Unravelling the fabric of reality.
We know that the mind grasps by conceptions and the very act of perceiving is a distortion that stands in the way of direct encounters with the real, moving world. The machinery of semantic thought must categorise and label everything, and so every thought and feeling can really be considered to be a fabrication—constructed not only from a myriad different sensations and revived images of sensations, but also the subtle faiths, fears, anticipations, instincts, superstitions, and blind impulses that plague the soul. The Buddhist concept of saṅkhāra encapsulates this inner fabrication—an intentional doing that is central to our practice. The other aspect of fabrication is the nature of reality itself. What each of us perceives as reality is really just what is apparent to us, and by the very nature of perception, is a dependent rather than an absolute reality. And so Brahmanism maintains that all perceivable things are mithyã. All objectifiable things may be resolved into ever finer detail by progressive resolution into their constituents and so it is only by the confluence of various internal factors that we perceive their finite forms: where they begin and where they end. Even now, we need to keep reminding ourselves of this, lest we slip into the classical view of objectivism, which insists that the categories that we cognise with are universal and objective; that reality is an absolute; and that deviation is an insanity. Modern research has shown that imagination plays a key role in modifying universal categories to fit our conceptualisation of the world. Although we are endowed with essentially anatomically and physiologically similar sensory apparatus, the unique nature of our bodies means that our worlds radiate from very different focal points, based on our physical size, perceptual capacities, and motor skills. The American philosopher, Susanne Langer gives us the useful distinctions of "concept" versus "conceptions" to help us distinguish the subjective from the objective. Concepts are the objective, universal structures for understanding that allow us to experience the world in roughly the same way. Conceptions are the personal meaning structures that we create around the abstract concept.
I have called the terms of our thinking conceptions, not concepts. Concepts are abstract forms embodied in conceptions; their bare presentation may be approximated by so-called "abstract thought", but in ordinary mental life they no more figure as naked factors than skeletons are seen walking the street. Concepts, like decent living skeletons, are always embodied – sometimes rather too much. A concept is all that a symbol really conveys. But just as quickly as the concept is symbolized to us, our own imagination dresses it up in a private, personal conception, which we can distinguish from the communicable public concept only by a process of abstraction.
—Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (1942)
Traditional teachings acknowledge this uniqueness of perception through the concepts of mithyā and sankhara. That is, all reality is a fabrication. It is a fabrication because, in order to experience something, we must take the signals from our senses and combine them with our feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and previous experiences to form an aggregate from the potential signals. Even when we sit still and will ourselves to do nothing we are deliberately creating the state that we wish to be in. The very process of thought is a labelling of inner and outer entities. We attach labels to the feelings we experience and all our movements and actions are intended towards something.
To begin wilfully directing what states we create, we need to understand the primary modes of fabrication. Kaya Sankhara is what sustains life itself. With each breath we take in a nourishing lungful of air and the process is so essential to our existence that we do not even notice how we take in the breath. When you are angry or fearful, you will notice that your breath is shallow instead of full. When it feels threatened, the body prepares itself for fight or flight: adrenaline floods the system and the heart rate increases, a heaviness descends on the vital organs resulting in protracted and laboured breathing. If you have ever observed this state in someone else, you will have noticed the outward signs of the tautness and tension within the body. The noted psychologist Sam Keen points out how agitated men have their "shoulders back, chest out, stomach pulled in, anal sphincter tight, balls drawn up into the body as far as possible, eyes narrowed, breathing foreshortened and anxious, heart rate accelerated, testosterone in full flow." The breath is one of the fabrications that is so easily swayed by other factors that we can easily forget that we are in control of it. Thoughts seem to activate certain areas of the body, making them tense as feelings arise and then fade away. To do this, the brain sends a trickle charge from its limited energy field to the relevant areas of the body and at the same time, subdues or inhibits other parts of the body. When you perceive threats in your surrounding, whether they be to your life or to your ego, more areas of the body need to be primed for activation and more energy is depleted from the already limited pool of energy available. The more fragile your ego and the more vulnerable the self, the more will be the energy dispelled in maintaining a turgid state in those parts of the body and, consequently, there is less energy for noticing what is actually going on. The first step to gaining a measure of control over kaya sankhara is to notice when parts of the body become tense and to imagine gentle movement through them. Notice how your breathing changes when you focus on doing this and keep the breath in a healing rhythm as you relax those parts of the body. The next step is to then counter the stimulus with an opposite sensation: when you are worked up or frenetic, or just plain giddy, ground that excessive energy by planting both feet firmly on the ground; when parts of your body seem rigid and unmovable, you can spread that firmness to other parts of the body so that you have a good, solid, and upright frame instead; when you are depressed, which is a sort of compression and is accompanied by the feeling of being weighed down, use the breath to lift those parts of the body and make them lighter; and so on with other sensations, you get the point.
All the while that you're working with the breath, you're also verbalising your flow and motions internally. Vaci Sankhara is this internal verbalising, including the deliberate thought fabrications and the dialogue with your body that comes with noticing. You're using your thoughts to manoeuvre the sensations and checking the new feeling by asking yourself how they feel. Let me try this; does that feel good or not? The body, being the child of nature, does not reply to questions unless they are put to it in the form of experiments to which it can say "yes" or "no". This is the most basic level of conversation you can have with your body. As you become aware of your internal verbalising, you can observe how your mind perceives what is good and what is bad by the labels it attaches to the sensations from both within and without. Citta Sankhara is the act of labelling things and feelings as good or bad. Perception always seeks to gain some measure of finality as a means to grasp the unknown and categorise the known. When you step back and observe the process, you can take it apart and review the snap judgements your mind makes into the broader categories of what is pleasurable and what is painful and what is neither. You can also see how the mind is labelling the breath as it happens; labelling the feelings that arise in the body in response to the breath; and even when things are quiet and the breath becomes perfectly still, there is a "stillness" happening. As you observe one label and drop it, another pops up to fill the void. This goes on all the way up to the realm of emptiness, leaving a trail of "perception attainments" along the way.
According to the Buddha, all fabrication, all sankahra leads to stress, but there is no way to drop the fabrication because the very act of doing this would be a fabrication in itself. The only way to sublimate the process of fabrication is to approach it more skilfully. You accept the stress unconditionally and acknowledge the fear inherent in the unknown. By acknowledging the presence of things that are stressful—the perceptions, feelings, and thoughts—you can unravel them with simpler fabrications until you get to their roots and then take those apart as well. As you delve deeper and gain that self-knowledge that enables you to drop the fabrication, you will reach a point where you no longer need to cling to the labels or fill the empty space with anything. You can just be in the here and now.