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Samskaras and Intergenerational Stress
Have you heard of intergenerational transmission of stress? Have you seen the same trauma pattern mysteriously develop generation after generation? The Ayurvedic idea of samskaras and the science of epigenetics may shed some light on this mystery.
According to Ayurveda, physical, behavioral, mental, and emotional traits can be carried through generations. If mom or dad carries stress, the associated behavior traits can be passed on for generations. These are called samskaras or imprints moved to offspring.
Samskara refers to an impression, or being under the impulse of previous impressions. The imprints left on the subconscious mind by experience in this or previous lives, which then color all of life, one’s nature, responses, and states of mind.
Today, new studies are beginning to show us how these traits may be passed down. While the environment and behavior rarely change the DNA sequence of a gene, they can cause epigenetic changes in the regulation or expression of the gene. This new perspective on genetic expression may be what Ayurveda called samskaras thousands of years ago!
See also Epigenetics: The Power of Nurture
The History of Intergenerational Transmission of Stress
While Ayurveda discussed the generational passing-down of stress thousands of years ago, modern researchers only became aware of this after studying survivors of traumatic events like famine and genocide.
We can see this concept demonstrated in research on famine survivors during WWII. In the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation, Nazi soldiers blocked food supplies, and more than 20,000 people died of starvation. Of those who survived, the pregnant women passed this starvation stress onto their offspring. Scientists found that these now-adult children carried extra weight and experienced a higher risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and schizophrenia. When the researchers looked into the cause, they found an epigenetic signature on one of the genes.
A similar phenomenon was found in the offspring of Holocaust survivors. Researchers found an epigenetic change to a gene that regulated the stress hormone cortisol and the ability to detoxify or methylate.
The Science Behind Samskaras (Inherited Stress)
The power of epigenetics and samskaras is also well demonstrated in a study about worms. Worms eat decaying material, and sometimes, they consume some deadly bacteria. Before they die from the infection, they lay eggs (as a part of species survival, it seems). In the process of intergenerational transmission, the following four generations of offspring avoid those deadly bacteria that killed their ancestor. This is a known behavioral trait in nature called pathogen avoidance.
A 2014 study shows that when young male mice are stressed, their behavior is affected as adults. The stressed mice are resistant to exploring new environments and give up more quickly when given a challenging task. When sperm from these stressed males is injected into eggs, the offspring exhibit the same stress behaviors without any contact with their parent.
In another study, rodents were trained to fear the smell of peppermint before they became pregnant. When the offspring of these peppermint-fearing rodents are exposed to piped-in peppermint oil, the infant rodents show the same fear. Remember, the fear of peppermint oil was recorded in the mother’s memory before pregnancy, suggesting that the infant carries this impression, or ‘peppermint samskara,’ from the mother before fertilization.
Understanding how inherited fears, stressors, or samskaras can affect the health and behavior of a family for generations is fundamental in the Ayurvedic roadmap of health. Interestingly, we are only now beginning to understand the subtlety and profundity of epigenetics.
Good Impressions Can Be Passed Down, Too
Most research on intergenerational transmission has focused on stress or trauma being passed to future generations. However, in Ayurveda, good impressions and positive qualities can also be passed down.
The word samskara comes from two words, ‘sam’ and ‘kara.’ Here, sam means planned or deeply thought, and kara means to take action. This definition suggests that any thought pattern, good or bad, that we carry as adults may be epigenetically transferred to our children. Epigenetic research shows us that if there is a life-threatening stressor, we can respond to help protect future generations to survive, much like the worms do.
However, from an Ayurvedic lens, we can consider the positive things that may become intergenerational. One of the goals in life is to live in a sattvic way: one that uplifts, cares for, and supports those around us. Consistent thoughts and actions we take with full awareness may be passed down generationally if they are consistent or large enough to create an indelible mark in our memory.
On the one hand, our genes attempt to protect us from danger, but on the other, our genes can help us evolve to be more conscious beings who can access and employ more and more of our human potential. In my article on The Science of Sattva, I cite numerous studies that demonstrate this. The research reflects that we thrive when we love, give, bond, and care for others without an expectation (a “be good for goodness sake” style of behavior). Studies show we manufacture more oxytocin, the love, bonding, and longevity hormone. Beneficial bacteria in the gut proliferate while undesirable bacteria decline. We are more content when we spend money on others than when we spend it on ourselves; when we give without expectation, it can have a positive effect on the genetic code of the people we are offering to. Meditation, a powerful tool to become more sattvic, has been shown to extend life by lengthening the protective caps on DNA called telomeres.
Kindness, according to Ayurveda, is passed down generationally as long as the service is eudaimonic, or without expectations. Eudaimonic kindness stands in opposition to hedonistic kindness. Hedonistic kindness or giving is transactional. It requires a return on an investment, like doing a favor for someone so they will do one for you in the future. This is nothing more than a form of manipulation that studies show has a negative effect on those being manipulated.
The goal for both us and the generations to come is to become conscious and kind while becoming more self-aware. If so, we can take action to free ourselves from passing down genetic imprints of stress and trauma and truly protect our future generations.
Reversing Epigenetic Traits & Samskaras
Reversing these epigenetic traits is also discussed in Ayurveda. One of the most powerful tools to enhance self-awareness and free both ourselves and future generations from epigenetic stress is the practice of yoga, breathing, and meditation. However, these are just tools of self-awareness. It is up to us to take sattvic and positive actions on a regular basis. When we are consistent, we can facilitate new neural pathways of behavior to create a deep impression and pattern of kindness (sattva) that will be passed down to future generations as a samskara.
With emphasis on the importance of reflection and self-awareness, Ayurveda claims we can remove samskaras imprinted in our DNA from childhood or our parent’s childhood.
One study suggests that up to 95% of the things we think, say, and do as adults are unconscious and are rooted from impressions of the first six years of life. We call these unconscious behaviors because they are drawn from the old samskaras or impressions under the surface. The cure, according to Ayurveda, is to become conscious. This requires becoming more self-aware, and then taking intentional action based on your true nature rather than old emotional and behavioral patterns derived from childhood.
I have also developed the Transformational Awareness Technique (TAT) to teach people not only how to be successful meditators, but also how to take transformational action steps based on the heightened awareness meditation opens us up to.
Most meditation practices leave out what I believe to be the most important part: taking awareness-based action steps. It is the action (good karma) that will retrain your brain to focus on the positive evolutionary traits and to let go of the survival-based negative behaviors.