An Introduction to the Skandha Cycle Teaching

At a very basic level, we are like magnets. Attracting the things that we like and that are like us and rejecting things that we don’t like. On way level, we are in a trance. However, because we are awake and thinking, how can we be in a trance? We feel that we are discerning and discriminating between good and bad and the like. 

The psychotherapist Milton Erickson used hypnosis to put people in a particular kind of ‘sleep’ trance, but he also taught that we wouldn’t even know if we were in an ordinary trance. The ordinary trance is different from being put in a trance, and this is how most of us live our lives. 

The ordinary trance can be explained by the teachings of the skandha cycle found in Buddhism. This teaching forms the basic understanding of how the ordinary mind works. This cycle shows how our sense of self comes into being. There are 5 skandhas: rupa, vedana, samjna, samskara, and vijnana and they are all connected together, with one element of the skandhas leading to the next and so on, similar to the cycle of dependent origination. Rupas are objects but not just the object. They are ‘coloured’ objects. They can be animate or inanimate that have a kind of power over us because of the way that we perceive them. They can be seen in our internal landscape or externally. They can be people, animals, and things. We depend on Rupas, for they are needed in the creation of a sense of who we are, for our identity. 

Rupas will lead to a visceral reaction (vedana). The feelings get pinned onto a story that seems to give our feelings a reason (samjna), which will lead to an action or activity that can easily turn into a habit pattern (samskara), which will lead to a creation of self that is separate from the world around us (vijnana), which will lead us to perceive an object in a certain light (rupa), which will lead to vedana, and the cycle repeats. Without even realising it our attention is grabbed by rupas that support our prejudices and reasons to behave a certain way. It is because of the skandha process that we delude ourselves into thinking that we have a permanent identity or fixed self. The ordinary trance is none other than the skandha process of becoming. 

We can be sure that we are in an ordinary trance when we hear ourselves saying things that are judgemental, or containing extreme language, such as, ‘I always…’, I never…’. If we hear ourselves saying things like, ‘I am the kind of person that always ….’ Then we know that the skandha process is working on us. One way to approach the skandhas is to regard them as, “this is not me, this I am not, this is not my self.” In other words, I don’t have to believe what my thoughts are telling me, and I can change.

By getting rid of our skandhas we are enabled. We can choose to stop justifying our feelings, just as much as we can choose to engage in a different way. Instead of needing to use rupas to support who we like to think we are, we can see the objects for who they are in their own right. We can listen to other people in a clean way and we can then see how they experience of the world without our filters. We might then be empowered to create a place where no one is treated unfairly because of their sex, colour, race, age or any other identifier. When we stop buying into our self-perception, then we can stop ourselves from putting our colouring onto rupas. When we stop seeing our significant objects as rupas, we are no longer under a spell, we can then see Dharmas. And the wonderful thing about them is that Dharmas come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colours and desires.