Samskaras: Unraveling the Conditioned Self
Photo by Jessica Neuwerth
The unconscious is a hot topic lately, with scientific literature increasingly demonstrating the extent to which we are influenced by subconscious biases, prejudices, and orientations. Yet, long before Freud and other psychologists posited that implicit orientations and patterns subconsciously guide behavior, the yogic concept of samskara provided a sophisticated explanation for the causal forces that shape our unwitting actions and future responses.
The word samskara derives from the Sanskrit sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause, or doing). A samskara starts as a vritti (whirlpool, thought-wave), a thought, emotion, or sensation that arises like a wave on the ocean of conscious awareness. In response to internal or external stimuli, the corresponding thoughts, emotions, and reactions settle into the subconscious mind (chitta), where they form sensory impressions, or samskaras. Such impressions are analogous to neural pathways, which form new connections upon repeated exposure to a given stimuli. As “neurons that fire together wire together,” vrttis and samskaras that are repeatedly deployed form more enduring samskaric pathways, or patterns.
Samskaras, much like the experiences they reflect, can be either maladaptive or adaptive. Adaptive or positive samskaras generate kind and virtuous actions, birthing us more fully into the present and aligning us with divine truth. Maladaptive samskaras engender craving, delusion, and aversion, strengthening the bonds of karma and halting liberation (self-knowledge).
According to yoga philosophy, our memories, sense of self, worldview, and actions mirror these sensory impressions, which derive from our current and past lives. In default consciousness, these impressions are hidden and represent action potentials, awaiting cyclical re-activation in the form of vrttis. Swami Sivananda posited that any conscious thought or action stems from our underlying samskara, although we typically believe our actions derive from conscious free will.
Such beliefs in absolute free will are a form of maladaptive samskara, masking the reality that our actions and behaviors most frequently result from prior conditioning. From the perspective of yoga philosophy, denying that our actions are impacted by samskara is delusory.
Samskara can also be viewed as heuristics that assist us in navigating an otherwise unknown and unpredictable world. After having experienced something once, we form expectations (samskara) that guide subsequent experience. In such a way, one cannot eat an orange without comparing it to other oranges. Samskaras allow us to believe the world and our place in it is predictable, while preventing us from fully experiencing present moment reality. Much of our life is spent asleep at the wheel, blindly careening from one filtered experience to the next as our samskara man the helm.
The path of yoga offers a systematic method to foster self-awareness, and to replace maladaptive samskaras with healthier patterns of orienting. Healthier samskara can be formed by actively replacing maladaptive patterns with more wholesome responses (for example, when experiencing feelings of not being good enough, sending oneself thoughts of loving-kindness and perhaps stating an affirmation such as, “May I know that I am enough”). Some find it helpful to write these affirmations on sticky notes and place them around their home as a reminder. Another method is to write positive and negative vrttis on slips of paper, throwing away or burning the negative slip and placing the positive slip in your pocket or wallet.
Yoga instructor Yoganand Michael Carroll once said that many of us are like congealed lumps of cold spaghetti when we first initiate yoga practice. Each time we show up and practice, we warm the spaghetti and mix in sauce. While we may not notice the difference in one class or even five, a year later we may start to notice ourselves interacting with the world differently as our samskara are transformed and burned. Although samskara continue to exist in the self-realized practitioner, they no longer hold the power to bind or influence action or behavior, having been brought into the light of awareness. Such is the experience of liberation.