Study the 5 skandhas to discover your self | Worship

By Sal Barba | Apr 05, 2017

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices,” American philosopher William James said. “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind…”

We all know that we have a mind, and that we have psychological experiences. This idea that we refer to as “self” is what we assemble from within – at least according to Buddhist psychology.

However, who are we? Who is it that we call “my-self?” How does our mind shape what we experience in our daily lives?

Recently, I was re-reading “The Unfolding Now,” by A.H. Almaas. If a person is not present in the unfolding now, then there is no possibility of understanding what your mind is, nor is it possible to discover a way to change what interferes with your potential to live fully.

Our minds and bodies are not separate entities. We experience ourselves as whole, and embodied in a world of other forms – such as plants and objects, from bicycles and cars to living beings.

The emergence of this idea of a self that we utilize in our existence is formed by what ancient Buddhist maps identified as the five skandhas, meaning aggregates or heaps.

Buddhist psychology makes use of the skandhas through the examination of our experiences of clarity or confusion, as well as through the dynamics inherited by duality, such as in opposites like love and hate. These comprise the foundation of our being, such as feeling, perception, concept, form and consciousness.

I spoke of the skandhas in a previous article. I will describe them briefly in this article.

Essentially, form means our physical body and the body of the world. The body has volume as in weight, whereas our thoughts come with no substance at all. They are important to each individual, but they are not material matter.

Sometimes we may fall into a separation between body form and thought/mental form. Mind-body separation can be challenging by creating division, causing internal and interpersonal conflicts, and problematic patterns that divide us and prevent us from living in depth.

The next form is feeling. This refers to like and dislike, or pleasant and unpleasant experiences. These arise from an inner dimension, which is identified as “mind.” We experience feeling and form more complex sensations that may be influenced by our past.

The next aggregate is perception, which is a more specific quality of discernment. It is colored or distorted by our bias from our history. We judge the quality of our dislikes and likes by previous feelings about this and that.

The next aggregate is concept. It is a mental formation; we put a name on whatever the “it” is. This is the aspect of our mind that is dualistic, where we confuse our conceptual references for reality.

We indulge ourselves in the world of concept, leaving behind the spacious, open, humbling experience of not-knowing, and missing out on what we can newly discover if we just learn to listen and wait for what arises from our bodily intelligence.

Consciousness is the final skandha. This skandha attends to thoughts and emotions, even though Buddhist psychology catalogues it into eight separate areas of consciousness, i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch – and the sixth consciousness is “mind.” Mind attends to thoughts, emotions and the phenomena that arise from the other senses to comprise a self.

You can study your mind through the skandhas. Development of self-compassion and understanding your self is a primary part of the Buddhist path of waking up. If you study the skandhas, you embark upon a deeper, more intimate experience and relationship with your mind and self.

However, try to understand that the map is neither you nor the terrain. You are more complex than the map. Your best companion along the journey into the inner complexity of your being is compassion, and friendliness. This friendliness means to not confuse the skandhas as a sign of fundamental flaws or inadequacy, but as dimensions of your basic humanity.

Reflect on these skandhas, and we will pursue them further in the process of this inquiry regarding what is our mind, and how our mind works?


Sal Barba has been a practicing Buddhist for over 40 years. He integrates Buddhist psychology into his profession as a licensed psychotherapist.

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