For Beginners

“Practitioners, a contemplative dwells knowing the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves, in terms of the five sentient processes subject to clinging.” – The Nikāya Buddha, The Mindfulness Sutta.

I’d like to share a little about my slow progress in understanding mindfulness; my slow progress in knowing where in my actual experience to cultivate mindful attention. And, make some observations about Western classification of present-moment experience.

In 1975, some six years after adopting what was to become my life-long spiritual practice, I read a very helpful little book (which I think was called) ‘The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.’ The general idea of bringing attention into my body and experiencing what is ‘here, now’ made sense, and the author promised that this was the way to freedom; so I intensified my practice, in a general way. It was probably more than twenty years, however, before I became very precise about placement of my attention.

The fourth ‘foundation’ (or ‘placement’) of mindfulness mentions a specific model of human sentience; namely, that which is commonly called ‘the five aggregates.’ (Pali: khandha; Sanskrit: skandha.)

The name ‘aggregates’ is unhelpful for beginners. I call them ‘the five sentient processes,’ to make the terrotory clearer. In this project I’ve described them as: (bodily) form, feeling-tones, perceptions, fashioning tendencies (intentional factors), and consciousness. So, this set of five is included in the patterns of experience of which we are to be aware, if we are to realise spiritual freedom.

Perhaps we Westerners aren’t familiar with the idea (which is in the Mindfulness Sutta) of knowing our experience directly; that is, with knowing our experience from inside the experience. This is, after all, the objective of mindfulness training: to be thoroughly familiar with the processes of… (and here I have to use a common problematic Western expression…) our own ‘body and mind,’ as it is said.

However, I found  the language in the traditional texts opaque. Without expert tuition early in the piece, the traditional categories of experiencing are difficult to put into practice.

Somewhere in the late seventies, I did get some insight into the dynamic nature of the five ‘aggregates,’ through Trungpa Rinpoche’s excellent introduction to experience Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. That helped, but the definitions of the khandas were still confusing.

After years of meditating, I’ve come to understand which areas of experience are being pointed to by the term (the five aggregates); but it was a long arduous journey, and the categorisation is not intuitive to a Westerner.  I remember distinctly sitting down – twenty years after my first acquaintance with the Mindfulness Sutta! – sitting down with a dozen books and comparing the definitions of the five. I really wanted to understand. But, not even the khandha of ‘body’ (rupa-khandha) was translated or presented consistently between them.

(The students of the early schools, and especially those who have had good training with seasoned meditators, will be surprised to hear about my journey. I need to explain that such training wasn’t to be found in mainstream society in 1969, when I began. What I did, as a result, is learn from books on Zen, how to do ‘shikantaza,’ ‘just sitting.’) Also, it wasn’t in my culture to think that there were ‘experts’ who could teach how to experience ‘experience.’ No doubt, if I had gone off to Burma or Thailand, I would have found the more precise method of acquainting oneself with human processes.)

So, where is all this going? The point is, we do find a way, if we care to, to wake up to what is happening now, which is where our lives are happening. I’ve noticed lately that the West does have, after all, a way of presenting areas of the placement of our attention. The fact that I was able to practice without such precise instruction is due to the fact that we have in the West our own way of categorising, such that attention can be given to experience.

In general, with some vagueness and cross-over among them, it go like this. There are: body and breath (the physical). There are sensations (which has some crossover with the ‘body,’ but which usually means: the raw fact, or the physical fact, of bodily sensing; physical sensitivity, including what are called ‘the five senses’). There are feelings (usually meaning: moods, emotions, attitudes; but, with a little crossover with the senses). And, there is the ‘mental’ domain or thought (including memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements and preferences. (It seems to me that the popular use of the word ‘thought’ is ambiguous. It either covers all mentality, or only more consciously directed mental events.)

So, for my first twenty years (until enough Buddhist literature had appeared in English), I tried to be as familiar as possible with all those events. I must admit that these days I find the Buddhist ‘five skandhas’ much more useful, as a model of sentience allied with meditation and mindfulness practice.

But, if you’re a beginner and are still having trouble working out what the five ‘aggregates’ are meant to refer to, I suggest that you start with what you do know. You know that what you are experiencing you experience now. It can therefore be known more intimately. Have a look. Most likely you’ll find something like:
1) bodily form (head, torso, and limbs),
2) sensations (however you personally define that,
3) feelings/emotions/moods, and
4) intentions, which organise your direction.
5) The dynamics of these.

If you aren’t familiar with these your processes, and yet you do long to know what true freedom is, begin to search them out. I remember that around 1975 I saw that I didn’t know where I actually felt feelings, for example. I had to spend those years (after a childhood dissociating from Being) just getting acquainted with where in my body I really felt the events which told me I was sad, angry, happy, and so on.

(I had to discover them in my body, before I could confirm, through contemplation, that they are unfindable or empty in an ultimate sense. But that’s a longer tale.)

I’m sharing all this, because if you’re a beginner, I would like to help you get more precise than simply ‘being more focussed in the present moment.’ What is the present moment, after all? Where will you find it? It’s not ‘out there’ to be found. It’s not found as ‘over there.’ It presents as your actual experience.

It is, however, how you are now experiencing life: as an active body,with  bodily posture, breath, physical sensitivity, feelings, moods, emotions, attitudes, thoughts, memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements and preferences, and so on. That’s the ‘now.’ Whatever is happening in your world, that’s one very important meaning of ‘now.’

And, how are you organising your experience? Are conscious of that, or is it happening according to patterns laid down in childhood, or in the species past? Freedom cannot happen unless, in some way, there is a contemplation of the dynamics of experiencing – and, in Buddhist mindfulness, that means knowing intimately the dynamics of our knowing processes.