The next aspect of phenomena we are invited to investigate are what are called the “aggregates” – a way of describing the kinds of “stuff” that make up our experience.
The list of aggregates is:
- material form – like your body and the things your body senses (sights, sounds, etc.)
- feeling tone – as we already discussed, the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral flavor of a moment of contact
- perceptions – the process that attaches a name to an experience (this sound = bird)
- formations – mental factors that arise, including the factor of volition
- consciousness – the cognizing function of the mind – that which simply knows
Just to suss out some of these other items:
As we’re all aware, perception isn’t always accurate – the mirage of a lake shimmering on the highway on a hot summer day, or a faint hum that sounds like people murmuring in another room that’s actually the rumbling of the furnace in the basement. We can get caught in other mis-perceptions too. We think things are solid and lasting, and then get dismayed when the new car gets its first dent or the tea mug breaks. We call things “mine” and “yours” – that’s “my spot” by the fireplace, so don’t you dare put your yoga mat there! We hold fixed notions of ourselves and others – she is outgoing; he is reclusive; I am good/bad/young/old/smart/dumb… As we watch our experience, we’ll see how these perceptions happen almost instantaneously, and how holding on to these perceptions as unchanging things can cause suffering when experience doesn’t match our expectation.
The poem View with a Grain of Sand, by Wislawa Szymborska, gives us a sense of our limited perception of the world around us
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect, or apt.
Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn’t feel itself seen and touched.
And that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is no different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it has finished falling
or that it is falling still.
As described in a talk by Andrea Fella, volition is a neutral thing – it’s an animating quality, but it’s always influenced or directed by some motivation. If the motivation is contracted (by greed, hatred, delusion), then the resulting fruit of that action will be unpleasant; if the motivation is wholesome (love, compassion, generosity), our hearts move towards happiness and peace.
To begin seeing this factor of volition, Joseph Goldstein suggests “to begin noticing it before obvious physical movements.” For example, if you’re sitting in meditation and you change posture, “there is some energetic factor in the mind that wills the action.”
Annie Nugent gave a talk and led a guided meditation to invite attention to this “about to” moment, to notice the motivation behind the volition:
Consciousness is the most basic kind of knowing – before we attach words or meaning to it. Joseph suggests a couple of ways to investigate consciousness:
One comes from the understanding that the more mindful we are of the arising object, the clearer the consciousness of it becomes. When we bring a close attention to the breath, or sensations, to sights and sounds and thoughts, over time, we experience the knowing itself becoming increasingly clear and lucid.
Another approach I have found helpful in experiencing directly this fifth aggregate is reframing our experience in the passive voice. … Our usual linguistic construction is the active voice: “I’m hearing, “I’m seeing,” I’m thinking.” …
Instead… we can shift from an active voice to a passive voice: “a sound being known,” “a thought being known,” “a sensation being known.” …
Reframing in this way is helpful because it takes the “I” out of the description.
For any of these aggregates, we are instructed to know they arise, and they pass away.
Some of these reflections can seem kind of esoteric. I know when I first heard some of these concepts, I was baffled or confused — and that’s okay! With awareness, time, patience, and kindness, you may come to see for yourself what this means for the way you relate to your experience.
I take inspiration in this verse from T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Have fun with the exploration!
With best wishes,