In some way or another, everything we do, think and see leaves an impression on us. How big this impression is depends very much on how important the thought, action or vision is to us.
Swami Vivekananda explored this idea using the following analogy:
Think about how many people you come into contact with each day – probably hundreds – family members, work colleagues, waiters, public transport operators, street sweepers, shop attendants and so on. Yet, by the time you go to bed tonight you will remember only a handful of them. The people you do remember are the ones who are important to you. Your interactions with them are salient because you are attached to them. You replay these interactions in your mind, the act of which makes the memory stronger, and this in turn reinforces your attachment.
This is the nature of the sum total of impressions that imprint into our minds each day as a result of everything we think, do, see and feel as we go about our day. Although the sensory input we receive, physiologically speaking, is the same for all things regardless of whether they important or un-important, some thoughts/feelings/actions/visions carry with them relatively more psychological weight because we are more attached to them.
For example, if we are attached to the idea that people are inherently good, we are more likely to notice actions that confirm this idea. If we are convinced that so-and-so does not like us, we are more likely to notice behaviours that reinforce this. If we think we are not worthy of success we will act in accordance with this belief even if evidence to the contrary is available. The deeper the mental grooves, the more likely we are to attune to situations that reinforce them and so the grooves keep getting deeper.
This is samskara, which can be translated as ‘inherent tendency’. Samskaras are those patterns of thought and behaviour that we subconsciously repeat even when they do not serve us. Swami Vivekananda says:
“Every work we do, every movement of our body, every thought we think leaves such an impression on the mind-stuff…What we are at every moment is determined by the sum total of these impressions in the mind”.
Creating new patterns requires of us, a willingness to let go of established ones. This is hard because the ideas that we have about the world, the beliefs that we hold on to, are the very things we use to construct our sense of self, a sense of self we become very attached to! Letting go requires a more fluid, flexible sense of self than we generally feel comfortable with.
It is worth making the effort, however, as the thing that lives on the other side of this attachment is freedom! Freedom from the constraints of the ego, freedom from repetitive and unconscious behaviours, freedom to choose a new path, freedom from the accumulation of karma. This requires dedication and an honest enquiry into our histories, conditioning, self image and desires – a commitment to svadyaya, the study of self.
Thanks for reading – Samskaras
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