Samskaras And The True Self

On November 30, 1936, Ramana Maharshi is speaking with a visitor at Ramanasramam. The visitor is wondering about how the nature of Ultimate Reality could have seemed to have forgotten Itself, and Maharshi supplies him with an answer to his question.

And then things, by my lights, get really interesting.

“Having heard this truth,” the devotee asks, “why does not one remain content” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 257)? In other words, I was just listening to you intently, but I haven’t realized my true nature. What am I missing? Or even: say, what gives?

On the following page (p. 258), Maharshi will walk the visitor through Advaita’s “triple method” of listening, pondering/contemplating, and meditating, a method that reveals that listening to the teaching is, on its own, very rarely enough (save in the rare exceptions of especially ripe students).

But talk of the triple method is not, in fact, the place where Maharshi begins. Instead, he starts thus: “Because samskaras have not been destroyed. Unless samskaras cease to exist, there will always be doubt and confusion (sandeha, viparita). All efforts are directed at destroying doubt and confusion. To do so their roots must be cut. Their roots are the samskaras” (pp. 257-8).

Before I unpack what Maharshi is suggesting, it would be good to know what a samskara is. A samskara is an ego tendency or predisposition. Suppose, for example, that you tend to get enraged when you feel that someone has slighted you. Well, that is a samskara–and perhaps a sticky one!

Maharshi’s point is quite sharp. As long as personal consciousness is very much gripped by these little “eddies” of ego-self tendencies, it won’t be able to merge with Ultimate Reality. Gripping onto these samskaras, it shall continue to be gripped by them.

What Maharshi helps me to see here is that there is, in truth, a very close relationship between Cleaning Up and Waking Up (in Ken Wilber’s terms). Whereas it can seem as if exploring various forms of psychological suffering is its own modus operandi and whereas it can also seem as if the path of enlightenment is another mode entirely, it is far better, it turns out, to regard Cleaning Up and Waking Up as two strands braided together like a double-helix–provided, that is, that Cleaning Up is in the service of Waking Up. (If not, it can easily spill over into “insight porn.”)

And this makes a good deal of sense. Cleaning Up and Waking Up come at our true nature from, as it were, two different angles and “meet” just when and where there is utter transparency, the transparency of being. What is personal consciousness that is totally clear of samskaras but the true nature of reality? And what is our original nature as it is expressed in form but personal consciousness that is now a transparent vessel?

As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is formlessness, formlessness form.” Could this statement be any clearer thanks to Maharshi?