Did you know that people behave very differently, depending on where their sense of self is? Much of today’s culture wars is related to a mismatch between the self identity, and how people engage in the world as a result.
If you want to skip to the quiz, click here. Though I highly recommend that you read the introduction below first. The results will make a lot more sense with the context given below.
Defining the Sense of Self
Before we dive into the quiz (link below), we should define a few things so we’re working with the same context. When we talk about the sense of self, we’re typically talking about the stable, every day sense of self that is your default mode, or state. This does not mean you have not had ‘peak state’ experiences where your sense of self was beyond where you normally operate at. In fact, most people who practice a meditative or prayer based technology do experience peak states periodically. These states can last for seconds, minutes, hours, even weeks, and sometimes months. After the peak state has passed, they revert to their previously stable state.
The sense of self in this article is what we are calling ‘subject’. Everything that is not contained within the sense of self, we call ‘object’. Subject looks out at object, and sees it as ‘other’. The really interesting thing about that, is that through the process of dis-identifying self, or subject, with all phenomenon, eventually we go full circle and end up including all things in our sense of self (but from a very different perspective, where there is no ‘other’, or subject/object duality).
The Five Aggregates of Self
In the Buddhist system our sense of self has Five Aggregates, or Skandas is the sanskrit term. It literally means ‘heaps’ or ‘collections’. Please don’t get caught up in the number 5, as you see in the table at the end, it can be 3, or 10, depending on how you split things up. Some systems of analysis go as far as 114. Five is good, because the aggregates are easy to understand as layers, and have good translations to english names / concepts.
You will also note from the table at the end, that the Buddhist system aligns with many other systems, such as the Yogic system (Koshas), Trinity system, and new-age systems. I like to say, there is one Truth, but infinite ways to see it. Each of these systems is not Truth, they are merely tools that help one experience Truth for themselves. Truth can never be written down, or spoken.
The five are:
- Material Form – This is the 3-Dimensional world that we live in. Material includes all matter, which means all molecules, atoms, protons, electrons, quantum particles, and anything made up of them. So even the bio-electric energy that moves through your nervous system is considered material. Basically, anything science has been able to directly measure to date. An analogy to a computer here would be the physical box that holds the CPU, and the electricity that is moving through it that makes it run.
- Sensation / Feeling – After those bio-electric signals reach your brain they go through something described as a ‘sense-gate’. This translates the sensation from a raw wave of bio-electric impulse, into a more abstract, subtle form of energy the Tibetans call ‘winds’. If you feel the sensation of energy moving around your body, that is what this comes out as. This is the energy that Prana and Reikei practitioners work with. Another way to see it is like with a computer. If the electricity in a computer is analogous to the bio-electric energy in your nerves, then the information moving around the computer is similar to the winds in your body.
- Perception – The winds of sensation eventually get translated into concepts. Raw sensory input is dissected and labeled based on matching it to past experiences. When you see a Dog, it’s really just a collection of different coloured light. The shape of that light is then analyzed, and labeled by your Perception, so that higher level functions can operate on it faster. If we keep up with the computer analogy, these concepts would be like when the raw information in the computer is translated into an image for display. This image is analogous to a concept in your mind.
- Mental Formations – The Trans-conceptual mind is presented with a collection of labeled objects, and concepts made out of what your senses are sending up through Perception. This layer uses those concepts and applies deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour to determine what to pay attention to, what to ignore, and what actions to take. This is the highest level of ‘thinking’. This is where the typical sense of “I am doing a thing” comes from, as well as that internal narrator in your head. The computer analogy here is the code that governs the way the computer makes decisions, and processes data.
- Consciousness – Pure Awareness. The Watcher. Buddha Nature. There are many names for this. It is the trans-personal witnessing awareness that pervades all of our relative world, and beyond. It is what makes us all one. It never blinks, never sleeps, never turns away. There is no good, bad, or ugly, as this layer. All is welcome; All just is. The computer analogy here, it more like the user of the computer, who is watching what is displayed on the screen. Except that there’s limited involvement.
Sense of Self MatrixNote: It is entirely possible to have your sense of self in all 5 layers, in fact this is quite common. Typically we are wrapped up and identified with all 5 layers, until we start to train. After training, we start to dis-identify we each layer one by one, starting with Material Form. This has the effect of moving our sense of self deeper, and closer to ultimate reality.
|Skandas of Self||Element||Koshas (Sheaths)||Body||Trikaya / Trinity||Layer / Dimension|
|Material Form (rūpa)||Earth||Annamaya kosha||Physical Body||Nirmanakaya / Son||Gross / 3D|
|Sensation / Feeling (vedanā)||Water||Pranamaya kosha||Energy Body|
|Sambhogakaya / Holy Ghost||Subtle / 4D|
|Perception (saññā)||Fire||Manomaya kosha||Emotional Body (Astral/Bardo Body)||Sambhogakaya / Holy Ghost||Subtle / 4D|
|Mental Formations (saṃskāra)||Air||Vijnanamaya kosha||Wisdom Body (Astral/Bardo Body)||Sambhogakaya / Holy Ghost||Subtle / 4D|
|Consciousness (viññāṇa)||Space||Anandamaya kosha||Seed Body||Dharmakaya / Father||Causal / Extremely Subtle / 5D|
Before we get into the quiz, I think it’s important to give a brief overview of the five Bardos, as they are related.
The Five Bardos or In-betweens
The relationship between the five aggregates and the five Bardos is taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. For those of you who are not familiar, the Bardos are ‘between’ states of consciousness. The Tibetan theory is that many lifetimes are but a continuum of various levels of consciousness. When we die, we lose our material form, and pull back into pure Consciousness, only to eventually rise back up the layers to material form (unless we’ve learned how to not do that).
- Bardo of Life – This is where you are right now. Defined as between Birth and Death.
- Bardo of the moment of Death – This is the moment you die, and your sense of self rises up to the 5th aggregate, or pure awareness. Consciousness. If in this moment you recognize the state for what it is, you attain Buddhahood. If not, you ‘fall asleep’, and dream that you become a little more solid, as an energy form, and move to the next Bardo.
- Bardo of Dharmata – This is the realm of peaceful and wrathful entities. If you have not trained in astral projection, lucid dreaming, or similar techniques, you are likely to be very scared, like in a nightmare. If you recognize it as a dream, then you can wake up and attain Buddhahood. If not, then you ‘fall asleep’ again, become a little more solid, and move to the next Bardo.
- Bardo of Becoming – In this realm your energy body takes a much more solid form. You likely realize you have a body at this point, but still cannot touch matter. You wander for about 7 weeks and will likely experience fear, confusion, and desire. The system says that it is this desire that will cause you to be reborn, as you see your parents in coupulation, and get jealous about the mother or the father (depending on which form you will take next).
In the next section, I drill into the detailed aspects of each of the five aggregates, and describe what makes your sense of self identify with that particular layer. This information is psycho-active, meaning, that if you study it, eventually, it can help you see-through the illusion that is keeping you there. I will also relate them to the five Bardos, to better understand the structure of consciousness.
The Sense of Self Quiz
You will be redirected back to your result below after completing the quiz. I encourage you to read all the results, though!
Material form, or rūpa in Sanskrit, represents the physical world. How you interact with objects that are out there. This isn’t just your own physical body at this level. Here your sense of self also includes your partner, family, friends, as well as all of your material possessions. This is the reason that the loss of an object can cause you so much pain. Your sense of self is becoming fragmented, you feel a great sense of loss. This is the other side of ‘sentimentality’, the sense of loss when an object of sentimental value goes away.
The sentiment comes from your infusion of your sense of self into the object. It is closely tied to the memories you have with the object, and those memories are part of what binds your sense of self into the object itself. Nearly 80% of the human race, and 100% of all animals is operating at this level (or so I’ve read). The root affliction of ‘ignorance’ is associated with this layer, and causes most of the problems experienced here.
This layer is associated with the Tathagata Buddha Family (Buddha Vairochana), as well as the Bardo of Becoming. In the Bardo of Becoming, your energy/bardo body solidifies into form, and you take rebirth into our current plane of existence. If you recognize the nature of mind and avoid fear, confusion, and desire, you may manifest the Nirmanakaya and attain Buddhahood here. In the new-age spiritual systems, this is considered 3D existence.
When dying, or entering into deep meditation, transcending this layer is experienced as the material world starting to appear mirage-like. Like looking across a road on a hot summer day. This happens as the element Earth, dissolves into the element Water. During death, this is seen in the body as a loss of mobility and increased stiffness. Vision blurs. Outside observation is the pupil losing mobility.
Sensation / Feeling
Sensation, Feeling, or vedanā in Sanskrit, represents how we feel in our body. The winds in the body animate the organs of action (hands, feet, etc). These winds transport sensations between material and perception. Here your sense of self is somewhat smaller than with Material Form above, and only includes how you feel in your body. Pain and pleasure really affect you here, and often drive most of your decisions. You tend to plan out everything to the nth degree, so as to avoid all potential of pain, or gain as much pleasure as possible. This will often cause you to feel loss when plans either change, or your planning doesn’t work out and pain is experienced. The root affliction of ‘pride’ is associated with this layer, and causes most of the problems experienced here.
This layer is associated with the Ratna Buddha Family (Buddha Ratnasambhava), as well as the Bardo of Dharmata (ultimate reality). In the Bardo Dharmata your pure awareness has gained a bit more solidity, and you may experience many colors and visions of peaceful and wrathful deities. In new-age spiritual systems this is considered 4D existence. This realm is generally associated with psychedelic trips, vision quests, and astral projection. Those who recognize the nature of mind, don’t get caught up in the visions, during this period can manifest the Sambhogakaya, and attain Buddhahood. Dream and Sleep Yoga are practices that help one gain an understanding of this realm, and move into this level of consciousness.
When dying, or entering into deep meditation, transcending this layer is experienced as smoke clouding your vision. This happens as the element Water, dissolves into the element Fire. During death this is seen in the body as as a lack of humidity in the eyes and tongue of the dying person. The auditory sense declines to a low, inner buzzing sound.
Perception, or saññā in Sanskrit, represents the conceptual world. our Sub-conscious neural network of past experiences looks through our clusters of sensations, and applies labels to them. This is all pre-thought, and helps create a way for your mind to relate to objects out in the world. Here your sense of self is getting pretty small, and likely only includes the idea of a self, or the concept. This self-concept is always in relation to others, and as such you are focused on how others perceive you, and how you perceive them in reflection.
Relationships here are most important for your sense of self, beyond any material, or body sensation. A threat to a relationship that you value represents a threat to your very self, and thus will create immediate and powerful responses from you. A breakup with a lover feels like a complete loss, an empty hole in the pit of your stomach, and you will often do much to avoid these types of situations. The root affliction of ‘desire’ resides here.
This layer is associated with the Padma Buddha Family (Buddha Amitabha), as well as the Bardo of Dharmata (ultimate reality). It’s similar to the Sensation layer, in these respects. In the Bardo Dharmata your pure awareness has gained a bit more solidity, and you may experience many colors and visions of peaceful and wrathful deities. In new-age spiritual systems this is considered 4D existence. This realm is generally associated with psychedelic trips, vision quests, and astral projection. Those who recognize the nature of mind, don’t get caught up in the visions, during this period can manifest the Sambhogakaya, and attain Buddhahood. Dream and Sleep Yoga are practices that help one gain an understanding of this realm, and move into this level of consciousness.
When dying, or entering into deep meditation, transcending this layer is experienced as fireflies dancing around your vision. This happens as the element Fire, dissolves into the element of Air. During death this is seen in the body as a loss of heat. The heart beat will become irregular and weaker. Internally, the sense of smell starts to wane.
Mental Formations, or the infamous saṃskāra in sanskrit, represents the world of thought, or the trans-conceptual world / mind. This layer takes the hologram of concepts as presented by Perception, and applies deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour to what is going on. It directs your attention, i.e. presents a limited view of what is actually happening in the world, focusing only on the objects it deems important. If you were in a movie theater, this would be like the content projected on the screen. When trapped in the world of thought as your sense of self, the past and/or future take a key role in your life. Much more than concepts like relationships, friends and family, you value either your own future, past, or both.
The past and future only exist in the realm of thought, hence the identification. A threat to your reputation, wealth, or anything that might corrupt your view of the past or future will create a lot of stress and anxiety. The loss of a retirement account, job, or other thing that represents your future will drive you. This is also where things like confirmation bias comes from; information that disagrees with your self-view, with the way you see the world is discarded because it represents a threat to that view of self. The root affliction of ‘miserliness’ resides here.
This layer is associated with the Karma Buddha Family (Buddha Amoghasiddhi), as well as the Bardo of Dharmata (ultimate reality). It’s similar to the Sensation and Perception layer, in these respects. In the Bardo Dharmata your pure awareness has gained a bit more solidity, and you may experience many colors and visions of peaceful and wrathful deities. In new-age spiritual systems this is considered 4D existence. This realm is generally associated with psychedelic trips, vision quests, and astral projection. Those who recognize the nature of mind, don’t get caught up in the visions, during this period can manifest the Sambhogakaya, and attain Buddhahood. Dream and Sleep Yoga are practices that help one gain an understanding of this realm, and move into this level of consciousness.
When dying, or entering into deep meditation, transcending this layer is experienced as a bright light, like a butter lamp. You may have the sense of ‘who just turned the lights on?’, even if in a dark room. This happens as the element of Air, dissolves into the element of Space. During death this is seen in the body as a loss of breath. Exhalation will become ragged, and inhalation will be shallow and slow. All the energy of the body concentrates and withdraws to the heart, near the Kuti channel, the source of consciousness. All concepts start to disappear.
Consciousness, or viññāṇa in sanskrit, represents pure awareness. This is the ‘real’ you that everyone talks about, that is one with everything. It is ‘god’, or the background awareness that is never changing, all pervasive. It’s like the sky, and we are the clouds in the sky. It’s like an ocean, and we are the waves. It is outside of us, looking in to our experience through our mental formations, perceptions, sensations, and eyes. But it’s also the real ‘us’. It never sleeps, and is always just aware of all.
The interesting thing here is that the sense of ‘self’ disappears completely, but instead of ‘shrinking’ again, it now expands and becomes all encompassing. If you see a mountain, you are the mountain. The entire idea of subject and object has been transcended, and you have now attained non-duality. In this state, great all encompassing compassion for everything grows. There is no fear of loss, or even of death, since this one never dies. Apparently the root affliction of ‘anger’ resides here, though I don’t really understand why.
This layer is associated with the Vajra Buddha Family (Buddha Akshobhya), as well as the Bardo of the moment of death. This is the ground of ground, there is no conceptual experience here, just space, emptiness. In the Bardo of the moment of death, you have a very short time to recognize the nature of mind, of pure awareness, before you are plunged into the Bardo of Dharmata, solidifying a bit into an energy form. It is a 5-dimensional ocean, upon which rides all of us, as 3-dimensional waves.
This Bardo is painful, because it represents letting go of everything you have, and everything you might think you are. In new-age spiritual systems this is considered 5D existence. If you recognize that none of that is you, you will manifest the Dharmakaya and attain Buddhahood. Clear Light Yoga, and Transference of Consciousness are practices that can help one gain an understanding of this experience, and potentially transcend all.
When dying, or entering deep meditation, there is no transcending this layer. There is likely not much capacity ‘remember’, other than there may be some sense of time having passed after emerging from it. This all happens in an eternal moment, at the moment of Death Bardo.
I hope you learned something interesting from this article. I’ve been writing it for almost a year now, bits and pieces at a time as I either read, or had direct experiences. Please let me know what you think, like and comment below! Also, don’t forget to subscribe to my Podcast!