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Lions Roar : March 2017
our felt experience of being alive? How might we slow down for a moment to see clearly the dazzlingly rapid unfolding of mind and world? Buddhist psychology begins by examining our everyday experience of clarity and confusion about our minds and self. The earliest Buddhist maps of our sense of self show five key steps in the process of ego development. The Sanskrit word for these five, the skandhas, literally means “aggregates” or “heaps.” The skandhas are not so much collections of elementary parti- cles of existence as momentary gatherings of mental and physical events. In fact, mind and body—the mental and the physical—are the two main kinds of events. We experience ourselves as embod- ied beings in a world of other physical forms like trees and cars. We also move in a world of other living beings with their own mental experiences of suffering and ease. The five skandhas, the “heaps” of our basic being, are (1) form, (2) feeling, (3) perception, (4) concept, and (5) con- sciousness. Let’s walk together now through these five and examine how step-by-step they build our sense of self. Form The first skandha is called “form,” meaning both our physical body and the body of the world. How is this part of our experi- ence of mind? Form is the ground of our being, the fundamental sense that we are this body, somewhat separate from this mind. This sepa- ration is the primary distinction in our ordinary experience. My body has weight that appears on the bathroom scale in the morning, while my thoughts are of uncertain substance. They matter, particularly to me, but they are not material. My body and my mind arise together, but in uneasy tension. I cannot simply think my weight up or down. As in any dualistic relationship, body and mind may go along harmoniously for a time together, enjoying each other’s company and friendship. But body and mind can also fall into deep divi- sion, quarrels, and entrenched separations. When all is going well, my body cooperates with what my mind seems to want from it: “Let’s have breakfast now, shall we?” But sometimes my body reb- els, developing a knee ache just when I wanted to go for a run or falling asleep during an important meeting. The body and mind are like two quarreling but conjoined siblings. If we are physically tired or hungry, our experience and judgment of others may be correspondingly flavored by fatigue or low blood sugar. A recent study showed that Israeli judges granted parole in sixty-five percent of cases heard immediately after they had eaten and in nearly zero cases heard just before a break period or at the end of the day. So the first insight into the working of our minds is that understanding mental experi- ence requires close attention to the skandha of form as well. Feeling The next phase in the emergence of self is called “feeling.” This means our basic sense of liking, disliking, or being indifferent to whatever we perceive. How do we feel about the forms and beings we are encounter- ing? Do they feel attractive or threatening? Do we feel like mov- ing toward or away from them? These intuitive feelings—not quite full-fledged emotions—are the basis for our subsequent impulses toward or away from whatever we are experiencing. “A warm sweater in winter? Hmm, good, I like this very much.” “Too many layers in the heat of the midday sun? Hmm, bad, I’d like to take some of these off.” Like, dislike, neutral, attraction, repulsion, neutrality—around and around we go all day and all night. Day- dreams and nightmares are all flavored by feeling. Feeling is the general background to all our experience, a changing texture of encounter and exchange with our world. This is not denying that there are benevolent and malevolent beings in the world, those who wish us well and those who would cause us harm. As they say, “Even paranoids have real enemies.” Note that these feelings are our mental experience. It’s partly the delight of our own minds we are tasting when we enjoy a delicious apple. The skandha of feeling points to this primarily mental aspect of all our experience. Our own minds accom- pany our experience of anything and everything. This sounds obvious at first, barely worth mentioning, but it’s one of the key insights of the contemplative traditions. Our pleasant or unpleasant experiences of whomever or whatever always have an inner aspect. We call this inner aspect “mind.” Perception The next stage in the development of the self is called “perception.” These are more specific discernments than the simple, broad-brush evaluations of feeling—thumbs up, thumbs down, or neutral. Here it’s “I like, very much, not only the warmth provided by my new wool sweater but also its light-blue color and smooth texture.” These perceptions of the desirable, handsome qualities of the new sweater are all tinged by biases from the past. We’ve prejudged it as having good qualities based on our prior feelings. GAYLON FERGUSON is an associate professor at Naropa University and a senior teacher (acharya) in the Shambhala Buddhist community. His most recent book is Natural Bravery: Fear and Fearlessness as a Direct Path of Awakening. ANTONY GORMLEY, whose art accompanies this story, is internationally renowned for his sculptures, installations, and public artworks investigating the relationship of the human body to space. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 52