Snapping the Straw Rope of Habit

by Jeff Martens

In ancient India, an elephant driver would tie up his elephant with a straw rope.  Though the powerful elephant could snap the rope with a single toss of its head, the elephant remained in place, believing itself to be bound.

Our habits (in Sanskrit: sanskara or samskara) are much like this straw rope.  We place all kinds of importance, history, significance and strength in our habits, but what are they made of, really?  Habits are merely the repetition of thought manifesting as unconscious behavior.  Thoughts are some of the most ephemeral and transitory energy forms in all existence.  So why do they seem to be so solid and daunting to us when we want to set ourselves free?

The other day I was entering the freeway which I always take to work, merging into traffic at the same time I usually go to the yoga studio.  Only this was my day off and I was running an errand.  So I was a bit surprised as I watched the exit for my errand falling behind me as I continued on down the road towards the yoga studio. After I exited and turned around I looked over and saw no physical grooves in the opposite lane that had compelled me to continue in the wrong direction…  So where was I when this happened?  How does something like this occur?

The simple answer is that because we identify with our sensory perceptions so strongly, we act according to these perceptions even if they are not true.  This causes immense suffering because we then find ourselves at odds with existence and the way things actually are.

The Real purpose of Consciousness
tad asankhyeya-vasanabhis citram api parartham samhatya-karvat

Although mottled with countless latent tendencies, consciousness’ other purpose is a close association with the field of the True Self.  Yoga Sutra, 4.24

In Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, there are two elements to habit: Vasana and Samskara.

Vasana is the groove, the canal plowed into the soil of our consciousness with the blade of past repetitive thought.  Over time these psychological tracks can manifest biologically into certain neural nets (a loose association of brain cells triggering specific behavioral tendencies) which reinforce a habitual response.  In the case of the elephant being held by a straw rope the groove is established at a young age when one of the legs is chained to a large log to prevent running away.  After a while the elephant only knows a life chained to that log and stops trying to escape after the slightest resistance.  Even if the chain is now a straw rope.

Vasana is that predilection to repeat a particular response over and over again.  Because I always take this freeway to work and it was the time I usually went in to work, I must be going to work and no place else.  Because the elephant was tied up with a strong rope in the past and discovered that escape was futile, the elephant will assumes that all rope-looking objects are unbreakable.

Samskara (literally “same as action” from sam + root kri = to act) is a little different.  Samskara is the behavioral action or non-action that actually defines our habit.  It is the subliminal activator after it has occurred.  When we are the “same as our action”, we have poured our consciousness from the present moment (its home) into a habitual groove of thought or emotion.   The resulting behavior is now manifesting through us.  This behavior carries with it all kinds of self-supporting assumptions, creating a world of maya or illusion.  The rope is unbreakable (unconscious vasana assumption) therefore I won’t even try (resulting samskara re-action).  I must be driving to work (unconscious vasana asssumption), therefore I do not need to take note of any other options that might lead elsewhere (resulting samskara re-action).

In the state of samskara we re-act to faulty perceptions based on assumption, judgment or opinion that has nothing to do with reality.  This mistaking of the unreal for the real is ignorance (avidya) and causes a great deal of suffering in our lives.  The water of habit now fills the canal, the energy now floods the groove and we have identified with it completely.  No longer the mere potential for certain tendencies to manifest in our lives, samskara is the actual (re)action that takes place, defining us as our unconscious repetitive response.

I Am Not My Habits
vyutthana-nirodha-sanskarayor abhibhava-pradur-bhavau nirodha-ksana-cittanvayo nirodha-parinamah

The transformation of unconscious identification with constant (habitual) motion into stillness occurs as a new impression of stillness (awareness itself) prevents the further manifestation of habitual action.   YS, 3.9

It is actually impossible to stop samskara due to the simple fact that with samskara the habitual response has already occurred (The rope was real.  The exit has passed.  The jealousy/ greed/ anger already erupted.)  But catching vasana is a different story.  Awareness is the absence of unconsciousness.  The two cannot exist at the same time.  This is where we can use awareness to realize the tendency (groove, canal) and then use this same awareness to CHOOSE for us whether or not to pour our consciousness into the same old rut.  This is the choice between identifying with unconscious actions (and therefore binding ourselves to them) or experiencing a different, undefined path as it is revealed to us in the present moment.  In a state of awareness, it is more accurate to say that the obvious choice of freedom is made for us as the normal unconscious “doer” disappears.  Since awareness is the absence of unconsciousness or ignorance, we allow the path of faulty perception to dissolve and begin to see ourselves and the world as they are free of our habitual distortions.

To become angry that we missed our exit or to become depressed because we believed a rope to be real is only a furthering of the unconscious state which keeps us identified with our past habitual response.  If instead we can catch ourselves before the action actually occurs (in the vasana stage before samskara) or if we experience the present moment as it is without judgement after the habit has occurred, we will then be free to choose the path of freedom or the path of ignorance.  Here there is no blame or projection or shame.  As it always is with freedom, the choice is up to us.

Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.  All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.
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