This article is about a foundational psychological skill: awareness of your body. What’s interesting is that this skill is also fundamental to most contemplative practices.
Awareness of the body has been a fundamental practice within most contemplative traditions. The body as a temple, the body as a source of beauty, the body as repulsive, the body as transitory—all of these concepts have had their place in spiritual practices.
In steadying the mind in concentration, developing mindfulness of moment-by-moment experience, fostering compassion for ourselves and others, and nurturing equanimity in the face of impermanence, old age, sickness, and death, we start with the bodily experiences of right now/right here.
In the Christian tradition, the phrase that comes to mind is “the Kingdom of God is within.” In the Buddhist tradition, the Arahant, or Bodhisattva, is one who is awake and aware. That is what the practices aim for, the awakened and aware heart/mind, fully present in the Present and Presence.
To that end, here we will talk about some of the underlying neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of the experience of the moment, beginning with some basic, well-known anatomic diagrams, and moving on to basic principles of how the nervous system constructs an electrical representation of the external and internal world.
Fundamentally, the sensory systems differentiate sensations, and the brain then integrates those signals again into what it is set up to “see” as useful percepts and successful behaviors.
You are a Dynamic and Ephemeral Coalition of Neurons
What we hope to give you is security in the knowledge that you are a dynamic and ephemeral coalition of neurons—there truly is no “There” there. Sometimes that knowledge is uncomfortable, because we like security and stability (“I need to trust you will be there for me!”).
But if you stop and think about it, you’ve operated for most of your life with the illusion of “There” being there. And maybe that’s a major reason for what has been less than happy or successful in your life!
Knowing that There is not there could free you up to handle the unsuccessful areas of your life more skillfully, with greater compassion for yourself and others, and hopefully with more joy and peacefulness.
As a final introductory aside, it is important to remember and appreciate the incredible gift we have each inherited: We got here as a species because these nervous systems were so incredibly successful in acting in and on the world, in understanding how to predict consequences from actions, and in achieving deep understandings of the ultimate nature of the energy relationships in this universe.
That’s the frame around this picture. In this frame, we will initially talk about the Buddhist classification of the five aggregates of existence. Then, we will look at some neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, and try not to glaze over your eyes too much. We’ll also do some meditations related to deepening your awareness of your body and appreciating it more.
As a result, we hope that you will practice increasing steadiness of mind and become more aware of the constructed, compounded nature of experience.
That deepening sense of how your brain builds up a virtual reality that seems integrated (and just one thing out of an actual diversity of inputs), is a road right into lightening up about the endless changes and frustrations in human experience. And, for those who are interested, is a great aid to spiritual practice.
The Five Aggregates
To help you become more aware of your body, we are going to use a “map,” or way of categorizing every aspect of objective and subjective reality of your experience. We will then apply that map to your own nervous system.
The map is called the Five Aggregates. It comes from the Buddha, and that fact gives it certain associations – perhaps positive or negative, depending on who you are. But as the Buddha himself taught, you should never just take anything he or anyone else says on faith alone. Judge it on its merits, and see for yourself if it rings true – and more centrally to the Buddha – if it is useful to you. If you like, you could imagine that someone named Jane or Bob came up with this map, and take it from there.
The Aggregates are:
- Form – External reality and the raw sensation of it
- Feeling – The tone of experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
- Perception – The labeling or categorization of something
- Formations – Thoughts, feelings, desires, memories, images, and all other contents of mind besides form, feeling, and perception
- Consciousness – Awareness, “core consciousness,” “autobiographical consciousness”
Although each of these aggregates can be described and analyzed independently, they are all present at each moment of experience.
The original word for the Aggregates – skandhas in Sanskrit and kandhas in Pali – translates as “heaps” or “piles,” and we like the earthy informality of that language. In other words, the “pile” of form contains all possible material elements as well as the most basic sensation of them, the pile of Formations includes all possible thoughts and feelings, and so on.
And right here, in this instance, we have two of the major themes of the Buddha’s approach:
- Analytically breaking things down to their most essential elements as a way of discovering their truth. Note that this strategy is the same one used in much of science. For example, the study of physics has proceeded largely as the pursuit of smaller and smaller building blocks and the most elemental laws that govern their
behavior. Substitute the word “mind” for “physics” in the previous sentence, and you have much of what the Buddha taught in a nutshell.
Interestingly, the relentless deconstruction of apparent reality that is so quintessentially Buddhist – from talks given 2,500 years ago – is also very postmodern.
- The second theme embodied in a word like “heap” or “pile” applied to our ohso-precious personal experience of life is an attitude that is distanced and dispassionate, even disenchanted. There’s no cheerleading here, no flattery of the self at all.
That attitude can seem a little chilly at first, but the test of it is whether it helps you suffer less – even to the point of complete freedom and Awakening.
Compounded, Constructed Experiencing
In this model, all existence and experience consists of one or more of these elements at any moment in time. Put slightly differently, all neurological activity pertaining to conscious experience consists of one or more of these elements.
Now, that’s a kind of top-down view. From the bottom up, the point is that our experience – which seems so seamlessly unitary and integrated – is actually constructed out of a great diversity of elements. It is compounded, and the Five Aggregates are the major classes of elements that are brought together in the mind – much as one might use these five classes of elements to bake a batch of cookies:
To use a different metaphor, consider one of those pictures that looks like a cathedral from a distance, but when you look closer, it is formed from a thousand tiny photographs of one thing or another that taken together seem to blend into just one image. But the apparent integration is a kind of trick of the mind, an illusion. The truth is that the virtual image is comprised of a thousand parts – and each one of those parts itself is made of a thousand individual pixels.
Subject to Clinging
So – what’s the point of seeing that experience is constructed from tiny, ephemeral elements? How does that understanding make your life any better?
Well, it can do so in some very concrete and practical ways.
The actual phrasing used for the Aggregates is always “the Five Aggregates subject to clinging.” The Aggregates are what we pursue or resist – which is clinging, either way – and you can see for yourself that clinging is an immediate engine of suffering:
- Clinging itself feels strained, stressful, tense, and unpleasant
- Pursuing that which is always changing – which is the nature of reality and experience – is inherently frustrating
- Trying to hold onto and keep what is always changing, is inherently disappointing
- An attitude of resisting what is feels contentious, angry, aggressive (and this attitude is different from taking a stand for what is just and benign, and naming what is unjust and harmful)
As we will see, understanding the Aggregates helps untie the knots of clinging leading to suffering.
Clinging to Self
One prominent form of clinging is to what we think of as our personal identity. Encountering the endless stream of the Aggregates, we identify with them or appropriate them to form our sense of “I” or “mine.” In plain English, we take things personally.
We’ll be talking more about the construction, the compounding – and the deconstruction – of the apparent self in future “Train Your Brain” classes, so we won’t be heading down that rabbit hole here!
But it is worth noting in passing that identification with, or appropriation of, the elements of the Aggregates are the two main ways that self is formed and keeps regenerating or reconstructing itself. If you like, you could simply observe the activity of identification and appropriation in your mind and see how selfing increases and decreases.
And I will conclude this part about the self by saying that identifying with, or appropriating the Aggregates as “self”, is a fast track to suffering.
The way that works is this:
Since we naturally have a lot of interest in and concerns about and hopes for what we take to be “me, myself, and I,” when the elements that comprise the self (i.e., the Aggregates) change as they always do, or turn out to be less than great – as they often do, alas – then we suffer: we feel a little, or a lot, of stress, anxiety, frustration, sadness, anger, disappointment, etc.
It would be easier, and less fraught with suffering, if we could regard the Aggregates as simply a passing show: with acceptance, detachment, and disidentification, like a movie playing on the screen of bare awareness.
To quote a monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi (the gold standard translator, in our book, of the earliest available record of the Buddha’s discourses):
When we recognize that the things we identify as our self are impermanent and bound up with suffering, we realize that they lack the essential marks of authentic selfhood and we thereby stop identifying with them. [In the Buddha’s Words, p. 309]
Free at Last
This gets at the stance toward the elements that compound experience – the Aggregates – that is your best odds strategy for having less suffering – and more happiness, love, productivity, and wisdom.
A traditional metaphor for the ordinary, typical relationship of a person toward the Aggregates is that of a dog tied to a post: we keep revolving around them, never breaking free.
It is our ignorance that keeps us caught to the post. It comes in the form of three delusions:
- That the Aggregates are permanent,
- are a source of true happiness,
- or are comprised of a self.
The alternative is to understand the nature of the Aggregates – at first intellectually, and over time with a growing experiential grounding – and on the basis of that understanding, increasingly disengage from them. That, just that, snips, snips, snips at the threads of clinging.
Be amused, be interested, be compassionate. But don’t be caught.
Know the Aggregates for what they are: a passing stream, elements intertwined with and dependent upon each other, coming and going, endlessly vanishing. In the traditional formulation, you could increasingly regard each Aggregate as: This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.
That growing insight into the Aggregates as impermanent, prone to suffering, and not-self leads progressively three great stages toward Awakening: disenchantment, dispassion, and liberation.
In sum, we think it is an observable fact – supported by the neurological information discussed below – that all experience, no matter how momentarily pleasurable, is inherently, fundamentally:
- Compounded – It is comprised of an endlessly changing stream of component
- Unsatisfying – Since experiences always change and always have a subtle strain inherent in their construction in the mind, no experience can ever be ultimately satisfying.
- Non-binding – Awareness itself is never sullied or altered by the stream of experience; it is categorically possible to detach from any experience and neither identify with it nor appropriate it as “me”; no aggregate, no experience has any more power to control us than we give it. Which is wonderful news.
This article is Part One of a series: Part two – Five Neurology, discusses the neurology of the Aggregates.
© Rick Hanson, PhD