Observing and understanding the five skandhas / aggregates / bundles / heaps is part of the bread and butter of daily Buddhist life — along with guarding the 6 sense gates, a topic for another day. Everything we do, think, say, or feel, all worldly experiences, arise from of these elements. We are intimately connected with them during our physical lives and think that they are “us” but they are not. We temporarily have them; we are not them. What are they?
The body is our physical presence in the world. We control it like a marionette, but it tires, aches, ages, sickens, and dies regardless of our protestations. We crave food, a nutriment, and become attached to the body that our food supports.
Feelings arise from sensations. Every experience we have prompts a basic emotional reaction, either positive, negative, or neutral. This reaction occurs before we consciously form a thought about the experience. We crave sensations, a nutriment, and become attached to the feelings that arise from them.
Perceptions are how we label mental objects and activity. Our understanding of the world and our reactions to the world are derived from how we categorize the world we experience?. Friend, enemy, leader, scoundrel, problem, answer, food, poison, blessing, curse, chance, fate…how we label things controls much of how we experience them. We think the world is the way we see it, but we’re often seeing mostly our perceptions, blinded to the living reality in front of us.
Volitions are our desires, goals, ideals, plans, habits, reactions, the patterns of our mind. We are relentlessly driven by our plans, pulled by grasping and pushed by aversion. Grasping isn’t just greed or sense pleasures, we grasp high-minded world-saving ideals just as easily. Aversion isn’t just fear or hate, righteous indignation is a tremendous source of aversion. Our Volitions are a nutriment themselves, and they feed our craving and our actions, or karma, another topic for the future.
Sense-consciousness is the part of our mind that paints the world on the inside of our skulls, the discriminating function that splits the world up into objects. Me and you, what belongs to me and what I lack, the story of my life and my imagined future — all of these objects are created by our minds and form the tale we are constantly telling ourselves. Sense-consciousness is a nutriment and feeds name and form, that is, it causes physical reality to come into being. In Buddhism, consciousness comes before matter and creates it. The world continues to be because of the sense-consciousness of the beings that inhabit it.
Sense-consciousness is magic. We are entranced by being physical creatures in a physical world. We are each wrapped up in our own Steven Spielberg Dolby sound Panavision production, believing the screenplay we continually write in our heads so completely that we can’t see any other way of understanding the situation. Beating the odds, getting beaten down by life, being the hero, the scholar, the dependable one, the free spirit, the lover, the spurned one, the avenger, the martyr — these are all interpretations we wrap around the simple facts of our lives. Unfortunately, our stories are all different, and so we’re constantly astounded when the world and the people around us don’t follow our script. We assume others are blind fools or liars when their story about a situation is different from ours. We don’t see our own story, we just see “the facts”.
These are the skandhas, the aggregates. As you go through your day, observe the reactions of your mind. Are you obsessing over your physical body or appearance? Are you thrown off balance by a visceral positive or negative response to an experience or an idea? Are you labeling people and situations and dismissing them as completely understood without really looking at them? Are you driven by your plans and desires and not really considering the consequences? Are you convinced that your understanding of the world is the simple truth? Put some space between yourself and these reactions. They are on fire, out of control, and we need to cool them, extinguish them.