When the stains from old habits are exhausted the original light appears, blazing through your skull, not admitting any other matters. Vast and spacious, like sky and water merging during autumn, like snow and moon having the same color, this field is without boundary, beyond direction, magnificently one entity without edge or seam. Further, when you turn within and drop off everything completely, realization occurs (Leighton, 2000). – Hongzhi
In part one, we covered how to crack open thoughts like eggs and work with the first three Universal Factors. Now, we’ll finish up with the last two Factors.
After covering contact, attention and valence, now we’re at perception. Perception, in this case, is the mind gathering the characteristics of an object together under one roof—one label or image.
When you see something red, round, and shiny—that’s contact. When your mind is drawn to that image and blanks out other sights in the background—that’s attention. If that vision makes you feel pleasant, that’s its valence. If you think or are aware of the notion that, “That’s an apple,” then that’s perception. In cognitive psychology, it’d be called a schema or concept.
It’s these concepts that we weave into narratives. “I like apples,” is impossible to express without the concepts, “I,” “like,” and, “apples.” These perceptions are built off of contact and valence, not on the objects themselves. The word apple and our feelings about it don’t belong to the apple—they belong to us. The apple couldn’t care less about what we call it for feel about it. It just does what it does, sitting around appleing all day.
The actual apple (rupa, the form) is empty (sunya) of our preferences and labels. That means our experience of the apple with an ordinary, muddy mind is appearance-only (Prajnaptimatra). This is very important and it might take awhile to wrap your head around. That’s where Vipassana comes to the rescue.
If we’re sitting or practicing mindfulness in day-to-day life, we can note a perception. If we say, “Can you pass me a beer?” we can note, “Perception,” in reference to the beer. We can see the visual contact with the beer and the bottle; we can witness our valence toward it; we can see attention pluck it out of the overall stream of experience and combine all of that into the perception: beer.
This is what we did in part one with the thought apple, only in reverse. Instead of watching it all come together like we’re doing now, we took it apart and made it incomprehensible after it’d already rose up. Perception is what takes the unknown and makes it known. Without perception, we’d kind of melt into whatever experience is underway without comprehending it (which happens sometimes during meditation or moments of Suchness).
This is a challenging Factor to work with, so take your time and try to cut yourself some slack. If you can’t grok it right away, keep moving forward with the other parts of practice and develop it as time goes on, there’s no need to bang your head against a wall or sit in a cave for nine years.
The last Universal Factor is volition or impulse. I think that this is the most important Factor because it’s what directly crafts enlightened and afflicted qualities. It’s also the area where we have to apply the most effort because, unlike the other Factors, this one is in drastic need of an oil change.
Volition is the urge we have to do something, and it’s pregnant with intention. If you feel (contact) an itch (perception) on your foot (attention) and it’s unpleasant (valence), then you have the urge to scratch it (volition).
If volition is filled with an afflicted intention—like frustration—then acting on it guarantees more frustration in the future under similar circumstances. This is conditioning (sankhara/karma-vipaka). This is what makes life seem so shitty.
Because affliction itself is unpleasant, isn’t it? Frustration, worry, regret, and confusion themselves have a negative valence.
We get caught in these cycles of negativity because the harmful ways we respond to negative valence makes us feel better for a moment. When we get really pissed off and punch a wall, we feel some degree of relief from the unpleasantness that built up before that action.
The unskillful things we do feel rewarding; if they didn’t, we wouldn’t do them. The problem is that these unskillful responses are themselves what cause all of the negativity in the first place. The more we act out of anger, for instance, the more easily angered we’re going to be.
This isn’t a choice at first, so here’s no need to go around blaming the victim. We’re born this way, it’s in the way we’re wired. No one’s born a tabula rasa, a clean slate. Our genes program us to respond to certain stimuli in certain ways and they give us our temperament (Feist et al., 2013).
Temperament and reflex + experience = personality. And the things we do influence our genes, this means the choices we make can be biologically passed down to our children. This is one contemporary way of looking at karma.
Buddha described all the circumstances of affliction in the First Noble Truth:
“Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dissonance: Birth is dissonant, aging is dissonant, death is dissonant; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dissonant; association with the unpleasant is dissonant; separation from the pleasant is dissonant; not getting what is wanted is dissonant. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dissonant (Access to Insight, 2005).”
I translated dukkha as dissonance here, it’s usually translated as suffering or dissatisfaction. Dissonance is the opposite of consonance, or harmony. It occurs when there’s a conflict between the way things are and the way we want them to be.
Birth is dissonant because we don’t want to be born, we were happy as hell snuggled in the womb with life on tap. Getting old is dissonant because we want to be young. Death is dissonant because we want to, ya know, remain not dead and for our loved ones to continue not being dead as well. The afflictions like anger, hatred, worry, and pride are all caused by dukkha, by dissonance.
They’re emotions, and the function of an emotion is to compel us (volition) to engage in approach behavior or avoidance behavior. Approach behavior involves us prolonging or attaining a rewarding contact. Avoidance behavior involves escaping from or defending against a punishing contact (Corr, 2013).
If you’re sitting there and you feel frustrated that your foot keeps itching, it’s because there’s dissonance—there’s, “Association with the unpleasant,” and the impulse to get rid of it which is the flip-side of the desire for its absence. Unpleasantness + craving = dissonance. Pleasantness + craving = future dissonance since that pleasant contact doesn’t last forever. The afflictions are our habitual responses to dissonance, and they make their way into volition and, from there, our thoughts, words, and actions.
The way out of this cycle of dissonance is, in this case, Vipassana.
This Factor demands a little effort and diligence to work with, not just mindfulness, right view and awareness like the other factors. Fortunately, the technique is a lot simpler than all these explanations behind it. If you’re sitting and feel an itch, don’t scratch it. This is diligence, perseverance, and patience—enlightened qualities.
Unless something unpleasant is dangerous or truly distracting, let it be, let it slide and be aware of the contact, perception, attention, and afflictions behind that urge to act. This doesn’t just apply to our physical actions and our words; that’d be too easy. It applies to our thoughts about things as well.
Hitting someone in face because you think they’re a piece of shit, saying, “You’re a piece of shit,” and thinking, “They’re a piece of shit,” have the same psychological consequences even if the environmental consequences differ. All three of those acted on impulses condition more dissonance and affliction, a la, more unpleasantness.
Understanding, working with, limiting, and eventually doing away with unskillful impulses (thus unskillful actions) is almost the entire focus of the first part of the Path. It helps us break down the, “Veil of affliction,” that prevents us from seeing things clearly—namely seeing our own delusions clearly.
This wraps up how to view and work with the Five Aggregates/Universal Factors. We’ll touch on them again further down the road when the topic goes to identity. Next up, though, we’ll cover all of the enlightened and afflicted qualities that work their way in our everyday lives.
Access to Insight, (2005). The first noble truth: The truth of dukkha. Retrieved from https://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca1/index.html
Corr, P. J., (2013). Approach and avoidance behaviour: Multiple systems and their interactions. Emotion Review, 5(3). Retrieved from http://www.philipcorr.net/uploads/downloads/199.pdf
Feist, J., Feist, G. J., & Roberts, T. A., (2013). Theories of Personality, 8th ed., New York, NY: McGraw-Hill,
Leighton, T. D., (2000). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi: Tuttle Publishing.