What is Samsara?
The term samsara, literally turning, refers to a never-ending chain of cause and effect that we are subject to. One circumstance exerting a corrupting bias on the next so we never experience reality in the moment as it is. Hence the world is real and unreal. Things actually do constantly happen in it, we just don’t understand them as they really are.
Samsara is not inherently bad. There is not such a pejorative, world-denying theme running through yoga philosophy as we find in Western religions. Rather, to be in samsara is simply to be mistaken about life. This, most importantly, is because the circumstances of the material world are always in flux, always changing.
Therefore, nothing is essentially real as all things; circumstances and objects have no inherent essence. They exist for a certain period in time. This is due to a number of causes coming together to create the particular happening. So, once again, reality is both real and unreal.
As we go deeper into this, we shall have to mention the gunas. These are the three energies that are constantly interplaying with each other to cause this flux. Simply stated, the experience of samsara is not found satisfactory to us. We are looking for a permanent, enduring, and consistent experience, in a world framed in temporality.
We are looking for and enduring experience, as that is the nature of our own being.
To which end, our experience of life cannot be resolved in the way we generally hope. For, when we try to understand our experience (which is, at root, all we ever want to do), we identify ourselves, inappropriately, with worldly objects. Inappropriately, because all of the world is samsara, turning, involved in change, when we, in contrast, have an essence; an unchanging nature.
Therefore, we need a method to resolve this dichotomy in which we experience ourselves in terms other than what we are. This method is known as yoga. It may either involve transcending samsara by, basically, escaping on death to a higher realm, or, in some yoga darshanas (yoga schools), by non-attachment. This means understanding samsara for what it is; in other words, not believing in it.
In this viewpoint, one can achieve liberation from samsara, jivanmukti, in the world, and not in future lives. As it is said then, samsara is then nirvana. As long as one doesn’t identify ones’ own experience with a material world lacking an essence, one may exist in the ever-present experience of ones’ own essence.
This is to exist in an experience which is not turning, which is consistent and stable. For this reason, all yoga methodology is aimed at producing the quality to stability to counter, indeed, fight against, the illusory (changing) nature of an experience that would otherwise be unquestionably situated in samsara.