Deconstructing Depression into the Five Aggregates

We have seen that the five aggregates are groupings – or bags, if you want to look at it that way – with which we can classify the various aspects of our experience in each moment to help us to be able to understand it. After all, the area of work in Buddhism is our own experience: how we experience life.

And the various types of sufferings and difficulties that we have all occur within our experience. We experience life in terms of feeling, which is feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness that ripens from our karma; from our previous various actions. And sometimes we experience things in life with unhappiness. That’s what we usually think of as suffering. Sometimes we experience things in life with our ordinary, usual type of happiness, but this is a problem as well because it doesn’t last, it is never enough, it doesn’t satisfy, we’re never content with it, and we never know what’s coming next – there’s uncertainty.

Our experience of life like this goes up and down all the time. Sometimes we feel happy, sometimes we feel unhappy; sometimes we have a lot of energy, sometimes we don’t have any energy; sometimes we feel like meditating and working, sometimes we don’t. And we can never tell what we’re going to feel like in the next moment – this never-ending insecurity. Now that really is a drag and is really not fun. That’s really what life is like, isn’t it? And that’s not very satisfactory. The deeper problem of it is that it keeps on perpetuating; it just goes on and on and on. And what seems to make it just go on and on? It’s just the very nature of our bodies; the very nature of our mind. Because the type of bodies and the type of minds that we have are very limited: people get sick, they get tired, and so on, and eventually die as well. In fact, if we look more deeply, it’s falling apart every moment, getting closer and closer to our death. There is a very lovely Western joke about what is the definition of life: Life is defined as a sexually transmitted disease with a hundred percent mortality rate! Faced with that, what can we do about it?

Well, if we look a little bit more deeply to what is causing this unsatisfactory nature of our lives – it’s always going up and down – it is the confusion within each moment of our experience (in other words, it’s there every single moment) and that really is what is perpetuating this constant unsatisfactory situation of up and down. But if we look more deeply, not just at our ordinary minds and our ordinary bodies, but if we look more deeply at the nature of the mind, the nature of the mind is pure; it’s not tainted naturally by this confusion. That’s demonstrated by the fact that when we have total non-conceptual focus on voidness, we don’t have that confusion. So that confusion can’t be really part of the mind, an intrinsic part of the mind, because there are situations in which it isn’t there. That means that it’s possible to actually gain a true stopping of this confusion, of this cause of our problems, if we could sustain that state of nonconceptual focus on voidness all the time. And if we achieve that stopping of the cause of our problems, then our experience would be untainted by this confusion; it wouldn’t be up and down all the time.

So what we need to do is gain that true pathway of mind, that true state of mind that will act as a pathway to this liberation, which would be that state of mind that has this non-conceptual cognition of voidness. And that would be a voidness of the suffering, and the voidness of the cause of suffering, the voidness of the state of suffering being completely stopped, and the voidness of itself – of this understanding. In other words, the voidness of the four noble truths.

Now, of course, voidness is not terribly easy to understand, if we even have some clear idea of what we’re talking about here. But let’s just say that voidness is referring to a total absence of impossible ways of existing. Our mind makes things appear in a way which does not correspond to how things actually exist. Our mind makes things exist – in very simple words – as a sort of concrete entity: everything is just encapsulated in plastic, like ping-pong balls. I often use that analogy: everything is like ping-pong balls. And then we make a big deal out of everything. It’s solid, concrete, just by itself. And that doesn’t correspond to reality. Things don’t exist as isolated units, like isolated ping-pong balls. Everything is interrelated. Everything is interrelated. And so, within our experience, it seems as though various things are like these ping-pong balls: solid and concrete. And because it appears like that – it feels like that – with our confusion we believe it to be so. We believe it to be true. But what we believe to be true (or truly established) is not true at all. That’s what we mean when we say there’s no truly established existence; what we think is true is not true.

And so when we are experiencing something, for instance depression, it appears like a ping-pong ball, something solid, unrelated to anything else, and we identify with it and we think that it’s going to last forever and so on. We make a huge big deal out of it. Or a sickness, or a disappointment in life, or whatever, or something going really good in our lives, we make a big deal out of it. Now this we’re experiencing every moment of our life: sometimes things go well, sometimes things don’t go well.

We want to get rid of the confusion that is causing these things in our life to appear so solid, and which causes us to believe that they’re true. Because when we believe that things exist in this crazy way, the way that they feel as though they exist, then we have suffering, don’t we? We feel really unhappy and sad when we’re criticized, when things are not going well, when we hear bad news, and these type of things. And if we go, “Oh, I’m happy!” – well, it doesn’t last: when we are praised, and things go well, and we hear good news, and so on. So life goes up and down, up and down. So if we can get rid of this confusion within our experiences and what we would understand with the five aggregates, then we wouldn’t have these upsetting feelings that we were referring to yesterday, those upsetting feelings in terms of what we experience. And we would stop producing the causes that would perpetuate this terrible situation.

How can we get rid of this confusion? How can we eliminate the confusion from each moment of our experience, and put instead correct understanding? Well, what we need to do is deconstruct what we are experiencing. When we are in a terrible depression and we’re making a big deal out of it, and identifying with it as if it were some solid thing, then what can help is if we can analyze: What am I actually experiencing in this moment? And what are all the causes as well, if we want to go deeper into why I’m experiencing what I’m experiencing this moment. Well, to analyze and deconstruct what I’m experiencing, I need some sort of tool, some sort of analytical scheme that may help me. And this is where the five aggregates come in because, as we have seen, in each moment there are one or more (usually a lot more) items from each of these aggregates that’s making up – there’s a whole network, networking together to make up this moment. Everything is interdependent and related to everything else.

In this moment I’m not just feeling my depression, am I? I’m not just experiencing my depression. After all, I am seeing a whole sense field of colored shapes. Part of my experience are all these colored shapes. And all sorts of sounds, and smells, and tastes (even just the taste of the saliva in my mouth), physical sensations – temperature, clothing on my body, the feel of the chair underneath me – and my body as well, and various forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind (for instance, the mental sound of that voice complaining about my depression in my head). All of these are part of that aggregate of forms of physical phenomena. It’s not just the depression going on; all these things are going on as well in this moment.

And each of these various objects, we’re feeling some level of happiness or unhappiness; we’re either enjoying it or not enjoying it; we’d like for it to continue or not to continue. And all of this, these various feelings, are networking together. We may have one that is predominant, but actually there are quite a lot of different feelings of happiness and unhappiness going on at the same time. I might feel so unhappy about my depression, about my sickness, that I don’t enjoy seeing anything, or listening to music, or eating, or anything like that. That can certainly happen. But, again, what is the level of unhappiness that we feel with regard to these other objects? And it may be different for each symptom: but sometimes, even when I am feeling a depression and feeling unhappy, I do enjoy my favorite music a little. So all of this we saw was in the aggregate of feelings: feelings of different levels of happiness and unhappiness.

And we are also, in each moment, distinguishing something. We are distinguishing each of these objects that we are either enjoying or not enjoying. It’s not that our experience is of something like an abstract painting. We put together the various pieces of sense data into knowable objects and distinguish them from other things and from the background. That is just the basic mechanism here of distinguishing. (To give a name to it, to identify it as this or as that, is another mental factor.) But sometimes we distinguish correctly and sometimes we distinguish incorrectly. We have the depression, and we put certain things together and we distinguish it into something – a big deal – and that forms the basis of thinking, “I’m going to die. I can’t handle this anymore.” So it could be quite an incorrect distinguishing. Well, this is the aggregate of distinguishing.

So we can see through this process of analyzing and deconstructing our moment of experience into all its component parts and noticing, over a series of moments, that’s it’s all changing. Then we can discover already some of the faults, some of the aspects within that experience which are mistaken, which are making some problems. Like here distinguishing, putting certain things together that really don’t go together, and then thinking, “I’m going to die. Oh, it’s the worst thing in the world.”

This is what we’re doing here with our analysis of the five aggregates; we’re troubleshooting. We are trying to discover which are the mistaken aspects, the mistaken components of our experience, so that we can come in like a good repairman and try to either take out the part that is causing the trouble – simply take it out – or take it out and replace it with something else. What we have to be very careful about in this process is not to believe what it feels like here, which is that there is a separate “me” as the repairman coming in, observing, making the check, and then making the repairs – and then sending us a bill afterwards. That is the real fantasy; although it feels like it, that there is a separate independent “me” doing all of this. What are we experiencing? We are experiencing what is known in the West as alienation. We are alienated from our bodies, from our feelings, from our mind, and coming in there and trying to do something to fix it. The point is to just replace what needs to be replaced, add what needs to be added, and so on. Just do it. Not as a separate “me” doing it, but just do it.

When we go to drink a glass of water, we don’t think, “Ah, there is a ‘me’ inside, and there is this dry hole in my face. And now, ah, I’ll go and lift this object here and pour the liquid into this hole in my face: my mouth.” We don’t do that, do we? We just do it. Just pick it up and drink. We’re not self-conscious, thinking of a “me” separate from the whole thing – that now I’m going to water my body by throwing this liquid into the big hole in the front of my head.

That’s the way that we need to approach this whole process. Just do it. Not self-consciously. And don’t make a big deal out of it – congratulating myself for finding that hole in the front of my head and not pouring it into my nose, or whatever: “Great! Wow! Good me. Smart me.” We’re not babies anymore that you have to encourage and say, “Oh, how wonderful! What a big girl. You are able to drink from a glass by yourself.” We don’t have to treat ourselves like that anymore, do we? So the same thing in terms of changing our attitudes about what we are experiencing and how are we experiencing. We just do it. So, as I say, the same thing with working on ourselves in terms of correcting the way that we experience things.

One of the big lessons of learning about voidness and becoming more and more familiar with it – if we can put it just in a colloquial phrase – is don’t make a big deal out of anything. Nothing is a big deal. It might be a little bit disappointing because we would like things to be very dramatic – in neon lights, and so on – but that’s not the way things are. It doesn’t mean that things are boring; it just means that things are the way they are. If we bang our foot in the dark when we get up at night, or something like that: And so my foot hurts. I’m experiencing a physical sensation of pain. So what else is new? No big deal. So it hurts; so what? It will pass. And what do I expect? Of course it’s going to hurt.