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Are sankharas a thing?

Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/15/18 8:29 AM
Back from a 10 day Goenka course, curious about his view of 'sankharas'.

From his explanation, sounded like when you observe sensations equanimously, old reactions of craving and aversion from the past bubble up to the surface and disappear, and if you do this enough you will be liberated.

Seemed a bit like baloney to me—regardless of the efficacy of the actual practice. At one point I was wondering if the pain in my back was due to unhealthy posture, so I should move, or due to an old deep sankhara, so I shouldn't move.
Now that I’m back, thought I’d cautiously indulge in a little theory.

Is there anything to this? Or is it dogma?

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/15/18 1:47 PM as a reply to Jack.
As far as I understand, Goenka combined two completely different meanings of the word sankhara and made his own theory out of it.

Meaning 1:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%E1%B9%85kh%C4%81ra

Meaning 2:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skandha

Notice that, as far as I understand, what Daniel calls "formations" in MCTB is basically his interpretation of sankhara-khandha, that is, "meaning 2" above.

Disclaimer: Not my area of expertise, I might well be sitting atop Dunning-Kruger's Mount Stupid right now.

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/15/18 3:23 PM as a reply to Jack.
In the simplest sense no, sankharas are not a real thing, if by ‘real thing’ you mean rupa, or form i.e. the phenomenal world. It’s like asking if consciousness is a ‘real thing’. They are all definitional things/models. I understand sankaras as akin to karma, aka your bad habits. They are volitional intents, you could also say it’s the force of craving, aversion or ignorance, that which keeps us from being completely content without wanting in the moment, urges. 
It goes deep though, and is tied up with a full understanding of dependent origination. The way Goenka describes sankharas I can see how they would be mixed up with vedana/sensation, and striving to rid oneself of sankharas are more sankharas at play. FYI I’m far from a Buddhist scholar, this is just my personal understanding.

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/15/18 6:44 PM as a reply to Jack.
Hi Jack,

I have practised Goenka method for 14 years so permit me to repond. (And please excuse any spelling I am dyslexic) 

Fiirst of all, it is good to be critical as there is no blind faith in Goenka nor any tradition aimed at Enlightenment.

The Buddha stresses the importance of critical thinking in the Kalama Sutta:
"It is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Do not be led by the authority of religious texts, not by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: 'this is our teacher'. But, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome, and wrong, and bad, then give them up...And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them." 

Sankara in Goenka technique covers all these experiences: craving, aversion, mental conditoning, mental habit, mental reaction & tendancy of subconcious behaviour patterns to arise in your subjective daily experience.

From his explanation, sounded like when you observe sensations equanimously, old reactions of craving and aversion from the past bubble up to the surface and disappear, and if you do this enough you will be liberated.
As a simplification of the technicalities expounded on in later courses yes, this is the overall idea. The deeper answer is a little more complex as you progress but that is a HUGH topic. Read Daniel Ingram's book to have a suitable experienced person answer this question deeper. 


At one point I was wondering if the pain in my back was due to unhealthy posture, so I should move, or due to an old deep sankhara, so I shouldn't move.

If the pain is excruciating move, but the idea is to develop equanimity overtime. So you find a happy balance between pushing yourself & not taking any idea to an extreme. Goenka talks about this point during the discourses. 

Sitting cross legged on the floor is a great posture for physical health but if you're not used to it will feel uncomfortable after 10 hours meditation per day. It will hurt because we in the West have pretty awful posture most of the time.
I would be far more worried about sitting in the office chair than on a Goenka retreat. (Unless you have a previous back injury in which case you need to discuss this with the teacher for specific advice). 

Goenka technique discourages labelling any sensation as meaning this or related to that. That is not denying the sensation has a cause but rather, they are trying to get your mind to stop fixating on content (what it means, how your mind interprets reality) and focus on the reality (just a heap of unpleasant, neutral or plesant sensations that change constantly). So you may have experiences the AT's encouraging you not to identify the sensation as back pain for the reason I just gave. 

Is there anything to this?
Goenka technique has made radical transformations to every aspect of my life. Brought me out of serious drug & alcohol addiction, radically improved my morality, radically altered my view of self, dissolved considerable conditoned habits that have never returned. So it works for me. You'll have to experiment to see if it works for you. Not all techniques are right for everyone. 

Observe the results yourself, decide for yourself. 


Or is it dogma?
There isnt any dogma if you can deeply observe the idea for yourself is there? Can you observe mental conditioning arising in you? Did you feel much better after the course? Have any bad habits reduced or dissappeared? (You may have to wait weeks or months to notice the changes - it can take time to notice particular habit patterns no longer arises). 

The teaching is recognised widely as benifical & if applied exactly as Goenka teaches it will certainly take to Nibbana/stream entry & beyond. 

Any teaching or belief can become dogmatic & I have seen dogmatic beliefs arise in all traditions including Goenka. So you can make the most pure teaching straight from Buddha's mouth dogmatic (refer many Buddhist religious cultures around the World). This is where critcal thought is good but too much critical though can also prevent one giving the practise a fair chance. There is a moderate, middle path to critical thinking. 

If you practise exactly as Goenka instructed, exactly as the Teachers advise adding nothing & removng nothing, leave the intellectual arguments aside (just for a little while) you should start to notice positive results. If not then find another technique - no one is asking you to believe in anything (aside from putting doubt aside long enough to give a fair trial).

Good luck! 
emoticon



RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/15/18 9:53 PM as a reply to Thich Nhat Han Solo.
Goenka technique has made radical transformations to every aspect of my life. Brought me out of serious drug & alcohol addiction, radically improved my morality, radically altered my view of self, dissolved considerable conditoned habits that have never returned.

Hi Raven! Can you help me to understand Goenke's technique better? The above reads like a pure concentration on physical sensations and that defilements/addictions fall off with no or little associations with the sensations. Would this be correct? Or will it be more correct to say in the process, these stuff bubble visibly to the surface and is witnessed to weaken or cease? And all these while, little attention is paid to these defilements?

Many thanks!

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 12:03 AM as a reply to Yilun Ong.
I would say that it is not the sankharas that fall off, just the attachment to them. The mind is trained by habit, literally rewiring the brain. This neuroplasticity is the problem behind addiction, but also the secret behind learning a new skill via repetition. We are technically unlearning the programming so natural to the thinking mind that takes the story where we think it should go. Our thoughts have their own ideas on how life should be which is reinforced by feelings in the body. It is prohibitively unlikely to craft a life based upon our ideals based upon delusion without something going wrong somewhere down the line. 

This conceptual world is weaved together by our sankharas, and as our perception of reality is subjective (from within this framework), there is no reliable way to gain a greater understanding, except to unlearn this habitual behaviour.

When people march around with music perpetually playing on headphones, smoking their vape , they are trapped in trying to sustain this residual sense of comfort, that is nothing more than a refusal to abide purely in the present moment without needing to add anything. It saddens me on one side of my family. In the home there are ALWAYS TV's on, people constantly need to be doing something, and it is clear that to take all this away would cause them great discomfort. This discomfort would be a form of purification. The ego has to learn things are ok without all this but it doesn't let go without a fight. It will pull up all sorts of games to get what it wants, and these will likely be many of the sensations you need to be aware of so you don't make the mistake of letting them define you. Over time, the mind let's go of deeper and deeper stuff, and stillness is left in its place. When one inquires to the nature of existence at this time, they can know things as they are.

This explains why so much pain is supposed to disappear by being aware.

Actual pain in meditation is rarely serious, though it can feel that way. That makes pain a very useful meditation object to those who can remain truly equinaminous to it. The more one awakens to this, the greater handling of pain we have and the less suffering it creates. Of course, it is not wise or compassionate to dehabilitate ourselves, and common sense should be used.

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 12:34 AM as a reply to Dom Stone.
Not to be obtuse, but in my experience sankharas neither fall off, nor do they stay, as they are representations of our attachments. I think sometimes we obvercomplicate the Buddhist teaching, it’s all about attachment, and in Goenka’s teaching, if you are perfectly equanimous (fourth jhana?) you are not generating attachments/sankharas, all other ‘ordinary’ times we are, albeit generally subconsciously. Goenka teaches that in these moments of clear comprehension, with developed awareness and equanimity ‘a stock of old sankharas come to the surface’ to be cleansed for good. It’s actually a tantric practice IMO, dealing with the energy system, except they’re scared of using words like that. They say sensations. 
I’ve only sat a few Goenka courses, but the idea is to perfect awareness and equanimity, such that we become conscious of what was once unconscious, specifically the flow of vedana in the mind/body system and how mind affects body and vice versa. If one can become aware of these sensations, and remain totally equanimous (without attachment/craving/aversion/ignorance) then this is the path of karmic purification. 
Is there anything to it? I believe it all lines up with Mahamudra/Dzogchen teachings when effort is abandoned and one gets what Shinzen Young calls ‘the taste of purification’. In practice, in anything, you get what you give however, and you will need to answer to the effectiveness of the method yourself. I wouldn’t get hung up on the words though, they are simply descriptors of *maybe processes, just models. No thing-ness there.

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 12:25 AM as a reply to Jack.
Jack:
...
Is there anything to this? Or is it dogma?

I've done a couple Goenka retreats.  I found the language a little off-putting, but was a useful glue for the practice of body scanning with equanimous awareness.

I think it's simply training/rewiring. Sensations begat memories/thoughts which begat more sensations and then more memories/thoughts, around and around the wheel we go. With nothing else to do but notice the dissatisfactory nature of that cycle or disrupt the action of the cycle, eventually the cycle looses it's inertia and starts to fall apart.

As the amplitude and duration of the distracting cycles decrease, more insight into the nature of mind/body/experience becomes possible.  That's valuable, no doubt about that! emoticon

I did plenty of suffering for the first 5 days of my first retreat.  I moved pillows around (between sits), eased into one slightly different posture or another.  When we got to 'strong determination' I cut the movement down to dang near zero.  On day 5 all physical suffering dropped to near zero. Part of it was getting some tendons or muscles stretched out, or maybe I learned to stack my spine atop my hips in a better way. But I feel that, in a sense, I simply found out that sitting still was OK, that all my previous erroneous experience about that question was put to rest.

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 4:06 AM as a reply to Jack.
howdy,
"are they real things"? 

not currently in any scientifically measurable way.  they can be experienced and so, in this sense are part of your experiential reality, so in this way they are real.

they are a part of how we react to stimuli.  they are tendencies of the mind to move towards or away from causes.  reducing and or eliminating them is very possible and is one of the salient goals of this training we do.

goenka's teachings, methods and language are not misleading IMO.  especially in the early days of studying and practicing this stuff it can be overwhelming to try to comprehend the multiplicity, depth and coherence of the buddhist teachings so goenkajis reduction to "be equanimous in the face of everything" is true if not detailed.

try to get to a point in your practice where your mind is very, very, very still.  what pulls you away from that stillness are sankharas.  without training we cannot see the subtle action and reaction.  with practice, noticing this subtle movement over and over again reduces their power and increases our understanding of them.  it rewires us at a fundamental level that changes reaction into non-interference and finally full acceptance of how things actually happen.

tom

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 5:12 AM as a reply to tom moylan.
My question stems from how paying attention to physical sensations only (presumably Goenke method) vs investigating emotional stuff works as I have no experience with working the former only - When stuff bubble up, we deal with it, no? I am doubting that it works similarly to clear the baggage - if it works it would be like the Chinese saying: 隔山打牛 Striking the cow with a mountain standing in between... Am not being rude, or I think I am getting the method wrong! emoticon

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 5:25 AM as a reply to Yilun Ong.
The emotional body is based in the physicsl body. The chakra system is a conceptual representation of this, though it is taken vastly out of context by dogma. On a physical level 95% of serotonin receptors are in the gut which I'm sure influenced certain moods.

Daniel - San
I agree with you, sankharas don't fall off due to them not having any characteristics that allow them to do so. I was trying to clarify something for Yilun Omg but may have misunderstood what he said in the process!

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 7:04 AM as a reply to Yilun Ong.
howdy YO,
Goenka's scanning method is "BASED" on a modicum of concentration but is , in fact, a Vipassana technique.

Of course these two aspects of mind and practice are yoked together like two oxen and so both qualities of attention are always present in differing ratios.

Also, of course emotional stuff comes up when we practice with Goenka's or an other method.  Goenka uses the "K.I.S.S" (Keep It Simple Stupid") method.  He keeps the instructions simple so that beginners can follow and apply the method in a short time.  So, he could have chosen to say more about how to deal with complex emotions etc. on an individual and detailed basis but instead he gives the simple, but in EVERY situation applicable instruction: "Greet anything that arises with equanimity".

Equanimity has worldy and transcendendal meanings and in his 10 day courses it is the worldly sense of the word he is instructing on...'just don't get bogged down in reactions to the stuff that comes up.'

In his later, longer courses, he teaches a bit more about the supramundane meanings of equanimity and thus the instruction holds whether your are scanning for the firt time or on your tenth retreat.

I am very grateful to the dude.

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 3:52 PM as a reply to tom moylan.
In his later, longer courses, he teaches a bit more about the supramundane meanings of equanimity and thus the instruction holds whether your are scanning for the firt time or on your tenth retreat.

I am very grateful to the dude.

I highly respect Goenke - he probably did more than anyone in our time to spread the practical useful aspects of Buddhism.

If purely concentrating on the physical works, then instructing beginners not to focus on the emotional side may be the right way forward for those facing huge hurdles - I have been encouraging others on going deep, facing off the emotions and 'knowing' - would loosen up on that. I have found great benefits in watching it though...

Much Metta and many thanks for the replies!!! 

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 10:32 PM as a reply to Yilun Ong.
Yilun Ong:
...
If purely concentrating on the physical works, then instructing beginners not to focus on the emotional side may be the right way forward for those facing huge hurdles - I have been encouraging others on going deep, facing off the emotions and 'knowing' - would loosen up on that. I have found great benefits in watching it though...
...

People criticize Goenak's teachings because (my understanding) he says don't examime emotional aspects, just catagorize them as a distraction and turn back to the physical sensations.  But I also heard in his 10-day discourses that when parts of the body disolve (sensation wise) then you don't spend a lot of time examining those parts, you spend more time on the parts of the body that have more differentiated or solid sensations.  My experience (and I'm not alone in this) is that as more and more of the body seems to become free-flowing energy, one develops more sensitivity to the remaining areas and what you find is that what previously might have been labeled as emotions are now seen as subtle physical sensations that deserve examination like everything else. I'd love to hear from someone who has taken the longer Goenka courses, does he coach towards investigating the physical traces of emotional experiences?

RE: Are sankharas a thing?
Answer
1/16/18 1:45 PM as a reply to Jack.
I'm still learning about this stuff, and I haven't been on Goenka retreat. But from what I understand so far, sankharas seem to be accumulations of past stress, and represent embedded reactions/attachments/aversions.

It seems plausible that these include bodily stress, as the mind is not separate from the body. This point is fundamental to the doctrine of the five aggregates, but it is also obvious that a gross level emotions do lead to physical effects (sore backs, facial expressions) and can be caused by phyiscal effects (e.g. smiling makes you feel happier). I guess there are feedback loops between the body, voilition and emotion. These feedback loops would be reinforced when physical tension triggers mental reactions that recreate physical tension ... leading to bodliy sankharas. Some of these feedback loops might be subtle, even subconcious.

Perhaps, when you quieten the mind on retreat, you interrupt this cycle of reinforcement between the body, voilition and emotion. This could lead to lots of subtle tension loops getting disrupted. Physical pain will arise as muscles unwind from their accustomed tense positions, and other muscles take up an unaccustomed load. Mental pain will occur as we react to these physical pains. Physical and mental pain will occur as we deal with past emotions that were suppressed by these feedback loops.  Mental pain will occur as we are forced to new ways of thinking (transformative learning hurts!). Pain will reduce as the feedback loops are destroyed, the body adjusts to less muscular tension, and the mind stops reacting to stress.

Achieving insight paths is superficially an easier way to deal with sankharas, as it will cut off attachments at the root, thereby destroying many stressful feedback loops. But in practice this level of insight can't occur while you are wound up with lots of past tensions/karma. 

I don't mean to suggest that this is an accurate account. Its just a hypothesis that tries to put what others have been saying in slightly more western terms. But it does make it plausible to me that yes sankharas are a thing, and we don't need to see them as religious mumbo jumbo.