An Exploration of the Hidden Forces that Shape and Bind Us
by Daniel McKenzie
In eastern spiritual and religious traditions, samsara is often used to describe worldly existence, the cycle of birth and death, or the transmigration of the soul from one incarnation to the next. But the concept of samsara is actually much broader and includes psychology, universal laws of nature, the illusory quality of our existence, and even the question of free will. In Samsara - An Exploration of the Hidden Forces that Shape and Bind Us, the author takes a look at the various aspects of samsara that influence our everyday experience and dares to ask, is life a setup? And if so, does it purposely push us toward the truth?
What is Samsara?
In popular culture, samsara is often portrayed as something exotic, sensual or pleasure-inducing. It’s no wonder its name has been used to sell everything from perfume to herbal supplements. These days, we even find it used to promote technology. The website, Samsara.com sells internet-of-things sensor models, describing their product as being able to “securely connect sensor data to the Samsara cloud.”
We can assume samsara was also the inspiration behind the 1999 blockbuster hit, The Matrix which converted the concept into a simulated reality where intelligent machines have taken control over the minds of humans, distracting them in order to use their bodies as a source of energy. The problem with The Matrix story is that although the leading character, Neo, escapes the samsara created by the machines, he never questions the samsara in where he now plays the role of “the chosen one” who saves all of humanity. In other words, from a Vedic perspective, our hero is still asleep.
There is also the moving visual feast by the same name, Samsara that came out in 2011. Described as a silent documentary, Samsara “transports us to the varied worlds of sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial complexes, and natural wonders.” Actually, Samsara (the movie) does a pretty good job of showing the dual nature of samsara (the concept). A prominent feature of samsara (the concept) is its pairs of opposites, including its splendid beauty and awesome destruction. As it turns out, samsara is indeed, a very strange place.
The word samsara comes from Sanskrit, meaning to “flow together” which alludes to the flux and flow of the universe and in general, empirical existence. In spite of the many sensual delights samsara has to offer, within eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism the term is almost exclusively associated with being bound or limited. In these traditions, life is not portrayed as an endless playground for reaping pleasures, but instead, something more akin to imprisonment where individuals work out the effects of their past deeds in order to eventually obtain liberation.
In the Vedic tradition, from which Hinduism is based, samsara is typically taught using the example of the warrior-prince, Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita—a subset of the Indian epic, Mahabharata—there is a dialog between Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna before a great righteous war. Taking inventory of the battlefield, Arjuna comes to the unsettling realization that in order to win the battle, he must destroy his own kin and beloved teachers who have taken sides with a ruthless demagogue. Due to this predicament, Arjuna is overtaken by the classic signs of samsara, which include attachment, despair and delusion.
The entire first chapter of the Gita is an exposition of Arjuna’s attachment and grief culminating in him hopelessly throwing down his weapon. It’s only after Arjuna’s visible breakdown that Krishna accepts the role as guru and begins to methodically show Arjuna the way out of his confusion and back to defending the social order. Thus, the Gita begins in dramatic force, showing the reader how attachment and our inability to see reality for what it is, binds and keeps us suffering in samsara. Through Arjuna’s dilemma and tribulation, we learn that samsara is not something “out there” but instead, a condition within the mind rooted in ignorance.
Ignorance, in this case, doesn’t mean “stupid” but instead suggests a sort of blind spot where one is unable to see the truth. Arjuna is confused about his moral responsibility to defend dharma, the universal laws that keep society together. He is unable to look past his fondness for his family, friends and teachers in order to do what’s in the best interests of the Total. In other words, he misses the forest for the trees.
Krishna reminds Arjuna that he isn’t seeing reality for what it is, and that he needs to step back for a moment and consider “The wise grieve neither for the living or for the dead.” Krishna then uses the remaining sixteen chapters of the Gita to unpack this enigmatic verse and in the process, show Arjuna he has nothing to fear. So, even without knowing the meaning of this verse yet, we’re able to define samsara as:
A negative psychological condition brought on by the misinterpretation of reality.
As we will soon discover, samsara has many related meanings but they all branch off the same idea that we suffer because we’re unable to see the truth about reality. In short, to paraphrase Krishna, we grieve for that which needn’t be grieved for.
You don’t need to read the entire Mahabharata in order to get a handle on samsara. We can already witness its negative effect in our own life and that of others. The ancient texts tell us we go through life constantly chasing objects, relationships and experiences due to our own ignorance. So already, one might get a sense that samsara isn’t something you want, it’s something you want to get out of!
One of the most common ways we are lead into the trap of samsara is via the belief that joy is in the object. The book and documentary, Generation Wealth by social anthropologist, photographer and director, Lauren Greenfield makes the point by showing extreme cases of both poor and rich stuck in the mud. In her 2018 documentary, Greenfield has checked in on several people over a multi-year span who find themselves waist-deep in it. She interviews a former hedge-fund manager living in exile who is on the “FBI’s Most Wanted” for financial fraud. At one time worth approximately $800 million and working 100 hours/week, he believed happiness was money. Greenfield interviews a young porn star who took her profession to the extreme before waking up to the pedophile fantasy she was perpetuating and the abuse she was causing to her body. She believed happiness was easy money and being a celebrity. Greenfield also talks to a woman who on bus driver wages and a loan from her mother, travels to Brazil to have extensive cosmetic surgery. In spite of a family tragedy related to her obsession with her physical appearance, she continues to still believe that happiness is the body.
Generation Wealth paints such an accurate picture of samsara that after watching the documentary, you can’t help but be convinced the world is nothing but an elaborate setup to thwart us from achieving our goals of gaining total satisfaction. One thing those interviewed all have in common is that each had to hit rock bottom before trying to get out; each one of them had to suffer immense personal losses from their delusion before finally waking up and looking for an exit.
In case there was any doubt, delusion is not a happy state. When we are deluded we are under the spell of maya—samsara’s means of projecting the false and concealing the truth from us. Nobody is immune to maya’s powers, even the most enlightened can still fall victim. Samsara’s grasp is so strong that it is often likened to being caught in the jaws of a crocodile. Here, delusion is the belief that by doing more of the same, I will eventually find resolution and be satisfied. It’s like the alcoholic promising to quit after just one more drink. The problem is samsara has no end, it’s a bottomless pit that goes on and on, slowly leading one to self-entrapment.
Upon analysis, we can identify three outcomes of pursuing samsara and the related belief that joy lies in objects. The first one is obvious: suffering. The wise say that in life pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Mostly, we suffer because we can’t get what we want. This theme is repeated over and over again ad nauseam in popular culture, especially in popular music whose lyrics typically include some variation of “guy gets girl, guy loses girl.” When we suffer, it’s always a good idea to stop and see if it’s not due to attachment.
The next outcome is dissatisfaction. What we desire and are finally able to obtain cannot provide us with the permanent joy we seek. Due to the changing nature of the Field of Experience, all objects have an expiration date where the initial thrill dissipates and eventually disappears. In samsara, the first time really is the best. From thereafter, an object’s joy is like a depleting battery. This inevitable loss quickly leads to a feeling of disappointment and even anger as we try to repeat the pleasure once felt. Thus, once the spell is broken and the joy gone, we must seek another object to pursue. The samsari’s mantra is always “more, better, different” because that’s what’s needed to externalize happiness and sustain the belief that joy is in objects.
All objects are ultimately disappointing because all objects are constantly changing and nothing in samsara is what it seems. Examined closely, we find that objects are not only constantly in the process of becoming something else, but are made up of other smaller, separate objects. All objects are divisible, made up of parts. That they appear substantial is only an illusion. In the example of a shirt, if we take away “shirt,” what we have left is fabric; take away the fabric and we have cotton; take away the cotton and we have fiber; take away the fiber…and so it goes all the way down to the molecular level. What we believe to be concrete and permanent is really just a name and form we apply to a heap of other stuff. In fact, upon close inspection all objects dissolve into seemingly nothing. This is why the idea, that by clinging to an object we will gain ever-lasting joy, is such a losing proposition. How do you cling to something that lacks substance and is forever turning into something else? It’s no wonder we suffer.
Lastly, is dependence. In order to feel the initial thrill an object gave us the first time, we must either increase the amount we’re exposed to or increase the frequency at which we experience it. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for addiction, which obviously leads to a myriad of health problems. And as we all know, addiction is not happiness, addiction is being in the jaws of the crocodile. All of this isn’t to say we should never enjoy objects, relationships and experiences. Like a magnificent museum that delights and enchants, we are here to enjoy life with all its variety and wonders. Just don’t think you can walk away with any of the exhibits.
But to cut to the chase, joy isn’t in objects, it’s in you!
If joy were in objects, the same object that gives you happiness would give me happiness too. The fact that we continue to believe joy exists in inert objects even after learning it’s doesn’t is one of samsara’s tricks of reversal. As we’ll learn later, the joy we experience from obtaining an object of desire isn’t the result of obtaining it, but rather from not desiring it anymore. Desire is like an itch that we create with our thoughts. Of course, the only way to satisfy an itch is to scratch it, which only becomes a problem when, like a dog taken over by fleas, we find ourselves scratching all the time.
We’ve all tasted samsara and have unknowingly trapped ourselves in it in little and big ways. We all experiment with rolling around in the mud for a while especially when we’re young and lack the wisdom experience provides. Society is constantly promoting a samsaric lifestyle with its relentless advertisements, pervasive media, and consumer-focused holidays. Advertising, in particular, is such a powerful force because it promotes a feeling of poverty. Through repetition we are brainwashed to want things we didn’t even know we needed! The result is a world obsessed with constantly trying to improve itself via gadgets, diet fads, personal trainers, self-help gurus, cosmetic surgeons, and much more.
For some, it’s because of this feeling of lack that they begin to inquire. Any feeling of limitation is due to a simple misunderstanding about who/what we are. If we believe we are the body and are in constant opposition to it getting old, weak and sick, we’re always going to be disappointed, because nobody can fend off time’s inevitable course of destruction. And if we believe we are the ego and must consume experiences in order to make ourselves feel full and satisfied, we’re always going to be hungry because all experience is only temporary. But if we understand that the essence of who we are is actually whole, limitless and changeless—in other words, if we understand that we’re already full—with some work we will eventually lose the insecurities we have about plenty never being enough.
But if we aren’t the body or the ego, then who or what are we? Answer: we are that which is witness to all experience and objects. We are that which knew the baby it once was turn into an infant, turn into a teenager, and then an adult. We are that which has witnessed the person go to college, get his first job, find a partner, get married, have children and perhaps divorced. This witness is that which never changes because if it did, we would never know that we were once a child. You can’t observe change if you are the change, just like you can’t tell you’re on a moving train if the train next to you is moving at the same speed. It’s only by being still against a moving foreground that one can recognize change. And that’s what we are—the stillness, awareness, a.k.a. the “Self.”
In contrast to dream-like samsara—which includes all sentient beings and inert objects whose nature is to change—the Self is that which is real because the Self is that which is always present and never changes. Once we identify with the Self instead of changing objects, samsara begins to loosen its grip on us. Because if we are the immutable, changeless and limitless Self, then there is nothing more to add—we are already full! And while this truth may be difficult to grasp now, once realized it becomes the ticket to freedom.
So far, we can state the following about samsara:
Samsara is a condition of the mind rooted in ignorance
Samsara is a fixation on objects and worldly pursuits in order to feel fulfillment
Samsara is entrapment through attachment that leads to sorrow and delusion
Samsara is the belief that I am incomplete and that my happiness is dependent on objects.
And as an aside, as intriguing as it sounds our present concern with samsara shouldn’t be about past or future lives (at best, a belief) but how we suffer now in this very life due to conditions and forces we barely understand, including the truth about who we are. Fortunately for us, there is a cure for samsara, there is a way out, and that way out is through knowledge. How else would we solve the problem of ignorance?