Weekly Practice (5 Aggregates: Mental Formations)

| February 15, 2012 | 5 Comments

Last week we focused on the first two of the five aggregates, body and feeling tone, and continued with impermanence. You may have noticed that what we consider neutral often gets ignored. Pay more attention to what you feel as neutral. You’ll make some interesting discoveries.

So far you’ve discovered that everything we’ve examined so far is impermanent.  Continue checking for impermanence in every aspect of your life, and this lesson as well. This week we’ll examine the last three aggregates: Perception, Fabrication, and Consciousness. All three of these are mental formations, what the mind does.

In Buddhist teachings consciousness is more granular than we tend to think of it in modern day. Buddha recognized that whatever we become conscious of, we do so through one of our senses. When eye consciousness arises, we become conscious of some object in our vision. When ear consciousness arises, it’s because some sound has reached our ear. So, everything we become conscious of comes through our senses, or is born of the mind.

Once we are conscious of something, we form a perception of it. Perceptions are created through thoughts, impressions, emotional reactions, memories, etc. Our perceptions then may build into fabrications where are minds can build elaborate judgements, opinions, stories, and drama.

Most important to notice is how the feeling of self arises from consciousness, perceptions, and fabrication. With indignation, for instance, a very powerful feeling of self can arise, and we can cling to that in such a way as to make it a solid feeling. But is it? With the growl of a stomach, the feeling of self may arise on the thought, “I’m hungry.” But is that thought you? Are we our thoughts, perceptions, and the stories the mind creates?

What Buddha Said

“In the same way, a monk investigates form, however far form may go. He investigates feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness, however far consciousness may go. As he is investigating form… feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness, however far consciousness may go, any thoughts of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’ do not occur to him.”

SN 35.205

Buddha claims that if we investigate these five aggregates closely, we will see for ourselves that none of the aggregates can be me, mine, or I. None can be an unchanging self. The problem, according to Buddha, is that we cling to the aggregates as though they are a self. By clinging to what we think is self, we create suffering, we make matters worse. The aggregates are all impermanent. They are not static things. Are they dynamic process? What’s they’re function?

Previously I had identified very closely with my intellect, my thought processes. I considered all those mental machinations to be who I was. I was determined to prove Buddha wrong on this matter. But what I discovered instead was fascinating. I eagerly go on this investigation again to see what else I can discover. I hope you’ll join me and share what you learn as well.

Warning for the following meditations. Thoughts can be slippery and elusive. They can also be sneaky, and before you know it you may be caught up in a whole mental drama. This is normal, and as you become more mindful, the mind settles down.

Sitting meditation:

  • Once seated and comfortable, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. Breathe in and out naturally. Follow the breath in and out. Allow your attention to notice the body as you breath in and out.
  • Do a body scan as you did last week, checking for feeling tones for the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral areas of your body. By the way, if you are uncomfortable, note it, check the feeling tone, then with intention get into a more comfortable position.
  • Focus on the breath as usual, using it for your point of concentration, noting the strength, length and texture of each breath. Is there is a feeling tone in each breath?
  • Work on your concentration with the breath as you have done previously.
  • If a sound arises, notice how awareness shifts to the ears. Note the feeling tone of the sound. Then go back to the breath.
  • If you find it difficult to return to the breath because of sound or thought interruptions, note if the interruption gave rise to a feeling of self. What is that feeling?
  • If thoughts arise, note whether the thought is a reminder, an opinion, or if the thoughts want to converge on a story of some kind.
  • Just take note of any mental activity that breaks your concentration, then let them go and return to the breath.

Moving Meditation

  • Moving meditation can be done through walking, yoga, tai chi, or simply moving your body in a designated, safe area.
  • Bring your awareness to the top of your head and bring it slowly down to your neck, shoulders, arms, torso, hips, legs, and feet. Notice any sensations, lack of sensations, etc. Take your time doing this.
  • Begin your movements in your preferred form. Pay attention to how each  muscle feels as you move. Notice your breath, in and out. Keep your movements small and deliberate, your attention on your body, as you move your arms or legs. Notice how muscles contract and release. Is there tension in your body anywhere? Can you relax the muscles you are not using?
  • Continue using your body and movements as your point of concentration.
  • If a sound arises, notice how awareness shifts to the ears. Note the feeling tone of the sound. Then go back to the body movements.
  • If you find it difficult to return to the breath because of sound or thought interruptions, note if the interruption gave rise to a feeling of self. What is that feeling?
  • If thoughts arise, not whether the thought is a reminder, an opinion, or if the thoughts want to converge on a story of some kind.
  • Just take note of any mental activity that breaks your concentration, then let them go and return to your movement meditation.

Bringing Meditation into Daily Living

Bring mindfulness into your daily activities, noting how thoughts arises and fall away. How some thoughts you tend to get more caught up in. Notice the nature of clingy thoughts, how alluring a story can be. Examine the nature of your beliefs. Where did the belief originate? Do you have to hold the belief? Is the belief you?

What about opinions? Does an opinion define who you are? What is an opinion? How changeable are your opinions? Do you take pride in your opinions or beliefs? If so what is pride? Is it more thoughts and opinions? How far down the rabbit hole are you willing to investigate your own thought processes? Where is this self to be found in the continual flurry of thoughts, reminders, memories, etc.?

What triggers the thought of I? What is your feeling tone in the absence of thoughts that create of a feeling of self?

How do the five aggregates: body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness converge to create a feeling of self? Or do they? Do you cling to any of these aggregates, think of them as me, mine or I? Are these active processes, arising and falling throughout the day?

Be mindful of the aggregates as you go through your day. When you have a free minute or two, stop and contemplate one or more of the aggregates. Is there a self to be found in any of them? How dependent are any of the aggregates on the body, on our environment, on our interactions with each other?

Repeat this daily, continuing investigating the five aggregates. Notice sounds. What feeling arises with the sound. How does the mind respond if at all? How long can you stay with neutrality? Does boredom arise with objects you consider neutral? Do you cling to that which is neutral? What does non-attachment mean?

Investigate deeply, and then share your discoveries here!

See All Weekly Practice Exercises

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Category: Weekly Practice

Dana Nourie

About the Author ()

Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. PopeEggsBenedict says:

    A challenge I am having with this is that whilst observing mental formations I find it hard to identify which category each fits into i.e. consciousness, perception or fabrication. I guess this is not especially important, although I find it hard not to instinctively try to do this! For instance, using the terms mentioned in the piece, what category would a ‘reminder’ fall into i.e. a thought that arises about something needs to be done? And opinions – I guess these are fabrications in that they are constructions born out of various perceptions and thoughts?

  2. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Yes, it’s not important in the meditation to identify which types of thought you noticed. Often that understanding comes in hindshight, in thinking about your meditation later. You may realize over time that reminders for the day often arises as soon as you sit, or memories from the past.

    In the meditation, just notice thoughts as they rise, then go back to the breath. The more you meditate, the more you’ll see, in hindsight, how you have certain mental patterns. The important thing is letting go and returning to the breath, noticing how thoughts arises and fad away, or how you are sometimes entangled in them. Later note what types of thoughts tend to ensnare you, and which are easiest to let go of.

    Spend time throughout the day noticing your thoughts. Over time, you’ll notice they fit in certain categories, you’ll notice how outside input encourages certain kinds of thinking, how the judgement of a flower comes after you see the flower and then put awareness on it, etc.

    This practice gets you to notice the process of thought making, and see if there is really a self in any single thought or chain of thoughts.

  3. Jenni T. says:

    I have struggled with the concept of “no self” for a while, but I think this past week I have caught a little glimmer of what that means or how to interpret it. It seems that impermanence, and specifically the impermanence of the 5 aggregates, is the key to understanding this idea of no self. It’s an abstract idea that is hard for me to grasp. And times like now it seems so simple, but then it turns back around and I think “well I’m right here in a body and having thoughts, etc, so of course there IS a self! The no self concept is a hard one.

    • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

      Yes, Jenni, the thing is not to convince yourself of not self and form a belief. That is fairly useless. Instead, in your meditations and daily life keep looking for what you could call a solid self, a self that is constant and unchanging. And notice the nature of thoughts, emotions, feelings, etc. Whenever you feel a strong sense of self, stop what you are doing, if you can, and notice . . . is the feeling coming from thoughts, emotions, something else? Just keep examining everything in your experience, and watch how body, mind, and input go into making what we feel as self, often through our reactions.

      But seeing it, catching it in the works is what is important. Don’t form a belief just because we say so:-)

    • Candol says:

      Jenni some people make more sense of the no self concept than others. There are ways into understanding it so that its more helpful. Though on the one hand i don’t feel troubled by it, i always come a little unstuck when the question is posed that dana put – which is something like you had a thought – is it you? Are you this? Are you that? As if the self was any one thing. Of course its not. I really would like to see a philosopher tackle the no self concept the way its often phrased in buddhist texts or in traditional buddhism.

      btw i am not having a go at you dana. I know what you wrote is the standard way to question it. However, i find what stephen batchelor has to say about it a more useful way. One the one hand… where in the no self concept enables to accept that we can change or even recreate ourselves. Instead of getting stuck in a fixed idea of who we are, we can let go of that and be free to change and develop a new self. A project continously in the making.

      But i also find the historical understanding of why there is this concept very helpful. If you remember that the buddha’s project is partly to critique the prevailing philosophical and religious ideas and practices of his day, the no self concept challenges the idea of the self as a fixed entity with an essence, an essential characteristic and which can pass from one life to the next unchanged through reincarnation or rebirth. They were more fatalistic about life.

      Another element to it might be – but i somehow start to feel that this is less what the buddha was about – or maybe i’ve just got confused – that letting go of the self concept involves letting go of selfishness and our focus on our own needs, wants, and everything that pertains specifically to us and which we are aware of though our own senses and mind. When we can start to let go of this me my mine habit we start to become more aware of our connection with everything else in the world. We start to become more compassionate and recognise that the concerns of others are out concerns too. Everything impacts on everything else. And if we less possessive about ourself and start to see ourselves more as part of the whole everything will improve – our own experience, and everyone elses as well. Thinking this way becomes behaving this way and when one person does it, it has a positive impact on others. The more people doing it, the more positive impact.

      that’s probably more than you care to know.

      But as i said, some ways of talking about the no self concept seem a bit confusing and others make it clearer or at least more acceptable and sensible.

Leave a Reply