The story of the 5 skandhas (the 5 heaps or aggregates) is the story of the formation of our ego and how it influences the interpretation of everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, sense, imagine, and think according to what it believes is true: the conditioning we absorb from society, authority figures, family, and friends. Since the formation of ego, our lives have not been ours per se – not authentically ours, anyway.
The story begins at our birth – before ego forms – with openness and spaciousness. At birth, the human infant has no sense of self. She is Being. She is her being without knowledge or self-consciousness. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic ground, basic consciousness, basic freedom, basic trust, and open space. This is the natural resting state of the mind: open, fresh, alert, aware, and pure (unadulterated by conditioning).
So before ego begins to form or fixate, there is relaxed, open spaciousness; we have no sense of being separate from everything else – we experience life as oneness. We experience pure wonderment and curiosity. We dance in the openness. You can see this in the expressions of infants.
But then there’s a moment when we realize “I” exist – separate from oneness. The memories of pain and pleasure begin to coalesce. A separate sense of self arises (ego) because we identify with our memories of pleasure and pain – we no longer remember we’re a part of everything else. This is the first skandha: “Form.”
The next skandha of ego is called “Feeling.” Here, we react to the world, we feel what we like and what we don’t like. We are constantly deciding if things in the world are 1) for us and something we want; 2) if they are against us and something we don’t want; or 3) if they are neutral, things that don’t effect us and we can just ignore them.
In the first skandha, there is a sense of separation: me, separate from the world. Now, with the second skandha, we are wondering if that world is going to hurt us, or if it is something we want to seduce and hold on to, or if it is something irrelevant and we can ignore it.
Touch into this second skandha for a minute and how it is operating in your life all the time: constantly picking and choosing. Is that someone I want to know or someone I want to push away? Is that situation not something I want to be involved in or is it something good for me? Is that sound something I should be concerned about or something I can ignore? We spend a lot of time ignoring the world around us. We spend a lot of time grasping and attaching to parts of the world around us. And we spend a lot of time trying to fight away or push off experiences and people around us.
As you see with each skandha, there is a layering of defense mechanisms. There was, oh! I’m here, I’m separate. Now, there is a reacting to the world around us – is it for us, against us, or something I can ignore?
The third skandha is “Perception.” It’s not enough to decide if things are good, bad, or neutral. The third skandha brings in intellect to name, categorize, organize, and conceptualize each and every thing in the world around us. That’s a desk, that’s a bed, that’s orange, this movie is dirty, that person is sinful, the sun is hot, etc., etc. We’re perceiving and naming everything around us to better get a fix on our place – or where we fit – in the midst of the phenominal universe. Like a submarine pinging device, we are constantly sizing up other things and people to confirm our existence in the world and our place in the hierarchy of the world as created by ego.
You can see how, as ego develops, we’re adding more and more concepts to our idea of the world. In the beginning, in spaciousness, there was very little if any concept of anything. Then in the first skandha, a huge concept appears called “me.” I appear: there is me, and there is world – that’s it. In the second skandha, there’s another layer of complexity: it’s not just me and world; it’s me, world, good, bad, I can ignore. In the 3rd skandha, we have an added layer of conceptualization. Now, we have names & categories. The world is crystalizing: more shape, more form, more specificity. Sense of self is responding by becoming even more solid.
The fourth skandha, is called “Mental Formations.” This refers to yet another layer of complexity and concept of defense mechanism. Here, we add an entangled flood of emotion and notions that are rich and charged with energy: we have emotional experiences.
We’re not satisfied with just categorizing and judging things, we now need to have the charge of emotional experiences to have a full-blown ego experience. Our emotional experience with the world infuses our conceptual experience with heightened energy and leads to a very strong sense of: I am here, the world is there. These emotions are then categorized by the second skandha as good, bad, or indifferent.
You can see that if your thoughts, words, and actions are habitually products of the five skandhas, it could be very difficult to have a direct connection with relaxed spaciousness, with the life-force of the Universe, with ALOHA. We’re getting further and further away from our basic nature: Isness. We’re becoming so serious about things. This is why many people turn to meditation and other ways to work with themselves: because we feel trapped in the constant reactions of the skandhas: wanting, not wanting, ignoring, perceiving, naming, conceptualizing, and infusing strong emotion. This way of being is challenging, painful, and habituated.
The fifth and final skandha is called “Consciousness.” This skandha pulls all the other skandhas together to create a whole and real sense of self
OK, so we begin with pure space, ego arises and, for the sake of feeling safe, ego creates a solid world out of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Then we live the rest of our lives in that way. A world of an illusory experience made purely by our ego. And as we know, in that world we experience challenges, pain, suffering, sickness, old age, and death peppered with moments of joy.
We are learning that meditation, which leads us to experience the natural resting state of mind – our origin – is strengthening our ability to transcend the pain and suffering of life and, instead, experience a world that is open, fresh, calm, alert, aware, and pure (unadulterated by conditioning). Many have described this as authentic joy.
We say the world of experience made by ego is empty because ego doesn’t exist – it’s only a collection of tendencies and events. Therefore, from that perspective, how our mind interprets what we see, hear, smell, taste, feel and think doesn’t exist either. It’s empty – simply a world of illusion.
Can we exist in both worlds – that made from ego and that of our origin? Yes, most certainly. And we have to – unless we’re going to become a monk or nun and meditate in a cave for the rest of our days.
We’ve already lived in ego’s world of illusion all our lives and have figured ways to navigate through it til now. And we’re ok, for the most part – we’ve made it this far. AND, now, we’re learning skills that can help us avoid the pain and suffering that is an inherent part of ego’s world by not getting hooked by desire, aversion, and ignorance.
The more we practice meditation and begin experiencing – FEELING – and expanding into the world of our origin, the more we are able to navigate through ego’s world with caring, compassion, grace, and kindness INSTEAD of being dragged helplessly into ego’s game.
*Taken from various sources, including Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s talk, The Frozen Space of Ego; Sean Murphy’s article, Get Out of Your Head; A.H Almaas; and Rudolf Steiner.