I let a song go out of my heart: an ear worm gets me thinking about karma

This morning, walking up the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley, through the crisp fall air, I heard a fragment of melody, whistled, in the distance. I only heard a handful of notes, but recognized it as the distinctive dorian mode hook in “Eleanor Rigby” — the part where the words are “…picks up the rice in the church…”. It passed through like a scent redolent of the past, ringing with associations: a core sample of so many layers of myself and my culture. Afterward, on my bike headed home, the song pops into my head. “All the lonely people…” I look around at the kids walking, people in cars, endless houses with their people inside. “Where do they all come from?” An existential veil descends softly over my perception and I begin to see everyone in their great aloneness. And the mystery of origin. Where does it all come from?

But this is not a post about existential angst triggered by a pop song. This is about the natural activity of the mind, and how the self is formed. As I bike down Fulton St, I notice my mind state, the thoughts, the existential veil, the melancholy affect that accompanies it, all in a fraction of a second, and notice the song, singing away in my mind. And I see how the trigger of the song whistled at Sproul, with the support of my habitual tendency toward melancholy and a childhood appreciation of the Beatles (and the infinite host of conditions, like the crispness of the air, my mind state after morning Sanskrit class, having Patañjali on my mind because I’m teaching it this weekend, all the threads of a lifetime as a Californian Buddhist, the autumn leaves, and everything I’ve ever experienced…), led to this whole train of emotion and reflection. In Buddhism and Yoga, this is called saṃskāra, which in the yoga tradition is often translated as “latent impressions” (see Yoga Sutra 1.18, 2.12, etc.), and in the Buddhist as “karmic formations”. The usages are slightly different, but basically compatible. Saṃskāra refers to how sense impressions, like a song, when they make an impression, leave traces in the heart. These traces then will reappear later, when triggered. I’ve heard a ton of songs, but not all of them left much of a trace. But some, with stronger… auras… perhaps (pace Walter Benjamin), stick. We all know what it’s like to get a song stuck in our head! But every sense impression is like this — smells, tastes, images, sounds, sensations, thoughts & feelings, pleasant and painful. And of course the painful ones stick hard. Ouch.

So for me, this song is an impression, and when it’s not active, as it was this morning, we can think of it as “latent”. Patañjali asserts that these impressions are what causes rebirth, which we can understand either literally (into another physical body after the death of this one) or psychologically, as the “becoming” or “selfing” that happens every time the sense of I, me, or mine arises based on current conditions.

The causes of suffering are the root source of actions; each action deposits latent impressions deep in the mind, to be activated and experienced later in this birth, or lie hidden awaiting a future one.

(Yoga Sutra 2.12, Chip Hartranft, trans.)

There’s an ancient argument in Buddhist and Yoga philosophy around whether saṃskāra actually are subtle objects that are deposited in some real place called “depth memory”, but I think it’s better for practice to just think of saṃskāra as something like “momentum”, or “potential energy”, if you remember the concept from high school physics. Several times when I was young, an experience called “Eleanor Rigby” hit my consciousness with some force. That force, through the affect it generated (in this case positive, but negative affect works as well, if not better), made enough of an impression on me that now I not only recognize the song, but if I am reminded of it somehow, might go around all day humming it, wandering into existential angst and teenage associations if I’m not aware of what’s happening and why my mind is in this state.

And unfortunately, the song doesn’t have to be good to have this effect, as we know well. Any strong sense impression plants saṃskāra in the heart, to be triggered at any moment by a passing sense impression. And when the initial impression is negative, the momentum can be so strong that we feel it all the time, even in the absence of specific associational triggers. We can call this kind of intense negative saṃskāra “trauma”. I understand trauma as a name for when the nervous system is in such a state of imbalance that we almost never let go of being triggered, on alert, running with something painful in the mind, and even completely innocuous sense impressions can open deeply embedded pain. Maybe this is all “the past” is: the collection of saṃskāra we have not let go of yet.

The sages understood that it is these saṃskāra that are the fuel for duḥkha, or “suffering”. The root cause of suffering is not seeing clearly (avidya), and the immediate cause is grasping, and its concomitant, aversion (rāga and dveṣa). [I’m using the Sanskrit terms because I’m primarily referencing Patañjali. Buddhists can use tanha here for “grasping”.] If I see clearly, I won’t as easily “take birth” when a saṃskāra is triggered. A song floats through the air? I might recognize it, and even feel the emotion of fondness and memory, but if I’m aware enough to notice its presence as a sense impression, I might stay present enough not to get lost in the chain of associations (called “proliferation of mind”, Pali: papanca) and not land in the existential state and its implicit sense of self. The song passes through me as through open air. It vibrates me, ripples through me, maybe even sets all the bells ringing, but doesn’t stick. Appreciated, maybe, or disliked, but in either case not held onto. To let go of reifying saṃskāra is to become transparent, porous, un-sticky.

Here you might complain (and this is the standard modern western hedonistic/humanist complaint about the early Dharma schools): “But I don’t mind the play of memory and emotion, it’s part of what makes me human, alive, and part of a culture and community! I don’t want to become emotionless, with no reaction to beauty or pain.” For sure. Neither do I. And I didn’t mind Eleanor this morning. But that was a pleasant enough sense impression and mental stream. Fine when it happens, but lots of other streams happen that are not so pleasant. Intense and ongoing suffering is real, and the Dharma here is speaking to our experience of suffering, and the possibility of real freedom from it. It isn’t about letting go of emotion and beauty, and all the incredible aliveness of human life — totally the opposite, in fact. Letting go leads to coming closer. Here’s how:
The Buddhist tradition (to bring in a useful parallel teaching to Patañjali’s) understands suffering arising in two main ways: through painful associations, and through constancy of change. [There’s a third, the basic suffering just of existing, but I’ll leave that one for now…] Painful association is when the emotion or sensation triggered by a sense impression is straight up unpleasant. Anything from a disliked song to deep personal trauma. With these, vigilant, compassionate, and gentle awareness is needed to untangle the immediate sense impression from the content it triggers. This kind of untangling is the heart of much therapy and trauma work, and is completely part of the Dharma path. It is the work of knowing the sense impressions for what they are, and the reactions in the heart/mind for what they are. This is the parable of the two darts, which afflict the “untaught worldling” (that’s us):

When an untaught worldling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts. It is similar with an untaught worldling: when touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. So he experiences two kinds of feeling: a bodily and a mental feeling.
Having been touched by that painful feeling, he resists (and resents) it. Then in him who so resists (and resents) that painful feeling, an underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind).

(Samyutta Nikaya 36.6, Nyanaponika Thera, trans.)

That’s clear enough — though hard to put into consistent practice! But in addition to this obviously painful habit, the deeper activity of saṃskāra — their constancy — is what yoga and Buddhist inquiry really work to uproot. The problem with saṃskāra for most of us is that they arise constantly. We walk through our lives like radio receivers, always available to the slightest signal. And this constant ON is exhausting. It’s not that sense impressions themselves are bad. They have no inherent ethical valence. But being constantly pulled by them into trains of thought and emotion is the very definition of multi-tasking, and of restlessness. This quality of never stopping (called citta-vṛtti in the Yoga Sutra), and the way that these impressions all have pleasant and unpleasant valences, leading to a constant flow of likes and dislikes, grasping and aversion, all adds up to both a very solidified sense of self — composed of a vast collection of preferences — and a completely exhausted mind.

Rest in natural great peace
This exhausted mind,
Beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thoughts,
Like the relentless fury of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean of samsara.
Rest in natural great peace.

(Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche)

It’s this relentlessness that is duḥkha, not the play of the senses themselves. And even the most committed hedonist (you know who you are, my friends!) needs a rest sometimes. That rest is either temporary, with the settling of the mind in meditation, or permanent, when some amount of saṃskāra are released completely through Insight. When we see clearly the activity of the mind, and how our experience moment to moment is so deeply conditioned by the sense impressions we receive — which means all the conditions around us all the time — we may find ourselves letting go. Of a certain unhealthy preference, of a pattern of reaction, of a story about who we are in the world or in a relationship. Or we might let go quite deeply: of the sense of “I” itself. As one of my teachers, Anam Thubten says, “No self, no problem!”… Which is a bit glib, but there you go. Ajahn Chah famously says it like this:

Do everything with a mind that lets go. Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.

(Ajahn Chah)

So even though it’s a great song, I let go of Eleanor Rigby. Actually, as soon as I saw the chain of associations that was happening, it let go by itself. This is what Patañjali says will happen:

In their gross form, as patterns of consciousness, they [kleśā, defilements] are subdued through meditative absorption. In their subtle form, these causes of suffering are subdued by seeing where they come from.

(YS 2.10)

And, amazing: they are! The mind, awake in a moment to the actual play of thoughts and feelings, not lost in them, not identified with them, not even doing them or owning them, traces the train of associations back to the sense impression that began them, and seeing that clearly, releases the identification with the whole thing. And it’s over.
In my very little way, I think this is the basis of the first insight that Siddhartha Gotama had on the night of his famous awakening: the vision into past lives. Here’s the sutta description:

When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes & details.
This was the first knowledge I attained in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, & resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.

(Majjhima Nikaya 36, trans. Thanissaro)

He sees his own history, backward, from one “birth” to many. One moment of the self arising, seen clearly, traced back, one “birth” at a time, though eons of cosmic time. How many selves have I been, even just this year!? Much less a whole lifetime. Much less beyond that, whatever that even means! I relate this to the practice of tracing thoughts back to their source based on something reportedly said by the great modern teacher Dipa Ma, who was known for her psychic power. She said she had traveled back to the time of the Buddha to hear him teach. [Which you can believe or not, of course, as you like.] When asked how she did this, she  said, “Mind moment by mind moment.” Now, I don’t have any personal experience with this kind of mental power, but if I take her at her word, then I imagine the process of seeing one’s previous “births” is not different in quality from this simple tracing back through mind moments to the source of a thought. And it must be vastly more powerful when done by a concentrated mind. Which the Buddha describes so radiantly: “…purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, & attained to imperturbability”! Seeing the mind with a mind this clear, I can believe that saṃskāra would be totally uprooted, just as Patañjali says.
This uprooting is considered the end not just of saṃskāra, but of karma itself, since karma is simply the “action” of this constant re-arising. When sense impressions are not bound to latent impressions, they just ring through us on their own, free to be felt intimately, and even more vibrantly, when freed from being the engine of a train of associations. Everything is just itself. A fragment of melody is just that. No more and no less. This is the experience some Buddhist schools call the Perfection of Mindfulness, or Clear Seeing (vipassana). Patañjali calls it Pure Awareness (puruṣa), and you can see why he calls liberation kaivalya, which means literally something like “deep solitude”. Not in any way the solitude of being disconnected, but solitude meaning “unbound”. Being unbound mens being free to choose. Free to engage, to rest, to meet the world as it is, or to let it be. To love the world, as Byron Katie says, as it is. The one who practices in this way engages the world with such an intimacy, free from entanglement, because awareness is constant, bright, imperturbable.

Eleanor Rigby “…lives in a dream…”
Wakes up.

3 thoughts on “I let a song go out of my heart: an ear worm gets me thinking about karma”

  1. Hi Sean! Great post. I wanted to mention a practice I heard about at Esalen called Gestalt singing. One picks a very familiar song from childhood and sings it repeatedly in order to dredge memories and sense impressions deeply attached to the song yet also just as deeply buried. Then you can process them. It seems there’s been some observation, too, that people with dementia or others close to death experiencing some dementia will sing songs from their past or respond to their most cherished music out of at least an emotional recognition. These reveal another aspect of what you are writing about, how deeply conditioned and automatic the trains of association are in response to stimuli, yet this also shows specifically how it applies to melody and verse, and suggests that not only do we need to train to catch moments of inattention, we can also take advantage of this process for deconstructing or soothing the illusory self.
    Your post also relates to writing I’ve been working on about how this process relates to travel and the anticipation of a place. Hopefully you’ll see it soon. I like the way you are describing the relationship in theory between samskara, karma, trauma and memory, and ultimately self. It helps connect some dots for me. -Jacob

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