The five skandhas, translated as ‘heaps’ or aggregates, are a model of mind dating from the time of the Buddha. It’s one of a number of ‘maps’ of our psycho-physical experience, Buddhist and otherwise, that can help us when we turn our attention inwards to direct experience, to locate some landmarks and features amidst a vast range of experiences that make up being a human being. Pretty much anything we experience can be found in one of these five groupings or categories of inner experience.
The five skandhas are: form/rupa (our experience of having a body, having taken form and our physical senses), feeling/vedana (generally noticed as how any experience will feel either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), perception/samjna (or how we recognize and lable experience), volition/samskhara (also talked of as mental formations or will) and consciousness/vijnana (that which cognizes or knows objects of experience). It’s important to say that although we can talk about them individually, it is not really possible to separate out the workings of the human mind into discrete entities.
The five skandhas could also be simplified down to two – body and mind. The first skandha, form, represents all the physical processes involved in having a human body, and the four remaining skandhas are all mental processes essential to a working mind. The four mind skandhas are overlapping processes acting together, and the body/mind is an interrelationship of physical and mental processes.
The skandha processes work together to form an overall experience from diverse facets of the perceptual process. Together they build a seamless experience of what we take to be ‘I’ or ‘myself’. Below I’m paraphrasing Analayo in his book ‘Mindfully Facing Disease & Death’ where he describes the functions of the different facets. The physical body is experienced as the location of where I am, feeling tone shows how I am, and perceptions take in all our sense data and measure it against our past memory banks leading to a strong sense of what I am. Mental volitions or formations make choices dependent on previous actions that have formed our habits in the present – why I am, and consciousness being conscious of each moment of experience contributes to the continuous sense of knowing, whereby I am.
In themselves the aggregates are quite neutral – simply a way of describing processes of mind. What is problematic is implied in the full name usually given them – the aggregates of clinging. When we cling to our feelings, habits, and thoughts and ideas, as well as the act of conceiving, we reinforce deeply held unexamined views about our experience. The deepest and most implicit of these ideas revolves around an implicit and firm belief that ‘me’ or ‘myself’ is real and fixed. We don’t cling onto the skandhas without a good reason; we are seeking some sort of security and stability and look to find it through trying to control our experience and make it conform to our ideas and views. Usually quite unconsciously we hold ideas about how we or others should be, or how the world should be. What we need to do is become clearer about the ideas we hold as ideas, and then look at what is actually happening within. Are our thoughts, feelings, impulses to action solid and static or are they continually moving, flowing, and changing?
Working with the Five Skandhas in awareness practice.
A lot of skandha practice whether through study, reflection or meditation involves investigating this territory in the mind and body. In receptive mindfulness practice we look gently within our direct experience to see what’s happening. Mindfulness, or awareness, enables us to look reflexively not only at the sense objects such as body sensations, or sounds, sights, or smells and tastes, but also at the mind itself.
Awareness of ‘rupa’ or form means we can notice all the sensations available to awareness through scanning the tactile body. These include but are not limited to, sensations connected to movement, temperature, pressure, tension, hardness or softness, weight, or weightlessness. This is the realm form along with the other physical senses. It is all known by the mental component of experience, that of ‘nama’ or mind.
When we learn to watch the mind, the mental component of skandhas practice, we might initially notice thoughts and other mind objects such as emotions and images. When awareness is combined with Right View, or a helpful (dharma) perspective on experience, with practice we can notice more and more subtle processes of mind including feelings, perceptions, and volitions.
Right View allows us to recognise and know a mental process as a process and as part of our subjective experience. When Right View is operating in the mind with mindfulness, we don’t identify with any of the objects of experience. It is a beautiful shift from being identified (for example) with a thought, which usually involves believing the content of the thought, to understanding the nature of the thought as something momentary and insubstantial arising in the mind.
As we watch our mental and physical processes arise, persist and disappear, while we meditate and in our day to day life we become less and less hoodwinked by the forces of clinging/craving, and its counterweight, aversion. The mind without craving and aversion is able to see things as they unfold – a moment of perceiving, an impulse to act or an unpleasant feeling – without being compelled to respond habitually. The mind can respond creatively with what is most appropriate in the moment. When the mind is free of reactivity, even for just a few moments, it can give us great faith and confidence in the capacity of the mind for more freedom, and in being mindful of the mental and physical processes of the skandhas as one way to that freedom.