‘Am I what I know and how I know it?’

We continue to explore the Buddha’s Five Aggregates in the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. We have looked at material form and feeling tones. Now we will look at cognition.

Cognition is the way we organize the information we take in as we experience the world. The brain develops a highly complex system of assessing, comparing, categorizing and ordering experience into patterns that make them instantly retrievable, so we can make informed decisions at any given moment.

My youngest granddaughters are at the stage of life where everyone around them is telling them the name, color, shape, size and use of any particular object. They are busy building their information organizing system. I am fortunate to be part of the team of caregivers who help them develop their systems. It does sometimes strikes me as funny that on babysitting day, I point to an object and say ‘chair’ and maybe add other information like ‘green’; while on dharma teaching day, in the same room, I might point to the same object and ask my students to consider that, on an atomic level, that same object is not so solid, not so ‘chair’ and not so ‘green’ as it appears.

We tend to skip thinking on an atomic level and accept the solid-seeming nature of the world around us because it makes it easy to get around. Our brains do a great job of connecting the dots, organizing the information into useful patterns. But we can take one step more and develop the awareness that it is just a convenient shorthand that we are agreeing to use. With this awareness we can still fully function within the system, but we can hold it more lightly.


When we get attached to our solid understanding of the world and ourselves, we suffer. Because things fall apart. If we trusted them to be solid, then we are shocked and betrayed when they prove themselves to be impermanent. Next time something you were used to changes or disappears, notice your thoughts, emotions and sensations. Is suddenly everything thrown out of whack? Does it threaten your sense of rightness? This is being tossed about on a sea of causes and conditions that are not in our control. How do we learn to surf in these conditions instead of drown in them?

How attached are you to the way you process information?If we are highly knowledgeable or capable of processing certain kinds of information, we might feel a sense of pride and believe it to be who we are. Conversely, if we feel we aren’t competent in a particular way, it can be a source of discomfort or even shame.

Since we were children we have probably been given compliments and applause for displaying these skill sets or made to feel inadequate in some way when we struggle with learning, figuring things out, etc. We have internalized all of it and made it into identifying aspects of our ‘self’, whom we hold ourselves to be. We can’t change our childhood, but we can see through the conclusions we accepted as true. Think of labels you apply to yourself in regard to intelligence.

One student emailed me the day after class about an insight that came up for her. Being good at math has always been a part of how she sees herself. When that skill set is not as reliable as it once was, she gets upset with herself. Her ‘aha!’ moment came when she realized that she isn’t as physically agile as she once was either, but since she isn’t so vested in that ability, since it isn’t a strong part of who she believes herself to be, she’s much more accepting of that change. In this insight she saw for herself how suffering arises from believing herself to be ‘a person who is good at math’.

This is how insight meditation is meant to work: We get some new information — from something we read or hear, or maybe from pausing as we walk in nature — that stirs something up inside, and then in our own way, at our own pace, we come to an insight. This process is not a struggling intellectual exercise, but simply a spacious awareness that allows us to see more clearly thoughts as they arise.

Take a moment now to notice some facility you have that readily comes to mind when you think of who you are. If that facility were no longer so facile, would you still be you? If not, you are holding on tight to something insubstantial and thereby potentially causing yourself to suffer unnecessarily. This is a noticing, so you are not going to instantly let go of this sense of identity just because you saw it. But the seeing it is creating spaciousness so that the belief can exist, but its impact is lessened. With continued compassionate noticing, it will loosen its grip more and more.

What we learn from our own noticing is the valuable lesson that stays with us. If you have such an aha! I suggest you write it down in the words as they came to you. Keep that ‘note to self’ with you and refer to it again and again when you need it. This becomes your personal journey that is giving you the answers you need right now.


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