The 5 Conditions

5 conditions - Woman with hand on head leaning over a hot stove
The 5 Conditions

During the meditation leader training I took at the Sage Institute for Creativity & Consciousness, they introduced us to “The 5 Conditions,” another way to look at the interaction of thoughts and body sensations.

Originally set forth by Zen Master Bernie Glassman as an explanation of what Buddhist psychology calls the Skandas, the 5 Conditions were adapted from that source by Sensei Sean Murphy. They provide additional insight into the reality of experience—the truth of what happens in our minds and bodies as we go through life.

The 5 Conditions are:
  1. Sensation/Perception
  2. Feeling
  3. Reaction
  4. Recognition/Interpretation
  5. Story

Any experience begins with sensations in the body. Not what you think about the sensation or whether you like it or not, but pure, raw sensation. The touch. The taste. The felt sense. The smell. The sound. The sight. The impact. Sensation is light entering your retina. Nerve endings in the skin of your fingers firing as you grip the steering wheel. Sound entering your ear canal and activating the auditory nerve. It’s the taste bud encountering food—that first firing. That’s sensation, the first of the five conditions: Pure input into a sense gate. The body’s perception of a stimulus entering a sense gate in the present moment—this is as close as we get to the pure experience of reality.


Feeling in this case doesn’t mean sensations or emotional feeling. It simply means the awareness of whether the sensation is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. It’s almost instantaneous with the actual sensation. We sense, and then the body registers a quality or flavor of the input as positive (pleasant—I like it), negative (unpleasant—I don’t like it), or neutral. For our purposes here, the most important are pleasant and unpleasant.


After that comes a reaction. This is where we experience grasping or craving or aversion. This is the way the body pushes and pulls toward or against the experience based on its flavor. You might like or dislike it, find it pleasant or unpleasant. The reaction may be purely internal, or it might be  external, such as a physical turning toward or away from the experience. It’s also where emotions begin. Fear. Joy. Sadness. Anger. Any of these  emotional reactions may occur at this stage. And you may cringe away or lean toward the sensation depending on the flavor of pleasantness or  unpleasantness that attends the sensation. A reaction could also be as subtle as the pupils dilating or opening in response to light or dark. These reactions are not yet conscious. They are automatic, survival-based, and evolutionary.


Here’s where the mind catches up with the three previous processes, which are nearly unconscious. This stage is more conscious. The mind and body realize the stove is hot or the sound loud and shrill. It becomes aware of a sour or bitter taste or the smell of a lovely fragrance. Thoughts may begin to form around it. Words and images in the mind may occur. The concept arises in our mind. We register consciously what has just happened.


Finally, the mind creates a story from the ideas, preconceptions, and memories associated with the situation. For example, “Damn! Who left the stove on!” or “I’m so stupid!” or “Stoves should have safety valves!” Trying to give the event meaning, the mind creates a narrative around it. Often these narratives are false and unhelpful, but not always. Sometimes we do see clearly. Regardless, the story is still four steps removed from that initial sensation. And these four steps can cause a lot of trouble.

Let’s say I’m running a race. When I run, I frequently have sensations in my left foot. I don’t like them. So, I react, favor it, and become anxious. I interpret this as a problem. I make up a story. “Oh no! Maybe that surgeon who wanted to fuse my ankle was right. I’ve probably permanently injured myself. I should stop right now. But if I can’t run, I’ll gain back all the weight and more. Ed will leave and take the dog.” And on and on and on.

The story I made up is plausible. Perhaps I should quit the race, go home, and run another day. But it might not be true. If I had believed one doctor’s story about my ankle and taken it on as truth in my own mind, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade as a runner and you wouldn’t be reading this book.

The moral? Don’t believe everything you think!

Mindfulness short-circuits this process. Much suffering comes not from the sensation itself, or even the feeling or reaction. It’s when we create a story and live as if that story were true that it turns from pure sensation and awareness into suffering.

In this example, rather than follow my train of thought down the rabbit hole, I can catch it quickly and return to observing the pure sensation.

My left foot tingles. End of story.

Mindfulness simplifies our experience into the most basic process.

Mindfulness also offers insight. When we see the process happening and can remain calm and open to it, we see it for what it is, not reality, just a story.

Mindfulness always brings us back to the present moment. The story is usually in the future or the past and is usually fraught. The past is regret or longing for things from before. The future is worry or longing for things to happen a certain way.

So are craving and aversion.

We want to push away things from the past when we feel the sensation of regret. And when we worry, we desire to push away things of the future. But we also pull on happy memories of the past, wishing to relive them. We pull on the future, hoping it turns out a certain way.

Thoughts of the future, thoughts of the past, and judgment (especially self-judgment) are full of the potential to create suffering. But a moment-to-
moment awareness of the present has no such energy. Pure experience in the moment has no opinion. It’s the reaction (that push or pull) or the story that causes suffering. With mindfulness, you see through the layers to what’s actually happening. It’s a practice in reality.

Any time you take on a new challenge, you will likely notice negative stories arising in the mind—sometimes convincing ones.

They offer plausible reasons we can’t succeed. People who do succeed see through these negative stories.

Even stories happening in the present can distract. Thoughts of, “I’m no good at this. I’m not cut out for this. I’m not an athlete like [__fill in the blank__]” are stories. Depending on your fitness level, mental ability, and level of training, you might not be cut out for everything you attempt. But please don’t let the story keep you from finding out!

I have included more than twenty “Your Turn” exercises in the book Make Every Move a Meditation.

This excerpt is from Make Every Move a Meditation by Nita Sweeney. Buy the paperback, ebook, or audiobook now at Amazon or Mango Publishing Group.