21 Nov Samskara, Karma, and Thinking Nice Thoughts
There’s a yoga practice called pratipaksa bhavana from Sutra 2.33:
Upon being harassed with negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting
Maybe that’s all you need for today. Or maybe, you want to know why…
The long explanation…
Metaphysics, as defined by Oxford Languages, is “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.” Funny enough, the second definition from Oxford is “abstract theory with no basis in reality.”
I sense an irony between these two definitions. Any one metaphysical system attempts to philosophically outline reality in some cohesive and interconnecting, arguably rational, way. In any case, it’s not to be confused with something that’s necessarily objectively true.
Yoga in context
Yoga is underpinned by a metaphysical system shared by many schools of Indian philosophical thought. You’ve probably heard of karma and reincarnation, two principles in this system.
Yoga, taken out of its metaphysical context, remains a beneficial practice. Yoga, within context, becomes even more expansive, even more fun to study. When I first began to try to understand it, I realized how my thinking was boxed in by my own culture’s metaphysics, regardless of my religious affiliation or lack thereof. Trying to see a different way of seeing reality is a trip. A trip worth taking, if you ask me.
Here’s something I find really interesting about Yoga’s philosophy.
Your citta is your mind, and it’s like a vast warehouse of everything you’ve ever done or thought. Not just in this lifetime, but in your countless lifetimes of birth and rebirth. Everything you’ve ever done or thought has left an impression in your citta called a samskara.
Samskaras are patterns of action, like a setup of dominos. Activate the samskara, knock down the first domino, and the pattern unfolds. The more you’ve repeated the pattern, in this life or in previous lives, the deeper the groove is. The pattern is easier to activate and will more surely play out, just like it has over and over again. Like habits. Good and bad habits.
Samskaras never go away, they are stored forever. Within your mind is an imprint of every negative and positive pattern you have taken in the thousands of lifetimes you’ve lived. These imprints are either active or dormant. Sometimes they are just there doing nothing, until something in your present experience activates it, and the dominos begin to fall.
This doesn’t mean all your action is predetermined, not at all. Your present birth is predetermined, but what you do with it is not.
Some collection of your karma (but not all of it, there’s too much for one lifetime) has resulted in the circumstances of your current lifetime, which is set up and in process like an arrow shot from a bow that has not yet landed at its target. You must live in the arrow’s arc, more or less aware of your habit patterns, your samskaras, that invite you to choose the well-worn paths.
You can’t get off karma’s arc in this lifetime (with rare exception). That part is predetermined by your own past actions, which is what makes it karma, or cause and effect. You can, however, assert control over the actions you take, the samskaras you repeat and those you replace.
You can choose your next thought, your next action. The choices you make are the causes of future karma which must play out its effects in future reincarnations. Your karma determines the circumstances of your future birth. It’s all on you. Oh goodness.
This dizzying metaphysical loop is why there is Yoga. Yoga is a full life system designed to help the practitioner figure out how to a) cultivate better karma and b) eliminate karma entirely. Liberation (the rare exception mentioned above) is to get off the wheel of birth and rebirth once and for all.
Back to samskaras, the more tangible stuff we can work with day-to-day to improve our attitude in the one life we can recall living. The Yoga Sutras tell us we can be aware of our samskaras. Sutra 2.33 says when you become aware of a negative samskara, you should immediately cultivate thoughts of its opposite, replacing the negative pattern with a positive one. This practice is called pratipaksa bhavana.
The more you create the habit of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, the more you create a general habit of positive thoughts. Eventually, the negative thought will have lost its potency, and the positive one will automatically pop up in its place. The positive samskara becomes stronger, and the negative samskara returns to dormancy. To put it simply, pratipaksa bhavana is a practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones so, in time, you’ll wind up thinking the positive thoughts automatically.
This and other Yoga practices plant positive samskaras in your citta mind. Playing out these positive patterns are the cause of more easeful karma in a future rebirth. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again. For now, carry on with your practice.
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