Change is good. Better yet, change is possible. Here are a few strategies for busting out of painful, negative grooves.
When I was in my 20s and taking my first tentative steps along the inner path, I spent a few months working with a Jungian analyst. I went because I felt stuck. I had a novel to write that I couldn't seem to focus on, a boyfriend who didn't seem to love me the way I wanted to be loved, and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with myself. The most memorable thing she ever said to me was about the possibility of changing. She said it one afternoon after listening to me going on about all the things that weren't working in my life.
"You know what your real problem is?" she asked me. "You don't understand that it's possible to change."
I was shocked. "What do you mean?" I said.
"You think that the way you are now is the way you have to be. That isn't true. You can change all of it. You can change your relationships. You can change the way you do things. You can change the way you feel."
There is nothing more radical than the moment you realize that it is possible to reinvent your life. I'm not talking about superficial reinvention, like changing your grunge look for all-whites and mala beads, or even about doing something more radical, such as leaving a regular job to work for Doctors without Borders. I'm talking here about reconfiguring mental and emotional attitudes, shifting your vision of life—the kind of inner shift that turns a pessimist into someone capable of seeing the perfection in everything, that lets an angry person channel rage into creative energy, that makes us happier, more peaceful, more in touch with the love and wisdom at our core.
This sort of transformation is the crux of the inner life, the promise of yoga, of meditation, and of the various forms of inner work and self-inquiry we undertake. Yet it's essential to understand what kind of change we're really after and also to understand what that level of change requires. We don't want to limit our own possibilities by expecting too little from our practice. On the other hand, we don't want to indulge in magical thinking, or in the kind of spiritual bypass that makes us think we can simply meditate our way out of our life issues.
How Much Can We Really Change?
Given yoga's fundamental premise—that all of us, at our core, are made of the same powerful, loving intelligence that gives rise to all life, and that this intelligence is fluid and infinitely creative—it should theoretically be possible to change just about anything about ourselves. Some New Age teachers actually give that impression, saying, for example, that we can harness our power of intention to transform anything about our lives that we want to fix. But can a strong intention really change, for instance, our financial situation and romantic patterns? Can we heal a chronic or terminal illness by transforming our attitudes? Can we change our personality?
To these questions, yoga says yes and no. On the one hand, certain aspects of the basic personality and physical constitution seem to be ours for a lifetime, which is why even enlightened people famously express such individualistic personalities, and why no amount of stretching will lengthen your thighbones. On the other hand, there's no question that when we deeply enter into our own core of consciousness, extraordinary shifts take place. What meditation practice can definitely help us change (and in changing, dramatically shift our experience of life), is the texture of our own mind, the stickiness of certain emotions and views, and above all, the quality of our inner state.
Arguably, the nuts and bolts of yogic practice is the work we do to purify, re-forge, and replace the inner patterns that in Sanskrit are called samskaras. Samskaras are the accumulated impressions—in scientific terms, the neuronal patterns—that create our character, our way of thinking, and our perspective on life.
The word "samskara" can be translated just the way it sounds in English: as "some scars." Samskaras are energy patterns in our consciousness. I always picture them as mental grooves, like the rivulets in sand that let water run in certain patterns.
Neurophysiologists mapping neural pathways in the brain report that each time we react in a certain way—falling into an anger pattern, for instance, or putting off completing a report yet one more time—we strengthen the power of that pathway. The yogic texts make the same point. The bottom line in both cases is that the way we feel, the way we react, and the behavior we manifest at any given moment is the result of the samskaras (or, in scientific terms, the neural connections) that are operating under the surface.
Once the samskaric pathways have been set, most people keep running down them, like rats in a maze, reacting with the same old patterns and feelings every time they find themselves in a situation that seems to mirror whatever the original trigger might have been.