Category Archives: five aggregates

‘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.


Spring Cleaning

The Buddha is quoted in the Pali Canon as saying that to define yourself in any way is to limit yourself, and that the question, “What am I?” is best ignored. So it’s useful to notice where we get caught up in believing we are this material form, the feelings/moods/preferences we experience, or any other of the Aggregates we will be investigating. As we practice in this way, we eventually become aware that not only will we not find ourselves in them, but that finding ourselves is not the goal. Learning how to relate to any experience with awareness and compassion so that we do not cause suffering to ourselves or others is the only purpose of any Buddhist practice, and this one is no different. So while it may seem we are on a journey, and we will most likely make discoveries, this process is more like spring cleaning than a quest.

When we do spring cleaning, we are not searching for something within our home. When we investigate these aggregates, we are not searching for that true thing that is ‘I’. In both cases, we are looking with fresh eyes and seeing what is in the way. This fresh view is very much about questioning what is cluttering up the space. What can be let go?

In the home it might be piles of old magazines and newspapers that we never read, but every time our eye rests on them we get distracted from simple presence.

We might see that a poorly-placed piece of furniture always bruises our thigh, and for some reason we have been living with it that way, but now we see that if we move it four inches, that would make all the difference in creating a sense of spaciousness and non-harming.

When looking at the aggregates, we can see how clinging to this or that idea of self causes a different kind of bruising and limits our motion in a different kind of way. When we recognize this, we are ready to let go of these habituated ideas we held about who we are. The letting go is not painful but liberating. We haven’t lost anything of value, only things that were causing suffering and confusion.

Once we recognize it as clutter, it’s much easier to let it go. If it is not easy, then we are caught up in another struggle. This means we are not bringing awareness and compassion to the process. Instead we might be striving to prove something to ourselves or to others. There is nothing to prove. This is a timeless process and we each find our own pace. This is not about ripping the rug out from under ourselves. But we might take up the rug and flap it a bit to let the dust go rather than sweep the dust under the carpet!

We also don’t need to rush out and replace what we have released with other people’s clutter or other people’s beliefs. We are just in a more spacious easeful home, a more spacious easeful mind, appreciative of the fresh, clean airy feeling and the simple joy of being.


A friend of mine happened to mention this poem and I felt it was a must-share while we are exploring the Buddha’s Five Aggregates.

Since my house burned down,

I now own a better view

of the rising moon.


— Basho


What does this Haiku mean?
Well, Matsuo Basho’s house actually did burn down, so it could be taken as just looking on the bright side of a bad situation. But as with all good poems, we can see at least one other level. In dream analysis ‘house’ often means the ‘self’, so quite simply this poem would then mean ‘since my sense of a solid separate self ‘burned down’ — perhaps through the process we are going through now where we are shedding the strong light of awareness on those things we have long held to be who we are — I now am able to see more clearly. That sense of separate self was blocking the view. Read the poem again and see if that feels true for you.


To make sure we all have time to process these valuable teachings of the Buddha, in class we paused in our investigation of the Five Aggregates and practiced walking meditation out in the garden, which is bursting with the delights of spring. I highly recommend walking in nature as an important part of any exploration of the dharma.

‘Am I defined by my preferences?’

Last week we began an exploration of the Buddha’s Five Aggregates. We explored the First Aggregate, material form. We considered whether the answer to ‘Who am I?’ is my body. We observed how the body by nature is impermanent. It grows, it ages, it dies, and it is subject to illness and injury. We observed that the body is inseparable from the rest of the physical world on a cellular level. 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 the qualities that tell us the body doesn’t define us. We apply this same kind of inquiry around these qualities to the four other aggregates.

This is an experiential exercise, as are all of the Buddhist teachings. The teacher offers a little guiding light in a certain direction, but it is up to each of us to explore whether it is true. We ask questions of everything that arises — questions about the teachings and questions about the assumptions we find we have been making. We come to the truth in our own time and in our own way. So simply be present and compassionate with yourself as you do this investigation.


I imagine that few of us who would take a meditation class or follow a meditation blog would ever believe the answer to “Who am I’ is as simple as ‘I am my body.’ We may have believed it to be a part of who we are, but certainly not all of it. So maybe letting go of the idea that the body is who we are is quite natural, even a relief.


We might say, ‘I am more than my body. I am also a person with certain preferences and ways of being in the world. Even if I forgot my name, even if there was no one around to identify me, I would still be here, still be me, still enjoy chocolate, still find high temperatures unpleasant, etc.’ You might pause now to jot down some of your likes and dislikes. You might magine you are writing a personals ad and these are the things any interested party should know about you. Once they’ve seen your photo of your material form, the next thing they need to know to answer the question of who you are is your preferences, right?


Thus we come to the second of the aggregates. The belief that we are the feeling tones, the way we experience things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We all have preferences, but when we begin to think that they describe us, we run into trouble. We might say, ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ rather than ‘This tastes good.’ You can see the difference between these two statements. ‘This tastes good’ is very much in the present moment. ‘I am the kind of person who likes chocolate’ sets us up to mindlessly eat chocolate at every opportunity. We may be so of the belief that chocolate is an indicator of who we are as a person that we can skip the noticing, the simple experience of discovering, as if with new taste buds, what this experience is in this moment.


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 in and of themselves always as satisfying as I believe them to be.


This is not to take the fun out of a simple pleasure. In fact, by being in the moment and not caught up in attachment, the pleasure can be exquisite. If we let it be momentary, acknowledge its fleeting nature, enjoy it while it lasts, let it go with ease as the next moment brings another experience, then we are not suffering.


We do suffer when we believe ourselves to be our preferences.

As we found in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness, those simple feeling tone ‘seeds’ of pleasant or unpleasant can grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions, with vines that strap us up and even strangle us. Now we look at how many of those thoughts and emotions are caught up in identity-building. In the process of believing “I am the type of person who likes this, who doesn’t like that and couldn’t care less about that other thing,’ we build an impressive historical reference library of these preferences. We expect those who know us to have studied that library. We even give tests!


Think about how we feel when someone gives us a present that really shows us they know our preferences. Then think how we feel when the reverse is true, when we are given something that we would never choose for ourselves in a million years. In the first case, we feel known and loved. That person really gets us! In the second case, if it’s a person we thought knew us, we may suddenly feel a little bereft, in doubt of their feelings for us. That person we thought knew us apparently has no clue who we are.


As we did with exploring whether the body is who we are, we can look to see whether these feeling tones are impermanent, insubstantial and ungovernable.


Impermanent? Absolutely. Our preferences change throughout our lives, dependent on so many variables — what we are exposed to, what experiences we have had with them. A year ago my 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.


Talking about impermanent preferences, just think about style! Look at some pictures of you at various phases of your life. Would you wear that outfit or that hairstyle again? Not in a million years, you might say. But at the time we all believed that look to be quite the thing.


I will never forget the day in the mid 1970’s when I was walking down Fourth Street in San Rafael 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 ago. 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, of course. 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 a Prius. Enough said! Because I drive a Prius, 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.

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 struggle with the discomfort of being seen in something that so ill suits us. If we believe our preferences to be who we are, we will suffer. If we allow ourselves to notice the discomfort and question it, that rental car might actually be a source of liberation. It doesn’t mean we go home and buy one like it. It just means we recognize that we are not our car, our house, our clothes, etc. We are not defined by the things we like and the things we don’t.


So these preferences are impermanent, changeable, sometimes even fickle. But are they ungovernable, out of our control?


Yes! 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 feeling tone, this liking and not liking, the ‘I’ we are seeking?
Impermanent, insubstantial and out of our control — so 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 is the Five Aggregates we believe 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.


Notice for yourself over the coming weeks the degree to which you take your preferences to define you. Then come fully into the moment; be present with the fleeting nature of whatever is happening. With awareness you might find a freedom from the tight leash of the belief that you are your body or your preferences. See how that feels.


In this process, remember that we are not trying to wipe out anything. We are not trying to erase preferences, become clean slates, devoid of all likes and dislikes. Striving for that would be just another preference. We do have to wear something, eat something and live somewhere. But we might find we are much happier if we vest less in our preferences and simply be in the moment, wherever we are.


At each stage of looking at these aggregates, these states of experience that we believe ourselves to be, we not only look more clearly, with more spaciousness, but also with great compassion. We are holding the child of our nature in a loving embrace. We are saying maybe you are not this and you are not that, but there’s nothing to fear. You are here. And it’s okay.

‘Who Am I?’

(The Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in a certain order for a reason. If you are reading this without having followed along previous posts in this section, please begin at the beginning with Introduction to Four Foundations of Mindfulness.)

We have come to a place in the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that has been there all along, deeply embedded in everything we have looked at so far. And yet it can still come upon us as a surprise.

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 we 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.

This is an experiential exercise for each of us to investigate for ourselves. The Buddha wasn’t interested in philosophical discussions about it, only that each of us has the opportunity to explore it and make our own discoveries.

This exploration of ‘body as self’ is the first of five ‘aggregates’ that the Buddha asks us to experience in our own way and own time. We will explore the other four in subsequent weeks. But for now let’s look more closely as this sense of self as being the body.

The body is impermanent. We know this, having lived with this body this long, having seen it grow, having seen it ill, having seen it recover, having seen it scar, and having seen it age. We know this because other bodies we have loved have also changed, and some of them have disappeared. This impermanence we know so well tells the lie of the body being a solid substantial self. 


The other aspect that tells the lie is the fact that we have so little control over any of this. Yes, we can gain or lose weight, we can dye our hair, have plastic surgery, we can do things to sustain our body or abuse it, but for the most part, for the most identifiable part, we have no control. Tall, short, square, round, dark, light — most characteristics of the body are simply as they are. If we accept our lack of control over them, we are less likely to suffer. Suffer? Yes, we suffer when we compare this body with others. We suffer when we get caught up in stories about who is to blame for things that are beyond our control. This is dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of existence that is caused, in part, by the believe that this body is who we are. If we can let go of the mistaken belief, then we are simply grateful for this vessel of experience, however it is shaped, colored or outfitted. It is not who we are, but it is a means to experience this fleeting gift of life.

So this body is not the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ As we explore the other four aggregates of feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness, we will have the opportunity to test whether any of these are who we are.


With dedicated meditation practice, we gain the naturally-arising insights that are called the three marks or characteristics. They are: annica (impermanence), dukkha (self-manufactured suffering) and anatta (no permanent separate self.) 


No one else can tell us ‘this is so.’ We have to discover it for ourselves at our own pace, in our own way. A teacher can spark a line of inquiry that leads to an insight, but the insight can’t be taught. It has to be experienced. (The Zen koan practice exists for this very reason. We don’t have koans in our tradition (Theravada, Vipassana or insight meditation,) but a teacher can seed a question that leads to a rich inner exploration.)

Anatta, no-self, may sound scary, but saying there is no self does not make us disappear. It is not a magic trick. It is a way to stop grabbing at straws of who we believe ourselves to be and clinging for dear life in the hopes that that straw belief will sustain us. It won’t. It is unreliable.

The need to name and claim a separate permanent identity just cuts us off from our deep sense of being connected with all that is, whether we choose scientific terms or see it as being an expression of the infinite that is God. In this state of deep understanding we can recognize that we have no identity we need to shore up. 

Thus liberated, we can recognize that we have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to fear. We can operate from pure joy, and offer up whatever we have to give with open generosity.