More on the aggregates of clinging

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:

  1. bodily form,
  2. feeling (liking and not liking),
  3. perception (naming our experience),
  4. formations (thoughts and emotions), and
  5. consciousness.

 …formations [4] provide the foundation of clinging to “why I am” acting in a certain way, and consciousness [5] 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.

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The Deathless

When Buddhist teachers talk about “the deathless” as a transcendent state, beyond life and death, nibbana, what are they talking about? It’s not the death of the body, it’s the end of identifying with the body or any of the other activities associated with the body and mind. This can be a confusing theme in the Buddha’s teachings, but let’s have a look at it anyway.

The five aggregates are in fact five activities (“heaps” of activities) going on most or all of the time, and to which we cling as if our life depended on them. Our life does not depend on them, but our identity, our sense that we are in the driver’s seat, does depend on clinging to these basic doings of body and mind.

Classically, the 5 aggregates associated with clinging are:

  1. bodily form,
  2. feeling (liking and not liking),
  3. perception (naming our experience),
  4. formations (thoughts and emotions), and
  5. consciousness.

… the physical body tends to be clung to as the location “where I am”, feeling provides an opportunity to cling to “how I am”, perceptions provide the foundation of clinging to “what I am”, 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)

So, we come back again to the fundamental usefulness of mindfulness (sati). For those of us who cannot imagine seeing the body as anything other than “where I am located”, we can direct our attention to the obvious details that tell us we are not “in charge” of our bodies. Bodies get sick when we don’t want them to, they get old, fat, lumpy or wrinkly; we have an entire litany of discomforts that we may experience in a normal day. We get tired or overflow with nervous energy.  At the very least, an “I” that depends on the body is an unreliable pilot.

Perhaps even easier to see is the changeability of feeling; we like and don’t like hundreds (perhaps more) things every day, sometimes without noticing and often without remembering. We’re annoyed by waiting at a traffic light, we’re attracted to a lovely bit of food or the aroma of coffee. It passes by so quickly; can these fleeting feelings really be “how I am”?

We can really get stuck on “what I am”, based on our perceptions. We are SOMETHING – kind, selfish, smart, stupid, angry, loving, unworthy, deserving of more, etc. Is there any consistency beyond change? And yet we cling mightily to the notion that “I am _____”. It turns out that we have the option of releasing the clinging and just being, without taking on a limiting identity.

We can do this experiment: when we notice sensations in the body, or likes and dislikes coming and going, we can apply calm, mindful awareness. Is an owner of this experience absolutely necessary? Or could it be just a natural phenomenon, arising and disappearing, based on causes and conditions?

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Facing the end

The last of the three “messengers”, and the three universal forms of dukkha, is death. While all of us know, at least intellectually, that no one lives forever, most of us are determinedly reluctant to allow this knowledge to be fully integrated into our lives.

And yet, the “messengers” can also be teachers.

Frank Ostaseski is a mature and skillful Buddhist teacher, founder of the Metta Institute, and co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project. His 2017 book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, is a gem, full of rich stories, and may be useful to all of us in various ways. Because I don’t think I can improve on the invitations themselves as a description of how to make death a teacher in our lives, I’m going to simply introduce them and encourage you to look more deeply if you’d like  (https://fiveinvitations.com/about-frank-ostaseski ).

  1. Don’t wait
  2. Welcome everything, push away nothing
  3. Bring your whole self to the experience
  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things
  5. Cultivate don’t-know mind

Putting these principles into practice can help us face our own death and help us to be fully present when others are dying; they can support us in our grieving and in our ability to support others who are grieving. The invitations are not so much instructions as investigations; there are no pat formulas.

What would it feel like to not put off what’s important? To live every day as if it could be our last? How would life be different if we opened ourselves fully to everyone, not pushing away anything, including our own discomfort? If we brought our whole self, our love and skills and vulnerability, to every experience? How can we learn to generate and maintain a place of rest in our hearts that we have access to even in times of distress? Can we allow ourselves to be open and unsure? To not be the expert, the one who knows, the one who directs?

All of us have these qualities to some degree, either as potentials or as realized characteristics.

From the book (p. 128): Try it sometime. Sit with another person without a solution to their problem, without playing a role. No analyzing, no fixing, no meddling, no mending. Listen generously, as if the other person has all of the resources that they need inside of them. Just respect and receive what is being offered. It’s not even important that you understand. Imagine your listening presence is enough, exactly what is needed. Often a receptive silence heals more than all the well-meaning words.

Each of us will find this proposition (listening generously and respectfully) more or less possible. We can’t fake bringing our whole self to the experience; but we can learn with practice. We can start with smaller issues and see how it goes. Sitting with people in distress, for whatever reason, is difficult – it’s work, but it’s work of the most beneficial kind, for ourselves and others.

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How to support a suffering friend

When someone we know is ill or suffering a great loss, there are many ways we can help and just as many ways in which we can unconsciously harm. Often when we don’t know what to say, we either avoid the person/situation or we barge in without thinking. We can develop the useful skill of staying centered in awkward situations, of saying nothing or offering sympathy and support (e.g., “I’m so sorry” or “Can I walk the dog for you?”) instead of offering remedies or our own stories of difficulty.

A five-year-old article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in the Los Angeles Times outlines an excellent model for who we should express our fears or anxieties to and more importantly, to whom we should not.

http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

The article describes a “Kvetching Order”, summarized by the phrase, “comfort IN, dump OUT”. The way it works is to start with a point and label it with the identity of the ill  or afflicted person. Then a circle is drawn surrounding the point. In that circle goes the name of the person or persons closest to the suffering center, a spouse or partner or parent, for example. Then another circle is drawn around that inner circle in which the names of the next closest people go, maybe siblings or best friends; and so on until acquaintances are in the outermost circle. Once the diagram is drawn, the way we use the model is to identify the suffering person and all the others who are closer to her/him than we are — these are the people to whom we offer comfort ONLY, not objections or advice. Our fears and complaints about how things are going can be spoken, but only to people who are in a circle further from the center than we are (dump OUT).

This helpful model can keep us from making things worse. It’s natural for us to feel fear when we witness apparently out-of-control suffering. Bad things happen to good and bad people, but somehow it’s always a shock when it’s someone we know. And this is a most important time to take care with our speech and actions; kindness and care in the inward direction, expressing our concerns or fears to people less involved than we are. So the primary carer can complain or vent to everyone except the main sufferer, and the person at the center can dump anywhere she likes.

There are stories in the Pali canon of the Buddha or his disciples providing liberating teachings to followers who are very ill or dying. Each case is different, based on the individual’s readiness to adopt or incorporate the teaching. Only when the patient is well-known to the friend can this class of comfort be offered, and even then it takes a great deal of sensitivity to know exactly what someone needs and can understand. For most of us, our greatest offering is to figure out what kind of support (including space) would be welcomed by the person at the center or in the inner circles of the kvetching order.

 

 

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Sickness

The second of the “heavenly messengers” that, according to legend, alerted the Buddha to the need to dedicate his life to awakening, was sickness. Sickness is also one of the three main forms of dukkha that all humans are heir to. Sickness may be passing or chronic, minor or major, fatal or not, diagnosable or mysterious; everything from an annoying paper cut to an aggressive cancer.

When we become ill, it can interfere with our plans and commitments. We may feel that we’re not able to do our duty, that we’re letting ourselves and others down. It’s always at least somewhat inconvenient when our bodies don’t function at an optimal level. And yet, this is  what happens; we have bodies, they are not perfect machines, and so they need maintenance and repairs along the way. The older we get, the more time and effort simple maintenance requires. Some of us are blessed with strength and health throughout our lives, but this is not the norm.

It can seem impossible to maintain mindfulness when we aren’t feeling well. Even a cold can interfere with our intention to remain mindful throughout the day, but we can use illness as a powerful wake-up call. If we turn towards the problem instead of denying it, we can learn how to acknowledge dukkha and its effects. We can dis-identify with the body sufficiently to view the situation in the context of all human experience.

When someone we care about or depend on becomes ill, we also have to adjust our plans and expectations. How easily do we adapt when things don’t go as planned for ourselves or others in this way? Is there frustration or anger? Do we respond creatively and compassionately?

Some forms of illness can be prevented through healthy habits, but not all. Genetics influences outcomes, along with age and predispositions we don’t fully understand. Our environments may play a part, the air and water that cycles through us every day. There is more we don’t understand than we do about what causes a particular illness in a particular individual. Just being alive in a body, we take our chances; it may go well or poorly. Until we reach the end of our lives, we don’t know what our health/illness story will be.

Dukkha is the grist for our mill of awakening. By acknowledging our illnesses as they come along, we can use them to understand the nature of ourselves and our world. We can become more appreciative of the rare blessing of simply being alive and conscious, and able to choose how we perceive and relate to everything.

In the next post we’ll consider some ways to be with others who are ill. For now, I’d like to recommend this 5 minute video by author Toni Bernhard as an invitation to contemplate the vicissitudes of life and how we might make use of them:

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Aging well

Three forms of dukkha that all humans are certain to experience are (1) old age, (2) sickness, and (3) death, unless death comes early and accidentally. According to legend, the Buddha began his quest for release after being confronted with these three forms of dukkha. He found transcendence, and yet he also experienced old age, sickness, and death. The difference was that he didn’t take them personally and so bore them with equanimity.

For us, much of the work of maturing is in facing and accepting these three experiences.

The old joke is that getting old is terrible, but better than the alternative. When we’re young, we can’t imagine ever being old; old age sneaks up on us.

Ajahn Chah used to say that our bodies are ever-present proof of anicca, the impermanent nature of all phenomena. We always carry this lesson around with us, and yet we can (with effort) ignore it. We pretend that aging is not happening to us because we want things, especially ourselves, to remain the same. We maintain the delusion that since we haven’t recognized any great changes in ourselves, we are essentially the same as we always were. It is easy to overlook the fact that not only are our bodies growing (while we’re young) or decaying (when we are older) but our consciousness also changes over time and is very different now from how it was even a few years ago. There are no fixed points.

Age is confronting for many reasons. In youth, we can be vain without consequence, but vanity in older people can seem delusional. Gravity takes its toll on every body; plastic surgery can distort our features, but no one is fooled. When we get older our reflexes, sight, hearing, and mental faculties naturally decline; we’re not as quick as we used to be. The longer we live, the more we experience changes to the people and things we care about, which we often feel as losses. Sometimes people we love become very ill, or withdraw from us, or die. We may disappoint ourselves in various ways. No one lives an entirely painless life.

What would it look and feel like to be comfortable with ourselves at any age? Does wisdom come with age? Do we know any people who have aged gracefully?

An elderly woman being interviewed on television said that when we become old, we’ve pretty much seen it all before and so don’t get so upset about things.

Acceptance of what is is the key. When we are young we must accept the confusion, self-consciousness, and uncertainty that come with youth. We learn to turn towards our condition instead of wishing it away. We explore and gradually find our way.

If we relax into the reality of our aging and the aging of our loved ones, we can accept that this is simply how things are now. It’s just like this. The Buddha told us this would happen, and here it is. Can we find peace with this condition?

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Start where you are

Having thought for a few weeks about mindfulness and how to appreciate and develop it in ourselves, it might be a good time to figure out what our current status is with respect to our growth as individuals. Readers of this blog run the spectrum from “mildly curious about the Buddha’s teachings” to “fully committed to the 8-fold path”, and probably some who are skeptical about any spiritual development. Regardless of how we describe ourselves, it’s good to know where we stand and in what direction we are facing.

Pema Chodron has a highly recommended book with the same title (Start Where You Are), available in paper, Kindle, audiobooks, and with a workbook, etc., but it is addressed to people who want to put the Buddha’s advice into practice on a daily basis. That might be the first question to ask ourselves: Do we feel we are on a journey towards wholeness, and is the Buddha’s path a small or large part of the directions we’re using? Many people (perhaps most) are reluctant to commit to one path, even as a central but non-exclusive one. Regardless of which religion (or none) we grew up with, it is natural to question and to find our own way as we become adults. For some, this exploration is the most compelling thought stream in our lives; for many, it is not. Where do we stand on this question?

If we have suffered trauma of some sort, we may have to learn how to function well in the world before we do too much internal investigation. Similarly, if we are afflicted with chronic physical or mental difficulties, those probably are (and should be) at the center of our attention. If this is our situation, it is dharmically wise to acknowledge and work with it. Once we learn to manage our biggest obstacles, we can move on in a direction of our choosing.

Unless we live in an environment that supports deep conversation, it’s hard to remember that we have a limited lifespan and that what we do with our time and attention matters more than anything else. This is why the Buddha said, more than once, that having “noble friends and companions is the whole of the holy life”.  It’s important to consider whether we are living the best life, in the most supportive environment, that’s available to us.

We are all distractible, but we can take responsibility and turn off the video or electronic feed when it’s not needed, when it’s simply telling us the same story from different sources or speculating about what could happen. We can create zones of silence or peace around ourselves during periods of the day. Various meditation techniques can be useful here, or different forms of prayer or physical movement (walking, yoga, etc.). The question is, do we want to create some “protected space” in our days?

There are other useful questions we can ask ourselves to discover whether we are moving in a direction that we consciously chose, and continue to choose, day by day, year by year.

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