Mental Impressions (Samskara)


Mental impressions play an outsize role in our lives. They generate desires, they influence our decisions, and they determine our character. They exert a lot more control on us than we realize. It is helpful to know how they are formed, what they do, and what we can do to use them to our advantage.

First, the basics. Work (karma) is not only what we do with the body (our usual activities) but also what we do with the mind (such as thinking). Every conscious activity done with the help of the body and the mind is karma. It usually produces some result (karmaphala, literally, “fruit of work”). People often refer to even karmaphala as karma, little realizing what a stupendous mistake that is. Referring to both work as well as its results as karma has created no end of misunderstanding regarding the karma theory.

In terms of experience, karmaphala or the result of karma is happiness or sorrow, depending on whether or not the work is fulfilling, appreciated and/or successful. The connection between work and experience is so common that we simply take it for granted. We keep working and we keep bouncing back and forth between happiness and sorrow all through our lives.

But work also produces another result which is not so obvious and which is not immediately experienced. Every work produces a mental impression (samskara), a kind of tendency that influences future decisions—“influences” is the keyword here. The samskara merely influences but does not determine what we do in the future. What we choose to do is determined by the mind and powered by the will. The samskara makes an effort to push us in a specific direction, but if we have an unclouded mind which is backed by a strong will, we can push back and say no.

The samskaras are stored in the unconscious part of the mind. Think of it as a kind of mental basement. Other than when we are in deep sleep, we are all the time thinking or doing something or the other. That is what we have done in all of our previous lives as well. Not only have we done a lot of karma and experienced a lot of happiness and sorrow, but we have also produced gazillions of samskaras. It is scary to imagine the mind’s basement, which is probably brimming over already. It is good that these samskaras are in the unconscious. We would have gone insane if we were conscious of them all the time.

Although both karmaphala and samskara result from karma, they are different in two important ways.

  1. First, karmaphala is primarily an “experience,” which is broadly divided into two simple categories: happiness (sukha) and sorrow (duhkha). The extent and intensity of happiness or sorrow, and the manner in which they manifest, depend on the nature of the karma that caused it. We may not always remember what that karma was, but the result doesn’t depend on our remembering the cause. Unlike karmaphala, a samskara is not an experience but a “potentiality,” an extremely subtle seed which has the power to replicate the experience.
  2. The second difference between karmaphala and samskara is that the karmaphala is destroyed immediately after joy or sorrow is experienced, but the samskara lives much longer and does not die easily.

Deep down in the unconscious part of the mind, the samskaras are sort of asleep most of the time, as anyone would be if they are confined to a dark, dingy basement. They wake up only when they are triggered. What trigger these samskaras are memories from the past or the sights, sounds, tastes, smell and touch of the present. An example may make the mechanism simpler to follow.

Suppose I drink coffee (that’s karma) and love it so much that it makes me happy (that’s karmaphala). When my coffee-generated happiness disappears, the karmaphala has effectively been destroyed. But the coffee has also produced in my mind a coffee-impression (that’s samskara). It quickly descends into my mental basement, finds a quiet corner, and goes to sleep. The next time I see a coffeeshop, or when I remember the joy that coffee produced in me (these are possible triggers), my coffee samskara wakes up and rises in the form of a desire for coffee. Think of bubbles rising up in boiling water. That is how the samskara rises from the basement.

I become aware of the desire only when it reaches the conscious level of my mind. It is then that the mind springs into action. If it decides that the desire is worth pursuing, the will transforms it into an intention, my body then does everything necessary (that’s karma again) to get the cup of coffee in my hand. As I taste it and allow it to linger on my tongue, I experience happiness (more karmaphala!), and quite subtly, unbeknownst to me, another coffee samskara is born, and it promptly slips into the same corner of my mind as its older sibling.

Eventually a community of coffee samskaras is formed in my mental basement. Every time there is a coffee-related trigger, not one but many of these rise to the surface. Over time, after I’ve emptied many coffee cups, my desire for coffee becomes more intense—and if it reaches a point when I can never say no, then I have successfully graduated to being a coffee addict. This is just one example. It is clear that an unusually large number of identical samskaras provide the foundation for all sorts of addictions.

Think of how many such samskara communities have found shelter in the mental basement and how many triggers are provided to them by our memories or by what we see around us. No surprise, then, that desires keep springing in the mind more frequently than we would like. No one forces us to say yes to all desires, but that decision is taken by the mind and powered by the will. If the mind chooses well, we make fewer mistakes. If the mind makes bad choices, we are in trouble.

We can speak about good and bad choices because there are good and bad desires. When is a desire “good” and when is it “bad”? A desire is good when its fulfillment leads me to being stronger in some way—physically, mentally, morally, or spiritually. For instance, the desire to do regular physical exercises, the desire to study, the desire to help others, the desire to pray and to meditate—all of these are good desires, and the wise learn to say an energetic yes to them.

The desires are bad when they make me weaker in all of those different ways. If all my mind is looking for is happiness and if that is the sole criteria for my choices, then there is a real possibility that bad choices may occur. As the Gita (18. 37-38) points out, some things are sweet in the beginning but become poisonous later, while others feel terrible in the beginning but are sweet in the end. Making a wise choice about when to say yes and when to say no to a desire is the first step in dealing intelligently with the way samskaras operate.

Every time I say yes to a desire and act upon it, the samskara becomes stronger and adds one more member to its community. Every time I say no to a desire, the samskara becomes weaker, returns to the basement disappointed, and goes to sleep again. By wisely choosing which desires to welcome and which to reject, I can strengthen my positive, healthy samskaras and weaken my negative, unhealthy samskaras.

By consciously choosing to do healthy actions and to think healthy thoughts, I can produce positive, healthy samskaras in greater numbers. By consciously avoiding unhealthy actions and unhealthy thoughts, I can minimize or prevent the growth of negative, unhealthy samskaras. In this way, there is a lot I can do to make demographic changes in the samskara population in my mental basement.

The sum-total of samskaras within me at any given time is a measure of my character (see CW 1. 54). If my good samskaras vastly outnumber the bad samskaras, I will be said to have a good character. If it’s the opposite, then I will be a person with a bad character. But because the nature of the samskara population is something I can control through the choices I make, it is possible for me to turn over a new leaf and become good—or, God forbid, if I am reckless and keep making bad choices, I can go to the dark side. I cannot undo the karma that’s already been done, but I can undo the proliferation of bad samskaras by changing my behavior. This needs enormous will-power and patience, but it can be done.

To summarize how we can manage the samskaras:

  1. We can consciously create good samskaras by doing good actions and thinking good thoughts, and saying a resolute and enthusiastic “yes” whenever good desires rise in the heart. This not only increases the number of good samskaras but also, by repeatedly triggering them, we make them more strong. Which means, they’ll be activated with minimal triggers. This is the reason why, when people start doing good work or thinking good thoughts, it becomes easier over time to do more and more of it.
  2. We can consciously say “no” to all bad desires. This not only prevents the rise in the numbers of bad samskaras but, by refusing to act upon the desires they produce, we weaken them. Which means, the samskaras return to the basement heartbroken by the rejection, become more lethargic, and need stronger triggers to stir them into action in the future. This is why it is tough in the beginning to counter the effect of bad samskaras but, with repeated “no”-s to them, it gradually gets easier.

Managing the samskaras is important, but it is also a seemingly endless activity. Surely, there is more to life than continually worrying about samskaras! Accumulating good samskaras and ensuring the preponderance of good desires is fine, but what is the endgame? Is there an endgame?

Fortunately there is. We can use the good samskaras and the good desires they produce to become strong. Strength—especially strength of the mind—has the potential to take us to a state beyond desires, a state where the samskaras are not only no longer needed but are eliminated altogether. What brings about this apparent miracle is yoga, which is the generic name for all spiritual practices.

Swami Tyagananda


Radha Chihiro