Probably the best translation I've yet seen for the Sanskrit term samskara is the word "schemata." As explained by the artist Laura M. Haight, the world is constantly in flux, and to find stability in this impermanent world we inherently operate from a series of categorical rules or scripts which we use to interpret the world; these rules or scripts serve as templates through which we perceive our experience, they are our schemata.
For example, when you approach an unknown door you apply a series of schemata about other doors which you have used in the past, which then allows you to know automatically how the new door will work. You don’t have to be taught how to use every door that you encounter. Schemata are formed by an individual’s experiences and cognitive processes, which include stereotypes, social roles, worldviews and archetypes, so the way you approach the door, the way you operate the door, and what you expect to find behind the door are all based on your own particular past experiences - hence your schemata is different than mine.
The function of schemata in our daily lives is crucial, but can be equally damaging. It allows us to go into auto pilot for innumerous events during the day and conduct our lives more efficiently. However, when in that automatic state, we can easily ignore present events and new information.
It is, in effect, memory and thus operates in the past, while simultaneously working as tool for plotting and predicting future events. Curiously, this inhibits us from fully engaging in the present. Once a routine has been established, there is a danger of operating solely from our existing schemata. We lose the ability to perceive the inevitable changes in our environment.
Ms. Haight's fascination with schemata lies at their point of creation. It is a threshold period before you apply a known schema that we consequently enter into a relationship with our surroundings in which everything is equal, everything is one. In Buddhist terms, this could be defined as the here-and-now moment of Zen.
What I find fascinating about schemata is how we apply them to our sense of self, our ego-identity. In "Buddhist Steps To an Ecology of Mind," an essay on Mark Epstein's "Thoughts Without a Thinker," Professor William S. Waldron summarizes several points where Buddhist thought converges with current scientific approaches to mind. Both perspectives recognize that the unconscious structuring of our experience into schemata, with its deeply subjective sense of coherence, forms the basis for our cognitive identity, our perception of who we are. As we are not aware of this unconscious structuring, our ignorance is the condition from which schemata, or samskara arise, and as we are cognizant of these schemata rather than perceptive of the actual objects, consciousness is dependent upon samskara. This chain of schema dependent upon ignorance and consciousness dependent upon schema is not only the first three links in the Buddha's Chain of Dependent Origination, but is the way that at least some modern scientists have reached some consensus with the Buddha-dharma on thoughts independent of a thinker.