Have you ever had a habitual tendency to react to certain situations in a way that, although it caused you pain, you couldn’t seem to change?
Of course you have. We all have. Once when Swami Kriyananda was working to change a habit, he remarked to Paramhansa Yogananda, “I’m trying hard, but the habit is strong.” The master replied: “Habits can be changed in a day. They are the result of mental concentration. If one has been concentrating one way, he can simply concentrate a new way.”
What is it to “concentrate a new way”? It means focusing your mind in a new direction, and putting a lot of energy behind your re-focused mind. But there’s another important aspect, one that I learned through experience.
Years ago I decided to tackle a tendency to get upset easily. When things didn’t go my way — especially when someone thwarted my desires — I would too often find myself somewhere between mild annoyance and outright anger. I wouldn’t explode, but I did boil inside. It even felt good sometimes — as though I were boiling the culprit (as I imagined he or she deserved). In time, however, I realized that the only person being boiled was myself, and such self-torture had to stop. But how?
“Let go of the desire”
Thinking of what Paramhansa Yogananda had said, I wondered, “How can I concentrate a new way? What should I concentrate on? An opposite quality: peace instead of anger? But how can I concentrate on peace when I’m angry, and there isn’t any peace to concentrate on?” I didn’t know where to begin.
Then Swami Kriyananda gave another clue: “Anger is simply frustrated desire. If you want to overcome anger, let go of the desire.” That made perfect sense to me. The only problem was that letting go of my desires often seemed several steps beyond where I could go. The desires seemed too ingrained.
But I had to try something. One day I came across Yogananda’s affirmation for overcoming anger, and I thought: “Here’s a tool. I’ll give it my best shot and see what happens.”
A first attempt at affirmation
It’s a long affirmation — and a powerful one.* It begins: “I make up my mind never again to wear anger on my face. I will never inject the poison of anger in the heart of my peace and thus kill my spiritual life.” Strong words!
This was my first serious attempt at using the technique of affirmation, and I was skeptical as to what I would gain. I had viewed affirmation practice as either wishful thinking, denial, or at best a way to bludgeon the subconscious mind into believing something. But I put these views on a shelf, trusting that Yogananda knew what he was talking about and had given us the tools we needed, even if I wasn’t confident that I could use those tools effectively.
How would Yogananda feel?
I decided to spend a day alone in nature, memorizing and repeating the affirmation with all the power I could muster. My mind was quick to protest: “C’mon, you don’t believe that ‘never again’ and ‘I cannot be angry with anyone’ stuff. Get real!” Yet something in me replied: “Okay, I’m not there yet, but Yogananda was. Let’s just imagine how he would have felt while repeating this.”
I began to affirm with the same certainty — as well as I could imagine it — that he would have felt. Even before I could memorize the entire affirmation, I began to feel a power in it. I was sure it was Yogananda’s power, and as I continued, the power got stronger. I began to sense how it would feel if the words of the affirmation were true for me, and no longer merely an affirmation. All day long, I put energy into affirming, and into feeling how it would be if I were free of upset forever. And that was exactly the word: free, a tremendous, exulting sense of freedom, like an eagle soaring high above “the storms of misery-making anger.”
I felt so expansive, so joyful, and so powerful that I wondered if perhaps I’d overcome the habit through the power of the affirmation.
“You can’t stay angry”
I didn’t wonder for long. The very next day, Divine Mother decided to show me what I had — or hadn’t yet — gained. Someone did something that so outraged me that I had to leave his presence lest I say words I might later regret. As soon as I made it to the safety of solitude, I sat down, my brain bursting with self-righteous outrage — and pain. I couldn’t reason my way out of it; I didn’t even want to. I was totally caught in my self-satisfied “I’m right, he’s wrong!” attitude.
Then a quiet voice from a deeper level of my being whispered, “You can’t stay angry, you know, because you remember how it felt to be free from anger.” A shallower voice immediately shouted it down: “I have a right to be upset! It was a horrible thing to do!” But the quieter voice asked, “Still, wouldn’t freedom feel a lot better than outrage?” The shallow voice faltered, “Yeah, I suppose, but …” “Well, then,” intruded the quiet voice, “if you want to be happy — and you know you do — you’d better choose freedom.”
I knew that quiet voice was right, and I felt frustrated — and, at a deeper level, a bit amused at my frustration — that I couldn’t continue to wallow in my outrage. I did remember the freedom, and I wanted it more than the feeling “I’m oh-so-right and he’s oh-so-wrong.” I immediately went back to him and apologized sincerely for my reaction. (I later realized that what he’d done hadn’t been horrible at all. He had been doing me a favor that I had been too blind to see.)
Cultivating a hunger for freedom
Pondering that episode over the days that followed, I realized what that affirmation practice had accomplished. It hadn’t kept me from getting upset — obviously!—but it did enable me to avoid staying upset. Now I could place feeling upset side by side with feeling free, and choose between self-torture (sweetened with ego-gratifying self-righteousness) and a banquet of freedom.
I had experienced two important aspects of affirmation practice: First, in imagining how Yogananda would have felt when he did that affirmation, I was using my “feeling faculty”—energized by my will — to attune myself with the consciousness expressed by the affirmation. The better I attuned myself, the more I was able to open the doorway to higher states of consciousness. I’ve since used this “just imagine” approach in many activities, from chanting and meditation to writing and speaking. It works.
Second, connecting with that state of freedom made me hungry for it. That hunger in turn motivated me to make better choices when tempted to get upset — and the more often I chose correctly, the weaker that temptation became. I had gained a powerful new ally: my craving for freedom — not my willpower, but my want power: “Yes, that is what I want!”
Now, whenever the unwelcome guest of anger threatens to visit — or more commonly, one of its milder siblings: impatience, annoyance, intolerance, resentment — I try to remember to ask it to stand side by side with freedom, so I can decide which one stays and which one goes. I may not always remember — or even make the right choice if I do remember — but I’m doing a lot better than I was before.
Cultivating right desires
This insight has guided my affirmation practice ever since, whatever the quality I’m trying to overcome or strengthen. My practice of Ananda Yoga (in which each yoga posture has its own affirmation, custom-fitted to the posture’s natural effect on consciousness) has been a powerful aid in this. By affirming with energy and concentration — and by cultivating the feeling of what I’m affirming — I both empower my efforts and fan the flames of my desire for success. The stronger that desire, the more my thoughts and actions fall into line with it — and the more my experience of life changes.
This was a valuable insight: affirmation requires will power and concentration, yes, but also feeling and want-power. I’ve found this principle to be true throughout the spiritual quest: God will help—can help — only when we give both our effort and our heartfelt desire. As Paramhansa Yogananda said: “No one can give you the desire for God. You must cultivate that desire in yourselves. God Himself couldn’t give it to you. For when he created human beings, He didn’t make them puppets. You must desire Him yourselves.”
Yes, success in affirmation — or in any technique of self-transformation — may take patience. Our habits won’t always “be changed in a day,” because our concentration — whether of will power or of feeling — isn’t always up to the task. But if we keep at it, using the tools Yogananda has given us, including affirmation, we will succeed.
by Paramhansa Yogananda
I make up my mind never again to wear anger on my
face. I will never inject the poison of anger in the heart
of my peace and thus kill my spiritual life.
I will be angry only with anger and with nothing else.
I cannot be angry with anyone because the good and the
bad both are divine brethren, born of my one divine
I will calm the anger of others by the good example of my tranquility,
especially when I see my brothers suffering from the delirium of anger.
Teach me not to kindle anger and thus devastate the
green oasis of peace within me and in others with the
conflagration of wrath. Teach me rather to extinguish
anger with the torrents of my unceasing love.
Heavenly Father, command the lake of my kindness ever
to remain undisturbed by the storms of misery-making
anger. From Metaphysical Meditations.