Reading an excellent book on meditation from the Vedanta perspective with insights in Yoga and Samkhya philosophy as well. This book written by Swami Bhajanananda is available freely on the following link.
A very insightful approach on the Purification of Samskaras is given on Page 27
A samskara is a latent impression on the mind fabric, which connects an impulse to an idea.
These samskaras make us behave in a certain manner. For example an alcohol addict feels craving for alcohol. The impression which causes this is the samskara, and when a thought wave i.e. vritti passes by, it attracts this is samskara and then the impulse to have alcohol is formed. That sudden seizure of our mind by this deluding impulse is called vasana.
Imagine a beautiful flower bed, outside your study – now when a breeze blows that way it will carry the refreshing fragrance of the flowers to you. The flower bed is the samskara (in this case a positive one) and breeze is a thought wave or a vritti. Now if instead of a flower bed, if it’s a garbage dump, then you nose will be assaulted by a foul smell instead of fragrance. The garbage dump is a bad samskara.
Another way of visualizing samskaras and vrittis is samskaras are a magnetic tape recorder and the vrittis are like the electric current through the needle which reads the tape.
Your mind is like a whole of the tape, if it mostly contains bad samskaras then you will all cacophonous, disturbing sounds and screeches. Else if there is predominance of good samskaras then you can have a soothing, soulful music.
The thing about samskaras is that every time they are accessed they become deeper. It is like a group of people walking over wet earth. As more and more people walk over it they make deeper and deeper impressions of their footprints. Thus the more a samskara is acted upon, the stronger it becomes, and there are more chances of it disturbing your awareness, the more difficult to avoid the impulses.
So it is very important to weaken the samskaras. It is said that they can’t be destroyed unless you enter Samadhi, but they can be weakened. How to do that is mentioned in the page 27 of the above mentioned book. I will give it verbatim below.
“One method of is to weaken the power of impulses through abstinence, avoidance and withdrawal and other forms of tapas and austerity. Another method is to increase the number of good samskaras through virtuous karma. Something like what physical chemists call the Law of Mass Action operated in mental life also. When dharma samskaras (good impressions) increase, they keep in check adharma samskaras (bad impressions). These two methods – tapas and virtuous karma – are unavoidable disciplines during the early stages of meditative life.
Patanjali speaks of a third method, which may be practised along with the other two. This is to change the connection between impulses and mental images. Images exert a great influence in the mind. If bad impulses, when they arise in the mind, are connected to the image of a holy man or holy woman, they immediately get controlled. Similarly, bad images cease to appear bad when connected to good emotions. This process of changing the connections between mental images and I,pulses is called pratipaksa-bhavanam. This is to be done through proper self-analysis, but this becomes effective only when the new connections are tested in action.
A fourth and higher method is to detach the will. The connection between images and impulses is consciously made by exercising the will. This connection is supported by the will. If the will is detached, the samskaras break apart. However, detachment is not easy. It becomes possible only when supported by other disciplines.”
The first method – tapas, is absolutely essential. Some may feel it is restrictive or too extreme. But in such cases as very strong bad samskaras, little force is of no use and even counter-productive. If you have to have any impact, you have to put enormous force, all your will and intent behind it. When a rocket is being fired, it has to travel with at least the escape velocity to break past the gravitational attraction of the planet. If it doesn’t escape, then it will crash back and get destroyed. There is nothing such as baby steps in this matter. So it has to be complete abstinence. Abstinence doesn’t mean just physical, it has to be mental as well. In fact it is mainly mental. Suppose you want to avoid sweets, you have decided to abstain watching cookery shows or visiting sweet shops etc, but if you don’t tackle the vrittis of sweets which arise in your mind, as soon as they come, then you will be mentally craving for sweets and even if you don’t see any cookery shows, you will go out of the way to reach a sweet shop. I have seen some people, who are regular smokers, but once they have made up their mind, they have completely abstained from it. It was not gradual reduction say from 10 cigarettes a day to 5, then to two etc. It is 10 to zero straightaway.
The second method i.e. increasing good samskaras is also very powerful. I am trying to regularly chant Vishnu Sahasranama. For me VS is very attractive – it has a certain cadence to it and hence every now and then the shlokas come to my mind. Similarly doing good things even as simple as not losing your temper, forgiving others quickly, not holding grudges, feeling love and compassion for someone who is afflicted – these all are good samskaras with strong emotive component and will easily gain ground in the mind.
The third method is akin to modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), wherein you try to cognitively disassociate the impulse and associated object or thought. Also another approach part of CBT, which is also mentioned in this book is to become cognizant and accept the negative effects of the bad samskara which manifests in our live. For example alcohol addiction disrupts family life, derails one’s career, destroys wealth and health. By such reasoning which will have emotional impact one should tackle these impulses.
As far as the last method is concerned, it will not come immediately to us. Only after we succeed in curbing the impulses to an extent by the first three methods, especially tapas, that we will have any measure of success in detaching our will. However detaching our will is required to conclusively address the bad samskara for will is the power source of the samskara.
It is like uprooting a tree. You first dig the earth around intensively (tapas), you build support mechanisms like having sufficient implements like axe, shovels etc (2nd method), you tackle different roots differently, untangling them from the earth (CBT) and finally you uproot it completely without any residue (detaching the will), so that the samskara is not ever nourished again
It is like trying to repair a faulty faucet or tap. The tap is connected to a waterline. The line has strong flow of water akin to the will which powers the bad samskara. So you have close that line through tapas, then you repair the tap through good samskaras and CBT. If it cannot be repaired you discard the tap. You don’t attach the tap again to the waterline from where it draws power.
Now tapas doesn’t mean you are in a war mode, always alert and tensed. You have to alert, but calmly alert. Now this seems like a contradiction. Alert and Calm. But it is possible. In fact because you are calm, you are alert. Calmness is the prerequisite. Calmness comes from a confidence that whenever the problem erupts (which you can alertly find out because you are calm), you know how to tackle it. So where will you get the confidence to tackle the problem – through pranayama and dhyana. The virtuous cycle has to start somewhere. But a balanced way is to start meditating. When you meditate, by consciously breathing and chanting a mantra, then you can control the mind just like by getting control of the clutch, you can control the car. You have to get the subtlest level of control of the clutch, so that you are confident enough that even on slowing down the car considerably, you can still keep the engine running. When you get that level of control, then it doesn’t matter what external situations you face, you will be in control.
We many a times focus on external situations and bemoan or get depressed that we cant have control over them. Some of us turn to God then and pray to God to protect and bless us. While we pray to God, it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to gain control on our selves. God helps those who help themselves. When you are learning car driving, then as drive on a road, there may be any sort of situations that you may face. Prayer to God will ensure that you don’t face tough situations, that you can keep your wits about you, that you are able to concentrate etc, but still it is you who have to drive, get control of your car. Now imagine its not a car, but your own mind – the same thing applies. There is a story I read about Swami Vidyaranya who inspired the founders of the Vijayanagara kingdom – Harihara and Bukka. It is said that in order to obtain wealth, he propitiated Devi Lakshmi, but didn’t take any active steps to increase his wealth apart from the prayers. His material situation deteriorated instead of improving. He pleaded to Devi Lakshmi why he was being punished instead of being rewarded. The Goddess replied that he will get blessed with lot of learning, knowledge but if he wanted to improve his financial position, he would have to himself do something about it.