You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles — Mary Oliver

Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. — Patty Smith

Growing up in a secular household, my distance from the sensibility of organized religion was so great that, when I was a young adult and a friend expressed fear of going to hell for being a lesbian, I assumed she was joking and laughed. The very idea of a deity diligently keeping tabs on anyone’s behavior — let alone EVERYONE’s —struck me as absurd. But even though I made it largely unscathed past the most obvious obstacles on the religious gauntlet, I have a relationship to guilt and self-judgment that, I suspect, is not so different from that of lots of traditionally religious folks. Having long imagined myself as exempt from the toxic fallout of organized religion, it’s been jarring for me to recognize how much I may have in common with folks who grew up in guilt-inducing religious homes.

My surprising discovery of such baggage has led me to explore the Eastern framework of “samskaras,” supposed imprints or marks left on us as a result of previous actions or experiences, including, perhaps, from previous incarnations. Usually affecting us below conscious awareness, these impressions are thought to be the basis for our distinctive personalities and characters. Although this Eastern framework has superficial parallels to Freudianism — each provides a multilayered metaphysics and psychology of human behavior and motivation — the Eastern version is ancient in origin. As a “prescription,” the samskara theory recommends holistic ancient mind/body practices meant to impact one on an energetic level, including, for example, yoga and meditation. As with more contemporary psychological theories, the idea is that, once recognized, samskaras can be worked through, leaving one freer from conditioned reactivity, including unconscious self-sabotaging.

Part of the challenge, I think, especially for women, is that such “marks” or “impressions” can be hard to identify because feeling guilty and just “wrong” may be so endemic that it simply feels kind of normal and right. How are we supposed to notice the discomfort of a burden that has been with us for longer than we can remember? We can easily identify the overt self-flagellator — with his bleeding back and hair shirt — but what subtle tactics might we ourselves employ as self-punishment for some low-grade, deeply felt sense of guilt and unworthiness? For those of us who imagine we may have transcended the guilt-trappings of organized religion, it may be helpful to consider some really basic “worthiness” questions:

• What pleasure, relief or comfort do you withhold from, or postpone for, yourself that you would offer to another as a matter of course?

• Do you frame (even) activities of pleasure and self-care — such as meditation or “exercise” — as jobs or tasks you have an obligation to complete or as rewards that must earned?

• Do prescriptive “shoulds” figure heavily into your self-talk even when it comes to relatively insignificant choices?

• To what extent do you see yourself as ultimately to blame when things don’t “work out” professionally or personally even when others have played an equal or greater role?

• Do you find yourself constantly looking ahead to some imagined future in which, finally, you will have completed your tasks and have earned the right to relax in peace?

When I answer these questions, it’s pretty easy for me to conclude that, despite my secular persona, in some of the ways that matter most, I relate to the basic fact of my existence as if I were a penitent.

Now, it would be one thing if there were any real hope of paying the supposed debt that leads one to engage in subtle acts of self-abnegation, self-denial, and self-punishment. Unfortunately, it is a reflection of the perversity of the situation that there can never be full compensation for the “wages of sin.” We are, as it says in Romans, condemned to be “prisoners of the law of sin.” The hell of it all is that, by definition, there is nothing one could ever do to relieve the burden of unworthiness because the actual “sin” is basically that of having been born at all, that is, of existing in the first place.

But I am not here to write a grim essay full of resignation. In fact, I see it is a reflection of my strength and health that I am capable of even contemplating this matter. I mean, one can turn around and see their psychological scars and marks only when she has, to some degree, begun to disidentify with such damage. By contrast, when we are one with our supposed wounds and weaknesses, such samskaras shape our lives — including our relationships to ourselves and others — behind our backs while we wring our hands wondering why things keep falling apart. And when we live with the low grade compulsion to atone for daring to take up space or have desires, then how can we ever permit ourselves the “blessings” of the righteous? Such “rewards” may include everything from the mundane comfort of decent food and a relaxed posture to the bliss of spiritual awakening.

If I think of samskaras as energetic scars, they become less intimidating. After all, I’ve got a small scar on my face where my nose was broken, and another long one behind my ear. I’ve got a jagged scar on my right shoulder from falling on a dark, icy sidewalk and another one at the base of my neck. And I wonder if maybe such mundane souvenirs might not be all that different from the scribbled marks on a page. Such marks may eventually come to form letters and words that tell a tale we can believe in as we write it. Maybe it will even turn out to be a story so poignant that a whole new religion will be founded on its basis. But no matter how compelling, such symbols and remnants of suffering cannot really touch our inviolable subjective core. This is the unmarked center that grounds us (whether we know it or not) and to which we may turn at any moment in reclamation of the perfect wholeness of our own being.

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