The fourth Aggregate is volition. Like feeling tones and cognition, this is a mental formation, made of thoughts and emotions. But unlike the others, volition is what causes action to take place. It is not the action itself, but the arising urge to act.
For example, we are in a conversation, have the compelling urge to say something and blurt it out. In the moment before we speak, there is volition. Maybe we don’t notice volition as we whiz right past it into speech or action, but it is there. And it is a guaranteed life-enhancer to spend some time understanding what really happens at that point of volition.
Thinking back, most of us can see that there have probably been occasions we wish we had paused to consider the wisdom of speaking or acting out. With mindfulness practice, we learn to take that pause, see the urge, the volition, and see if it is coming from a place of kindness and connection or if is arising out of fear in a hunger for approval or the need to defend our sense of separate self.
In sitting practice we might watch how feeling tones, especially unpleasant ones, spark volition. The desire to move, scratch or stretch, for example, rises out of nowhere and now we are sitting with it. Ordinarily we would scratch or move without even being aware that we did so. But here we are sitting with a strong intention to be still, present and compassionate. So we can see volition in operation, pushing hard for an action, taunting us to do something about this now seemingly intolerable situation of a leg falling asleep or some other physical sensation that calls out for action. We are still, creating with our attention to the breath or other physical sensation a quality of spaciousness and clarity. We watch how, as we continue to notice the volition, it eventually falls away.
This is not to say you ‘must not scratch or move’, because nothing will make us itchier or more restless than the idea that we can’t. But in simply noticing the volition, we can get curious. We can pause before acting to question whether it is necessary. Maybe it’s not. Maybe if we just sit and observe the volition, it will pass. It always does, but sometimes not soon enough and we find we are no longer able to sit with it. So we act. But that awareness is there. We notice. That’s the valuable skill of mindfulness we are developing.
Just like the other aggregates, we discover volition is insubstantial and impermanent, no matter how urgent it seems at the time. Unheeded, it dissolves into nothingness, sooner or later.
Volition is also ungovernable. We didn’t make up this itch. It happens in the field of our experience. We will either be mindless and act upon it, or mindful and discern whether the action it calls for is skillful.
Clearly this insubstantial, impermanent and ungovernable volition is not who we are, but it is a valuable place to rest our awareness because it is the place we have the opportunity to be skillful, creating ease and happiness instead of suffering.
There are two kinds of volition:
The first is volition that is conditioned by past actions that have set in motion the arising of the same destructive decisions over and over again.
The second is the conditioning decisions we make in the present that affect our current and future experiences.
Each of us has plenty of source material to look at as we develop mindfulness in our lives. We can notice the arising of a decision to do something. At that moment of noticing we can skillfully pause and examine the ‘strings attached’ to this volition, this urge to do something. We can notice:
What thoughts or emotions preceded the urge?
What cause or condition sparked it?
Does the cause resonate with some memory of a similar situation?
If so, are we reacting to some long ago distress that we haven’t faced and just use as a mindless basis to keep making poor choices?
Even a tiny spark of fire can set alight a mountain of hay.
Do not take lightly small good deeds believing they can hardly help
For drops of water one by one in time can fill a giant pot.