A behavioural tendency is called a vAsanA in Sanskrit, literally meaning wishing or desiring but used in Advaita in the sense of the sub-conscious or latent tendencies in one’s nature that will have their way eventually, like it or not. Edward de Bono, of ‘lateral thinking’ fame describes a model that is helpful in thinking about this (Mechanism of Mind. Edward de Bono, Viking, 1969, ISBN 0-140-21445-3). If you take a jelly, solidified and turned out onto a plate, and you trickle very hot water onto the top, it will run off onto the plate and leave behind a faint channel where the hot water melted the jelly. If you now pour more hot water, it will tend to run into the same channels as before, since these offer the line of least resistance, and deepen the channels. If this is done repeatedly, very deep channels will form and it will become difficult, if not impossible, to get the water to run anywhere else. The equivalent of an entrenched habit has been formed.
This tendency to act in a certain way, in a given situation, is called a vAsanA. The less aware we are at the moment of action, the more likely it is that we will act in that way. If we are alert in the moment, with our intellect able to discriminate between alternative courses of action, then it is possible that the innate tendency may be overcome. Just as the channels in the jelly have been formed by the earlier pouring on of water, so our vAsanA -s are formed by our past actions.
The terms vAsanA and saMskAra are, to a large degree, used almost interchangeably. Correctly speaking, vAsanA refers to unconscious impressions, knowledge derived from memory, desires and longing, mistaken inclinations and so on, i.e. there is a generally negative interpretation to the term. In the case of saMskAra, there is a sense of cleansing or purification – the root saM means ‘auspicious’ – and their operation and resolution enable us to cleanse ourselves of sin in preparation for enlightenment.
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