Samskaras and Vasanas

Subconscious Tendencies

Samskaras—Psychological Imprints

Samskara (or sanskara) means “activator” and refers to psychological imprints left in the subconscious by our daily experiences—whether conscious or unconscious, internal or external, desirable or undesirable. The term “activator” suggests that these imprints are not merely passive vestiges of our actions and intentions, but dynamic forces in our psyche. They constantly push the jiva (individual soul) into action. These impressions wait to return to the conscious level of the mind, influencing our future in the form of expectations, sense of self-worth, habits, innate dispositions, and emotions—propelling our lives and generating future karma.

The Two Types of Samskaras

Samskaras even come up during meditation and other spiritual practices. The Yoga Sutras (3:9) clarifies the spiritual journey, explaining that there are two radically different kinds of samskaras:

  1. Those that lead to the externalization of consciousness (any tendency that leads us further into ignorance).
  2. Those that cause the cessation of the mental processes (any tendency that leads us closer to the realization of what we really are).

The yogi should cultivate the latter type of samskaras in order to prepare the proper conditions for samadhi (ecstasy), which prevents the renewed generation of subliminal activators.

Permeating the Subconscious with Pure Existence

Patanjali speaks about nirodha parinama (the mental transformation of dissolution), wherein the consciousness becomes permeated by the condition of Pure Existence, sat (the consciousness of the Present Moment). The nirodha samskaras are those tendencies toward dissolution, Stillness, which can annihilate all the other limiting samskaras. These mental conditions appear in the gaps between one thought (or subconscious tendency) and the next one. In the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (24-27; 64) the same act of awareness of pure Stillness is associated with the awareness of the gaps after inhalation and exhalation.

Vasanas—Chains of Samskaras

Vasana means “to remain,” “to dwell,” “to persist [in memory].” In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines vasana as a dynamic chain or concatenation of samskaras. Most often, the term vasana is associated with the notion of subtle desire.

Vasanas are our inherent latencies and tendencies, resulting from our previous actions. They govern the psyche unless overcome by tapas and nirodha parinama. They are assimilated with the predispositions, tendencies, or propensities of the mind in the present life due to the experiences of former lives. Because of all the desires we have in daily life, subliminal traces or subtle fingerprints remain in our minds. They are what make us live in a state of constant agitation—always planning the future and thinking about the past. This prevents us from living in the state of clarity that arises in the awareness of the eternal present moment.

Ramana on Transcending the Vasanas

Ramana Maharshi describes the deluding force of the vasanas and the way to transcend their limitations in Maharshi’s Gospel: “Just as water in the pot reflects the enormous sun within the narrow limits of the pot, even so the vasanas or latent tendencies of the mind of the individual, acting as the reflecting medium, catch the all-pervading, infinite light of Consciousness arising from the Heart and present in the form of a reflection, the phenomenon called the mind. Seeing only this reflection, the ajnani is deluded into the belief that he is a finite being, the jiva. If the mind becomes introverted through enquiry into the source of aham vritti, the vasanas become extinct, and in the absence of the reflecting medium the phenomenon of reflection, namely, the mind, also disappears being absorbed into the light of the one Reality, the Heart.”