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.