Category Archives: five aggregates

Urges, impulses & intentions – oh my!

Have you ever regretted something you said or did? Of course. We all have. But what made us say or do it? Maybe it’s just the way we are. We’re just impulsive. Hmm, is that true?
Through the regular practice of meditation, mindfulness grows and we become less subject to urges and more likely to check in with the nature of our intentions. We can still have fun — lots of it! — but we don’t have to wreak havoc, leaving hurt feelings and regrets in our wake. And if we do absentmindedly say or do something unskillful, we are ready and able to do what we need to do to make things better instead of sitting around moaning, “Oh, I’m such a bad person.”

(To those of you who find sweet treats hard to resist, my apologies for this photo I took at my local market. Generally I try not to look at it, though it’s right by the main entrance. I’m sharing it here not to torment you but to illustrate a little mind trick I developed when I was caught up in a pattern of heavy-duty craving: I’d imagine a banquet of desserts of all kinds. I would name them all, and by the time I got to the seventh or eight dessert, I’d feel as bloated and disinterested as if I’d actually eaten them. If you’re craving sweets, just look at this photo and imagine eating each and every one of these pastries. That ought to do it!)

With regular meditation practice, we notice the way these urges and impulses arise, seemingly out of nowhere. If we act on them, we see how they cause disruption, chaos and misery. And we see an opportunity that we may never have noticed before: The ability to pause to consider our choice of words and actions. 

This isn’t just developing will power to override the impulses. It’s a spacious compassionate pause where suddenly we are not on autopilot or caught up in the thrall of them. In clock time this pause may be just a second, but internally it feels beyond the confines of time, the clarity slows everything down and brings in all past and future thought patterns that come into play. All the senses come alive so that if, for example, we are craving something, we can simply stay present with the physical sensations of that urge to fulfill the craving. In that moment we have time to consider our options and make a choice that is beneficial and wholesome, for ourselves and all life.

This pause, one of the many gifts of meditation, is so different from the mental patterns we may have been using in the past: judging, accusing, finagling our way into someone’s heart or out of a tough spot. We all have done the best we can with what we were given to deal with, but now we have been given a more skillful means. We can stop compiling evidence of wrongdoing, either our own or others, and begin fresh in each moment.

Many years ago, when my daughter was in her late teens, we were in the kitchen arguing about something. Our words became heated and hurtful. It was not an unusual pattern for us, or for many mothers and daughters. But that day, suddenly my perspective shifted. I saw myself standing there ranting, and I paused, astonished at the absurd gesticulating caricature I saw. I started laughing. It was so senseless that argument, whatever it was about. I love my daughter and, though we’ve had our differences as all people do, we would do anything for each other out of that deep bond. Reader, that was nearly 25 years ago, and we have never fought in that overheated way again. We discuss our different opinions with respect and caring.

(This brings up a question: If I changed, then was I the one that was causing these arguments? Maybe, Or maybe it shows that one person in a relationship can bring about a big difference just by shifting the energy. If you are in a relationship and want change but think the other person won’t budge, just send them loving-kindness every time you think of them and see what effect it has on your relationship. And be kind to yourself as well. How we treat ourselves determines how we treat others.)

In this series of posts, we have been looking at what constitutes wise or skillful View, the first of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s prescription to cure suffering. This view is informed by seeing impermanence as the natural way of all life, and by coming home to the realization that we are intrinsically woven into all being. 

Since in our culture we most likely have been taught to see divisions and individualism, we have a particularly difficult time seeing ourselves as interwoven in the fabric of life. So we are spending some time looking at the Five Aggregates that the Buddha identified as the ways we hold ourselves separate and thus cause suffering. Feel free to look back to see the first three: Body, Preferences, Thoughts and emotions.

Volition
In this post, we are looking at the urges, impulses, intentions that occur right before we speak or act. As one of the Five Aggregates they are grouped together and called ‘volition’. And now, just as we did with the first three aggregates, we ask whether volition is who we are. Let’s investigate.

Someone says something and you take it the ‘wrong way’ and you snap back. What’s going on there? You feel under attack. But what is being attacked? A sense of self created out of a lot of fear-based reactivity? Or maybe you don’t snap back because you agree with the low opinion and use it to further demean yourself. Or you don’t speak up but then spend hours, days, months, years, thinking up various perfect snappy comebacks.

Wow, that’s a lot of misery, isn’t it? There’s all that ill-will toward the other person, who has either forgotten about it because they thought it was benign, or feels terrible about it and is eaten up with regret, or any of a number of other variations that happen when people act on urges, impulses and poorly thought out intentions.

Thinking back, most of us can identify occasions when 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 and notice 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 that pause we are not censoring ourselves. Nor are we imagining some external authority dictating our behavior. It’s not the calculating “If I do that I’ll get in trouble” or the fretful “I will be seen as bad”. It is the wholesome clear-seeing recognition of causes and consequences: “If I do that there will be ongoing suffering.”
As we practice meditation and cultivate mindfulness, we deepen our understanding of the interconnection of all life. We cease feeling we have to shore up our separate identity in some convoluted attempt to get people to care about us. Instead, we relax into the feeling of being an intrinsic part of the web of life, and enjoy the sense of kindness and compassion such an understanding naturally brings.

What are these urges and impulses?
Consider how much they have to do with chemical activity in the brain. Testosterone, dopamine and adrenaline activate all kinds of impulsive behavior. Are we those chemicals? And hormonal levels change all the time. Are we defining ourselves as ‘stable’ and then losing all sense of ourselves when the chemicals change? Think of all the ways we define ourselves and others: Oh, he’s an angry guy. Is he? Or is he currently experiencing a lot of testosterone in combination with certain causes and conditions and lack of training in how to cope with them? What a difference it makes to see people without labeling them in that limiting way. Of course, you don’t have to hang out with anyone who’s being destructive, but it’s certainly skillful to silently send loving-kindness, seeing fellow beings as intrinsically connected.

How freeing to let go of labels — for others and for ourselves! With a label attached we may feel helpless to deal with impulsive habituated behavior. But let the label go and develop a regular practice of meditation, and things shift.

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.

In investigating the nature of Volition, all we have to do is be present in this moment, and see what comes up. We can notice an impulse, urge or decision to do something; and skillfully pause to see the ‘strings attached’ to this volition. We might ask ourselves:
– What thoughts or emotions preceded the urge?
– What cause or condition sparked it?
We might find some memory of a similar situation that may or may not be helpful.
We might recognize that we are reacting to some long ago distress that we haven’t faced and just use as a mindless basis to keep making poor choices.

Insight Meditation helps us to see through the maze of patterned responses that seem to dictate our lives, the ones we have identified as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. This examination is non-judgmental, patient and kind but clear-seeing, so that the pattern of excuses are seen as well. We create a safe space to be honest. Knowing that none of this is who we are and that we don’t have to shore up and protect our identity, we can acknowledge when we are speaking or behaving unskillfully and set the intention to be more skillful by noticing the urge to act or speak and pause there.

Developing the ability to be compassionate with ourselves and others, we are seeding our present and future with kindness, compassion and joy in being alive in this moment just as it is.


Are you defined by your yum, yuck or yawn?

(NOTE: We are exploring the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, a handy set of tools that help us recognize and end suffering in any situation. The first of the eight ‘tools’ or aspects that we’ve been looking at is Skillful View. Our view of existence is off-kilter if we think that everything can or should stay the same, and if we believe we are isolated instead of an integral part of the fabric of being. Because impermanence is so obvious in the changing of the seasons and in the mirror, I only ask that you look around and at least accept if not celebrate the ever-changing wonder if life.
Understanding the concept of ‘no separate self’ is more challenging, because everywhere we look we find cultural reinforcement of the belief that we are separate and in need of identity fortification. So to help us, I’ve brought in the Buddha’s Five Aggregates to delve deeper.)

In the last post we considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is this body we care for, enjoy, abuse and suffer. We saw how the body grows, ages, dies, and is subject to illness and injury. We recognized that on a cellular level the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world. And we observed that, for the most part the body is beyond our control, as we had no say in most of its dimensions, coloration and distinctive features, and it operates independently of our will for the majority of its functions. Impermanent, not separate, and beyond our control in many ways.

These are what make us understand that the body doesn’t define us: changeable, inseparable and beyond our control. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these filters to the four other aggregates. All these teachings shine a light for you to look and see for yourself. Please don’t take my word for it, or even the Buddha’s. Discover for yourself if this is true.

Yum, yuck and yawn
Now we continue to the Second Aggregate that keeps us clinging to the painful belief that we are separate: Feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, what I like to call yum! yuck! or yawn.

We all have things we like and don’t like. Where we get in trouble is when we lock in those preferences and believe they define us. What a depletion of enjoyment it would be to narrow down life’s experiences to only a predefined set of preferences that relies on our not being fully present to our senses in each moment.

Let’s use chocolate as an example. Look at the difference between tasting a piece of chocolate with a fresh palate, really experiencing the flavors, and claiming “I’m a chocolate lover (or a chocoholic) so I love this.” Caught up in assumptions and beliefs, we activate the craving and maybe gobble it up without tasting it at all. Do we even like chocolate in this moment? How would we know? All our thoughts and emotions are abuzz and entangled in ideas of identity.
As a person who has long identified with being a ‘chocoholic’ and bonding with friends over that belief, I can attest to the fact that, if I am truly in the moment tasting in a meditative way, the sensations of eating chocolate are not as satisfying as I believe them to be. Oh no, who am I without my chocolate? There’s almost a sense of betrayal to my tribe of chocolate lovers.

Now let’s expand our exploration into other preferences and how we define ourselves by them. How about a sports team? Our local basketball team is almost all new players and one of the team’s shining stars has an injury so won’t be able to play this season. Yet fans will continue to follow and root for their team, wear their jerseys and wave their banners. Why? Because that team brand is part of how they identify themselves as part of a particular tribe. Automatic acceptance and connection.

Then there’s political affiliation. This is not simply a logically thought out set of ideas and then finding politicians to go carry them out, is it? No, this is deeply rooted loyalty. When I was in elementary school, enjoying the easy camaraderie of my classmates, I suddenly felt isolated because it was presidential election season and all the kids sang “I like Ike!” while my mother was devotedly working for Adlai Stevenson. My sense of self was more strongly defined by family and there was no way I would ever betray that by putting on an Ike button to fit in with my friends. I was too young to have any clue what either of the candidates planned to do if elected, yet my perceived identity forced me to take sides. Notice how much other-making comes out of preferences. It can be pretty toxic stuff!

RIght about now, you might be feeling like the Buddha’s asking you to chuck your choices in life, and that is not the case. All that is being asked is to be fully alive in this moment to recognize that our preferences are not who we are. In doing so we might actually be able to enjoy them more or engage in a more meaningful way. Because all we’ve been doing is narrowing our options for savoring life in the fear that without labels we will be lost.

When in fact we will be found! We find ourselves fully alive in this moment, able to appreciate all that arises, able to send lovingkindness to all beings without regard to their tribal affiliations. We can root for a team for the fun of the game, yet still care if a player on another team is hurt. We can seek solutions to challenges without making enemies of those who out of fear resist the changes we seek, or don’t see things as we do. In not making enemies we open to the possibility of real conversations and beneficial means.

I remember arriving late to my 20th high school reunion. My classmates were already seated at big round dinner tables, and the only seats left for us were with people I didn’t know. It turns out in high school they were kids I kept clear of — the ‘greasers’ with their hot rods, the girls with beehive hairdos and heavy makeup. Oh no! But guess what? Twenty years later they were just ordinary people like us, and we had a very pleasant time with them.

Defining ourselves by our preferences, we may feel loved when someone gives us what we like — they’ve been paying attention! – and conversely feel invisible if they give us something we would never choose for ourselves — OMG, they have no clue who we are. But maybe we’re the ones who haven’t been paying attention. After all, our preferences change throughout our lives, depending on what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. There was a time our granddaughter was so excited to see broccoli on her plate she would sing a song about it. An ode to Bahkalee. Now she turns up her nose at it. Tastes change. 

One day in the mid 1970’s I was walking down the street wearing my favorite mini-skirt, when suddenly I felt naked! I could not take a step further. I had to go back home and change. One minute the fashion I had been wearing happily for a number of years was fine, and the next minute it was a total embarrassment!

For those who don’t change with industry-promoted fashions, there might be a certain smugness to having a personal sense of style. But this too can become a ‘taking ourselves to be our preference.’ That style so much defines us that we can’t let it go. There is nothing wrong with our preferences. We only get in trouble when we believe that our preferences define us.

How much trouble can a preference cause? My mother smoked for most of her life. Certainly she was addicted, but she once told me that if it were just a physical addiction she could have kicked the habit years before. What she couldn’t kick was her idea of herself as a smoker — how sophisticated she believed herself to be. If she quit smoking would she be as intellectual and cool? Well, she finally did quit and she was as cool and smart as she’d ever been. Unfortunately it was too late to save her from the emphysema that killed her. She paid a huge price, and all of us who loved her paid a huge price, for her belief that smoking defined her.

Our choice of cars is a powerful preference that for most of us has to correlate with our belief about who we are. I drive an electric car. Enough said! I am automatically putting out a statement about my core values. My daughter is making her statement with a monster truck you can hear coming from two blocks away. She wouldn’t be caught dead driving my car. I wouldn’t be caught dead driving her truck! These hunks of metal are very much tied into who we believe ourselves to be. Next time you see an ad for a car, notice how the message is geared toward your identity, or the identity of someone you perceive to be very different from you.

Which brings up whether our preferences are all that distinct and individual. In fact my mother’s belief that she was cool when smoking was suggested to her by those 1930’s black and white movies where smoking was almost a fine art. Our choice of fashions, cars, homes, etc. are only ever in part our own. We share them with the rest of our culture, or certain groups within our culture with whom we identify. So they are not uniquely us.

When we are so caught up in the belief that we are this preference, we suffer. If, for example, we are assigned a rental car that doesn’t match our personality, we might experience discomfort being seen in something that so ill suits us.

Because these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle, how can they define us? Beyond that they are ungovernable, out of our control. Don’t believe me? Just try to be sexually attracted to someone you’re not. Just try to eat a food you find disgusting. Some of our preferences seem to be hardwired. Even though they may change, they seem to change on their own, not because we mandated the change. And when they change, we might feel uncomfortable, as if we’ve lost a bit of who we are. But if it is not within our control, how can a preference be who we are?

We have preferences galore, enough to keep all kinds of industries in business for many years to come. But is this the self we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — hmm, probably not.

There is a great simile from the Buddha’s teachings of the Five Aggregates of a dog tied to a post. The post represents the Five Aggregates we take ourselves to be. When the dog walks, it can only walk circles around the post. We can’t wander beyond the edges of who we believe ourselves to be. We are chained to these beliefs just as that dog is tied to the post.

The Pali Canon, the recorded teachings of the Buddha, quotes him as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored.

Notice for yourself over the coming week the degree to which you believe your preferences define you. To the degree that they define you, they confine you! We are not trying to erase preferences. We just let go of the idea that they are us.

Come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness, you might free yourself from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. How does that feel?

Image by Jill Wellington

Who are you?

“As I look more deeply, I can see that in a former life I was a cloud. And I was a rock. This is not poetry: It is science. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As we explore the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, we will take it at a leisurely pace, giving ourselves the opportunity to understand each aspect. Within each aspect, there may be a need to review and reflect on other teachings of the Buddha that help us become skillful in that aspect. We might not do this with every aspect, but certainly in this first one, Skillful View, we will. Because how can we become skillful in how we look at things if we haven’t had the opportunity to really look at things? That’s exactly what the Buddha challenges us to do.

We begin by looking at the very heart of his teachings, the Three Marks or Characteristics of Existence to see where we cling to unfounded habituated patterns of thought, causing us to have skewed views of the world we inhabit and ourselves.

THREE MARKS or CHARACTERISTICS

  • All things are impermanent.
  • There is no separate self.
  • Not understanding those two causes suffering.

Okay, let’s take them one at a time:
Impermanence: We may be in the habit of railing against it yet it’s not all that difficult to see that it is the nature of things. Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s autumn: leaves fall off the trees, there’s a chill in the air. Further evidence of impermanence: On my calendar is a memorial service for an old friend, and in my inbox is an email of the latest school photo of our nine-year-old granddaughter that gives a strong indication of her teenage face. It seems just yesterday I was holding her in my arms, whispering welcome to the world. How easy it would be to rail at the passage of time and the impermanence of life. But it doesn’t make my life easier, does it? And it doesn’t make time stop. In fact, it makes my life much more difficult when I either cling to the past or wish away a challenging present in the rush toward a possibly more promising future. Noting and accepting impermanence can lead to appreciating it, finding the wonder of this moment just as it is. Over and over again.

Where in your life might you be wrestling with the nature of impermanence? Can you be compassionate with yourself as you explore the veracity of any untenable position? After all, if no one died, no one would be born. The amazing cyclical natural system would be broken. If nothing changed, there would be no cause for awe and wonder. And without the nature of impermanence and the cycles of nature, we would all starve. You get the idea. It’s not an alien concept.

The third Mark, how we suffer, is not all that hard to see in our lives and the lives of others if we pause to pay attention. Since I wrote about it recently, I won’t go into in-depth here but you are welcome to review.

No Separate Self can be more challenging to understand. But it’s also the one with the greatest sense of reward. Pure joy arises from that deep understanding. So hang in there.

Our habit of mind is to view this body-mind, this thinking-feeling-skin-sac we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ as a singular being. But is it? For practical purposes of managing our lives and our responsibilities in modern life, this way of thinking has its uses. No one is suggesting you toss out your passport, drivers’ license, etc. and erase this identity built up around your name, date of birth, etc. The system’s all set up to support it. It’s a convenience. But that doesn’t mean we have to vest our identity into it hook, line and sinker. It’s much better if we don’t! If we can hold it all more lightly, with appreciation for its benefits, we can access a deeper understanding of the true nature of being.

A couple of posts ago, I offered this scientific explanation of ‘no separate self’:

“All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. So I’m made up of atoms, as is the air I breathe, the solid, liquid and gas all around me, and every being of every species. All atoms all the time, all interconnected, all coming together and falling apart, in an ever-changing state of being. So there are no edges to being. There is fundamentally no separate self.”

Understanding the science doesn’t automatically make us feel that it is true. Our habit of mind is strongly in favor of the separate-self version of being. But how is that working for us? Look around! We humans are incessantly ‘other-making’ in our relationships with each other, the earth and all life. We get stuck in an alienated mode of misery that doesn’t serve us, angry and hurting.

To help us understand ‘no separate self’ on a deeper level, we practice quieting down and being fully present, softening our habitual need to fortify our identity as ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Buddha knew this part is challenging, but he also knew that these teachings lead to the end of suffering, so he persevered. And we will too, as we look at the Five Aggregates that help us understand the idea of ‘no separate self’, and thus, in incremental doses, help us cultivate Wise View. 

The first of the Five Aggregates: Body

We ask the simple question, a child’s question really, but also the question that forms the foundation of many philosophical discussions throughout the ages: Who am I?

Pause for a moment, close your eyes, sense into physical sensation, and ask it again, as if for the first time. ‘Who am I?’ You might say it over and over like a mantra that goes deeper and deeper.

Where is this solid, dependable sense of self that you call ‘I’ and ‘me’?

The first thing that might suggest itself is this physical body, this material form. This is me. This is who I am, or at least it is part of who I am.

Is this true? What are the edges of the self-defined by this body? Is it the skin that is so porous, letting in and out moisture all day long? That very skin sheds itself constantly. Is it still ‘me’ when it’s dust being vacuumed up off the floor and carpet?

What about the breath? Is it ‘me’ when it is in my lungs, but then no longer ‘me’ when it has been exhaled?

The cells in the body are totally different than the ones that were here seven years ago. This seemingly permanent body is neither solid nor separate from the rest of life.

The Buddha said, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen from past causes and conditions…” This body we see as so separate and so intrinsic to our identity is an intrinsic part of the pattern of life ever-changing and evolving. So getting caught up in labeling it and claiming it, feeling pride or shame in it is just another habituated pattern that entangles us. How liberating it can be to recognize that this body in whatever shape or shade it is, is simply the fleeting opportunity to experience life in human form. Can we appreciate the benefits of being embodied — mobility, sensations, etc. — without attachment? Can we take good care of this wondrous temporal vessel of being without wishing it to be other than it is?

Spend some time noticing your own experience of being embodied. After meditating, do some self-inquiry around the body and the way you think of it. Pay attention throughout the day for clues in your thoughts, words and deeds that reveal your perceptions. Ask “Is this true?” Let the automatic answers arise and be acknowledged, but leave room for the quiet wisdom with nothing to fear and nothing to prove also have a say.

Artwork by Gordon Onslow Ford, Lunar Wind, 1962, Parles paint on canvas (Gordon was a friend of my parents and I sure wish I still had the beautiful piece they had of his!)



Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

Coming Home to Our Senses

In our many months of exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness we have been balancing concepts and simple practice. It is important to keep in mind that the practice of anchoring our awareness in physical sensation and cultivating compassion is always more important than the concepts. You can have insight practice without the concepts, but the concepts are only useful in tandem with a dedicated mindfulness practice. These are experience-based teachings. But the concepts, if you can stay with them, will make it so easier to do the practice and to stay grounded in it.  Some of the concepts explored seem abstract, others feel more concrete and easily accessible. Today we will look at just such a concrete teaching: The Sense Spheres. With this exploration we are coming home to our senses. This is where we begin every meditation and where we return to when our mind has wandered off into thought. So it is not foreign or alien. It’s one of the first things we learn as babies. The six sense-spheres are paired in two’s: the sense organ and the sense object. We have the five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Each is paired with its counterpart object: sight, sound, odor, flavor and touch. That’s five senses. What is the sixth? The Buddha considered the mind to be one of the senses because it is an integral part of the process of sensing. Without the mind, how would the sense organs know what they were sensing? It is liberating to think of the mind and thought as just another sense and sense object, as impersonal as the eyes and sight. How refreshing not to think of the mind as who we are but as just an organ that processes sensory input using thought, reason, memory and reflection. Especially as we age and the mind sometimes falters, if we see it as an organ like the ears or eyes or taste-buds, all of which often deteriorate in some way with age, we might be sad or frustrated at the loss, but we do not see it as a personal failing. It’s just another common occurrence in the process of growing older. Applying Our Understanding of The Five Aggregates

The Five Aggregates: body, feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness make up the way we perceive and experience the world which we encounter initially with our senses. Knowing them, we can see clearly the stages of experience and are better able to develop the muscle of mindfulness. Here is a typical sequence of the perceptual process:

  1. Body — Initial contact with a sense object, for example: a sound.
  2. Feeling Tone – We have an immediate feeling tone response to the sound. It’s either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A pleasant ‘What lovely bird song!” or an unpleasant “What an irritating leaf blower!” or a neutral soft thud of a car door closing, that might not even register.
  3. Cognition – We identify or work hard at trying to identify the source of the sound. “What kind of bird is that?” Now if you’re a birder, you might go on to, “I should know that.” If you’re not but think you’d like to be, you might think ‘I should take that class on bird song’ and suddenly your mind has taken you to the local community college, and then you think about how you could go on one of those birding field trips. And suddenly you’re in an Amazon jungle, binoculars in hand staring up into the tangle of vines and leaves. Your mind itself has become a jungle.
    Or if the sound was a leaf blower, we might go, “Maybe it’s not a leaf blower, maybe it’s a chain saw.” The mind wants to identify accurately the source of any sense. “What neighbor is using that chain saw?”
    Then it goes into association that takes us on an extended journey into the past and the future: “I should probably call someone to check out our trees. That one oak has a branch that really looks iffy. I was really afraid in the last storm. Boy that was a rough night.” “I wouldn’t want it to fall on the house. God, what if it fell on the house when the grandchildren were napping in the guest room.” And on, and on in a flurry of memories, planning or fantasy.
  4. Volition – Perhaps we decide to go do something about the sound: If it’s unpleasant we might put our hands over our ears, close the door, or get away from the sound. If it’s pleasant we might move closer to the sound, or we might move our bodies to the delightful rhythms of the sound, or investigate it further to see what the sound is.
  5. Consciousness – At some point we become aware that we are lost in thought.

We don’t decide to think all these thoughts. The thoughts, projections and associations proliferate quickly into a densely woven network, and we are as helplessly trapped as a fly in a spider web. So there’s no point in beating ourselves up about having been lost. And doing so is just another tangle of thoughts we immediately get lost in. That’s why compassion is so important. The moment we are aware that we have been thinking is cause for celebration, not punishment. We are here now in this moment. Ah. How do we untangle ourselves from the web of thought? That’s an almost impossible challenge since we are not aware that we are trapped and don’t see it as a problem until suddenly we do. Wouldn’t it be easier and wiser to learn to recognize how the web arises in the mind and how to not get drawn into it? That’s what we do with mindfulness practice. We slow down enough to see how the process works. We set the intention to be with the sensory experience itself, to let a sound be a sound, a smell be a smell, etc. and to be sufficiently aware not launch into subjective mental activity that takes us out of the present moment.
Woof!   In class we talked about the value of treating the wandering mind like an excited and untrained puppy. This helps us to hold it with the right amount of loving kindness and intention to train it well. We have the puppy-mind on a leash but at first the leash is so long the puppy wanders far and wide. As we learn to hold the leash — learn to anchor our awareness in physical sensation — the puppy may begin to wander but doesn’t go very far before we gently pull the leash.

So in the example above of the mind following a sound all the way to the Amazon, with training maybe it only gets as far as the local community college. With more mindfulness practice, eventually a sound is just noted as sound.


Symphony of Silence    Perhaps you are familiar with the work of John Cage who famously composed and presented a piece titled 4’33 which he performed to a packed symphony hall. It consisted of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence on his part, allowing the sounds of the audience be the symphony. As originally performed it is reported that the audience had a lot of response, was made uncomfortable, and there was a lot to listen to. I just checked several YouTube versions of recently performed versions of 4’33, and the audience was almost completely silent! What a rich silence comes from hundreds of people sitting together paying close attention to one focus, a man with a piano and a timer, or a conductor with an orchestra and a timer, all in silence, but not waiting for anything. So John Cage taught us something hugely important. Can we incorporate it into our own practice? The willingness to be present for whatever arises without needing it to be more than simply noting ‘sound’ or one of the other sense objects. That is our mindfulness practice. 


This is not deprivation but liberation and the opening of a previously unnoticed and ignored richness of the present moment. This is awakening to the joy that rests in every moment if we are only here to experience it

Annata — No Separate Self

Last week we came to the fifth of the Five Aggregates and what did we find? That not one of these aggregates is us. Each is impermanent and insubstantial. None of them is governable. We looked straight into the jaws of the scary beast: ‘No Self’, Annata.

But just as we were about to succumb to a hollow sense of loss, we clarified our understanding of this concept by adding the word ‘separate’. There is no separate self, and the addition of that word ‘separate’ changes everything, doesnt it? Suddenly instead of a being the lone subject of a disappearing act we are invited to celebratory reunion!


The Buddha taught that there is no separate self that we need to defend or prove worthy of praise. We begin to see how we build up this separate self —  the way male birds frigatebirds inflate their pouches or the way male turkeys fan their wings. All very fine for an avian mating dance, but for humans hoping to be seen, respected, loved or appreciated, self-inflation is a very unskillful and ineffectual ploy. Instead of drawing people in, we put people off. No deep connection can be made when we are focused on the impression we make.

What is it we really want and what’s a skillful way to get it?

At the core of our being we want connection, We want to feel we are a part of something larger than we are. We want acceptance, We want communion. We want safety so we can fall apart when we have to and not be kicked while we are down. We want to hear someone say things like, ‘I’m with you. I am here for you. We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re soul-mates.’

Do you recognize that core hunger? It’s at the heart of each of us. Our tendency is to put this core hunger down and despise what we see as pathetic neediness. We might not even acknowledge that such a hunger exists because we have masked it with other goals and purposes. But if we can see the hunger as simply a human condition using unskillful means to get basic needs met, we might find that we can be kind, not just to ourselves but to others we deem as pathetic. Our intolerance is just a projection of our own internal discomfort with who we believe ourselves to be.

Mindfulness practice teaches us is to see clearly, to stay present with it and to not turn away. With compassion we acknowledge the hunger and befriend it. Not to make any resulting unskillful behaviors okay — ‘That’s just the way I am — deal with it!’ Not at all. This is a practice of investigation, kindness and discernment. When we get into the Noble Eightfold Path we will have more opportunity to explore what constitute skillful means to have our needs met while playing well with others and maintaining high standards of integrity. But for now we are learning to see the causes and conditions of the unskillfulness of our words and actions.

By seeing clearly and responding with compassion, our behavior is more skillful. It comes from an understanding our deep interconnection, not from a reactionary chain of ‘should’ commands that are inauthentic, short-lived and ineffective.

The Banquet Table
Through mindfulness practice, we see more clearly how our hunger is the hunger of a blind person starving in front of a banquet table.

A banquet table? Yes! Because we already are intrinsically connected to all that is and the only thing that keeps us from recognizing it is the very activity of pumping ourselves up into something separate to be admired, instead of allowing ourselves our full humanity and ease of connection.

When we can see our efforts to shore up a separate identity for what they are, we can let them go. When they arise, we can acknowledge them, own up to them, and see them as leftover from a habituated pattern we are consciously releasing.

These habituated patterns are not ours alone. We often can see them in others more easily than we see them in ourselves. Typically, the very things that irritate us most about others are projections of the things we ourselves do.

Striving to be seen, to be hailed as special and unique takes us away from connection. The achievement of such goals can leave us feeling even more separate and alone than we already felt.

Once we recognize the striving for what it is, we can release that hunger, that driving desire, and allow our natural expression of connection serve us and our community. We can bloom into full expressions of the qualities, skills, and talents we are given and develop.

We can stop operating from the idea we have something to prove, or something to hide, or something to fear, and recognize that we have something to give, something to share.

If you cling to the idea of being unique and special, then be unique and special as a snowflake. Snowflakes have more in common than what minor variations set them apart, and ultimately they land on the ground and become one field of snow. Then the snow melts — ah can you feel the joy of the thaw! The warming of the ground! — and what was snow becomes a flow of water returning to the sea. That’s us too. In this experience of being alive, we have taken this form of human. The conditions vary, just as do snowstorms. But we are alive in this moment to experience whatever it is, and we are not alone.

The Uniquely Unworthy Self
Sometimes we hold ourselves apart not to prove how special we are, but because we believe our ‘separate’ self to be unworthy. We attribute our being with a set of what we believe to be uniquely damning and shameful qualities.

Again, this is not the true nature of our existence. If this resonates, there is a lovely phrase that’s worth repeating to yourself like a mantra: The ocean refuses no river. In the Dances of Universal Peace it is a song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ggA-G0wOtg
We sang this together in class and it created a spacious way to hold all that we were experiencing with a gentle compassionate kindness that is so important if we are to ever discover the deep connection to this and every moment, to each other, to all beings, to all the elements, to all that is.

The Danger of Longing to Belong
When we feel this hunger to be special and to belong to something greater than ourselves, and don’t recognize it for what it is, we may feel honored, maybe even thrilled, to be welcomed into groups that accept us but don’t accept others. How effectively this feeds our dual desires to be both special and connected! In creating this club-y quality, we turn that hunger into a weapon for dividing all that is into ‘us against them.’ Throughout human history and in the current headlines there is that drive to divide and conquer. That is what we see played out again and again.

But our true hunger is not to be part of something contrived and divisive, but to be able to feel our connection with all that is. To sense our being as an expression of the great isness, called by many names, including God. When people claim the name of God for their club alone, they cripple the very God they worship by such limitation.

Personifying God is also limiting. How? We have just established that the Five Aggregates that make up body and personality are impermanent, so why would we ever attribute such traits to that that we hold to be an all-encompassing and infinite power?

It’s always a fine place and time to awaken
Our meditation practice is developing the muscle of consciousness with the intention of mindfulness, and sometimes we are gifted with resulting bare awareness of the infinite nature of being, of life in the moment as illuminated expression of isness. It doesn’t matter where we are. There are no perfect settings for awakening. Why do we think we need to go somewhere else or wait for some other time to find it? It’s right here in every moment, if only we are here, anchored in physical sensation and nurturing kindness and compassion.

In that illuminated moment, fleeting as it might be, insight pierces the illusion of linear time and an infinite unity of being is felt and seen. Ah! Once we have been infused with even the briefest experience of the infinite, it informs our being forever.

I encourage you to be available for those insights, but not to aggressively seek them out. There’s a quality of relaxing into the oneness that cannot be achieved or accomplished. It is a receptive quality. We are simply present, easeful and open, noticing the arising and falling away of experience, without expectation of what will arise or what will fall away. We sit with a relaxed alertness that creates a spacious stillness, and let that be enough.

If you can’t fathom how to do this, think about how you get a baby to settle down to sleep. Do you chase the baby around the house? Or do you quiet down in your own being, and share that sense of quiet with the baby. Reading Goodnight Moon and singing lullabies. You hold the baby, using a soothing voice, rocking gently, walking back and forth as we do in walking meditation. Just so we prepare our mind to quiet down — not to sleep, but to awaken!

The Core of the Teachings
Annata, no separate self, is at the very core of the Buddha’s teachings. It sits with the two other Marks or Characteristics: Dukkha and Anicca. Anicca we have been exploring continuously as we look at the nature of impermanence. Dukkha we will become more familiar with when we come to the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha is the sense of unsatisfactoriness that permeates life, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, caused by how we relate to the nature of impermanence.

Our exploration continues! Please allow these words to sift through your awareness. Take in whatever resonates and let the rest go. There is no test! Instead there is the ongoing opportunity to contemplate the way we relate to our experience of life.

This is an experiential practice. Give yourself periods of silence when there is nothing but this moment to notice. If you think there is no time for such non-action, you are thinking way too much.

May we hold whatever we notice with awareness and compassion.

Consciousness, The Fifth Aggregate

As we look at each of the Five Aggregates that constitute the ways we experience being and what we hold to be ‘self’, we discover if we slow down and see each aggregate as it arises and falls away, we can hold it in a spacious way.

The fifth of the Five Aggregates is consciousness. With this aggregate we see the four others. We’re conscious of this body and all material form. We are conscious of feeling tones, whether something in our current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We are conscious of cognition, how we interpret the experience based on acquired knowledge and past experience. And we are conscious of volition, the urges, impulses and intentions to change or extend the experience.


In class there were questions about semantics: What is the difference between consciousness, awareness and mindfulness?


  1. Because English is a conglomeration of other languages, we often have several words that mean the same thing, and to some degree these three words are used interchangeably. But I’ll try to make some distinction between them.
  2. There have been multiple translations from Pali and Sanskrit to English, so word usage varies.
  3. The Buddhist teachings, recorded in the Pali Canon after being handed down as an oral tradition kept alive by generations of monks, also use the same word to mean multiple things, depending on the context. For example in Pali the dhammas (The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness we are currently studying) is different from The Dhamma, the overall term for the teachings of the Buddha, aka natural laws. In this same way ‘consciousness’ is used in a more general way throughout the teachings, but is assigned a specific role here in the Five Aggregates.

For our purposes here, let’s say that:

Consciousness is what we and all beings experience when we are awake. “The patient has regained consciousness.” This doesn’t mean we are in top form and ready to focus necessarily. Perhaps we could think of it as the weak muscle we are working when we take on the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a practice with intention: To be fully present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. We are studying The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so it is a skill we develop through practice and study. With mindfulness practice, we exercise consciousness, turning it into a stronger ‘muscle.’

Awareness, as in ‘bare awareness’ is a spacious, alert but relaxed mind-state arrived at through meditation practice.

To continue, the role of consciousness is to provide a perceived continuum by weaving together a pattern out of a huge but intricate network of micro-impulse events, thus creating this experience we call reality. Think of the way a piece of film travels through a projector so that small individual image come to life on a huge screen. The Buddha called consciousness the magician, working in illusion. Consciousness creates patterns that help us to navigate in the world, assembling them into the collective agreement of a solid world that we experience. This is a big job and a useful one.

Because consciousness sees all of the other aggregates, we might feel that it is who we are. At every aggregate we grasp at the straw of identity, only to discover it won’t support that assumption. And here we are again. For something to be a solid separate self it needs to be consistent, permanent and governable. Does consciousness meet any of these criteria?

Consciousness sees erratically, doesn’t it? Sometimes we realize we have been on autopilot, going about doing habituated things, lost in thoughts and daydreams. Are we conscious when we fall asleep? Are we conscious when we are under anesthesia while having surgery? No. So consciousness is impermanent, and unreliable.

Even when consciousness is on the job, it is no more in charge than any other aggregate. It sees what’s going on, but it doesn’t oversee it in the sense of directing the others. It is pretty typical for us to think of consciousness as sitting inside the brain like the driver up in the cab of a monster earthmover truck, pushing the buttons and pulling the levers to make things happen. But consciousness is in the role of bystander to our experience, just a witness, not the driver at all. And anyway part of the time it’s asleep at the wheel!

At this point one student pointed out that we have now gone through all five aggregates, and not one of them is permanent, governable or in control. ‘So is there no self?’ she asked weakly, fearful of hearing the answer.

“There is no separate self.’ That is different from saying there is no self, isn’t it? No separate self means we are not isolated and alone, but intrinsically connected to all that is. This is great news!

This great news is called Annata. Coming to a place of understanding Annata, even if only briefly, can transform the way we experience life completely. Instead of grasping and clinging to a false sense of separate self with all the suffering that activity entails, we can instead rejoice in the moment-to-moment experience of being awakened to life.