly liberating. I recently had a moment like this. While having an incredibly disproportionate reaction to a situation where I had sent a text message and hadn’t received a response, I knew logically in my head there was no reason to be upset. I decided to slow down, bring awareness to what I was feeling, and from a place of awareness I started to have a panic attack. My chest was tight, my heart was pounding, I couldn’t breathe… a moment from my previous relationship with my ex came flooding back to me. I was a very young mother, and my ex would leave me for days on end. I had no family near me to turn to, and I felt incredibly frightened and alone. I felt abandoned. So the response I desperately needed via text message was triggering my fear from more than 20 years ago. It made no sense logically, but that pattern was there of fear and panic, and it took very little to make it resurface. It was overwhelming, but passed relatively quickly and I now have a greater insight to my inner workings. Sitting with pain is not easy, but it allows us to release it and move forward with more positive patterns and responses.
- Vision (darshana) – once we’ve identified these old habits, patterns or thoughts, we need to create new ones to replace them. Try to imagine what life would be like without that old way of behaving or thinking. Picture yourself calm when someone accuses you of something rather than becoming defensive for fear of being judged poorly or criticized. Imagine a day where you meditate when you begin to feel emotional or overwhelmed rather than reaching for that piece of cake or extra glass of wine. That’s what will truly help guide our actions, bringing us to our final step.
- Practice (abhyasa) – This can be your practice of yoga asana, pranayama (breath work), meditation, and especially the cultivation of our new habits. Continuing to come back to our list of seven steps, reevaluating what is working for us and what we need to improve upon, and being consistent in our new, more positive habits. Most important of all is practicing forgiveness. That may even be forgiveness of ourselves. As we go through this process, we need to remember that we will absolutely have moment of “backsliding”. It’s part of the process. I read somewhere that it isn’t necessarily one step forward, two steps back. It may be consistently stepping forward in a spiraling pattern. Keep this in mind as you go through your process and know that you’re truly on your way to freedom from negative samskara.