Have you noticed that your mind often returns to particular memories or feelings? They might be related to individuals with whom you have unresolved issues, or they might be associated with very pleasurable past experiences, for example, related to food, sex, or winning in a competitive sport. Or they might be associated with difficult experiences that you fear repeating: a physical attack, a divorce, an embarrassing situation, rejection by someone you love or admire. Have you ever wondered why?
In the literature of classical Yoga and Tantra, these are known as vasanas (tendencies), and in modern discussions of the body–mind as blockages.
Every day, you experience thousands of things through one or more of the five senses. Most of them pass through you, and you don’t give them a second thought. But some of them set off a chain reaction of thoughts and feelings that are linked to memories and blockages, both problematic and extraordinarily enjoyable. The experiences that get stuck, that form blockages, are the ones we cling to.
For example, at work you routinely handle many familiar tasks, but occasionally you encounter an unfamiliar problem. After failing to resolve it alone, you seek your boss’s advice. Your boss tells you, “I’m too busy to help you.” Later, you observe your mind dwelling on the reaction, and feelings of frustration and doubts about your own competence arise. You put the problem aside. Six months later, another difficult problem surfaces. You consider asking your boss for help but decide not to, remembering the previous response to your request for help. So, you avoid seeking assistance from your boss when you have unresolved problems. Feelings of resentment toward your boss grow. Feelings of frustration grow. Doubts about your own competence grow.
Clinging means I don’t want this one to go away. What happened was so pleasurable and it made me feel so great that I don’t want the feeling to vanish. For example, you learn that you are getting a promotion and a considerable pay raise. You start to fantasize about how your life is going to change for the better. You start building castles in the air. Or it may involve something that you dread, for example, that after investing your time, money, and energy in a project, you will lose your investment. So, you continue to worry about it. Perversely, you cling to causes of suffering, including feelings of anger, sadness, and resentment, foolishly believing that, if you dwell on such feelings long enough, they will transform themselves into some form of happiness. Instead of making a small but deliberate and immediate effort to let them go, you allow them to hang around and reinforce existing blockages formed in the past.
Blockages involve the accumulation of energy around unresolved experiences. They may manifest themselves as fear about things we are averse to and find difficult, even painful, and fantasies about desires and attachments, typically what we have found to be pleasurable. They are a by-product of the egoistic perspective that “I am my body … I am my memories … I am my emotions and feelings.” They reflect the mind’s confusion created by egoism: that happiness or unhappiness is to be found “out there,” in things to which I am attached or averse. The river of life brings millions of experiences, but egoism, the habit of identifying with what we are not, causes our consciousness to contract around some of them, and we get hung up. We prefer clinging to them rather than letting them pass by with everything else on the way to the infinite ocean of our Being.
In the course of our lives, we gradually build thousands of blockages. Eventually, they combine to form samskaras (habits), which then control our behavior and form our karma. Consequently, our energies move in fairly predictable ways, seeking the same objects of desire, avoiding the same borders beyond our comfort zone, and reacting to situations emotionally rather than consciously.
More than anything, the practice of Yoga is the process of removing these blockages. In this process of purification, we first notice them during meditation and, afterward, by recording them in our meditation journal. The act of recording our meditation in a journal provides the opportunity to transform a subjective experience like, “I was worrying about X,” into an objective one by putting them on paper and observing them from the perspective of our true Self, the Witness. The process of removing these blockages occurs in real time when we let them go and stop worrying, fantasizing, and dwelling on them – we let them “pass on by.”
This is a moment-to-moment process that requires discernment and effort. Discernment is the act of distinguishing the permanent from the impermanent, the source of joy from the source of suffering. The ego thinks, “I have … I need … I want … I fear,” but our soul is the Witness within. In a continuous state of unconditional joy, it has no preferences. It lacks nothing.
This process does not preclude changing things “out there.” We can deal with situations and problems skillfully when they require action. After all, Yoga is skill in action. We maintain our center. We seek intuitive guidance. We act consciously, without ego-bound preferences. We speak only after reflection and say only what is necessary and helpful. Rather, this process of purification, of “working on yourself,” addresses the vasanas, the tendencies that cause the mind to worry or fantasize even after the events and the resulting problems have been dealt with. The ego makes the mistake of trying to find happiness by imagining what outcome it needs to be happy. When life fails to deliver, the ego expends enormous effort on changing things out there, until either things change or the ego gives up in frustration and depression.
On the contrary, as karma Yogis we realize that we can choose not to cling to familiar sources of pleasure and pain. We focus our attention inside, on the movements of the mind and vital body, on desires and emotions, and on likes and dislikes, and then we choose to let them go. We seek, as the Witness, to remain calm and equal-minded. In doing so, we find immense joy moment to moment. Self-realization is the means and the objective of the Yogi. Faced with events, we remain “calmly active and actively calm.” As karma Yogis, we fulfill our duty, unattached to the results, recognizing that we are not the doer. We are observers, turning and surrendering to the Lord, who does it all through the agency of Shakti, Mother Nature, and human nature.
The regular practice of the first meditation technique taught in Babaji’s Kriya Yoga is the pre-eminent means of resolving our vasanas. It is Patanjali’s recommended method, involving vairagya (the cultivation of detachment).
Every experience sends a movement of energy through us. Our energy centers, the chakras, respond to them. When they are open, the experiences flow through us, and our consciousness attains a higher vibration where joy, love, beauty, and truth are realized – where we can be who we truly are. When the chakras are closed, our consciousness contracts around the experience, and we get caught in the dualities of life: acquisition and loss, happiness and sorrow, fame and shame.
The most important chakra is the anahata (heart center) in the middle of the chest. Notice how this area feels when you experience love, strength, inspiration, and confidence. And how it feels when you feel pain, discouragement, and weakness. It can open and close very quickly. When it does, the flow of energy changes, and the emotions in your vital body change as a result. You may be feeling great love for your partner, but then they say something hurtful and your heart closes. Why? It is because of the unresolved vasanas described above. The energy patterns associated with the experiences of your five senses flow into you and become blocked by poorly digested, unresolved energy patterns from your past. Your partner may “push your button” repeatedly, and you always react because you haven’t removed the button.
What if nothing from the past were stored within? What if you were like the sage Ramana Maharshi, who, when asked to describe enlightenment, replied: “Now, nothing can disturb me anymore.” It’s like walking down the street, taking in the scenery. Everything you experience as a fully aware being passes through you, leaving only a momentary impression with no lasting effect. Optimally, this is how your nature should work, allowing you to live in the present moment, loving, learning, expanding, and growing.
It’s your choice: try to change external events so that your blockages are not disturbed and your buttons are not pushed, or become a wise Yogi and go through this process of purification. Instead of basing your actions on how your blockages have been disturbed, find your center and simply watch the movements of the mind and vital body rise and fall. Sit deep within and allow them to dissolve in the ocean of your being. Aspire to the highest state of being that you can imagine and concentrate on it. Your heart will open, and what you are not will dissolve.
(Editor's note: this article is an excerpt from the author's book, Enlightenment is not what you think, published in May 2016.)