Reduce Reactivity, Practice Peace, and Shift from Samskaras to Shantih
written by Monica Edelstein
August in New Orleans can be a challenging time. It’s very hot, we’re in the middle of hurricane season, and the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is on the horizon. I have two children, and by August, summer camps have ended, and we’re all generally hot, tired, bored, and grumpy. Often my husband and I are worn out by this point having already weathered some storm-related power outages (no AC) and sleepless nights tracking tropical storms. We’ve been on yellow alert for weeks, and we’re pretty drained, but it’s time to get everyone ready to return to school. Already on edge, I get into my overheated car to search for school supplies. It seems inevitable: Someone cuts me off, honks for me to get moving despite a passing train, and the line at the store seems to have completely stalled. My patterns of impatience and aggravation awaken and clamor for expression. It’s so easy to react in kind to an angry gesture, and so much harder to react kindly; easier to lose hold of my composure, rather than maintain a sense of peace and equilibrium. Even though I recognize my patterns and tendencies, the same scenario continues to challenge me — I keep reacting in ways I’d rather not. The yoga teachings can help us understand our minds and why we react the way we do. They provide guidance on how to reduce reactivity, practice peace, and shift from samskaras to shantih.
In Light on Life, BKS Iyengar explains that consciousness is like a lake. Our thoughts and emotions create passing ripples on the surface of the water. These surface movements of the water extend all the way down, nudging the sand on the bottom of the lake into mounds. These mounds are akin to samskaras – the patterns and tendencies produced by our past actions, which in turn influence our future reactions. When water passes over these deep mounds of samskara, ripples travel to the surface. The ripples deposit more sand upon the mounds; the cycle reinforces itself. Neuroscientists have noticed the same phenomenon: when we react to stimuli, neurons in the brain wire together, which means we are likely to have the same reaction to that stimuli in the future. To add a local analogy: like a pothole, the more you drive over it, the larger and more jarring it becomes. In order to change our thoughts and behaviors, we need to practice patterns that counteract the old ones. By blowing the water in the opposite direction we can move sand off of the mounds. Every time we do the opposite of our ingrained reaction, we start to change our unconscious patterns — we smooth out the bottom of the lake; we fill in our personal potholes.
Acting in opposition to our tendencies is at the heart of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.33: Maitri karuna mudito upeksanam sukha dukha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatash citta prasadanam — To preserve the innate serenity of the mind a yogi should be happy for those who are happy, be compassionate toward those who are unhappy, be delighted for those who are virtuous, and be indifferent toward the wicked (translation by Sharon Gannon). Instead of feeling unlucky when I wind up in the checkout line with a broken register, I could feel happy for the people in the other lines who were able to proceed more quickly. Instead of responding in kind to the person who casts an obscene gesture and leans on their horn, I could summon kindness and compassion. I know what it’s like to feel impatient and angry–it kind of sucks. I hope that we all get to experience more patience and joy instead. I can change my thought patterns and thereby reduce reactivity, practice peace, and shift from samskaras to shantih.
Changing our patterns is far from easy. In the book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, explains that over the course of human evolution our brains became hardwired to focus on negative experiences. We have to make an extra effort to internalize positive experiences. When we practice mindfulness during a positive experience — really take in the positive thoughts and feelings — we start to actually reshape the tissues of our brains, increasing tendencies towards peace and joy, while reducing tendencies towards reactivity and suffering. These days, when someone lets me in front of them in a line of traffic, I steep myself in feelings of gratitude. I notice my patterns starting to change. Hanson emphasizes that this practice of actively internalizing good thoughts and experiences “is not about putting a happy shiny face on everything, nor is it about turning away from the hard things in life. It’s about nourishing well-being, contentment, and peace inside that are refuges you can always come from and return to.” Mindfulness awakens us to our innate abilities to find peace and joy, which are often overshadowed by our evolutionary urges to zoom in on the negative.
This month, bring mindfulness to your yoga practice. Focus on the breath, move slowly and with intention through transitions, and bring awareness to the muscle actions of the body as you hold a pose. Play with opposites: balance effort with ease. Notice where your mind goes in different poses, build awareness of your thought patterns, and start to let them go. Add a couple minutes of pranayama (breathing exercises like sama vritti where the inhalations and exhalations are equal in length) and/or meditation to your daily routine.
Recent studies by Western scientists have affirmed what yogic texts and Buddhist teachings have been saying for over a thousand years: meditation has positive effects on our emotional and physical well-being. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system and improves areas of the brain associated with feelings of happiness, emotional regulation, and self-control. Meditation has been shown to increase immune function, decrease inflammation and stress-related cortisol, and improve a variety of conditions including cardiovascular disease, asthma, type II diabetes, and chronic pain. The physical and psychological effects of meditation come together as we reduce reactivity, practice peace, and shift from samskaras to shantih.
There are many ways to meditate, and many helpful teachers and guide books available. It helps to start small–sit for a few minutes each day and gradually extend the time. One basic approach is to find a comfortable seat and bring awareness to your breath. In all likelihood thoughts will enter your mind. Central to the practice is letting the thoughts come and go and bringing awareness back to the breath. This form of meditation is called shamatha in Sanskrit, a word that means “the development of peace.” In Becoming Bodhisattvas, Pema Chödrön describes it this way: “When we see that our mind is wandering, we gently bring it back. In this way, we come back to the present, back to the immediacy of our experience. This is done without harshness or judgment, and it’s done over and over again. . . mindfully, gently, and repeatedly, we train in coming back.” We learn to observe our thoughts, to let them go, to stay in the present moment. We give ourselves time and space to experience our minds in a state of peace, rather than one of reactivity. Through this practice we create a pattern that the mind will more readily come back to in the future, not only during meditation, but out in the world with all its long lines, slow-moving traffic, and tropical storms as well.
Books, Articles, and Quotes
From Light on Life by BKS Iyengar:
“Another car cuts us off in the street, and we feel offended. ‘He cut me off!’ we tell ourselves. He did this to me. He has offended me. He has affronted my ego. As we practice yoga and begin to meditate, we develop equanimity. We let go of this ego. We realize that most of life is not personal. The driver was not trying to cut us off because he did not have respect for us. We realize that it had nothing to do with us.”
“The practice of yoga is about reducing the size of the subliminal mounds and setting us free from these and other fluctuations or waves in our consciousness. Everybody aspires to be free. No one wants to be manipulated by unseen forces, but effectively, the banks of samskara in dark depths of the unconscious do just that. As stimuli from the conscious surface travel rapidly down through the levels of the lake, they encounter uncharted banks of sediment that cause secondary waves of thought. These in turn stimulate, in a way that is beyond our comprehension or control, behavior that is both reactive and inappropriate. Our reactions are preconditioned and therefore unfree.”
From Becoming Bodhisattvas: A Guidebook for Compassionate Action– Pema Chödrön’s translation and commentary on Master Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
“When the urge arises in the mind
To feelings of desire or wrathful hate,
Do not act! Be silent do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.” (Chapter 5, Verse 48)
From Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook by Ram Dass:
“Though I may get angry, I let go of the anger more quickly. And more important, I let go of the guilt connected with the anger. These feelings now simply arise and pass away, without my resisting or clinging to them. More and more I am just awareness.”
From Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom by
“Positive experiences can also be used to soothe, balance, and even replace negative ones. When two things are held in the mind at the same time, they start to connect with each other.”
“20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today” by Emma M. Seppälä (Psychology Today): https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201309/20-scientific-reasons-start-meditating-today
YS I.33 Maitri karuna mudito upeksanam sukha dukha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatash chitta prasadanam
To preserve the innate serenity of the mind a yogi should be happy for those who are happy, be compassionate toward those who are unhappy, be delighted for those who are virtuous, and be indifferent toward the wicked. (Swan River Bhakti Book, pg. 44)
“Yoga Sutra 1.33 Translation and Commentary” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (Yoga International):
YS II.33 Vitarka badhane pratipaksa bhavanam
When disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think of the opposite. (Swan River Bhakti Book, pg. 45)
YS II.35 Ahimsa pratisthayam tat samnidhau vaira tyagah
The practitioner will cease to encounter hostility from others by practicing non-harming and non-violence. (Swan River Bhakti Book, pg. 45)
Shantih, shantih, shantih — Om!
Shanti can be translated as peace, tranquility, calmness, rest, and bliss.
From Wikipedia: The Reason for uttering shanti three times is for calming and removing obstacles in three realms:
● “Physical” or Adhi-Bhautika, the external world, such as people and natural phenomena
● “Divine” or Adhi-Daivika, the realm of spirits, ghosts, deities, etc.
● “Internal” or Adhyaatmika, one’s own body and mind, including pain, disease, and mental tendencies or afflictions
On the Mat
- Supta Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge)
- Supta Matsyasana (Supported Fish Pose)
– Practice Pranayama:
- Sama vritti (equal duration inhalations and exhalations)
- Extended exhalation (extend the exhalation a couple counts more than the inhalation to activate the parasympathetic nervous system)
- Shitali (equal inhalations and exhalations with the tongue curled to bring coolness into the body)
- Add a few minutes of shamatha meditation (bringing awareness back to the breath) at the end of class.
“Four Infinite Thoughts” — Keith Porteous
“Summertime” — Angélique Kidjo
“Driving with Ganesha” — Marti Nikko and DJ Drez
“Let It Be” — Aretha Franklin with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
“Peace Mantras” — Sheela Bringi