We continue our exploration of the second link of Dependent Origination, Mental Formations. Mental formations consist of everything "formed" by the mind. We can understand why some spiritual traditions call these displays "dreamlike" and "illusory" when they come from nothing and seem to form into something meaningful, but the meaning is an internal response to the image and not intrinsic to the image itself. We can directly observe their transparency, and yet at the same time be fooled by their presentation. In the same way we become mentally enmeshed in the rapid succession of two dimensional celluloid still pictures (called a movie), likewise we translate our mental formations into our life's story. The reality we give life is derived from these mental images. They form us and the world and establish a hunger (called desire) to reconnect with what is true and lasting. At first we attempt to discover this through our worldly pursuits, but we eventually awaken to the fact that what is true and lasting cannot be found within those images.
When the energy of self-formation moves through desire to clinging, there is a dramatic change in intensity. The grasping feels like a compelling need of the organism. We may feel that we must have this experience in order for life to be worthwhile, and we are usually willing to do whatever is needed to obtain it. The energy is very tightly bound to the sense of survival. The Buddha grouped the areas of clinging in four broad categories: (1) pleasurable experiences, (2) views and opinions, (3) rites and rituals, and (4) belief in self. When we see the ferocity of our need to procure and defend our right for pleasure, our personal and political opinions, the indoctrinated beliefs in our religious views and practices, and the obstinate way we defend our self-image, we begin to understand the entrenched positions our egoic state stands upon.
We think of desire as a spiritually undesirable state of mind. Because it holds such power over our actions and thoughts, we are reluctant to thoroughly take it on and explore what it is. Desire is not just one simple state of mind. It is the composition of all the links that preceded it in Dependent Origination, the confluence of ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, name and form, six sense base, contact, and feelings. It holds all of that and the idea of "me" as well. As an analogy, think of snow as being the composite of temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, etc. Snow seems like something separate and different from the conditions that form it, but it is those conditions. We can enter and examine the energy of desire through any of these composite conditions. Encouraged by our thoughts, desire also has a strong sense of becoming something, something essential to us. But when we look at desire, it is a future thought holding the wish of a different life. Sad, is it not? When properly seen, we can you feel the grief of the unfulfilled desire?
Reflect on the nature of desire and fear. How do desire and fear project their own reality? Think about what a desire is. Does it have any reality other than a mental wish? How much of your activity is forged around wish fulfillment as opposed to being present? Experience the relationship between desire and suffering. Is desire itself pleasant? Are you driven by the pain of not having or the anticipation of possessing? Focus on a situation in which you want something that is not occurring. See the choices before you: reality or imagination. Why would the Dharma point toward accepting a reality where you remain deprived? What is the point? Why not practice wish fulfillment? Remain sensitive to suffering and its cause throughout this inquiry.
Sankharas or karmic formations, the second link of causality within Dependent Origination, appear only within the environment of ignorance (first link). In other words, sanskaras form when our back is turned in denial or aversion or when we do not look beyond conventional meaning. Using the analogy of the sky, as clouds form and we are conscious of what is occurring, we do not take the clouds to be anything other than the formation of moisture in air. If there is a lapse of awareness and the cloud shapes itself into a recognizable form, we will no longer just see the cloud as a cloud but could easily lose ourselves in the shape it has now taken. So too, like a Rorschach inkblot test, ignorance or the lack of awareness brings our conditioned mental tendencies forth and configures each moment as a personal representation of our past. We then fall in line and behave as the formation dictates. If it says we are sad, we assume the posture of sadness, never questioning how this filter is coloring our experience. If we infuse enough belief into the formation, assumptions and attitudes create the sense of a personal truth that we then play out in action. The only tool we have to free ourselves from these false assumptions is awareness, and it is all we need to break their hold.