“I’ve known many people who have spent years exercising daily, getting massages, doing yoga, faithfully following one food or vitamin regimen after another, pursuing spiritual teachers and different styles of meditation, all in the name of taking care of themselves. Then something bad happens to them and all those years don’t seem to have added up to the inner strength and kindness for themselves that they need to relate with what’s happening. And they don’t add up to being able to help other people or the environment. When taking care of ourselves is all about me, it never gets at the unshakable tenderness and confidence that we’ll need when everything falls apart.”
“All you have feared at any time in your life is no more than a thought that you believed into existence. Things that you imagined to be so are no more than imaginings. If you accept that mind exists, you will try to control it and manage it. This is mind trying to control mind. If you self-enquire as to whether mind exists at all, you will find that it does not. Mind itself is simply a thought. This discovery brings freedom.”
“Thoughts are just dancing images projected onto the screen of consciousness.”
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
“As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it’s no longer what you saw.”
“It seems to me that the real problem is the mind itself, and not the problem which the mind has created and tries to solve. If the mind is petty, small, narrow, limited, however great and complex the problem may be, the mind approaches that problem in terms of its own pettiness. If I have a little mind and I think of God, the God of my thinking will be a little God, though I may clothe him with grandeur, beauty, wisdom, and all the rest of it.”
“All bad qualities center around the ego. When the ego is gone, realization results by itself. There are neither good nor bad qualities in the Self. The Self is free from all qualities. Qualities pertain to the mind only.”
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – on me-ism
“The five skandhas present a complete picture of ego. According to Buddhist psychology, the ego is simply a collection of skandhas, or heaps (aggregates) – but actually, there is no such thing as ego. It is a brilliant work of art, a product of intellect, which says, ‘Let’s give all this a name. Let’s call it ‘I.’ That ‘I’ is the label that unifies that disorganized and scattered process into one ‘entity’. It is very clever.”
“The ego feels rather lonely and, at the same time, keeps busy trying to defend itself. It finds that it consists of a collection of desires, expectations, ideas, conclusions, memories, and many other things. This collection is too complicated for the ego to grasp; therefore, it conveniently constructs “I am” or “I am the ego” and puts this label on itself as if it were a real individual entity. Having found a name for itself, the ego has to constantly work to secure itself, because fundamentally it knows that it is not real and sound.”
“We need a sense of humor. It is impossible to overcome passion, aggression, and ignorance with a long face. We have to cheer up. When you begin to see yourself fully and thoroughly, then you discover your sense of humor. It is not the same as telling bad jokes. Humor here is natural joy, the joy of reality.”
Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche
“When we question ego-mind directly, it is exposed for what it is: the absence of everything we believe it to be. We can actually see through this seemingly solid ego-mind, or self. But what are we left with then? We are left with an open, intelligent awareness, unfettered by a self to cherish or protect. This is the primordial wisdom mind of all beings. Relaxing into this discovery is true meditation—and true meditation brings ultimate realization and freedom from suffering.”
“The personal ‘I’ is not the true ‘I;’ it is more like a verb – ever in the mode of doing: restless and ever-changing. The true ‘I’ – the Self – is like a noun. It simply is; flawless and unchanging.”
Guy Armstrong, Emptiness – A Practical Guide for Meditators
“Suppose I were to ask, “how old are you?“ You might answer promptly, “I’m 37,“ or whatever. Then let me ask, “what color are your eyes?“ and again the answer might come easily, “my eyes are brown,“ or blue or green. The answers arise naturally and immediately. But if we look at each of the responses in detail, we discover something odd.
If you say, “I’m 37,“ you really mean this BODY is 37 years old – don’t you? You don’t necessarily mean ALL of you is 37. Are your thoughts that old? What is the age of the mood you are feeling right now? Perhaps it came on today, an hour ago. So when we say, “I’m 37,““I“ is taken to be the body. This tendency to equate oneself with an aspect of our experience is called identification – in this case, identification with the body.
When you say, “my eyes are blue,” however, the “I“ is not the body (“eyes“) but the owner of the body: “my eyes.“ “I“ as owner is a different form of identification. Feel into the sense of “I“ as the owner of the body – “it’s my body“ – and ask, “where is that owner located?“ Are you able to pin down an owner? Is the owner inside the body or outside? Is the owner all the space inside? These are some of the questions the Buddha pointed to 2500 years ago. Which are you really – the body or something separate that somehow owns the body? These are two different things. Is it possible to be both?
We can find the same confusion around the mind. If you say, “I am happy,“ you are equating “I“ with happiness, an emotion or a state of mind. A minute later you might talk about “my joys and my sorrows.” Now you are the owner of the emotions. These are two more ways to self identify. Are you the emotion or are you it’s owner? Can you be both?
How many selves are you? Are you a self as the organ of your liver and also the emotion of compassion? Are these the same “I“ or different? Are you a self as your political view and also as the consciousness that hears a bird call? Are these the same “I“ or different? Are you a self who is changing every moment, as the body does with its pulses, respiration, and digestion; or are you an ongoing self who is the stable observer of the changes? Are these the same “I“ or different?
When we look into these questions, what we find are little more than collisions of unexamined language habits around “I“ and “my.“ One is reminded of the famous comment by Ludwig Wittgenstein that the self is only a shadow cast by grammar. We have found these terms useful to distinguish one person from another in social dialogue and to establish social guidelines around possessions. But by not examining the terms closely, we have stretched the idea of self so far that it does not actually make sense.”
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
“You exist as an idea in your mind.”
From our own innate tendencies and the repeated use of language, we have adopted – without reservation – the belief that the body, thoughts, and feelings are “me,” and that everything outside the body is “not me.” This fundamental sense of duality creates a split in our experience that leads us to feel disconnected from the rest of creation, with the consequent feelings of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and longing.
To illustrate this, I’m going to tell you a story. The story is about our conceptual/analytical mind, our personality, and our thoughts & emotions and how they all began and persist.
The sanskrit name for the topic of this story is the 5 skandhas. The word “skandhas” as related to today’s topic is typically defined as “aggregates” but that sounds so geological. In daily use, “skandha” means “heap” or “bundle” or “pile.” So we could think of them as the 5 piles of “stuff” that comprise our mind.
The story of the 5 skandhas is ultimately the story of the formation of our ego – the personality with which we identify as well as our self-important thinking, intellectualizing, and emoting. The story is also about how ego influences the interpretation of everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, sense, and think according to all of the data (in the form of memories) it has collected from the conditioning and education we absorb from society, authority figures, family, friends, TV, movies, radio, commercials, advertisements, rhetoric, and gossip. (Maybe read this paragraph again.)
Since the arising of the 5 skandhas, our lives have really not been FULLY ours per se – not authentically ours, anyway.
The story of the 5 skandhas begins at our birth with pure open space/Source Energy/ALOHA. It’s before the 5 skandhas have come online. We have no language and no concepts. We have no sense of self. Baby is pure Being. Baby is Being – without knowledge or self-consciousness. We are one with All That Is. Our most fundamental state of mind, at this stage, is basic ground, basic consciousness, basic freedom, basic safety, basic trust, basic goodness, and wide open space. And we dance in this open space. We are curious in this open space. This is our original experience – the nature of being human. You could say this is our “original mind.”
It’s ALSO the natural resting state of the adult mind that we can reach through true meditation: a state that is open, fresh, alert, aware, and pure (unadulterated by conditioning).
So our original state – our natural state – is relaxed, open, and spacious. We feel safe, free, and at one with everything; we have no sense of being separate from anything else. We experience pure wonderment, curiosity, and peaceful abiding. And we dance freely in the openness of vast open space. Life is good.
1st skandha – FORM
But then there’s a moment when we realize “I” exist. I’m separate from the one vast space. Memories of pain and pleasure begin to coalesce beginning with hunger and nourishment. A separate sense of self arises (the ego) because we identify with our memories of pleasure and pain. “I’m hungry. I’m here. Mom is there.” As this continues, we no longer remember we’re a part of everything else. We are separate. And everything else is separate from us and separate from each other. This is the first skandha: “Form” (also referred to as “material form”).
Form refers to ALL matter, both internal and external. It refers to our body as well as the five physical sense organs. Form includes the entire universe of matter beyond the body as well as what we see, hear, smell, taste, and sense.
“Form is any disturbance in the field of awareness.” ~ Unknown
2nd skandha – FEELING or FEELING TONE
The 2nd skandha is the quality in each moment of sense contact as it is experienced in one of three ways: as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant (also called neutral).
From these qualities of experience, we form likes and dislikes. When 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 or in our mind 1) feel pleasant and are for us – something we want; 2) if they feel unpleasant and are against us – something we don’t want; or 3) if they are neither pleasant nor unpleasant – they are neutral – things that don’t affect us so we feel we can ignore them or overlook them.
In the first skandha, there is a sense of separation: me, separate from the world, separate from Source Energy/ALOHA. 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 moment 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 we want. And we spend a lot of time trying to fight away or push off experiences and people around us.
Think back now to the 4 Noble Truths – the 2nd truth specifically: there is a cause of suffering. The cause identified was the three poisons: passion, aggression, and ignorance. These three arise out of the 2nd skandha, feeling tone: like/selfish grasping, dislike/selfish pushing away, and neutral/selfish ignoring.
As we look at each skandha, keep your eye out for a layering of defense mechanisms against the feeling of vast open space. First, there was, oh! I’m here, I’m separate. Now, we’re reacting to the world around us – is it for us, against us, or something I can ignore?
3rd skandha- PERCEPTION
The 3rd skandha refers to the activity of the mind that recognizes an object (seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or sensed).
It’s not enough to decide if things are good, bad, or neutral. The third skandha brings in intellect to label, categorize, organize, and conceptualize each and every thing in the world around us: “Desk, bed, Sally, orange, dirty, sinful, hot,” etc., etc. All based on our conditioning and memories.
We’re perceiving and labeling everything around us to get a better fix on our place – or where we fit – in the midst of the phenomenal universe – the vast open space/Source Energy/ALOHA; and to determine a sense of safety.
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 interpreted by the 5 skandhas.
You can now see how the skandhas contribute to the development of our ego – which we will eventually identify as our “personality.”
We’re adding more and more concepts to our idea of the world. In the beginning, in pure 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, like, dislike, or neutral. In the 3rd skandha, we have an added layer of conceptualization. Now, we have labels & categories. We’re losing our sense of unity with ALOHA. The world is crystalizing: more shape, more form, more specificity, more boundaries, more “safety.” Sense of self is responding by becoming even more solid.
4th skandha – MENTAL FORMATIONS or VOLITIONAL FORMATIONS
There are three categories of volitional formations: mental, verbal (actions of speech), and bodily (physical actions). Volitional formations refers to yet another layer of complexity and concept of defense mechanism. Here, we add an entangled flood of notions that are rich and charged with energy: we have emotional experiences: happiness, fear, joy, desire, and so on.
These formations are called “volitional” because they express our will or motivation in some way. A thought of desire expresses the will to have what is wanted, while a thought of generosity expresses the wish to help another. Once activated, these volitions are more likely to arise again in the future.
In the mental realm, volitional formations include all our thoughts: our moods and emotions like happiness, fear, joy, hatred, desire, resentment, love, cruelty, confusion, tranquility, etc.
All the kinds of happiness that can be imagined for the term “heavenly” are included in volitional formations, as are all the intense miseries we ascribe to “hellish.” The creative thoughts of Einstein and the murderous thoughts of Hitler are here. So are Jesus’ love and the wisdom of the Buddha.
Here, we’re not satisfied with just categorizing and judging things, we now need to have the charge of positive and negative emotional experiences (mental, verbal, and bodily) 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!
You can see that if your thoughts, words, and actions are habitual products of the five skandhas, it could be very difficult to have a direct connection with vast open space, with the life-force energy of the Universe, with ALOHA.
We’re getting further and further away from our basic nature: Unity, Isness, Pure Being. We’re becoming so serious about things. This is why many people turn to some form of 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 strong emotions. This way of being is challenging, painful, and habituated.
When we start to become mindful of emotions, we can see how we react to the different emotions that visit us. We want to feel happy, strong, confident, and joyful. We don’t want to feel fearful, confused, anxious, or depressed. And we may feel pulled by the first three skandhas to believe emotions are caused by “outside” stimuli.
5th skandha – CONSCIOUSNESS
In Buddhism, consciousness is “the knowing quality of mind.”
We may think “I am seeing,” “I am hearing.” The sense of “I” as the observer can be the most compelling entity of all to identify with. But, in fact, there is no separate “self” having the experience of seeing or hearing.
The aggregate of consciousness is simply receiving a sense impression. Consciousness sees. Consciousness hears. When we add “I,” we introduce an unnecessary element that doesn’t refer to anything that actually exists. (Of course it’s fine to say “I am hearing” as a convention, to contrast with another person who is speaking, but we don’t need to add the word “I” when talking to ourselves about the experience of hearing or seeing.
This skandha pulls all the other skandhas together to create a whole and imagined sense of a separate self which infuses us to act from that understanding.
OK, our original experience is feeling free and one with vast open space, pure goodness – ALOHA – then ego arises and, for the sake of feeling safe, it creates an understanding of a solid world made of our memories of everything we’ve ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt – our conditioning, our memory databank. Then we live the rest of our lives that way.
The five skandhas developed at a very early age then became our modus operandi. The 5 skandhas are engaged every time we see something, hear something, smell something, taste something, feel something, and sense something – and it only takes milliseconds.
With mindfulness, we can become aware of the 5 skandhas at work – interpreting and coloring our world. This is called “projection” and we’re constantly doing it. And projection is based solely on our memory databank. And EVERYONE’S memory databank stores different information.
You can see how it would be very difficult to have a clear and direct communication with anyone based on this way of interacting. You can see how it might lead to misunderstanding, confusion, aggression, and even violence.
Though we may be clinging (addicted) to our ego and all our thoughts (which BTW are simply a regurgitation of what is already stored in our memory databank), we don’t have to be. When we start to see the 5 skandhas in action, we can see the flimsy quality of thoughts and emotions and even our strongly-held belief of who we think we are – they begin to have less control over us. This opens us to re-experience our true nature, ALOHA, and live from that place in the world: caring for all beings and the planet as beloved relatives – no different than how ancient native peoples lived. As we do that, we can access and retrieve needed information from our memory databank (via ego) whenever we want or need.
“The only reason we need ego is to keep us from stepping in front of an oncoming bus or the like.” – Anonymous
Again, to reference the Four Noble Truths, the 3rd truth says “Cessation of struggle and suffering is available.” And the 4th truth says “There is a path to the cessation of struggle and suffering.” The Path of Meditation that Leads to Living ALOHA is one such path to TRANSCEND ego’s interpretation of life and the world (called samsara) which leads to disappointment, pain, struggle, and suffering to reveal the peace, harmony, goodness, and unity of ALOHA, Source Energy which has always been available: our true nature.
The five skandhas and ego don’t really exist – they’re only a collection of tendencies and random events. And yet, the appearance of the 5 skandhas and subsequent arising of our ego is quite natural in our growth as humans.
Our subsequent addiction to them, though, is not.