Considering the aggregates associated with clinging is a practice that can lead us to release clinging wherever it comes up. While we had a look at the first three in the previous post, it seems right to spend some time understanding the fourth and fifth.
As a reminder, the 5 aggregates associated with clinging are:
- bodily form,
- feeling (liking and not liking),
- perception (naming our experience),
- formations (thoughts and emotions), and
…formations  provide the foundation of clinging to “why I am” acting in a certain way, and consciousness  furnishes the basis of clinging to experience as “whereby I am”. To counter such clinging, the required medicine is to direct mindfulness to the impermanent nature of each of these five individually and also to all five in combination. (from Mindfully Facing Disease and Death by Analayo Bhikkhu, p. 214)
The Pali word here translated as formations is saṅkhāra, which can have various meanings depending on context. In the realm of the aggregates, it generally means what we create with our minds and imagination: our opinions, projections, plans, fantasies, etc. One type of formation is self-justification. If we do something impulsively, we often backtrack so quickly to figure out why we did it, that we are unaware that the justification is appearing after the action. If someone were to ask us why we were doing or had done something, we might make up an explanation on the spot, and believe it ourselves. This is not evil, it’s a product of human nature that we would do well to be aware of. Even without conversation, we are rationalizing our behavior to ourselves all the time. This is the “why I am” acting in a certain way that Analayo Bhikkhu refers to above. The question is, can we see what an arbitrary and (mostly) uncontrollable process this is? Our emotional minds work faster than our rational ones, so we are most often catching up, or cleaning up, behind our thoughts, words, and actions. Only deliberate mindfulness can help us modulate this process.
The last of the aggregates associated with clinging is consciousness, the “whereby I am” that Analayo Bhikkhu refers to. Descartes articulated the belief that “I think, therefore I am”, that our ability to think (or consciousness itself) is what creates “me”. This is a true statement — by thinking, we create and re-create a sense of self; but is it absolutely necessary for thinking to have an owner? What happens if we have a stroke and part of our consciousness is closed off? What happens to “me”? Or as dementia increases? People often say that their loved ones left when their minds departed, but their bodies and feelings are still active, so what is “my self” really made of?
Analayo Bhikkhu wrote: Practice is proceeding properly if one is clearly aware of the process character of all aspects of what one might cling to as “I”. Effective mindfulness reveals that none of our physical or mental experiences is fixed, all is in motion. We would do well not to attach too firmly to anything that we know is likely to change very shortly.