Samskaras

August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Samskaras

Samskaras, as defined here, are the unconscious habits, tendencies and potentials built up over a lifetime or lifetimes that give an individual his or her unique character and make-up.  Samskaras may be considered well-established patterns of thought or, if you prefer, well-established neural patterns in the brain that resist alteration or change.

In your daily meditation you will naturally encounter thoughts arising and falling but if you monitor these thoughts throughout the day you’ll notice that they tend to follow regular patterns or themes.   They are much like the formula based newscasts you see on television everyday.

Have you ever noticed that when reporting a story the media follows certain formulas in how to present the news?  That most every story always ends with a forecast of something worst happening tomorrow?  That the reporter will tell you something then flip to an interview that has someone saying just what the reporter said (as if that makes it true).  Or how items related to physical injury begin with an ambulance or police car siren screaming on the TV set?  These are all formulas used by the media to present the news.  They are well-established methods that are for the most part done automatically by the news crew.

Much of our daily thinking and behavior are like media reports in that they follow well-established patterns.  A smoker, for example, will automatically light up when he gets to the same spot whether it is just after he starts the car to go to work, or when he comes home and sits in his favorite chair.  An alcoholic will experience the same set of emotions as he’s about to take his first drink at his favorite watering hole.

Each day we have the same set of thoughts as we drive or take the train to work.  This continues throughout the day as we continually think the same thoughts when a client calls or we go to lunch.  These daily thoughts are hung upon the hooks of our samskaraic tendencies built up over the years at the job.  But underneath these “hooks” are the walls they are nailed into.  These walls are the deeper samskaras that determine the characteristics and attitudes reflected in our daily thoughts.  And just like a wall they act as barriers to freeing up our thoughts to embrace new possibilities.

To illustrate a deep-seated samskara consider the adult who was sexually abused as a child and developed posttraumatic stress disorder.   Throughout his or her adult life the brain of this individual has continually sent signals to the body and psyche to suppress its life functions.  This suppression is a continuation of the “freeze” mechanism the brain used to defend the child when it was not possible to escape or attack the abuser.  However, this mechanism never turned off and so the abused child turned adult continues to live with the underlying directive to not act, not be assertive, to freeze in stressful situations and never reveal him or herself, not even to themselves.

We all have deep-seated samskara that lie in our subconscious and direct our thoughts and actions.  Overcoming them is, however, possible.  This can be done through a meditation that brings the samskara to conscious awareness and reveals their underlying falsity and unreality.  The individual with PTSD, to continue with the example, needs to realize that the situation his or her thoughts refer to is no longer real. The abuse has ended and all the fallout from that past trauma is now essentially unreal, but kept going by a mechanism of the brain that meant only to keep the child alive.

Through recognizing the unreality of the situation the awareness can then move to shut the samskara down.  This typically does not happen right away, as the samskaras that developed over time often need time to dissipate.  But it is, to me, simply amazing that awareness is the key and the power to overturning the habits of a lifetime.  Awareness is truly the door to Liberation.

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