Change the Habits

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

What are courage and willpower? How can they be strengthened?

Courage is the opposite of fear. It does not denote the absence of fear, but acknowledges the presence of fear and the will to go on. In Sanskrit, will is known as sankalpa. Sankalpa represents a positive thought or idea which is based on realities, needs and aspirations, and which is practical. Willpower is the determination and drive to achieve that sankalpa. Willpower is clarity. Courage is the strength to overcome weakness.

Meditation plays an important role in developing courage and willpower. The SWAN principle makes you aware of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your ambitions and needs. When we identify with our strengths, there seems to be an abundance of willpower, motivation, drive, inspiration and joy. When we identify with a weakness, there is less motivation, drive and determination, and it becomes easier to fall into the restrictive dimension of human nature. Creativity does not arise spontaneously. There is a feeling of struggle and being unable to achieve one’s goal. There are setbacks and frustrations. Meditation helps in identifying the strengths and the weaknesses, cultivating the strengths and transforming the weaknesses into positive qualities or strengths.

Ganga Darshan, March 2005

What is the purpose of the sankalpa we practise in yoga nidra?

In yoga nidra you will have come across the statement, “Make a positive resolve, a positive sankalpa, for your life.” Resolve and sankalpa are two different things. Sankalpa has no accurate English translation, so we use the word resolve. But the process is to change the conditioning of the mind, the thoughts, behaviour and attitudes. Therefore, the sankalpa or positive affirmation in yoga has two purposes. The first is to remove the conditioning of the mind which makes us think and behave in a particular way, and to become more creative, positive and open. The second purpose of sankalpa is to provide a positive aim in life.

In the beginning, the sankalpa or positive affirmation is to overcome the personality defects. For example, many people are addicted to different things like drugs, drinks, tea, coffee and chocolate. Some people are unable to give up smoking even though they know it is damaging their health. Addiction can take any form. We are all addicted in one form or another. One can be addicted to depression, or inertia, or nervous agitation. Some people are addicted to life in general. These addictions inhibit or restrict the spontaneous and creative expression of the human nature and personality.

The purpose of sankalpa is to help manage the conditionings of addiction by modifying the subconscious mind, because addictions have their source in the subconscious mind, not in the conscious mind. When something is coming from the subconscious mind and you are thinking consciously about eradicating it, it becomes unnatural and impossible.

If you want to remove a tree, it is better to remove the roots rather than chopping it down at trunk level. Otherwise the tree will grow again because the roots are still alive. It is the same with habits, with human nature, samskaras and karmas. They take birth in the subconscious mind and in the unconscious mind. We become aware of them when they come to the surface of our conscious mind. Often there is a struggle to somehow overcome that weak, unbalanced nature, and generally there is failure. We are trying to clear the conscious mind of the influences of the subconscious mind, which doesn’t really happen.

Sankalpa acts at the subconscious level. It is a positive affirmation which you say again and again and again to yourself in a heightened state of sensitivity and receptivity, such as during yoga nidra, during the practice of pratyahara and dharana techniques.

Sankalpa has two roles to play. The first is the modification and balancing of human nature. The second is providing a direction in life to become more optimistic, creative and positive. One has to begin by identifying one problem, one area of concern. Begin with managing that one difficulty and gradually build up on your sankalpa.

What is the role of a spiritual diary?

A spiritual diary is not an autobiography of the changes and transformations that you feel or experience in your spiritual journey. Many people make a spiritual diary into an autobiography, but in reality the spiritual diary is only a milestone, an indicator of the firmness of your resolve to attain or become something in life. We think about and desire many things, but what we think and desire has no prana, no life in it. Even our sankalpa or willpower is altered and coloured by habits, desires and circumstances.

For example, a person may be addicted to cigarettes or drugs or alcohol or something else. The thought comes, “I should give all this up, it is not good for me,” but that thought is lifeless because it will be subject to the influence of the habit and the company you keep. If your friends say, “Start your sankalpa tomorrow. Today we’ll have a party,” then the thought is affected by your companions, by the habit, by the circumstances, and therefore it can never be fulfilled; it is a dead thought.

A vibrant thought, a vibrant desire, is one which can eliminate the influence of everything else. If the thought comes, “No, from today I will not do that,” we should be able to follow it through. That is known as willpower, a thought with power and force which can overshadow the other influences, which can outgrow the habits. What you write in the spiritual diary indicates this determination, this commitment, this sankalpa. The spiritual diary becomes a constant reminder of what you have been able to achieve in life.

We can think many things, but we forget them. For example, you can think that smoking or drinking are not good and be able to prove it logically, but when the time comes you lose the memory of the logic and become subject to the influence of the habit. So in a weak, lifeless thought, there is a loss of memory. In a vibrant thought, in willpower, the memory is active, and that awareness will keep you on track all the time. The purpose of the spiritual diary is to make us aware of how the dead thoughts can be made vibrant through determination and conviction, with an understanding and adherence to what is appropriate.

Ganga Darshan, November 2000

How can yoga and ashram life help solve drug problems?

The body is an ocean of chemicals. Whatever is consumed produces certain changes in the body. Some drugs you inhale into the lungs, some you inject into the blood, some you eat and they pass through the digestive system. These drugs suppress or activate the production of other hormones and chemicals in the body. You can block out a sensation, a feeling of pain, suffering, frustration and give yourself a boost by imposing another type of experience on the normal state of the mind, brain and body.

People who are very sensitive emotionally, morally, resort to drugs to change their pattern of thinking, their pattern of seeing and experiencing life. Due to their introverted nature they have the potential to eventually understand the responses of their body and mind, and become good yogis. The management of drug addiction is a complex process. To remove a habit, medical science gives another form of medicine, like nicotine tablets, which replaces the chemicals of the drug with other chemicals. The de-addiction process is from drug to tablet. Once you are comfortable with the substitute and don’t feel the need for the original drug, then yoga comes into the picture.

Yoga is a very powerful tool for detoxifying the body. The shatkarmas have to be practised for some time, depending on the body, age and type of addiction. The basic practices are neti every day, kunjal on alternate days, and laghoo shankhaprakshalana to flush out the system and stop the sluggishness of the internal organs which become affected due to withdrawal symptoms, asanas for the body, and pranayama for the brain. In the final stages, kriya yoga is a very powerful and effective tool to manage depressions, phobias, suicidal tendencies, etc. because it realigns and rebalances the entire pranic and chakra system.

More important than these practices is the support group which needs to develop. All the practices, whether yoga or any other system, deal with the individual; it is something you have to do yourself. But at the same time there is the need for outer support, family support, social support. Of course, society today does not view addictions with a kind eye. Being an addict is a stigma. But this support can be obtained in an ashram environment.

The ashram environment should not treat the person as being inferior in any way. It should be a dynamic kind of support where the individual receives encouragement and proper guidance, so that he can manage the psychological impressions which can come up at the time of de-addiction. Meditation can also play a vital role in managing this process. So yoga, meditation and the support group in an ashram can become very effective in treating addiction.

Ganga Darshan, December 1998

What is the best way to help a person who shows attachment and dependency towards us, so they can become free and independent?

There are the three 'don'ts' in relation to attachment and dependency. First, people who are being depended upon should feel the pressure of that dependency, and not reject it. Second, they should not isolate themselves from the person by saying, “I need to find my own time and space because you are too demanding.” Third, they should not criticize the other person’s dependency.

Now for the 'do's'. First, you should create an environment where the dependent person feels supported and guided. That environment is the expression of your love and understanding of their situation. Second, help them to find the source of strength within themselves. This can happen if they are asked to analyse the causes of their dependency. Third, when the causes are known, and when you also recognize that these are valid causes, then pick one and try to manage it. When the person recognizes that it was the cause of their ruffled feathers and there is a way to work with it, then self-confidence and self-esteem will be developed. Then pick another cause and work with that, then another cause, and so on. But under no circumstances reject the mental state of the dependent person. Maintain your understanding or appreciation of them.

Dependency is always a manifestation of crisis, and the reason lies in some other direction. Emotional dependency is as strong and as powerful as drug or alcohol dependency. Remember that clapping requires two hands, not one. It is not the dependent person who is at fault; it is you who live around that person who is also at fault, because it was you who started the crisis. Then there is the question of incompatible natures, unfulfilled expectations, and the whole process that influenced the sensitivity of the mind. So, before you start helping the dependent one, help yourself.

Greece, March 2000

What is the role of willpower?

In mind management the patterns of consciousness which are directed to the outside world have to be changed and directed inwards. Directing the consciousness inwards does not mean that you negate the outside world, rather it means treading cautiously. This is the journey inwards of the individual. One quality we need to develop in this process is willpower.

Willpower is the state of mind in which there are no dissipations, where the mental energies are brought together and focused. Willpower does not mean assertiveness, it is a quality of mind which achieves what it desires, like an arrow that flies straight to the target. So, if you decide to wake up at a particular time every day, the mind will wake up at that time. If you decide to give up a bad habit today, from that moment onwards it has no place in your life, and there is no craving for it later on.

Some people experiment with giving up smoking, alcohol or other habits. Although there is a desire to give up the habit, the hankering continues and there is a struggle between the habit and our aspirations. Many times the mind and the thoughts will go to the habit we have left behind and desire it again. This is lack of willpower. Willpower represents a focused mind, a mind which is energized. That is the first attainment of mind management.

Venice, May 2006

How can we change our habits?

Everyone has habits. We all want to change our habits and cross out the entire word with one stroke of a pen. It is easy to do on paper, but when the habit is internal, psychological, mental and emotional, then it is very hard to wipe it out. So what do we do to get rid of a habit? Remove the ‘h’ and ‘a bit’ will remain. The next step is to remove the ‘a’ and ‘bit’ will remain. Then remove the ‘b’ and ‘it’ will remain. Remove the ‘i’ and ‘t’ will remain. ‘T’, tea, is addictive, so the process begins again! The only difference is that this time you can choose what you wish to be addicted to. It is better to be addicted to the joys of life, to have a positive addiction, not a negative one, to have a sattwic addiction, not a tamasic one.

So reflect and find out what kind of addiction you have, whether it is tamasic or sattwic. Work with the tamasic one, removing one letter at a time. Cultivate the positive one and become more addicted to it. Spiritual awareness is an addiction, just as material awareness is an addiction. Just as drugs, cigarettes and alcohol are an addiction, in the same manner mantra and meditation can also be an addiction. When there is addiction, you can’t live without it. So become an addict of yoga.

Slovenia, May 2006