Desikachar says (Heart of Yoga, pg. 10):
Now what is this avidya that is so deeply rooted in us? Avidya can be understood as the accumulated result of our many unconscious actions, the actions and ways of perceiving that we have been mechanically carrying out for years. As a result of these unconscious responses, the mind becomes more and more dependent on habits until we accept the actions of yesterday as the norms of today. Such habituation in our action and perception is called samskara. These habits cover the mind with avidya, as if obscuring the clarity of consciousness with a filmy layer.
I find the concept of samskara very interesting. It’s sophisticated. But I’m also curious about its history. Almost every definition uses 19th century words or later (subconscious, unconscious [technically, Friedrich Schelling created the word around 1800 and Freud and company refined it to our current “understanding” over the next century]). I wonder to what degree the definition of samskara or the sense of the definition has changed over time. Is the modern understanding deeper or essentially unchanged? To what degree was the concept of the “unconscious” understood anciently and how did that understanding modify the conception of samskara? What other concepts surrounded the concept of the unconscious and “framed” it? How does our modern understanding of the unconscious condition a different understanding of samskara?
My post from last night pointed out another kind of the “unconscious”. I observed that we (I do it, so you probably do to) can hide the physical experience/expression of fear behind a sort-of cultivated numbness. That hidden fear and that unfelt body is unconscious, or subconscious (and of course, it isn’t limited to just fear, anger’s a usual suspect [although what’s behind the anger? I find it’s often fear]). And that really points out one of the more obvious ways in which we can “see” the unconscious (or juxtapose it against something we can see, looking for the shadow). We can expand our awareness of our body until we notice something that was certainly there before but of which we were unconscious.
How can we be unconscious of our own self? It’s very mysterious. Especially when you realize that there’s just this tiny tiny part of yourself that says, hey, I wasn’t unconscious of it, you just fragmented us off somewhere else far away from all of you. It reminds me of how I can cut off an internal dialog at any point and if I look behind the sudden absence of subvocalization I can still know the words I was going to laboriously subvocalize. Makes me wonder why I bother going through with the whole subvocalizing of thoughts when the thoughts are already there in a more flexible/fast form anyway. But more to the point, when I am subvocalizing thoughts I am unconscious of that behind-the-scenes wellspring of meaning.
Unconsciously we all are pretty good at pratyahara. One could identify in the withdrawal of the senses from the mind the mechanism of a certain brand of common unconsciousness. We all do it, and on one level, we are doing it intentionally, as a sort of (samskaric) strategy for coping with things as they are. The samskaric angle of that process is the unconscious tendency to want to make parts of what could/should be conscious unconscious.
The key for yoga is to make conscious our skill to make things unconscious, to use that skill as a tool, just as we use our breath as a tool, to know when to apply and when to restrain it and to learn to see when/where it is operating.
Rounding back around to samskara, this also digs into how there are positive and negative samskaras. We can have tendencies that lead us further into the pit of our own darkness or we can have built/inherited tendencies that lead us higher up towards our light. Perhaps the whole reality of a “tendency” is to be avoided, but, if I’m going to have any, I’d rather have those that lead me upwards towards the shedding of the whole “tendency” tendency than those that further entrench the-unworkable-as-such.