What is Samsara (Caught in Mental Loops)?

Imagine, if you will, a stream.

Do ya see it, do you see the fucking stream? Cool. Without interference, the stream just flows unhindered. Ripples rise and fall without leaving traces. Even though it’s in constant motion, there’s a feeling of stillness and quietude that accompanies it, isn’t there? That’s what non-grasping feels like.

Now, let’s introduce another current in the stream, one that tries to force the water in a different direction. As the currents meet: twirling, circling. Suddenly, the stream isn’t flowing smoothly anymore; it’s grown a whirlpool. Oh look, now there’s another. And another. And, well you get it.

The longer they last, the larger, and stronger they grow. They pick up momentum, and begin to merge together. Our peaceful little stream has now become a very tumultuous, inhospitable place. The maelstroms suck in everything that comes across them.

The smoothly flowing stream is nibbana; the tumultuous, whirlpool infested stream is samsara. They’re both the same stream just under different conditions. The water is the mind—my mind, your mind. And its movements are everything that arises therein.

Whether free and easy or full of turbulence, it’s still the same stream, the same mind. If you’re on a nondualistic path, then it’s important to remember that. Whether you’re happy, sad, drowning in delusion or romping in enlightenment, mind is mind, just like how the stream is the stream regardless of what it’s doing. This understanding prevents us from grasping after that tranquil stream, because that just causes more whirlpools. Instead, we let it unbind and even out naturally without making a big deal of it.

The whirlpools are our cyclic words, thoughts, actions, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and wandering attention.

Even though we’re growing and changing, we’re also standing still. We get stuck in cognitive and behavioral loops. With a little mindfulness and introspective awareness, you can see these loops in action. We think a lot, and we go through a cornucopia of feelings each day, but most of it’s repetitive. Samsara is repetition.

Whenever the mind unintentionally loops back around to a previous thought, feeling, etc., that’s samsara. We’re not talking about memory, memory has a practical purpose. What we’re talking about is that the mind is caught in a reboot cycle. It’s like we go A, B, C, D, E, with our thoughts and feelings, but then something causes us to backtrack to A. And the second time around, things are a little different, because we’re a little different.

It’s like when you wake up before work, all groggy and confused, and think, “Ugh, I don’t wanna go in. I’m tired, and my job’s stupid.” That’s not so bad on its own. But then it happens again the next day, and the next, and the next. Multiply that by five years, and the situation has devolved into madness. “Ugh, fuck, I can’t do this anymore. I’m so exhausted, I don’t have the energy for anything anymore. That place is a nightmare, I have to get out, but I can’t. But I have to. But I can’t.”

It grows. It consumes us. And it’s never just one thing, it’s everything. It’s like we’re listening to a hundred different songs all playing at the same time, and all of them are on repeat. This is samsara, and it’s in all of us, it’s the principle that our minds are all abiding by throughout our lives.

It isn’t all bad, of course. The more uplifting, and fulfilling thoughts and feelings are repetitive too. But the people, places, and things that those positive thoughts and feelings depend on are impermanent. When they pass away, the mental loops continue, only now they’re permeated with loss because those thoughts and feelings have lost their footing. They’re unbalanced, depending on the mind alone.

Yeah, it’s a bummer.

These loops are what we use to build our worlds. If we feel awkward around the gender we’re attracted to, for instance, just one time, then that’s not a big deal. But if we feel awkward around them two, three, four, or ten times, then we form the view, “I’m socially awkward,” and then we live in accordance with that view. Identity is something we acquire through repetition and deductive reasoning.

The most absurd thing of all is that then we defend these cycles and the concepts we’ve attached to them. If we think we’re awkward and someone says, “No you’re not,” we defend our awkwardness. “Yes I am, I’m extremely awkward. I’m a freaking loser.” We actually come to fight for our own unhappiness.

If you took that to an ancient Zen Master, they’d ask, “Who is awkward? Who is this that’s standing here?” And then if you gave any preconceived reply—including silence—they’d probably hit you with a stick.

What those kinda teachers are trying to do is shock us out of our loops. They’re asking us to show them something new, and the only way to really do that is to collapse those whirlpools so that we can be new as well.

Grasping at things is like those two currents meeting each other. Just like a monkey reaching out for fruit, we reach out to our experiences. We don’t just love people, we try to make them Ours. It’s like we want to consume them, to make them a part of us that we can carry with us forever.

But there’s no such thing as forever, not when there’s grasping involved. It’s like if there’s a flower that lives for a thousand years, but if we reach out and pluck it, it withers away in days. It’s like a feral cat who runs away whenever you reach out to pet it. We have to learn to let it come to us. That’s what meditation is. We’re sitting and letting everything be itself, we’re letting life come to us rather than reaching out in an effort to grasp onto it and control it.

We’re letting go of the past and the future, and we’re letting the present be. This is non-grasping. When we can do this, a spaciousness that’s always there, reveals itself. Then we turn our minds toward it, and step inside. This is when the river smooths out. It’s a taste of nibbana, of relief.

Samsara and nibbana are both programs that the mind can follow. For the samsaric mind, everything is repetition, and everything seems isolated because we feel isolated from everything. For the nibbanic mind, everything is new and everything’s together in this moment.

Next: Breaking the Cycles

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