Pathways To The Tao #4: What Are Samskaras?

A Poem About The Immediacy Of The Tao


Who am I?

What am I?

What is This?


Only This: Exquisite Immediacy—


Closer than close

Closer than the underside of skin

Closer than the caress of the face

Closer than the feel of the breath

Closer than the entanglement of limbs

Closer, even, than the first word


Only ever This:

It’s All Right Here

An Idiosyncratic View

Originally, I had intended to provide a fairly detailed analysis of the concept of samskaras in Buddhism and Raja Yoga. But I don’t know that that is necessary since in what follows I’ll be offering you my own, quite possibly idiosyncratic view of what samskaras are and of why they’re important. To compensate for any perceived shortcoming in my diving-in-headfirst approach, I’ve decided to include a couple of quotes at the end as a kind of loose appendix.

Now let’s dive in.

What Is Peculiar Is Recursivity

At the outset, what needs to be accounted for is the undeniable fact that our phenomenal experience is so often recursive. The same or quite similar thoughts recur as do the same or similar emotions. Isn’t that peculiar?

I mean to say that of the whole range of phenomenal experiences pertaining to mind arising—that is, all possible thoughts and feelings—only a small number appear to, an as, any one finite mind. And not only that but thoughts and feelings loop back in recursive patterns. Isn’t that interesting? Fascinating?

After all, if we’re willing to grant that there is just One Reality and that this One Reality is Universal Consciousness and, furthermore, if we’re willing to accept that each entity like a quasar, a nation-state, or a human being is nothing but the full expression of this Universal Consciousness, then it’s already quite curious that a particular entity we call a “human being” would experience so many thought and feeling loops. What I am describing is, in fact, exquisitely mysterious since one can conceive a fictional human being that doesn’t experience recursivity at all.

Let’s make the above discussion more concrete. How come your mind arising often arises in the form of this type of thought as well as this kind of emotion? Why does Jane almost always experience sadness or anxiety while John almost always experiences anger and excitation?

I submit that the concept of samskaras can provide all the explanatory power we need to account for the recursive nature of mind arising.

My Stipulative Definition of Samskara

In my usage (NB: this may not completely track the ways in which this Sanskrit term is used in Buddhism and in yogic traditions, but I retain the term because it bears, in my estimation, a close enough resemblance to its former usages in order to honor those traditions), let samskara be defined as what, most essentially, you think and feel you are.

To unpack this definition:

  1. A samskara is always about identity. In fact, it is (relative) identity.

  2. There are multiple samskaras within any personal consciousness (jiva). That is, there is a “chorus of samskaric characters” not so much in you (in the relative sense) but starring successively as you (also in the relative sense).

  3. All of these identities are, from the ultimate no-point point of view, false. None of them is, in fact, what we truly are, though each of them provides us with a relative take on what this bodymind tends to think, feel, and do.

  4. Samskaras are essential (relative) identities in the sense that they are what remains when all the ontologically inessential factors like motherhood or fatherhood, male or female, CEO or janitor are all stripped away. This becomes readily clear during long, deep meditation: samskaras will start to make their presence felt in subtler ways than the gross forms with which we’re familiar in the waking state. They are the very constituents of personality.

  5. The crux of the definition is that a samskara is basically or essentially what I think and feel I am. Therefore, each samskara is, as it were, the mind’s reflective take on itself. But can thinking and feeling reveal to us what we truly are? No, for as Stephen Wolinsky says of Nisargadatta: “Whatever you can perceive or conceive of you aren’t. Therefore, discard it.” Similarly, whatever you think or feel you are you aren’t; therefore, discard it.

If this definition holds any water, then it should be able to account for the recursive patterns of (a) thinking, (b) feeling, and (c) behaving. If it helps you to understand what I’m drawing our attention to, you can think of samskaras as personality types (e.g., enneagram types).

A Two-fold Inquiry

Given this definition of samskaras, we have a two-fold inquiry into the nature of samskaras on our hands.

  1. In the first place, an inquiry into samskaras is a psychological inquiry into what, lingeringly, hurts.

  2. And in the second place, it is a metaphysical inquiry into what you are NOT.

1. Psychological Inquiry

Consider the fact that the Tao experiences neither thoughts nor emotions; indeed, the Tao experiences no emotions (or thoughts) whatsoever. To be sure, it is abiding joy/happiness/peace/bliss (ananda), but such, to be clear, is not what it does or even what properties or attributes that it has. No, the Tao IS eternal peace, and eternal peace is, as such, not a phenomenon that can come or go. The Tao, as Tao, is Love Itself.

Then where, in a relative sense, do all emotions and thoughts arise from? It’s clear that this relative source is the ego-self. Only the ego-self can experience the thoughts and emotions (and desires) of which it consists. Consequently, it behooves us to ask, “What, in particular, helps us to account for thought stream X and/or emotion Y?”

Let’s be even more concrete. If you experience any lingering hurt, on the view argued for here it must be that there is one on whose behalf the hurt is experienced. That “one one whose behalf” is a samskara. According to the methodology that will presented in the following issues of this newsletter, it will be remarkably helpful to find all the samskaras connected with hurt. As an operating hypothesis, I suggest that all such samskaras of the hurt type can be reduced to what Jung called “the inner child.”

(Though not all samskaras pertain to hurt, only a particular class of samskaras, those dwelling in the inner child, do.)

2. Metaphysical Inquiry

Notice that this—namely, the metaphysical investigation—is, strictly speaking, a deconstructive inquiry, a neti neti (“Not this… not this…”) whose point is indeed to ferret out what we kept thinking and feeling that we were and to reveal to us the utter falsity of this view. In this sense, the metaphysical inquiry borrows as much from Socrates (who kept showing us what wasn’t true but was believed to be true) as it does from Nisargadatta (who, time and time again, urged his students to “see the false as false”).

On the relative level, samskaras do describe the cast of characters that you might ordinarily call you. Yet on the absolute level, they are nothing but a hindrance—a mind-concocted impediment—to finding out what you truly are. They are a hindrance so long as you take any one of these characters to be you.

In which case, this metaphysical inquiry into what you are NOT intends to open the door to a fuller, nonconceptual, meditative (which is all to say, with Ramana Maharshi: direct) inquiry into who you are. Put differently, to know what you AREN’T opens the door to what, in the very least, you might be.

The point is to walk on through…


This feels like a good place to rest for now. With palms pressed for you all and for all beings,


Buddhism And Raja Yoga

1.) From Eknath Easwaran’s “Introduction” to The Dhammapada (ed. and trans. Easwaran):

The fourth skandha [heap, bundle—AT] is the strong, instinctive, gut-level reactions triggered by this naming [the naming of perception, the third skandha—AT]. In the case of coffee, the Buddha would say, we react not so much to the coffee itself as to our perception or label of it: the conditioned habit of liking or disliking. The Sanskrit name for this is samskara, which means literally “that which is intensely done.” Samskaras are thought, speech, or behavior motivated by the desire to get some experience for oneself. We can think of samskaras as grooves of conditioning, compulsive desires. It is this skandha which prompts action—or, more accurately, which prompts karma, for “action” here includes thought (p. 85)

2.) From Sri Swami Satchidanda’s commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidanda:

For example, after many years of thievery, a robber decides not to steal anymore. But still, the memory of having stolen so many things and enjoyed them remains in the robber’s mind. In the Yogic term these memories are called “impressions,” or samskaras. Now and then the samskaras will come up: “Oh, how nice it would be if I had just stolen that car. How much I would have enjoyed it. But these people came and told me not to attach myself, and I accepted it and am staying away from this.” (p. 27)