The Impressions that Make Us

"Zimbardo" by Eugenia Loli

"Zimbardo" by Eugenia Loli

Samskara Sakshat Karanat Purva Jati Jnanam
Yoga Sutras 3.18

By bringing unconscious drives into conscious light one knows the existence of previous lives.

I have a good friend who was afraid of horses; he was so afraid of horses that he panicked anytime he saw one, even from a distance. He didn’t know why he had this extreme reaction to horses. Instead of turning away from the source of his anxiety, he turned towards it, determined to uncover the reason for his suffering. As he investigated, he began to recall a very early memory. One of his earliest memories was of a young boy, his age, getting kicked in the head by a horse and dying. He remembered being at the funeral and remembered the tiny child-sized coffin.

If instead of turning away from our suffering, we turn towards it and look deeply at the root causes, we can at least understand where our pain is coming from (if not also start the process of letting go of it).

Samskara refers to an impression left by an experience. In my friend’s case, it was a very direct correlation between an event and a habituated emotional response. Not all samskara work like that; they may be much more subtle and layered. We may not be able to remember an exact moment or event that explains our current state of mind.

Samskara are impressions of the past, information about the past. Sakshat is to witness. When we witness past impressions and influences we gain knowledge of previous births. I don’t remember any previous births, so that’s hard for me to understand. However, it is my experience that memories of the past are stored in our physical body, in our mind, in our emotional body.  We are great storehouses of our past thoughts, words, and actions.

There are so many ways in which we carry the information from past events into our present moment whether we like it or not. There is information, causes, conditions, and influences from the past that we might not be aware of consciously and we might not have access to intellectually — nonetheless those circumstances and events have made an impression. There is information passed from zygote to future cells by means of DNA. When one cell dies, information is carried to the next cell. Plenty of my habits, affectations, responses have come about because of past experience. The things I liked as a child influence things I am attracted to now, things I disliked as a child influence what I am repulsed by now. There are conditions and influences relating to my family upbringing, who was around and what happened to me at an early age. There are layers of this information from our community, from our culture, and from our particular moment in history. Then there are the conditions from the internal and external environment.

All of these layers of information create impressions in the mind called samskara. All of this information, all of the events of the past and conditions of our consciousness give rise to the feeling of our personhood. That feeling that I am a collection of memories and experiences, likes and dislikes, are giving us that sense of ourselves - in sanskrit, asmita; the feeling of "me-ness". This is the feeling that my personality is an amalgamation of all of my past experiences. My responses in the present are conditioned by all of this information, all of these impressions of past experience.

Oftentimes we do not know why we are reacting to something in the moment, unless we start to pay attention to our reactions in the unfolding present. Sometimes I don’t realize that I’m hungry until after I snap at someone. Yoga practice is a means by which we can act in accordance with our habituated mental, emotional, and physical patterns, or we can choose to change them. We can act in accordance with our understanding of ourselves as limited by these conditions, or we can do something else.

What is lying underneath our suffering? What is coming up for you again and again? What longing does jealousy actually point to? What underlying hunger, need, disappointment, doubt underpins our most painful moments.

If we can find the source, can we start to heal? If we are able to trace back to the source of our suffering, can we move beyond it?


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