Mindfulness of the Dhammas: The Five Aggregates of Clinging II

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp.135-146)

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 171-202) 

Further thoughts on the process of the Five Aggregates of Clinging.

Barrett, Lisa Feldman in her book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017) affirms the Buddha’s teaching on the Five Aggregates.

She refutes the classic view of emotion.  “The time-honored story of emotion goes something like this: We all have emotions built-in from birth. They are distinct, recognizable phenomena inside us. When something happens in the world, whether it’s a gunshot or a flirtatious glance, our emotions come on quickly and automatically, as if someone has flipped a switch. We broadcast emotions on our faces by way of smiles, frowns, scowls, and other characteristic expressions that anyone can easily recognize. Our voices reveal our emotions through laughter, shouts, and cries. Our body posture betrays our feelings with every gesture and slouch….Our emotions, according to the classical view, are artifacts of evolution, having long ago been advantageous for survival, and are now a fixed component of our biological nature.”

Instead she notes: “When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.”

She calls this new finding, The Theory of Constructed Emotion.  “In every waking moment, your brain uses past experience, organized as concepts, to guide your actions and give your sensations meaning. When the concepts involved are emotion concepts, your brain constructs instances of emotion.”  This is called simulation.

Simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. In every waking moment, you’re faced with ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis— the simulation— and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest.

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. You wouldn’t know what the sensations are, what caused them, nor how to behave to deal with them. With concepts, your brain makes meaning of sensation, and sometimes that meaning is an emotion.”

To understand what Dr. Barrett is saying in the context of the Five Aggregates, once consciousness makes contact with the sense base and the sense object, our awareness is what Dr. Barrett terms interoception.  “Interoception is your brain’s representation of all sensations from your internal organs and tissues, the hormones in your blood, and your immune system.”  She calls the feeling aggregate, affect, and notes that “Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout each day. It is not emotion but a much simpler feeling with two features. The first is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel, which scientists call valence. The pleasantness of the sun on your skin, the deliciousness of your favorite food, and the discomfort of a stomachache or a pinch are all examples of affective valence. The second feature of affect is how calm or agitated you feel, which is called arousal. The energized feeling of anticipating good news, the jittery feeling after drinking too much coffee, the fatigue after a long run, and the weariness from lack of sleep are examples of high and low arousal. Anytime you have an intuition that an investment is risky or profitable, or a gut feeling that someone is trustworthy or an asshole, that’s also affect. Even a completely neutral feeling is affect.”

With perception, she notes that “You might think that your perceptions of the world are driven by events in the world, but really, they are anchored in your predictions, which are then tested against those little skipping stones of incoming sensory input.”  In other words, your perception or identification of what you are sensing is compared and then conditioned with what is stored in your mind.

She further notes: “I hope by now you appreciate the drama that is going on here. Emotion words are not about emotional facts in the world that are stored like static files in your brain. They reflect the varied emotional meanings you construct from mere physical signals in the world using your emotion knowledge. You acquired that knowledge, in part, from the collective knowledge contained in the brains of those who cared for you, talked to you, and helped you to create your social world. Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.”

Stephen Batchelor in After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, talks about the effect of the conditioned life:

“For Gotama, the point is not to understand emptiness but to dwell in it. To dwell in emptiness brings us firmly down to earth and back to our bodies. It is a way of enabling us to open our eyes and see ordinary things as though for the first time. As the Buddha instructed his student Bāhiya, to live in such a way means that “in the seen, there will be only the seen; in the heard, only the heard; in the sensed, only the sensed; in that of which I am conscious, only that of which I am conscious.” 12 How, in the course of Buddhist history, did the concept of emptiness evolve from a way of dwelling on earth unconditioned by reactivity into an ultimate truth to be directly cognized in a nonconceptual state of meditation? This is one of the key questions that I will seek to answer in the rest of this book.”

While I was still a bodhisatta, it occurred to me:

What is the delight of life?

What is the tragedy of life?

What is the emancipation of life?

Then, bhikkhus, it occurred to me:

The happiness and joy that arise conditioned by life,

that is the delight of life;

that life is impermanent, difficult, and changing,

that is the tragedy of life;

the removal and abandonment of grasping for life,

that is the emancipation of life.

Sayutta Nikāya 35: 13, Bodhi (2000), edited by Bachelor (life = the Five Aggregates)

I am using the word “life”— for which there is no exact Pali equivalent— as shorthand for the six senses and their objects, which Gotama calls “the all…. In conclusion Gotama declares: “So long as I did not know the delight, tragedy, and emancipation of life, I did not claim to have found a peerless awakening in this world.” Not only does this show that awakening occurs entirely within the context of empirical experience (“the all”), but it shows that awakening consists of a threefold reorientation to experience rather than the attainment of a single privileged insight into an ultimate truth such as the Unconditioned. Moreover, such a reorientation acknowledges that the tragic nature of life does not negate the richness and delight of life. The key to such an awakening lies in emancipating oneself from the pernicious habit of grasping, which turns one’s life into a frustrated and pointless struggle to preserve what is delightful while banishing or ignoring what is tragic.”

As we come to realize how much we condition what we sense, we can begin to become free from stress.  The Buddha explained this in his teaching, The Bahiya Sutta:

Bāhiya Sutta

Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus:

In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen.

In reference to the heard, only the heard.

In reference to the sensed, only the sensed.

In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.

That is how you should train yourself.

When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen,

only the heard in reference to the heard,

only the sensed in reference to the sensed,

only the cognized in reference to the cognized,

then, Bāhiya, there is no you in connection with that.

When there is no you in connection with that, there is no you there.
When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two.

This, just this, is the end of stress.

…….. the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

Where water, earth,

fire, & wind

have no footing:

There the stars don’t shine,

the sun isn’t visible.

There the moon doesn’t appear.

There darkness is not found.

And when a sage,

a brahman through sagacity,

has realized [this] for himself,

then from form & formless,

from bliss & pain,

he is freed.

translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu Ud 1.10


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • When a reaction occurs, see if you can recognize the type of feeling that arose, the type of perception that arose and the mental formations that arose. Can you see that your reaction was created on the spot by your conditioning?


  • Meditate using the mindfulness of the breath technique and focus your insight meditation on states of mind.

Next: Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Six Sense Bases
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