How we construct an idea of the self… and how we can get beyond it… 

In a recent mindfulness session I was invited to sit with uncomfortable sensations in the body and watch my mental/emotional reaction – to sit and be present with the triggers and the stories they ignite.

Well look at what I just said – to sit with uncomfortable sensations – actually the invitation was to sit with both pleasurable and painful sensations in the body without judgement. And yet, here I introduce it just as ‘uncomfortable’ sensations. Often when we sit in meditation we crave the peace, the bliss, the blissful bubble and even though we are invited to be with what is, we shift and distract ourselves back into our comfort zone.

We have to drop our idea of what meditation is. Meditation is sitting with what is – and in that spaciousness a whole range of emotions might arise. We have been sold an image of meditation as ‘blissful’ and then when we sit there in a rage, preoccupied or feeling uncomfortable we think we have failed.

“Meditation is what happens when we sit with the intention to meditate.” Christopher Hareesh Wallis

In our lives, we tend ot seek out peak experiences and pull away from challenging or simply mundane experiences – in yogic philosophy this is the push/pull of raga (attraction) and dvesa (aversion). We chase after the things that make us feel good (either simply a good experience – or something that makes us feel good about ourselves – validates us) and we have an aversion to painful or challenging experiences(or again things that show us in a negative light) and tend to run away from them.

They are naturally two sides of the same coin – raga/dvesa. We have an aversion to feeling ‘bad’, so we again chase things that make us happy or good.

And that tricky ‘happiness’ factor – what made us happy last week might not necessarily make us happy today. And don’t we sometimes feel good if we overcome a massive challenge that we have been putting off?

And it doesn’t stop there. We tend to identify ourselves with what makes us happy or what makes us fearful – we use these things as the building blocks of our personality – our asmita (our sense of me-myself-I).

Beyond memories (smriti), we have samskaras. Our samskaras are imprints of all experiences – painful and pleasurable. We might not even have a visual memory of something and yet we have a tangible visceral response to a voice, a touch or action.

These imprints shape our view of the world, ourselves and even our posture. Think of how our body is sculpted around past stresses and trauma. How we fall into habitual body patterns when we are pushed to our edge.

Now often to justify a reaction,do we recall an image or event? We start to imagine. Maybe we did something so outrageous at our 4th birthday party that we are reminded of it at every family function – and yet we can’t actually remember that event. But over the years of family get-togethers we have constructed a colourful memory of that party made up of other people’s memories, words, fears, judgements and embellishments.

We tend to give our memories a lot of power and over time this distorts the memory. And yet these are the ‘stories’ that shape how we think about ourselves and the world around us. Often our body image is made up of these judgements.

And then, beyond that we have the samskaras – the visceral yet slightly out of reach latent imprints that shape us. Maybe something happened to us that we pushed deep down in the body out of our mind’s reach. Or, simply there was a painful conversation that we don’t like to think of.

When we react to something in the present moment – very rarely are we reacting to that incident in isolation. We tend to react with a whole back catalogue of memories, triggers, conditioning and samskaras.

I might be arguing with my current boyfriend and yet a whole host of past relationships are present!

“Our conditioned ways of relating to the world often do little more than make our experience of the world smaller because they stop us from seeing the moment as it is. Through the filter of our samskaras – our biases – we see the world as we are, not as it is. Our job on the spiritual path, therefore, is first to create the conditions under which our positive samskaras flourish and then to eradicate the conditions that allow negative samskaras to flourish.” Michael Stone.

Like everything, awareness is the key to change. Being aware of our reactivity – being aware of our tirggers – and slowly, slowly acknowledging where that reaction is coming from. We need to practice self-enquiry to get to the root of our reactions and to see the samskaras and associated stories and belief systems that we hold onto and often hide behind.

So meditating and sitting with uncomfortable sensations. Feeling into the body and seeing what emotions arise and how we often try to dodge or ‘deal’ with them.

Hareesh Wallis suggests that we spend time each day digesting the experiences of the day without judgement. Often, even if we’ve had a pleasurable experience, we jump onto the next thing or maybe think we’re not worthy of feeling the fullness of that pleasurable experience and so we dampen it down. So spend time each day, digesting the events and emotions of the day. Being intimate with the whole range of experience.

Samskaras are like grooves that deepen the more times they are felt or triggered. So digest new experiences each day.

Remember, we can also generate beneficial samskaras. Practice, be mindful, meditate, sing, walk in nature, read something inspirational. We can cultivate conscious samskaras which help make our path a little easier to navigate.


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