I have been teaching a class which includes introducing people to practical uses of some of the earliest teachings of Buddhist psychology: seeing through the neurosis of the self by bringing the aggregates into view; getting off the twelve-part wheel of suffering. This piece will focus on the aggregates and my next piece on the wheel.
Most peoples’ lives are dominated by a running narrative about who they have been, who they should be, and how to protect themselves from a world they have been hurt by and that is full of unpredictable events like the coronavirus. This narrative has an important function—in the case of the coronavirus, our individual narrative joins with other people’s to implement behaviors that protect us and keep us safe. Unfortunately, coronavirus or not coronavirus, our narrative spills over everything, impeding our ability to be fully present in our moments and, instead, stay on high alert much of the time.
Early Buddhist psychology suggests that this “self” is a fabrication, which consists of a five-part process of internal experience, referred to as 5 “heaps” or aggregates. These five heaps are: form, sensation/feeling, perception, concept, and consciousness. “Consciousness” is the one that dominates our lives as the storyteller.
Early Buddhist psychology also suggests that it is quite possible for consciousness to let go of rigid domination by the so-called story teller as we “bring the aggregates into view,” a practice which meditators have been engaging in for hundreds of years. As we develop the ability to do bring these components into view, we find that we are more present for, and intimate with our moments and not captured by before and after and the domination by the fifth aggregate, consciousness.
Here’s an example I used in class: As I am talking to the group, I notice someone yawning. I am making contact with the form of this person’s face. Immediately, I have a negative sensation/feeling. (Our root sensations/feelings are all either positive, negative, or neutral). A split second later I have a pre-verbal perception of his yawning expression. In another split second the concept yawning arises. This leads to consciousness: the story-telling narrative and reflections about my experience, which often spills over into everything we do.
The problem is that when consciousness takes over, chattering on and on about what we have experienced, we lose the ability to be with the first four aggregates that keep us grounded. These include contact with different forms, the sensations/feelings emanating from that contact, followed by our perceptions, followed by thoughts or concepts. Then consciousness takes over and this entire process happens very rapidly. I distract myself by thinking about whether that person is bored by me and/or I may worry about how to make the class more lively or how maybe I am getting too old to teach, etc.
Consciousness serves an important function- we don’t want to lobotomize ourselves. It’s wonderful that we have the ability to think, remember, plan, and imagine (and join together to prevent the spread of a virus), but not so wonderful when this mind of ours goes on and on about everything and we forget to enjoy the intimacy of moment-to-moment living.
“Bringing the aggregates into view”can work very well during our meditation. Let’s say there is a coffeepot on in the kitchen and I smell it while I am sitting in the meditation hall. I am making contact with a form through my nostrils; I have a positive sensation/feeling; I have a pre-verbal perception of the aroma; then the thought “coffee in the kitchen”arises. Thoughts begin to take off about my experience within consciousness. But if my meditation is going well a couple of things might happen: 1. I have been so focused on experiencing these first four aggregates that I am not swept away by the fifth. I merely say to myself “Oh, someone is making coffee,” and I come back to my sensations and/or breath; 2. I catch myself after a minute or two of narrative about the coffee and come back to whatever sensations/feelings I am currently experiencing.
Of course, it takes practice to learn to do this well, but anything we deeply care about takes practice. Next time I will talk about a practice for getting off the wheel of suffering which is quite similar to the one above. Both of these practices can help us calm down and just enjoy being present, coronavirus or no coronavirus, while prudently following the advice of knowledgeable health professionals.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher