Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Marcel Proust was a Yogi

From the time we are in our mother's womb, we learn and follow patterns that help us to survive. Our brains and nervous systems are wired to pick up and settle into patterns; in the womb we attune to our mother's heartbeat, her particular voice quality, her unique biorhythms and the predictable schedule of her life: when she eats, when she is physically active, when she sleeps. A baby is born into the world having already learned that life unfolds in predictable rhythms and patterns. As it grows, it develops its own patterns based on stimuli and reactions to the stimuli; some reactions work and others do not, so the brain adapts and finds a predictable structure of behaviors to follow, allowing the little baby to grow up, survive and thrive.

Beyond survival and comfort tactics, we develop and follow all sorts of patterns in our day to day lives as humans. Most of our physical and mental patterns operate on an unconscious level. Some patterns are what we call habits. We like to think we choose our habits and have control over them, and sometimes that is true. Anyone who has ever tried to stop smoking or kick a sugar or other dietary habit knows that we can master certain habits, but it takes determination.

In Yoga philosophy there is a term for the deeper or latent causes behind our habits: samskaras. The word sounds like "some scars," and that is a helpful way to think about the concept because a scar is a fixed imprint, like a brand that is burned into the skin of cattle. Scars and brands are deeply implanted grooves in the skin.

At a deeper level of the body, in our brains and nervous systems, we have grooves called neuropathways; when we perform an action, think a thought or experience a sensation repeatedly, a particular neuropathway is activated each time; that repetition forms a groove, like a groove on a record player or a line in the sand that gets deeper as we build a moat for a sand castle. When a wave washes up on the shoreline, the water goes right into the groove we created for it. Eventually, the groove will wash away or get replaced when someone else builds a new sandcastle. Our brains can work that way, too. Thanks to a scientifically observed phenomenon called neuroplasticity, our neuropathways are pliable enough to be weakened and overridden; in other words, we can consciously apply ourselves to recognize our thought and behavior patterns and create new ones when needed.

Our habits are formed based on the structure of our neuropathways. Samskaras are thought to be patterns which run even deeper than our neuropathways. Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, reads the second sutra of Book One of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga). Do yoga--free your mind and the rest will follow. Sutras 9 and 10 in Book Three describe the process of observing samskaras, sort of catching them in the act, and then restraining them. A major goal of Yoga philosophy is to restrain not only our thoughts, but our deeply ingrained patterns so that our true Self can emerge. This is deep stuff. Many yoga teachers and yoga experts don't even want to talk about it for fear of sounding like proponents of pop psychology or pseudo-science or a mind-erasing cult. Maybe it doesn't seem practical to talk about the deep, spiritual roots of thoughts and habits. On the other hand, it is certainly practical to use Yoga as a framework for dealing with habits.

Our habits are both physical and mental and it takes effort and awareness to notice and change them. Some habits we can't help, and they may even be good for us; if you are someone who always double checks the locks on your home and car, does it make you neurotic or judiciously careful? In any case, why fight it? Some habits we can change, and when we do, we prevent harm to ourselves and others and enhance our health and happiness. Through Yoga we can work with the habits that are holding us back in life: these can be as simple as poor posture, shallow breathing and weak abdominal muscles, or as complex as holding onto harmful beliefs about ourselves. In our practice, we repeat similar movements and breathing exercises again and again; this repetition brings our habitual patterns to the surface; we may prefer a certain style of yoga or react to a certain posture the same way each time; the repetition alerts us to our habitual patterns.

When we can break out of our patterns, even for just a few moments, a whole new world opens up to us. We can perceive things differently. Our slate gets a little cleaner, we become more childlike, our view becomes less clouded.

One of my favorite writers, Marcel Proust, wrote about, "The deadening effect of habit, which cuts away from things we have seen many times the taproot of deep impression and thought which gives them their real significance." (The Past Recaptured). Habit impedes inspiration, joy, the fullness of life. It protects us from painful truths, and in so doing it anesthetizes us from living an impassioned life. To uncloud our perception and uncover the most powerful parts of ourselves, we must confront our own habits.

We will work with habits in our practice today by staying aware and remaining open to trying new things. Notice your preferences and reactions. Notice how you feel when a preferred sun salutation or transition into a posture is changed. Come into Warrior I in a new way. Then try it your favorite way. Notice the differences. See if something opens up for you, in your body, your mind, or both.

“Habit enables us to cling to the familiar, to the self we think we know with a persistence almost irresistible. An anodyne for the terror of the unknown, it effectively keeps us from knowing, and is fatal in itself. Habit is a fiction the organism requires to dim perception. It screens us from the world, and from the true world of the self. Habit—no matter how intense the suffering it causes—is the last thing the personality will give up. It is arming itself against danger. The weapons may be more painful to use than the pain they seek to deflect. No matter. Habit allows us to live—by which Proust means it allows us to exist while it simultaneously compels us to miss Life.” 
― Howard MossThe Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust

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