My theme for the yoga classes I led last week was the concept of samskaras, or mental impressions. These often show up in our lives as thought patterns, habits, or tendencies. In meditation the other day the thought occurred to me, “Tradition is just another word for habit.” Now before I upset someone for dissing their favorite tradition, let me explain a little more. As Socrates teaches Dan in “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” any unconscious ritual or habit is a problem. The actions themselves are both good and bad, each having a price and a pleasure associated with them. And not every action has the same consequences for each individual. A glass of wine could be healthy for someone with a heart condition, it could be devastating for an alcoholic, or it could be neutral for someone else. In the yoga philosophy we learn that ultimately we must release all samskaras, even the ones we consider positive. There is no good or bad, only perspective makes things so. There is no right or wrong, only things that we do that help us improve ourselves, and things that don’t improve us. So then the question becomes not, “Is this a good or bad habit?” but instead, “Is this a habit?” and then, “Is this specific activity helping me to evolve as a person?” Then we can decide whether to do something or not, being aware of the benefits and the consequences. The word “tradition” is so often used as a reason in and of itself for an activity to continue. Maybe some traditions are positive, like a family gathering for a certain holiday. But even in this case the pressure to adhere to a tradition can cause problems. For instance, some family members don’t attend and others are angry or resentful. Some traditions are not healthy from the start but because so many people agree to and participate in them, then they become difficult to change, like slavery was in this country. The samskara becomes a deep rut in the collective consciousness. Instead of stepping back and gaining perspective on the real issue, we cling to the fact that it is a tradition and so it cannot be changed or challenged. Our ego has tricked us into making an investment in the tradition, thereby causing us to perpetuate it. The ego fights against change that could lead to spiritual evolution. We blindly embrace something that we may be ready to outgrow, either as an individual, a community, a nation, or a world.
When I first adopted a mainly plant based diet, I noticed an interesting phenomenon that I hadn’t expected. Even when I simply mentioned that I didn’t eat meat, some people immediately got hostile and angry. I was always careful not to preach my opinion or push it on anyone, and often I only mentioned it when necessary or when asked. I didn’t understand why people got mad just because of my personal dietary preference. Now I see that simply by stepping outside of the “traditional” diet, I was committing an act of rebellion in their eyes. In this case the authority figure against which I was rebelling was the collective samskara, the tradition. Even if I was polite and emphasized that this was my personal choice and didn’t affect them, I was still bucking the system. Tradition, like samskara, relies on compliance and repetition to survive. We take our own power and hand it over to a concept. When the habit, or tradition, is the authority and not the individual, then it dictates our actions instead of us having the freedom to make our own choices.
I see a similar phenomenon in some people’s support of traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. When a homosexual or a gender non-conforming person asserts their personal rights to be who they are, some see it as an attack on the entire framework on which they have based their lives. They don’t know how to negotiate a world without clear guidelines for who does what and to whom. Or they themselves don’t like the role that tradition has given them, but they accept it out of fear and in turn fear and resent those who don’t accept their roles as well. If a “traditional” marriage between a man and a woman who choose to separate tasks based on “traditional” gender roles works for those two individuals then that is wonderful. However, not every person fits in those parameters, and why should we expect them to? There is so much variety among all the people of the world, and that is what makes it such an interesting and fascinating place to live.
Like so many other things (maybe even everything), this issue boils down to whether we are operating from love or from fear. Without the framework of tradition, life can be scary. We are afraid to make the wrong choice without the guidelines of our habits and traditions. Tradition tells us what to do and how to be; there are no unknowns, no questions, but there is also no growth. When we move away from tradition, we have to look within to decide what is right for us, which again can be scary. But deep down we each have an inner guide, which is made of pure love. Tradition can be good, it is comforting and familiar. We all need a little comfort from time to time. Ultimately though, the only constant is change. Instead of blindly following tradition, we can instead live consciously and intentionally, taking life moment by moment, making choices based on love and not fear or habit. By embracing the new and exploring the different, we might find that we are ready to shed some old traditions and embrace new ones, or even take a leap into the unknown, without the safety net of tradition.