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What is a samskara and what does it do?

Deepak Chopra
Alternative & Complementary Medicine
When they tried to understand how the mind traps itself, the ancient Indian sages devised the key concept of samskara (from two Sanskrit word roots that mean "to flow together"). A samskara is a groove in the mind that makes thoughts flow in the same direction. Buddhist psychology makes sophisticated use of the concept by speaking of samskaras as imprints in the mind that have a life of their own. Your personal samskaras, built up from memories of the past, force you to react in the same limited way over and over, robbing you of free choice (i.e., choosing as if for the first time).

Most people build up an identity on the basis of samskara without knowing that they chose to do this, but the clues are inescapable. Rage, anxiety, depression, sexual addiction, substance abuse, obsessive compulsion; all will testify to how samskaras rob people of free choice. Unable to escape their toxic memories, people adapt to them, adding one layer after another of impressions. The bottom layers, laid down in childhood, keep sending out their messages, which is why adults often look in the mirror and feel like impulsive, frightened children. The past has not been worked through sufficiently; samskaras rule the psyche through a jumble of old, outworn experiences.

Stored memories are like microchips programmed to keep sending out the same message over and over. When you find yourself having a fixed reaction, the message has already been sent: It does no good to try to change the message. Yet this is exactly how the vast majority of people try to tame the mind. They receive a message they don't like, and their reaction is one of three things: Manipulation, control or denial.

All three of these behaviors come after the fact -- they deal with the mind's disorder as the cause of the distress rather than as a symptom. These supposed solutions have tremendous negative effects. Each tries to prove an impossibility: Manipulation tries to prove that anyone can be made to do what you want. Control tries to prove that no one can reject you unless you say so. Denial tries to prove that bad things will go away if you don't look at them. The truth is that other people can refuse to do what you want, can walk out on you for no good reason, and can cause trouble whether you face it or not. There is no predicting how long any of us will stubbornly try to prove the opposite, but only when we admit the truth does the behavior completely end.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.