It is with this link in the chain that this secular understanding of dependent arising finds a deeper insight into the processes through which we create anatta, deeper insight than offered by the confusion of the traditional views of what’s going on. The Pali word for this step is namarupa — nama shares a root with our “name” and “rupa” means form. My preferred term for these — not in translations but in explanations of what they’re about — is “identification”.
But let’s let Sariputta have his say (from MN 9, as translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi):
“Feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention: This is called name. The four great elements, and the form dependent on the four great elements: This is called form. This name & this form are called name-&-form.
At first glance, this explanation of Sariputta’s seems to have broken the pattern — it seems to be describing what each part of name and form is, rather than describing the field namarupa‘s activities grow in, but that’s not what’s going on here; it is still the field.
What namarupa is, is the way we identify things, and the way we identify with them. We use feeling, perception, intention, contact, and the direction of our attention to sort out what’s what; we also use the shape of things, their physical, material forms. These habits of thought are the fields in which we grow the things we do that are sankhara-based.
The previous step’s “awareness” is a primary cause of the events in this step, because it is our sankhara-driven awareness that is behind our drive to sort everything in the world in a way that relates to us — this is why I say it’s about identification: we identify what we encounter — recognize its form, give it a name — and then we identify with it, sorting into (in the Buddha’s terms) “pleasant, unpleasant, or neither of these” or (in my terms) of advantage to us, or disadvantage, or “makes no difference”. We define everything by how it relates to us. It is simply our nature to do this — we do it without being aware that we are doing it (out of ignorance).
Awareness — driven by our need to exist (sankhara), to protect ourselves, to know ourselves in relation to the world — is, itself, the driving force for the way we use our abilities and our senses to identify whatever we encounter (be it objects or experiences or ideas) in terms of whether it supports our ideas about ourselves, or denies them, whether it will help us, or hinder us.
But awareness doesn’t exist without something to feed on, and it feeds on the way we identify the world in relation to our selves. Sense data comes in and we identify with it in some way, and because we do this, awareness can keep on seeking. Having found confirmation of itself, having been fed, it goes on looking for more, more, more, always needing to be fed. So, for example, our hungry awareness encounters an idea — it turns the idea over, examining its form, its qualities, and compares it to itself. Is this idea “like me”? Or is it very different from me? If it fits in my concept of myself, I am drawn to it; if it is too strange, too different from my own ideas, I am averse to it. If it seems to have no value at all, it gets ignored.
Again, this is just what we do by nature, no blame, no sin, just the default behavior we all share.
The desire to exist drives awareness to seek confirmation that we exist (and looks for detail about who we are) through the way we identify with the world — awareness drives identification — and confirmation that we exist through identification with the world drives awareness to keep seeking. The two are mutually dependent.