My mother used to tell a story of my childhood stubbornness. As an only child used to calling the shots, visiting family –including a dozen or so cousins – in South Carolina every holiday season was mostly a positive experience, save a few experiences, like this one.
Or the time where I caught the wrath of (a Southern Baptist) God after I fed my younger cousin a handful of crayons.
He was four, I was six. In my defense, nothing about my motivation was sinister; I recall being genuinely curious whether or not his poop would be the color of the primary color box.
Had I been part of a different family, say, a gaggle of physicists, my little science experiment may have been appreciated. My family, however, didn’t quite see it that way.
My black sheep liberal mother, whom I suspect was already driven to the brink after two weeks of “togetherness” with our ultra-conservative, deeply religious Republican family, issued an ultimatum: “Apologize to your cousin or I’ll have to call Santa and tell him not to come.”
“APOLOGIZE RIGHT NOW–DO…YOU…HEAR…ME?”
“GO AHEAD, TELL SANTA NOT TO COME,” I cried, lip quivering and tears threatening to betray my bluff. “I DON’T CARE.”
But I did care.
I cared. I had just backed my 6-year-old self into a corner.
Of course, my mother had backed herself into a corner too. Poor woman, it is likely she wasn’t thinking rationally. Just the previous evening at the dinner table she’d not only admitted she voted for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, but was thrilled, thrilled, that he’d won. It would be an understatement to say that her opinion was not taken well.
I can’t remember the rest of the story. It’s safe to assume I tried to pull off a defiant head toss before stomping away and liquefying into a hot puddle.
(Mom hadn’t the heart to go through with it, by the way.)
But here’s the thing: Where did I learn to pretend not to care?
And, especially at the tender age of six, at what point did I learn to camouflage my feelings and present an indifferent facade?
Unfortunately, I’ve continued to employ the strategy – which the yogis refer to as samskaras – of my 6 year old self long after I might have discarded it for better ones. For the better part of my life actually, I’ve tried to play it cool through all kinds of heartbreak: when my middle school chums told me they didn’t want to be friends any longer; when my mother died; after someone I loved beyond reason failed to demonstrate that the relationship was as precious to him as it was to me.
Samskaras, from the Sanskrit sam (joined together) and kara (action), can develop into defense mechanisms early on– sometimes for good reasons; they bring with them the illusion of safety, after all. But we often fail to notice when they are outgrown and should be traded for more mature strategies.
We wouldn’t be successful folding ourselves onto our first grade bikes. Why, then, are we walking around squeezed into tired strategies we formulated as children and haven’t re-evaluated as adults?
Why? Because it’s really damn hard to shift perspective. Samskaras become deeply ingrained. Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to resist.
To peel away our negative patterns takes awareness – and a ton of work. While there are many ways to be alchemists in our own transformation and direct our samskara into healthier patterns, below are two strategies that I’ve found personally effective:
1. Practice Yoga Sutra II.33: vitarka bhadhane pratipaksa bhavanam Translation: When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.
2. Understand that caring is cool.
At 44, I clearly see I’ve paid the price for a lifetime of playing it cool. This deeply ingrained samskara has shielded me from the possibility of pain, but at the same time has also effectively blocked the good stuff. To care is scary as shit – the vulnerability of it is almost painful, but it is also the way to ever know intimacy, connection and love.