In the fourth section of the Yoga Sutras, we learn more about finding our true, higher self. As you’ve probably learned by now if you studied the sutras, we need to let go of the small self—the ego—which keeps us stuck. Patanjali explains that vasanas, or personality traits, develop from a lifetime (or many lifetimes) of impressions.
Our thoughts and experiences can take us in many directions. Patanjali tells us individualized consciousness has a single source: the primary ego-sense. Our vasanas, which are our unique set of characteristics, manifest based on the path we’ve taken to get to this moment. As individuals, we obviously have differences. But, in sutra 4.6 (as translated by Reverend Jaganath Carrera), we read:
Of these (the different activities in the individual minds), what is born from meditation is without residue.
In other words, individual impressions leave a kind of residue that affects our subsequent thoughts and behaviors. This, as we’ll see, continues throughout our lives and perhaps through many lifetimes. But when we practice meditation, we learn to access thoughts the monkey mind has not spoiled.
Vasanas, Longing, and Self-Realization
Reverend Carrera tells us, “In meditation, the landscape of the mind is not marred by longings but marked by an organic movement toward Self-realization.” That is, stilling the mind enables us to clearly see the singular source of truth. We’re freed from karma, the idea that everything we think or do has a consequence.
As Patanjali explains, for a yogi, there is no “good” or “bad” karma, nor is there something in between. When we see things as good or bad, we experience cause and effect. That is, each of our thoughts and actions causes another thought or action. As a result, we develop a set of personality traits, skills, habits, etc. that depend on what came before.
We may not even be aware of how karma works, because our impressions are often subconscious. In fact, the sutras tell us, they may remain from other lifetimes. Whether we’re aware of our thoughts or not, we become what we think. We are also influenced by those around us. This means we should stay keenly aware of how our relationships and environment affect our growth and happiness.
In yogic tradition, we create our own vasanas and carry those traits through many lifetimes. “Even when conscious thought vanishes, there remains the subtle subliminal structure of the mind and the strands of samskaras that have woven themselves around it,” says Reverend Carrera.
The Eternal Nature of Existence
Since the desire to live is eternal, vasanas are also beginningless. (sutra 4.10)
Since we are eternal beings, we do things in this lifetime that we believe connect us to eternity. This is the driving force behind procreation, for example. Creation continues to create. But as ego-driven individuals, we are bound to our vasanas. For yogis, breaking free of karma frees us from bondage.
Why Break Free of Vasanas?
If vasanas make us who we are, why would we want to be free of them? The simple answer is because they limit us. As we deepen our practice, we get a closer look at perception and reality that helps us separate from our false selves. As eternal beings, we are no longer limited because of who we think we are.
If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry. Keep practicing yoga and you’ll begin to see who you really are!