Understanding the Five Skandhas Can Help Get You Out of Your Head
Meditation is the act of connecting with the natural resting state of our minds which are open, clear, awake, alert, and pure (unadulterated by conditioning). We do this by not doing anything other than giving the thinking mind the job of being mindful of the out-breath. We see thoughts and reactions arise during meditation, acknowledge them by saying to ourselves, “thinking,” and return our attention gently to the out-breath.
As we mature in our practice, it’s good to have some understanding of the origins of our self as well as our thoughts. That can best be done by learning the Buddhist teaching on the five skandhas.
Like many others, I’ve always found traditional Buddhist formulations of the five skandhas (in English: “heaps” or “aggregates”) a challenge to put into practice in my everyday life. For me, these teachings—which identify the five layers of existence that constitute our human experience—had always landed in the zone of “interesting philosophically” but challenging to apply practically. Until I found some modern interpretatons.
While some translations and interpretations of the skandha system differ, what they all share is a representation of five basic factors of human experience. Taken together, these factors explain the totality of what we think of as reality and, by extension, the self – or ego – and they are in alignment with more modern systems of understanding, such as Rudolph Steiner’s psychology.
A central point of the five skandhas is that all the factors that make up our experience are ever-changing, subject to conditions, ungraspable, and impermanent; therefore, giving rise to suffering. And a “self ” cannot be found in any of them.
Before we can talk about the development of the self, we must first talk about what we were before that.
In the development of ego, at the beginning, there is just open space, the basic ground – what we really are. 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, original mind: open, fresh, alert, aware, and pure (unadulterated by conditioning).
Now, take for example, in everyday life, at the first moment we see an object, there is a sudden recognition without logic or conceptualization. We just perceive openness. But immediately we panic, and hurry to try to put something into that openness. We try to find a name or a pigeonhole so that we can locate and categorize that particular thing according to our own ideas and conceptualizations. As that process continues, the ego becomes more and more solid. However, the idea of ego as a solid ongoing entity is illusory; it is a mistaken belief. This is confused mind.
Although confused mind would like to view itself as solid, it is only a collection of tendencies and events. This collection is referred to as the five skandhas, or five “heaps.”
The Five Skandhas
The First Skandha: Form
Solidifying Space. In the beginning, there is open space belonging to no one, and within that space is primeval intelligence, or vidya, so there is both intelligence and space. It is like a completely open and spacious room in which you can dance about and not be afraid of knocking anything over. You are this space; you are one with it. But you become confused. Because it is so spacious, you begin to whirl and dance about. You become too active in the space.
As you dance, you want to experience the space more and more, to enjoy the dance and the openness. But at that point, space is no longer space, as such. It has become solid space because of your unnecessary urge to contact it. When you try to cling to space, to grasp it, the whole perspective is completely changed. You have solidified space and made it tangible. That sense of self-consciousness is the birth of duality. Spaciousness has become solid space, and you have begun to identify yourself with the “I.” You are identified with the duality of “I” and space, rather than being completely one with space. You have become self-conscious, conscious that “you” are dancing in space. This is the birth of the first skandha, the skandhaof form.
Having solidified space, you forget what you have done. Suddenly there is a blackout, a gap. Your intelligence suddenly collapses, and you are completely overwhelmed by ignorance in a kind of reverse enlightenment experience. When you wake up, you become fascinated with your own creation, acting as if you had nothing to do with it, as though you yourself were not the creator of all this solidity. You deliberately ignore the openness and intelligence, so the intelligent, sharp, precise, flowing, and luminous quality of space becomes static. There is still primeval intelligence but it has been captured and solidified. Therefore, it has become ignorance. That blackout of intelligence is the source of ego. From that sudden blackout, as you continue to explore, gradually things become more and more solid.
Three Stages of Ignorance.
The skandha of form has three stages. The first stage, the birth of ignorance, is a kind of chemical reaction in which you come to the conclusion of your own separateness. It is as if there were a desert, simple and basic, but strangely and suddenly one of the grains of sand popped up and began to look around.
The second stage is called the ignorance born within. Having noticed that you are separate, you feel that you have always been so. However, that instinct toward self-consciousness is awkward. You feel unbalanced, so you try to secure your ground and create a shelter for yourself. You take the attitude that you are a confused and separate individual, and that is all there is to it.
The third type of ignorance is self-observing ignorance. As you are watching yourself, you see yourself as an external object, which leads to the notion of “other.” You are beginning to have a relationship with the so-called “external world.” You are beginning to create the world of forms.
The Second Skandha: Feeling
Having managed to transform space into solidness, you would then like to possess it and grasp it. Having solidified the duality of self and other, you try to feel the qualities of that “other” in order to reassure yourself that you exist. You reach out to sense whether that “other” is seductive, threatening, or neutral. You think that if you can feel something “out there,” then you must really be here. This mechanism of feeling you set up is extremely efficient.
The Third Skandha: Perception/Impulse
In the act of perception, having received information about the outside world from the skandhaof feeling, you respond to that information in three ways: by drawing in, pushing away, or being indifferent. The skandha of feeling transmits its information, and you make judgments, you react. Whether you react for or against or indifferently is automatically determined by this bureaucracy of feeling and perception. If you find the situation threatening, you push it away; if you find it seductive, you draw it to you; if you find it neutral, you are indifferent. So perception/impulse is an automatic impulsive reaction to intuitive feeling.
The Fourth Skandha: Concept/Formation
The automatic reaction of the third skandha, perception/impulse,is not enough of a defense to protect your ignorance and guarantee your security. In order to protect and deceive yourself properly, you need intellect, the ability to name and categorize things. With intellect, you can label things “good,” “bad,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” “tree” and so on.
With each of the skandhas, the structure of ego is gradually becoming heavier and stronger. Up to this point, ego’s development was purely based on action and reaction, but from this point on, the ego is becoming more sophisticated.
You begin to experience intellectual speculation, to confirm and interpret yourself. The nature of intellect is quite logical, and your obvious tendency is to use that logic to create a positive condition for yourself. You use the intellect to confirm your experience, to interpret weakness as strength, to fabricate security, and to verify your ignorance.
So although primordial intelligence is happening all the time, it is being employed by ignorance, by dualistic fixation.
The Fifth Skandha: Consciousness
The last stage of the development of ego is consciousness. Consciousness is an amalgamation of the intuitive intelligence of the skandhaof feeling, the energy of the skandha of perception/impulse, and the intellectualization of the skandha of concept/formation. That combination produces thoughts and emotions.
So at the level of the fifth skandha, we find emotional upheavals and the uncontrollable and illogical patterns of discursive thought.
This is where our mind latches onto a loud sound and runs off thinking about our neighbor’s noisy car: how he’s probably disconnected the emission system and is pumping out noxious chemicals, damaging the health of the planet; and LOOK how we’ve become so dependent on fossil fuels to begin with; and how, if we don’t do something to intervene, the human race is probably doomed…and so on. Our minds have turned a simple sound into the end of the world!
With the development of discursive thoughts and fantasies, the whole thing is completely secured.
The five skandhas present a complete picture of ego. According to Buddhist psychology, the ego is simply a collection of skandhas, or heaps – but actually there is no such thing as ego. It is a brilliant work of art, a project of the 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.
By applying mindful attention to the unfolding of the five conditions, we may be able to catch ourselves reacting according to our conditioning—perhaps at first only at the level of the story—and instead realize: I’m upsetting myself because I’m running a story; nothing has really happened to justify this level of upset. The result? Perhaps we can let go, return to direct experience, and spare ourselves unnecessary suffering.
Stories, of course, are made up of thoughts—those mental sound bites that intrude upon direct experience, and that we let go of in meditation. The more we practice and let go of thoughts, the more we gain the ability to drop our negative stories. As we continue to practice, we may begin to catch ourselves earlier in the chain—perhaps even noticing dislike at the feeling level and choosing a mindful response rather than automatic reaction.
This practice may sound simple, but it has huge ramifications. How many relationships are ruined because of mental projections, fabrications, stories of past wrongs and rejections? How many wars have started over ideas that had little to do with reality?
Meditation is the tool we use to let go of unskillful thoughts, and we can put this into practice in our daily lives by being mindful of the five skandhas.
The confused state of ego is why being compassionate and kind to ourselves and others is so important.
*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.