A Systematic Inquiry Into Samskaras For Adept Meditators


In this post, I’d like to discuss a particular approach I’ve developed to identifying samskaras, or ego tendencies. I take my point of departure from Ramana Maharshi who would often tell some disciples, “All thoughts stem from the I-thought. First, hold on to the I-thought. Next, find the source of the I-thought.”

This is excellent spiritual instruction for someone who is earnestly on the path of awakening. However, the above is, as yet, incomplete. What’s also needed is an understanding of samskaras, which are “one step below” the I-thought.

This too Ramana should be given credit for. When one disciple comes to him and says, “I intellectually understand your teaching, but still I am not Self-realized–what gives?,” Ramana responds: “The reason is that there are vasanas or samskaras.” Precisely!

Thus, we have every reason to assert–and my direct experience confirms this–that samskaras are “below” the I-thought. They are like Ur-delusions in Buddhist speak.

Let’s unfold the inquiry into samskaras now.

When First Starting Out… An Apparently Continuous Thought Stream

When most people first start to meditate, it can seem as if there is just one continuous thought stream after another. When the first one ends, it seems as if the second one immediately begins. And so on.

Moreover, each thought stream seems like “me” or “mine.” Each seems to be vivid, colorful, dynamic, powerful, and ‘real.’

Thus, it appears at this stage as if each thought stream, yanking and pulling, is seamlessly joined to the next and as if all thought streams are, somehow, continuations of me-ness, of my being myself.

Upon Closer Observation…

Suppose that, over time, you stick with daily meditation. To the best of your ability, you apply deliberate, concerted efforts to, say, let go of thoughts to and return to, say, the breath. (Or whatever your practice is.)

What do you notice? You observe, in your direct experience, that there are discernible gaps between thoughts, and you immediately grasp that each thought stream is revealing how it’s less vivid, colorful, dynamic, powerful, and ‘real’ than it initially seemed.

At this stage, you become open to there being ‘something real’ that is different than, and perhaps also anterior to, the arising of thoughts. What is this?

After all (and as any spiritual teacher might point out umpteen times), aren’t all thoughts limited in temporal direction? And what, or who, is contemplating the rising and falling of thoughts? Is that one, that is, the contemplator, subject to the same fate as each thought?

Genuine curiosity takes hold of you. So far, so good. But then you may get stuck.

“Delusions are Endless”: The Limits of Simply Letting Go

The first vow of the Four Noble Vows in Buddhism states, “Delusions are endless; I vow to put an end to all of them.” Here, I’d like only to draw our attention to the first claim about delusions being endless.

After some years of careful practice, it can start to seem futile to simply let go of thoughts. Futile or inadequate or fuzzy somehow. For it’s becoming clearer to you that, yes, “delusions–in the form of thoughts–are endless.” You might say: “Samsara, dammit, just continues! If it’s not letting go of this thought, then it’s letting go of that one! When will it end?”

(Of course, the above too are delusions and, as such, must also be dispatched.)

Additionally, it may also lead you to wonder: “since thoughts must come from somewhere, relatively speaking, where do these thoughts come from? That is, is there a way of using the mind to go beyond mind?”

I’d like to propose another way of using the power of inquiry to make the path of awakening more lucid, more streamlined, even easier.

Thought Tokens and Thought Types

One way of beginning this inquiry is to distinguish between thought tokens and thought types. Yes, thought tokens can appear to be endless, yet how many types of thoughts do you actually have? Based on my experience, I would argue: actually, very few. Wow! And this is the crux to going beyond that sense of futility, incomprehensibility, or inadequacy alluded to above. Allow me to elaborate.

Suppose thought token 1 has to do with instructing others; thought token 2 with writing a blog post; thought token 3 with imparting knowledge to a loved one; thought type 4 with giving clear answers on a podcast; and so on. You can then ask, “What do tokens 1-4 have in common?” Beautifully, it becomes clear to you that they’re nothing but ‘variations on the theme’ of knowing. (I’m using my own thoughts to illustrate how this inquiry would go.)

If you undertake this inquiry, soon you’ll be able to categorize what, at first, seemed like seemingly disparate thoughts or thought streams into some basic thought types.

So far, so good. While thought tokens are endless, thought types are finite, limited, well-scoped. Clarifying!

From Thought Types to Samskaras

Now the question occurs to you: “On whose behalf do these thought tokens and types arises?” This is the question, and the answer to this question, I submit, would be a samskara.

If you feel so inclined, you can regard any samskara whatsoever as a basic personality type. The aim at hand now is to begin sifting and massaging your thought types until they fall into the most basic ego types (i.e., samskaras).

In my experience (let’s set aside now the collective unconscious and so on), there are no more than about four samskaras remaining or at least evident in ordinary phenomenal experience. The personality type, or character, writing right now is that of the wiseman.

(I point this out about the one writing right now because it helps to underscore how Universal Consciousness requires some particular manifestation–like a personality–in order to ‘make contact with’ the apparent world consisting of others and objects. It should be born in mind, then, that samskaras aren’t necessarily ‘all bad,’ just not the answer to the ultimate question. The very best of samskaras are like tools or processes ‘in the hands of’ Universal Consciousness.)

Samskaras: From Bottom Up to Top Down

The first “upward” inquiry allows us to slowly discover samskaras. Once you find that there is resonance (i.e., it really is this samskara: that’s it!), you can then proactively and skillfully apply samskaras to arising thoughts throughout the day and during seated meditation. “Oh, I see: the caretaker. Now drop it.” The latter is the “downward” approach.

And what is the point of this? It’s three-fold, in fact. In the first place, this bottom up to top down approach, in my view, more facilely dispatches thoughts. That is to say, it’s more effective, at a certain point in one’s practice, than simply letting thoughts go. In the second place, it provides much needed clarity concerning the rising of this thought rather than some other thought; that is, it has some explanatory power pertaining to the regularity and recurrence of certain thoughts. (Why these are not some others?) And in the third place, it allows one, right here, to “see the false as false” (Nisargadatta) or, if you prefer, to see the not-me and not me (Buddha).

After all, any samskara–do you see right here?–is not me. Therefore, the inquiry can continue: “If this samskara is not who I am, then what am I, really?”

Limited Scope

In this post, I don’t discuss the nature of the “intermediate state” between samskaras and the Nameless Absolute. Ramana calls this “intermediate state” the I-thought, Nisargadatta refers to it variously as “the consciousness,” the “I am state,” and “Beingness.” Zen names it simply samadhi.

Rightly, direct pointing styles of teaching urge us to stay in, abide in, or hold on to this state and then let divine grace take care of the rest.

I trust that you can see where I’m headed with this inquiry as it unfolds beyond samskaras.

Positing Promised Lands

What is one of the greatest hindrances to beginning the existential inquiry into the Unborn, what Buddha called “the noble search”? The Six Hindrances in Buddhism refer to hindrances for one who is already on the path, but what of those who keep overlooking the path, who don’t see the path as a path in the first place?

I suggest that the greatest hindrance to seeing the path as a path is positing promised lands over here, over there, or out there.

Now to posit is to set something forth in front of one, to place it out there. Thus, to posit the promised land is to put something forth out in front of one with a view to that promised land being what will bring about, or coincide with, the final end of one’s suffering as well as the experience of ultimate peace and happiness.

Promised lands are used daily, monthly, and yearly and, as such, are moving targets. When you say to yourself, “I just need to get through this exam and then I’ll take a rest,” you’re fudging the math: you’re really implying that the end of this exam will coincide with lasting peace and happiness, yet obviously this is not even close to being true. Thus, it’s a fudge to get by.

And yet, out of delusion, we don’t admit that we keep fudging while lying to ourselves. The next job, a different relationship, getting out of this painful seated position, moving to Bali or Oaxaca, acquiring a new possession, getting a dog or cat: none of these are anything but false posits of the promised land. They’re false because they cannot possibly keep their promises. Their falsity is shown, in fact, by the urge to keep positing a new promised land after the last one (as well as the one before it) failed.

Moreover, psychological states, psychological healing, altered states, and certain experiences also, and equally, fall prey to this delusion. Simply, no altered state will end your suffering while also making you boundlessly happy. It makes no difference, on this score, whether you’ve been to Burning Man.

What I’ve written above continues to be overlooked just because many of us devote our lives to playing shell games with ourselves. “Oh, I know that it’s not living in Boulder or Costa Rica now, but maybe it has to do with this coaching training.” Nonsense. “Getting into better physical shape: I used to think that that would make me happy, but now I know it’s Bitcoin.” Double nonsense.

Do you see how tragic this is? By this means, suffering continues in slightly altered forms and shapes.

And so, what happens when you finally realize that all of the above is really just the same pattern, one that Buddhists aptly term “the cycle of samsara“? Just the same old shit, albeit in new dress. Understandably, you’re presented with two basic options. The first one is nihilism. The second is the noble search.

I urge you to embrace the noble search and thus to cease not only positing promised lands but also to forget the nihilism born of self-pity. Who is this self-pitying self anyway? Who has been positing all this all along? Find that out and be free.

Overview Of Core Nondual Teaching: Doctrine, Method, Paths

I. Core Nondual Teaching

1. There is just one Reality.

2. This Reality is “transcendent” as well as “immanent.” 

  • It is transcendent in the specific sense in which it goes beyond (a) all kinds of finite minds, (b) all kinds of physical bodies, and (c) all kinds of worlds or universes. That is, Reality as Reality is entirely “whole” or “unto itself” while also being the “ground” or “groundless ground” and, as such, is the condition 
  • And Reality is immanent in that every temporary phenomenon is not only an expression of this Reality; every temporary phenomenon is also nothing but this Reality. 

3. It follows from premises 1 and 2 that I am That, you are That, etc.

4. Realization, awakening, or enlightenment is simply the name we give to whatever being has understood, in the most immediate, most direct, and most complete way, that he or she is not a finite bodymind but is instead That.

II. Advaita Vedanta’s Triple Method

How do we come to this realization? Advaita Vedanta suggests a general method of inquiry:

  1. Listen to the teaching as if you were a sponge. Be deeply receptive while watching, listening to (e.g.) Dharma talks, and reading sacred texts. The attitude here is not one of skepticism but of deep, genuine openness.
  2. Ponder over or contemplate the teaching. Ask questions and make sense with a view to clearing doubts (the doubts that arise from the finite, sometimes skeptical mind).
  3. Meditate (in the ways I’ll describe).

III. Three Basic Paths

In Section II., we find instructions that are applicable to any spiritual aspirant. But which path is right for me?

As I see it, there are only three basic paths:

  1. The jnana path.– Inquire into the nature of Reality until you know it. You know it only when you are it. (Knowing by being)
  2. The bhakti path.– Through love and devotion, surrender yourself completely to God. (Loving what one truly is)
  3. The karma path.– Act so selflessly on behalf of all beings that you come to realize that (a) there is no doer, (b) there is no deed, and (c) there are no recipients. (Selfless emptying of ego-self via action that essentially becomes Supra-personal process)

IV. Progressive vs. Direct Approaches

Suppose that you’re on the jnana path. My suggestion is that most people cannot immediately benefit from a direct approach.

Instead, it can be helpful to train the mind so that there is concentration as well as steadiness of mind. When one has developed greater stability and one-pointedness, then one can benefit from a direct approach.

And what is a direct approach or direct pointing? Quite simply, the teaching points to your true nature right here. Consider this paraphrase from Zen master Rinzai: “Who is the one speaking and hearing these words right now?” To take the examples I’m most familiar with: koans, huatou, and Self-inquiry are all jnana-based direct approaches to seeing what is always already underfoot.

V. Some Important Types of Meditation

I’m coming to the third part of the triple method mentioned above. In my view, the following are quite important types of meditation:

  • Clearing: We should undertake meditations with a view to “cleaning up” or “clearing” ego-self tendencies (samskaras in Sanskrit). This is what Zen calls “polishing the mirror” or what, in more colloquial terms, we might call “taking care of your own shit.”
  • Concentration: We should cultivate one-pointed concentration through, say, following the breath through the nostrils (anapana).
  • Direct Pointing: We should engage in direct path meditations in order to see, right here and right now, what remains when thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and sensations have all faded away. 
  • Love and Lovingkindness: “Outward-facing” meditations like metta ensure that there is not just “the ascent” to Reality but also the “descent” back into worldly engagement. Love, lovingkindness, and empathy should be cultivated regularly, daily, perhaps even moment by moment.

‘Your minds And Mind Do Not Differ’

Rinzai said, “Your minds and Mind do not differ” (The Record of Linji, p. 18).

A student asked, “What about the state where ‘mind and Mind do not differ?”

Rinzai replied, “The instant you ask the question they are already separate, and essence [Mind] differs from its manifestations [minds]” (p. 18).

Do you see? The instant you ask the question they must appear to be separate and thus may seem to you to differ. Therefore: stop it!

The essential point, in other words, is to come to the direct seeing where the question could not possibly arise.

Quite remarkably, Sri Ramana Maharshi says much the same thing. “Oh, student, you’re asking this speculative question. Go and find out what your True Self is and then see whether the question arises.”

The bad news is that you cannot think your way to Awakening. The good news is that you never had to.

A Very Brief Comparison Of Christian And Eastern Mysticisms

I’m only a fifth of the way into The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, ed. Bernard McGinn, but, boy, is it good. True, the excerpts in this volume are quite short, though, it should be added, these are intended to be appetizers, the point being to entice one to read the primary texts in full.

So far, the similarities between Eastern spiritual practices and Christian mystical understandings are striking. Of course, I am reading with a view to coming to functional analogies, so the lens through which I interpret these texts certainly colors what and how I read. Still, the mystical dispensation–East and West–is definitely on display.

For instance, Christian mystics and Eastern adepts stress the need to turn away from “outward things.” Origen: “The eyes of the spirit are lifted up when they cease to truck with things of the earth and to be filled with the images of things material….” (p. 83). Or John of the Cross sounding as if he’s read “The Heart Sutra”: “When the soul denies itself the pleasure arising from what gratifies the ear, it remains, so far as the faculty of hearing is concerned, in darkness, without occupation” (p. 76). And Zen master Dogen: “Take the backward step and turn the light within.”

Or we might think, understood in a mystical vein, of original sin. Adam and Eve’s original sin was to seek knowledge of duality and, in so doing, to effect a separation between the finite and the infinite. Of course, separation, so understood, is awful. Original sin, so understood, is similar to the Eastern view of ignorance: profound and persistent ignorance of our original nature.

We might go one step further and compare venial and mortal sins with samskaras. Consider the sin of pride. Pride is precisely what maintains the ignorance, veiling the way of returning home to the divine by assuming the primacy and sufficiency of human autonomy. In samskaric language, pride is but one ego tendency or ego predilection, one that precludes surrender to God.

Reasonably, therefore, do early Christian mystics underscore the need for purgation. The daily sins must be washed away before one can be clean and pure enough to continue the journey home to God. Likewise, Zen Buddhists will speak of “polishing the mirror” while Advaita Vedantists will point to the samskaras that appear to stand between jiva (personal consciousness) and Atman (the true, divine Self).

A more basic map of mystical ways begins to emerge for those with eyes to see.