A series of talks by Michael Stone about chapter 3 of The Yoga Sutra a text written by mysterious author(s) often named Patanjali in the second century. Notes by MH include reveries and imaginings. Centre of Gravity Fall 2011. www.centreofgravity.org
The transformation toward total stillness occurs as new latent impressions fostering cessation arise to prevent the activation of distractive, stored ones, and moments of stillness begin to permeate consciousness.
The topic tonight will be the word Samskara, which comes up a lot in the Yoga Sutra. “Sam” means to come together and is actually where we get the word sum (via Latin), as in summation; and it came into the Greek language as com, as in community. Kara comes from the root word that means to make as in to create. Samskaras are creations. If you look it up in the dictionary it will say volitional formations, which is kind of dry. The way we will translate it tonight is “what comes into being.” What comes into being? The answer is everything: wind, bodies, relationships, the whole universe, roof tiles, windows, grass—the whole thing comes into being. Most of the time when we relate to things, we forget that they’ve come into being. We forget about them as a process. It’s like when we sit on our meditation cushions, we think of them as objects, as fixed things, but if you’ve been taking part in Grant’s Zafutecture project, you understand the process that goes into making the cushion and you see your cushion as something more. That’s what a samskara is: the coming together of actions. Everything that you can relate to, including the you that is relating is a samskara.
In the Buddha’s teaching you also find samskara (as one of the aggregates). At the time of the Buddha’s death, the Buddha went for dinner at the home of a metal worker who was part of his sangha and was served a truffle that came from bamboo shoots. He got very sick and a few days later he realizes that he is deteriorating and he is going to die. He asks Ananda, his attendant, to take him to a grove near Kushinagara where they set up a bed for him between two trees. Ananda stays with him while he is dying, and mostly weeps. At one point Ananda is crying and giving water to the Buddha and Buddha says to him, “Ananda, don’t fret. Don’t you remember everything that I’ve taught, that you are a samskara, that I am a samskara, that we are coming into being, and because we’re coming into being also we fall apart? Take that into your heart, and don’t cry so much.” Eventually the Buddha gives his last sermon on the samskaras, and then he dies.
Here are two translations of the last part of that sermon:
1. How inconstant samskaras are, their nature is to arise and pass away, they disband as they’re arising and their total stillness is peace.
2. Conditioned formations are truly transient.
Why do we have to have this beaten over our heads all the time?
All formations are transient
their nature is to arise and pass away
having arisen they pass away
their calming and cessation is true bliss.
In Theravadan countries, like Burma and Thailand and in parts of India, these four lines are actually sung at funerals. They are sung at funerals, in Pali, to remind the people who are at a funeral that not only has the person you are grieving passed away, but you also are aligned with that passing. You also can be awake to this; to recognizing your own passing. All things have a birth and a death, and all conditions come together for a time, and then come apart.
Sometimes combinations of conditions come together that leave us in a certain mood (for example when we are unable to sleep) and often we become identified with the mood, without seeing it as a samskara, as being caused by a set of circumstances that are going to change.
A belief is a samskara, a child is a samskara, a bank is a samskara. Conditioned.
Speaking the body
There is a term that is bandied around a lot called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity really is the core of understanding samskaras. The core belief is that neurons that fire together wire together. The brain is not a mechanism. The neuroscientists say that neuroplasticity was discovered in 1890 by Freud. Freud was a neurologist, and he was deeply interested in how physical symptoms that showed up in the body could be described mechanically by the neuroscience paradigm. He got people to lie down and when they had certain physical symptoms they would talk about them and explore out loud what came up as they were feeling these symptoms. He started to notice that there was a relationship between language and the body. For Freud this was a kind of samskara (a conditioned formation) that had been split apart by science, and he was trying to bring this back together again. At the time, Freud says, when two events happen in the mind at the same time, the nerve cells are strengthened. Then, learning from Freud, a Canadian named Donald Hebb came up with the term Hebbian plasticity, and believed that if you could speak freely you could begin to recall the ways that you started putting things together with language, even at an early age, and the way language and the body meet to make a world.
Now we don’t see things like this. We tend to think of the brain and mind as mysterious and interdependent. The political side of this split tends to place psychiatrists on one side and therapists on the other. It is only recently that the two sides are starting to have better conversations, because if the brain is an inanimate object, it can’t really change in the way that the people who are doing the talking believe that it can. When psychotherapists and psychiatrists get frustrated, when their patients are not getting better, they tend to fall back on the idea that certain traits are “hardwired.” That is a return to the mechanical model (they can’t change). Plasticity means the brain can change its structure and its function depending on what it does. The structure changes depending on how we act, how we react, how we don’t act, how we think; and neuropsychology says that the biggest influence of changing structure in the brain is how we imagine things. And plasticity exists at every level: the behaviour of cells, bones, thoughts and images. When learning gets done, it doesn’t just get done externally, with our hands and our feet—it gets done under the skin, and under the skin in the genes. According to neuroscience when learning is getting done, genes are turning on and off. You are actually affecting even the evolution of the human species in what you do and how it’s repeated over time. These are samskaras.
Sculpting the Brain
When there is re-sculpting of the brain, not only is it changing genetic code, but also we start to realize that change is not infinitely plastic. So in the same way that things can change and become elastic, they can also change to become rigid. So rather than thinking of change purely in the direction of plasticity, we also have to think of that change as part of the creation of structure.
Some neurologists have described strokes as a loss of “cortical real estate.” The idea is that if someone has a stroke in their right hemisphere, their left arm won’t work, and they start to work with their right hand in more creative ways to do many more things (the basic samskaric pattern). A neuroscientist named Edward Taub discovered that cortical real estate is not lost altogether, and that if the person with the stroke has his right hand (which is not damaged) put in a sling, he will begin to regain function in the left hand back to about 60 or 70 percent of his pre-stroke dexterity (Doidge). Then he started working with people who had a stroke and couldn’t use language very well and came up with this really complicated set of rules, where when you are in certain situations there were rules about how you could speak. For example if you were eating food and you wanted to talk about the food there was a list of words you could use and a list of words not to use. There were all kinds of complicated linguistic rules using cue cards and he showed that people could start to use language in new ways and even found that people used a vocabulary that was more complex, sophisticated and nuanced than the words they had used before. He proved that the brain was elastic.
Norman Doidge uses the image of snow in winter time. When you go cross country skiing you ski in tracks that become deeper and harder the more time that you ski in them, and eventually they become very hard to get out of. These are samskaras: the more you take particular actions neuropsychologically, the more you get into certain ruts. This is why when we experience change in our lives it’s so painful, because we’ve been in a certain groove and we only know that groove. It’s really hard to start a new groove.
So how does this relate to Occupy Wall Street? Maybe samskaras are not just individual, maybe samskaras if they are affecting genetic codes are also equally social and economic and ecological. What if we take everything that we’re good at, which is causing so much ecological destruction, and put it in a sling? How do we take something we are doing that is contributing to creating greenhouse gases, or the banking system, and try putting it in a sling? Seeing what other ideas come up. To talk about alternatives to predatory capitalism seems impossible. There seems to be an idea that “you can’t talk about that.” We can talk about anything but that, right? Freud would love that! To not be able to think about that seems like a real rut for our culture. So what are some ideas?
1. We could have political candidates who get popular through you-tube, because right now if you want to run for president of the US you have to have millions and millions of dollars. This is the paradox of the Barack Obama campaign because he had more donations from Wall St. than any other candidate. Isn’t it possible with the complexity of social media and how things can go viral, that we could actually watch a president come through the ranks via social media.
2. Candidates who are not bought.
3. People who come into politics who are not coming from big oil, banks or health insurance.
4. the possibility of doing politics, not in Ottawa, but around Ottawa. How can we do politics outside of the political grooves?
To even think about these ideas seems crazy. Impossible. But what the Occupy Wall Street movement is discussing is how it is possible to do politics outside of politicians. This is what has to happen because politics is owned by corporations. So we can’t march on Washington, because the change is not going to come from Washington.
We forget that there are places we have a hard time using our imagination, because we’re in a rut. We know what works so we just try to fit some new idea back into that paradigm, and then we keep repeating ourselves like some kind of addiction. We have an economy that’s doing worse year after year. If you look at it in terms of the Canadian economy, we have an economy that’s staying stable at the expense of water, forests, and the health of northern communities. In the US 44.6% of the people who are out of work have been out of work for more than a year. That is so bad for their bodies, so bad for their families, so bad for their communities…for everyone’s health…and these are new samskaras.
According to yoga, according to the dharma, poverty is really bad, and it’s really bad because it causes dukkha. It causes suffering. The core of the Buddha’s message and of Patanjali’s message is that we must fully know suffering and then take action to go to work on the problem. It seems that our culture has been a little blind to how much suffering there is. We are so wrapped up in our own petty issues…my sleepless night, my stress, and my need for new snow tires… that we insist we don’t have the time or the energy for anyone else’s suffering. And then we create that samskara.
We have to stop thinking about spirituality over here and economics over there, in the same way that we have this two-column accounting system that does not make sense anymore. We have this binary view that spiritual practice is over here, and leave economy to the economists. And we’ve been leaving economy to the economists and look what’s happened. One of the things that is happening on Wall St. now is that some of the leading economists from NYU and Columbia University have been spending the week with some of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street to start to develop some really interesting ideas about how to rethink economics. This is a really exciting and welcome development. And then there’s that part of the culture and that part of us internally that thinks oh no no no that can’t be done, and then we fall back again into the groove and lose our momentum.
David Loy wrote a wonderful article on Occupy Wall Street (see post on Facebook). One of the interesting things he points out is: “It’s important for spiritual groups to understand that market emphasis on commodity accumulation and consumption undermines their most important teachings. The corrosive influence of economic globalisation and its development institutions on our real human values needs to be challenged.” He ends by asking, “How many times in your life do you get a chance to watch history unfold like this?
We have to realize that here we are, meditating, practicing together, trying to live in a way that’s in line with our values, and then we go out into the world and we participate in systems that are totally out of line with our values. Spiritual people have to stop thinking that all of the work is “in here.” It’s like saying, “those one percent, I have all those qualities in myself.” Well yes you do, and you have to work on them.
So how do we act?
1. We can’t act out of hatred.
2. We have to be incredibly imaginative. If you hate the people who work in the banks, then you don’t have a right to protest. If you hate them, whatever action that you are going to do is going to set up a new pattern that is based in hate. (We’ve seen it many times in places like Cuba, or South America—a violent movement takes over, and becomes just as violent as the government they overthrew). We have to be more creative than that. And what has been so interesting about Occupy Wall Street is that we haven’t been giving the media the violence they want.
3. We have to see that how we bank, and how we consume, and what we do with our money, that all those things are spiritual practice. And then we have to look at our spiritual practice and see that all the things we do in our spiritual practice are all economic and all political, and this is how we undo the samskaras.
Patanjali says something very interesting here. In meditation practice, when you sit still and you don’t react to the emotions and the images and the feelings that move through you, then you are planting new grooves of non-reactivity. So we often think that not doing something is passivity, but Patanjali is saying that being still is actually an action that’s planting new grooves, in your mind, in your body and in your family. I want to be a good Dad, so I have to meditate, so that I’m living the values that I want my son to have. That’s how this lineage works. Think about your spiritual practice as happening moment to moment. The shadow side of our economy is devastation to our ecology. The shadow side of a spiritual practice that’s just about me, is not paying attention to the oneness of life, of interdependence. For too long we’ve been talking about spiritual practice as all inside here; inside the skin bag.
We’re trying to end dukkha. If you have suffered in your life it tenderizes you to the way other people suffer. When you start to work through the way you suffer you develop skills and tools, where now you know how to help other people. So maybe now is the time to recognize what kind of tools you have, that you’ve learned from working with the difficulty in your own life. Share those with other people, instead of getting over your suffering and creating more suffering for others. Connect your own wounds to other people’s wounds.
It’s hard to be imaginative when you are stuck in a groove. Sometimes when you are spiritual you tend to think that the groove is all in me, but the groove is also in our society, it’s also in our culture. So these are the samskaras. Everything is a samskara, everything is plastic, everything’s elastic.