We have been looking at the Five Aggregates that the Buddha identified as where we place our sense of self. We looked at the body, preferences (feeling tones), thoughts/emotions (mental formations) and urges/impulses/intentions (volition). Now we are looking at the fifth and final: Consciousness, the inner observer of the other four.
In our investigation, we’ve looked at each of these aspects of who we believe ourselves to be and discovered that under close scrutiny none of them is permanent, solid or governable. None of them stands up to the test of being ‘me’ as a separate self. Now we are looking at the fifth one with maybe a bit of desperation, as it seems to be our last chance to claim a solid separate self.
And what a wonderful candidate. Consciousness is totally cool, non-judgmental, just aware and grooving with life. Yes! That’s the ‘me’ I’m talking about.
Uh, well, sorry, but no.
Consciousness is affected by all manner of causes and conditions. It changes, for example, when we are asleep, when we are on a drug, when we are under anaesthesia. Sometimes we are as awake and alert as we can be, and other times we barely notice anything. Have you had the experience of arriving somewhere, realizing you don’t remember the trip? Consciousness is variable and impermanent.
It’s also ungovernable. Just try to pay attention to something that bores you. You drift off into daydreams or sleep, right? At another time of day, the very same thing might interest you, but your state of consciousness has shifted and, try as you might, you just can’t take it in.
As meditators, we know all about the ungovernable nature of consciousness. It’s why meditation is called a practice. With practice we are able to strengthen patterns of mindfulness, and we may even develop a sense of being present in the moment most of the time. But even so each sitting is different, dependent on causes and conditions that affect consciousness.
You have probably had at least moments of heightened awareness, either in meditation or standing in awe of nature’s beauty. Ahhh. You know that moment, right before you get entangled in wishing life could always be like this or that you could always pay this level of attention. Ah, me.
Even the most practiced meditator, given volatile causes and conditions, may nod off or get lost in overwhelming thoughts or emotions. So this fifth aggregate of Consciousness is also ungovernable.
Ungovernable, impermanent…in other words not something solid and separate I can claim as ‘me’. Consciousness exists and we can use it, but it doesn’t define us.
Where does all this ‘not me’ leave me?
If none of the Five Aggregates is ‘me’ — solid, separate, permanent and under my control — where does that leave me? I’ve found the most effective way to think about it is to switch over from vesting in the world of nouns: I, me, my stuff, my life, etc. to the infinitely more exciting and life-affirming world of verbs: being, experiencing, living. This switch allows the locked-in labels I’ve relied on so heavily to soften up. It expands my experience and frees me to feel fully alive and interconnected with all life.
Sure, I live this life under the name of Stephanie Noble for the convenience of being able to engage in the world of solid objects in relationship. My driver’s license, passport, etc. are all useful, giving me the freedom to manage this body-life in all the ways we as a culture have established.
But how miserable I could make myself — have made myself at times — if my sense of self relies upon this unstable ever-changing set of circumstances that are this body, these preferences, these thoughts and emotions, these urges and impulses, and these states of consciousness!! All of these arose out of the ever-evolving interdependent co-arising conditions of life itself. I can cling to these aggregates like life rafts to survive the perceived maelstrom of life, or I can discover that I can swim, I can fly, I can let go of that limited sense of ‘I’. I can attune to the rhythms of life, cultivate compassion for all beings because we are all one incredibly complex system of aliveness.
When we get caught up in naming ‘me’ and claiming ‘mine’, we can’t help but fall into blaming and shaming ourselves as well as people we perceive to be ‘other’. Stirring up suffering for ourselves and all around us, rippling out into the whole world because nothing is separate. Out of fear, we activate fear-based reactivity in those we meet, confirming our fears. Whatever we believe to be true will be confirmed by all we encounter, because we’re so interconnected that we set the stage everywhere we go. And then we say, ‘See, I was right!’
Wouldn’t you rather be joyously experiencing being alive in this moment, just as it is? What a gift to experience this body that can move and sense, these feeling tones, these thoughts and emotions that help us navigate in the world, these urges and impulses that have the potential to inspire us to engage in helpful and meaningful ways for the benefit of all beings, and consciousness — what a gift to able to be present in this moment to experience it all.
The Buddha recognized the suffering caused from clinging to the manufactured idea of a separate self. Modern science supports the Buddha’s early findings: Physically we are commingling patterns of interactions — electrical, chemical and elemental — in a constant state of flux from solid to liquid to gas and back again. If we don’t see it happening, that’s due to a combination of limited senses and cultural agreement. The technology to see it all is changing our understanding of the nature of matter. Expanding to allow some awareness of the true nature of being is quite liberating!
The cultural agreement most of us adhere to could arise benignly from our limited perceptions, but it can also be enforced by those caught up in limited thinking who, in order to fortify their sense of separate self, engage in fear tactics to assure that others do too. Greed is fear in action, shoring up power and wealth to fortify a sense of separate self. Those in power recognize that people who are afraid are more malleable, and more willing to hand over their power. But those who sense their intrinsic connection to all life, and see themselves as natural expressions of life loving itself, are not easily manipulated. They feel supported just by being alive in this moment. And they feel compassion for those whose sense of power arises from their fear of not being enough, not having enough. How much more skillful we are speaking truth to power if we recognize the fear-based delusion there.
Coming home to our intrinsic aliveness of being, we discover all we have to offer, and instead of waiting around for someone to see us — separate and afraid of being rejected — we bloom in the way causes and conditions came together in this ever-evolving set of patterns that we nickname ‘me’. We come into skillful relationship with the aggregates that don’t define us so much as provide us with the tools to fully engage in life.
As an example, after teaching this to my class, I received an email from one of my students who said, “I went to a summit meeting of all these high-powered people. Normally I would have been too intimidated to speak. But I kind of sensed we were all just temporary incarnations of the same basic stuff, and I was able to contribute.” This huge shift of understanding of the nature of things is indeed empowering! We come into real power, not the fear-based fortress-building faux power that tries to divide us.
Coming to Wise View
With this exploration we begin to see how when we rail against impermanence and we cling to a sense of separate self, we suffer. This was the Buddha’s finding, and the finding of those who give themselves the gift of the daily practice of meditation, weekly dharma talks and occasional silent retreats.
Developing Wise View is ongoing. It is unskillful to beat ourselves up about our lack of skillfulness. Who are we beating up? If there is no separate self, then there is no one to attack. Instead we rest in awareness of being alive in this moment just as it is with compassion for all life.