Last time we looked at the factors that hinder our practice and keep us stuck in life. We explored different ways of relating and working with them in order to free ourselves and progress on the path.

📖 The 5 hindrances

The next category of dharma is the “The 5 Aggregates of clinging”, or skandhas. This teaching goes to the core insights of the Buddha by providing a framework for investigating how we create and maintain our ego image, which is at the root of suffering.

Visual exploration

This part of the teaching may be most easily digestible in visual form. Below this video, you will find the transcript as well.

Simply put, the 5 aggregates represent the basic building blocks of our entire subjective experience. They are the material and mental factors that make up our sense of self. And when we cling to these factors we reinforce the identification, which leads to resistance and suffering. This is why they are known as “the 5 aggregates of clinging”.

The experience of matter

The first aggregate is rūpa, often translated as “material form”.

Today, we understand matter in terms of chemical elements, ordered by the periodic table. This is no doubt a very precise and refined map of the building blocks that make up material form. But rūpa points to a different understanding of matter, a different truth. It should not be understood as static, dead “stuff” out there, separate from our experience. It is more like the “felt sense” of physical form. Rather than thinking of physical form in terms of atoms and molecules, we think of it in terms of qualities of sensation, represented by the 4 elements of earth, water, fire and air. And although we may not think of it as scientifically sophisticated, this teaching is an invitation to shift our perspective on what matter is (“what matters”). We use the four elements – which in turn are broken down into more refined levels – to connect with the direct experience of material form.

Our physical body is rūpa. If we think of the body as an independently existing object – consisting of atoms and molecules, divided into certain anatomical parts, as being a certain age, with a certain gender – we live in the world of concepts and labels. And although they may be very precise and tremendously useful, they create a separation between mind and matter and tend to disconnect us from the “felt sense” of material form. If we get stuck in the world of concepts, we tend to solidify and hold on to them. And since the body is always changing, clinging inevitably leads to resistance and dissatisfaction. And this goes for all material form. In this way, this first aggregate of clinging constitutes a key link the chain of suffering.

We can see this teaching as a psychotechnology to help us see beneath the surface level of our concepts and labels. When we look deeply into our experience, we don’s see the body as a “thing” that belongs to “me”. We don’t find arms, legs, organs, age or gender. If we look deeply, we find a cascade of ever-changing sensations and energies appearing in space. And we feel these tactile sensations as the solidity of the earth element, the heat of fire, the cohesion of water and the movement of air and so on. As our mindfulness deepens, we become increasingly aware of the aliveness that lies underneath our thoughts and ideas about the body. We see the truth of impermanence in our own direct experience and we feel the suffering (dukkha) that follows when we resist it.

Knowing feelings as feelings

Next is vedanā, which refers to the qualitative taste of experience – our ability to discern and distinguish pleasure from pain. We already went into some depth on this in the second foundation of mindfulness, where we explored the link between the body and these hedonic tones. This understanding is further emphasised in the teachings on the aggregates.

Remember, rūpa can be understood as the “felt sense” of physical form. This includes sense objects, like sound waves or odorant particles in the air. Whenever we become conscious of the contact between a sense object and our sense organ, a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensation arises. We see a beautiful sunset and we get a pleasant sensation. We smell a rotten egg and we have an unpleasant reaction. This is how rūpa leads to vedanā.

Vedanā is singled out as the second foundation of mindfulness as well as the second aggregate because it provides fertile ground for clinging and aversion. It is a key link in the chain of suffering, which makes it worth paying attention to. Through the practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of equanimity, we begin to see feelings for what they are and we can allow their changing nature without fighting. And when there is no resistance, no clinging, we find space and freedom. The Buddha said:

Whatever feelings arise – whether unpleasant, pleasant or neutral – abide contemplating impermanence in those feelings. Contemplate fading away, letting go of those feelings. Contemplating thus, we do not cling to anything in this world. When there is no clinging, there is no agitation, when not agitated we personally attain nirvana.”

Beyond concepts and images

The third aggregate is saṃjñā (or sañña), which translates to “perception”. It refers to the mind’s ability to perceive and categorise our experience. This factor is also singled out, because clinging to perceptions play a key role in the conditioning of the mind.

Just like feeling tones, perceptions arise out of contact with sense objects. As soon as we become aware of contact – whether it is a sound, sight, smell, touch, taste or mental phenomena – feelings and perceptions arise automatically. When we open our eyes, we don’t see a raw and undifferentiated ocean of sense impressions – we see a screen, we see furniture, we see windows, trees, people. And when we listen, we don’t just get an auditory experience, we hear traffic, bird song, voices, refrigerators. Our experience is packaged into familiar boxes. This is process of perception.

This faculty of the mind to recognise and categorise has great value. Perceptions help us frame our experience and focus our attention on what is considered relevant. It serves as a cognitive shortcut (“recognition”) that gives us guidance on how to respond to our surroundings. We can even use perceptions to arouse mindfulness. One practice is to note and name each perception as we become aware of them in order to stay mindful. As we take a walk, for example, we might note “the sight of a tree”, “the smell of food”, “the sensation of hunger”, “the feeling of restlessness”, and so on. By noting our perceptions in this way, we increase the vividness of what we are aware of.

The danger comes when we cling to perceptions. When this faculty is not paired with mindfulness, we easily get caught in the world of concepts. We start relating to the superficial labels without seeing the deeper experience that underlies them. When we see a tree we don’t fully perceive a complex, living organism – we see a familiar image and we label it and move on. And when we relate to another person, we don’t really perceive them as they are in that moment. We see their persona, their mask, and we have all kinds of ideas and memories that limit our experience of them. We don’t see that they constantly grow and change. We feel like they are just the same old person, and in a way, we don’t allow them to be anything else. From this level of relation, other people are turned into means of getting what we want. Our experience of the world becomes flat and static and can cause us to act out harmful behavior.

The clinging to perceptions is what leads to the division between “us” and “them”. This identification have caused tremendous harm and suffering throughout history. Think about the effects of ideas around countries, boundaries, racial groups and religions. When these perceptions become sufficiently ingrained in our mind, we take them to be absolutely real. We superimpose value judgements and we justify any behavior that is aligned with those value systems.

Perceptions have a tremendous power. Some perceptions are especially deep and dense in our psyche. One of them is time – the idea that our lives play out on a timeline with a past, present and future. This is such a useful framing of our experience that we often ignore and overlook our actual experience. We take past and future to possess some absolute reality. But have you ever experienced the past or the future? If we look into our own experience, they only ever show up as thoughts and ideas in the present moment.

“Time and space are modes by which we think and not conditions in which we live”

– Albert Einstein

Perhaps the most essential of all concepts is that of the “self”. In a way, this is the centre on which all other perceptions depend; everything is happening in relation to me. Again, this is not a mistake. As we grow up, forming an ego, a self-image, is crucial for our capacity to interface with the world. But when we cling to this image, we lose connection with our authentic self. We solidity and limit what in reality is a rich, ever-changing play of mental and material experiences.

The third skandha invites us to look deeply into the mechanics of perception in order to connect us with the reality that lies underneath. We see that images are fixed and solid, whereas the experience to which they are pointing is alive and always changing. We see – not intellectually, but experientially – how clinging to something that is inevitably changing causes dissatisfaction and suffering.

Who is behind the action?

The forth aggregate is saṅkhāra. This term has a broad range of meanings and is sometimes translated as “all conditioned things”. It includes all the mental factors, which in Buddhist psychology refers to 52 aspects of the mind (including feelings and perceptions which are singled out in the previous aggregates). So this aggregate can be understood as a collection of capacities that help determine the quality of an object. They help us determine how to relate to the world, and hence tend to color the mind in both helpful and harmful ways.

Another way to understand the forth aggregate is as intention or volition. This capacity, cetanā, is considered to be the most important of the mental factors and is therefore sometimes used synonymously with saṅkhāra itself. Seen this way, the forth aggregate represents the part of our mind that is concerned with the actualisation of our goals – our personal will.

This is the next link in the chain of what we call dependent origination. Again, it all starts with sense contact. As an example, sound waves make contact with your ear drums and you become aware of sound. This is the first aggregate. Once you become conscious of sound, an uncomfortable sensation may occurs (the second aggregate) and you immediately recognise the sound as a fire alarm (the third aggregate of perception). You have all sorts of associations and feelings toward this sound and there is an immediate emotional push toward action. This is how the forth aggregate arises out of a response to our interpretation of perceptions. To repeat; volition arises out of a response to our interpretation of perceptions.

These volitions occur on different levels – in body, speech and mind – and they can be either skilful and unskilful, either ethical or unethical. This is a really important point because this is what determines the fruit of our actions. In Buddhist terms, cetanā is the most significant mental factor in generating karma. What we experience right now is the result of our volitions in the past. And our volitions in the present create our future. So this is really worth investigating. What are the motivations behind my actions? What seeds am I planting, and am I willing to bear the fruit of that?

Over time, with experience, we see the relation between actions and outcomes. For example, as we grow up, we see that if we only drink coca cola and play video games, we are unlikely to reach our dreams and goals. But we may still struggle to change our behavior because they are so deeply conditioned. This is where the practice of mindfulness and meditation can help. As we learn to stay with what is, we see the motivations behind our actions with more clarity. We become aware of the arising of a volition and gain the freedom to choose whether or not to act it out. As Joseph Goldstein says, we become aware of the “about to-moment” – the moment right before we say or do something. This is where we find freedom of choice.

We can easily see how volition forms an aggregate of clinging. We often have a particularly strong identification with volition, our personal will. We identify with our actions, our performance, our competence and we feel that we are the one behind intentions (“I want”, “I must”, “I speak”, “I think”). And in a relative way, this is all true. But as we look closer, we find many contradicting impulses, volitions and parts of our psyche that are competing for the “drivers seat” – the seat of the self.

With mindfulness, we begin to experience the impersonal nature of volition. We see intentions and the various parts of our psyche as conditioned responses to past circumstances. We see how they arise and pass away without any claim of our identity. And we see how our clinging to them as “me” or “mine” reinforces a self image that creates resistance and suffering in the mind.

The witness

The fifth aggregate is viññāṇa, or “consciousness”. We could call it “the witness” – the knowing quality which is present throughout all of our experience. Think about it; consciousness is part of every experience we ever have. The contents of awareness – thoughts, moods, sense experience – keep changing but the witness is continuous. Like a mirror, it reflects without being affected.

Different traditions have different understandings of consciousness. Some emphasise a universal consciousness that stands behind everything. It is thought of as the substrate of all experience – that which everything is made of. And in this context, awakening is understood as the realisation of this pure consciousness.

In the mindfulness tradition, it’s not seen quite that way. Here, consciousness is understood as arising and passing based on causes and conditions just like the mental factors we have investigated. There are 6 different types of consciousnesses, corresponding to the 6 senses. For example, when a sense object (odorant particles in the air) comes into contact with a sense organ (the nose) and there is attention, smell consciousness arises. We become aware of smell. From this viewpoint, our entire lives are like an orchestra of different sensory experience and mind moments arising and passing. But we tend to ignore this and we superimpose continuity on our experience. It is like watching a series of picture frames flicker through in rapid succession and seeing it as a continuous movie. But as our mindfulness increases, we begin to see the individual frames and the rapidity of change, which gradually reveals consciousness as a distinct quality of our experience.

Normally, we are only conscious of the object of our awareness. But as our mindfulness becomes stronger, we become aware of awareness itself. The knower and the known are distinct but not separable. As an example, look at an object in the room and notice that is has a color and a shape. The color is distinct from the shape, but you can’t separate them. In the same way, the witness and the object are distinct but not separable.

We are basically learning to take the position of the witness. It is almost like a separate entity, watching as our lives happen. We shift from the content of awareness to the context. We begin see each mind moment as a temporary, impersonal happening. The witness does not identify with thoughts or judgements – it is simply aware of them. From this place, everything is like a fleeting river with nothing to hold on to. This experience can be unsettling from the ego’s perspective because its very nature is to fixate and control. But it can also lead to a letting go and a sense of spaciousness, freedom and bliss.

But even consciousness can be an aggregate of clinging. The ego tries to grab hold of experiences, insights, and states of consciousness. It makes even “selflessness” into another concept, or a goal to be attained. This is a reminder that the ultimate goal of this teaching – if we can call it that – is not to attain a certain state. It is not to experience some wonderful feeling, or to get high. It is to liberate the mind.

Nirvana as non-clinging

Through meditation, we gain access to deep truths about our experience – what we have called “the 3 marks of existence”. We get underneath the level of concepts and we cut through the illusion of solidity. We see the truth of impermanence on every level, from galaxies and stars to the quantum level of reality. Societies and cultures rise, change and fall. Our momentary thoughts and experience keep changing. The rate of change is perhaps particularly clear in today’s digital age, where information exchange happens at an incredible rate. Everything is instantaneous, and nothing lasts long enough to hold on to.

As we have explored in this Frame, the truth of impermanence also applies to the aggregates. By ignoring and resisting this truth – by taking the aggregates to be solid and permanent – we create contraction and fear. We desperately hold on, looking fo security and satisfaction where it cannot be found. This is the second noble truth: clinging leads to suffering. To the degree we identify with that which changes, we create dissatisfaction.

Again, there is no problem with the aggregates in themselves, only in our clinging to them. We need to internalise this experience. It is not about the content of our awareness, but about how we hold it. This is the difference between suffering and freedom.

Thoughts, feelings, concepts, relationships, possession of objects is all part of life. And we can enjoy them for what they are. But when we grasp after them, they start to control us. When are not mindful of our thoughts, for example, they possess tremendous power. We create stories and concepts in our mind that end up controlling us. We superimpose perceptions on top of changing experiences, and we act out of fear and a need for control.

When we see the aggregates for what they are, they become the vehicle of our awakening. We see thoughts and feelings arise and pass as self-less, temporary phenomena. We experience the body as a subtle flow of energy and our entire experience can become a joyful expression of the aggregates rising and passing.

We don’t have to wait for particular conditions in order to be mindful; everything we encounter is potentially the object of our mindfulness. With this shift in perspective, nothing changes and yet nothing remains the same. When we claim no ownership of the aggregates, we no longer suffer from the mistaken sense of self. When we let go of ideas of solidity, we no longer suffer from the truth of change. Again:

“When there is no clinging, there is no agitation, when not agitated we personally attain nirvana.”

The series continues with the exploration of the 6 senses, where we learn to bring mindfulness to the entirety of our sensory experience.

mindfulness of mind, citta, satipatthana, third foundation of mindfulness 3