Buddhism: How Your Mind Works

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.”


What is this thing we call “self”? We assemble it ourselves, according to Buddhist psychology. Gaylon Ferguson breaks down the five-step process of ego development.

Skandha is the Sanskrit word for “heap” or “aggregate.” Antony Gormley’s sculptures reflect Buddhism’s view that the self is merely a collection of parts. Above: “Standing Matter I,” 2001, forged ball bearings, by Antony Gormley. Photograph by Ulrich Ghezzi.

 

 

William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, wrote in 1890 that our earliest experience of the world is of “a great blooming, buzzing confusion.” While modern research shows that newborns have more ability to make sense of their experience than James believed, even as adults we remain confused about how our minds work. Yes, we all know that we have minds and psychological experiences, but who are we really? How does mind work to shape our experience of our world, 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 particles 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 embodied 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) consciousness. 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 experience of mind?

Form is the ground of our being, the fundamental sense that we are this body, somewhat separate from this mind. This separation 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.

The body and mind are like two quarreling but conjoined siblings.

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 division, 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 rebels, 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 quarrelling but conjoined siblings. If we are physically tired or hungry, our experience and judgement of others may be correspondingly flavoured 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 experience requires close attention to the skandha of form as well.

 

 Starting with form and ending with consciousness, the five skandhas describe the mental process by which we build an increasingly solid sense of self. Above: “Building 1-5,” 2013, cast iron, by Antony Gormley. Photograph by Stephen White.

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 encountering? Do they feel attractive or threatening? Do we feel like moving 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. Daydreams and nightmares are all flavoured by feeling.

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 accompany 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.”

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