We’re in the middle of exploring the 4 foundations of mindfulness. These are the “corner stones” upon which we establish mindfulness. We have looked at how the body is our substrate for experience and how it provides the starting point for the journey. We are now moving on to the second foundation which is feelings (or vedana).
We are on the path of mindfulness:
📖 The body and breath as the first foundation of mindfulness
Understanding “vedanā” in order to break the chain of reactivity
Feelings are not separate from the body. They are the natural continuation. As we will see, mindfulness of feelings provide a key to understanding and unlocking deep, reactive patterns of the mind.
First, it will be important to clarify the term “feelings” because the word has many different meanings. The term in Pali is vedanā, and it refers to the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral qualities of sensations that arise moment by moment as we come into contact with our senses. We become aware of a sound, smell, touch, taste, sight, or thought as a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling in the body – this is vedanā.
So a more specific term for this foundation would be “mindfulness of feeling tones” (or hedonic tones). Becoming aware of vedana is a powerful practice that begins to break a key link in the chain of reactivity – the very mechanism behind our suffer.
How reactive patterns cause suffering
Let’s say we experience something unpleasant, like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. It’s unpleasant, we don’t like it. We want it to go way. There is a pushing away, like we are fighting the experience. So we don’t only experience the initial discomfort from the sound, but we add aversion on top of it, creating a “second arrow“.
The first arrow represents the pain – it stinks, but it is a part of life that we can’t avoid. The second arrow is our mental pain or resistance. What can be surprising is that our mental reactivity (the second arrow) is often more painful than the experience of the situation itself.
The point of this teaching is that the second arrow is avoidable. The suffering is not inherent in the experience (in this case, the sound). An unpleasant sound is just an unpleasant sound. By resisting, we add suffering unnecessarily on top the original discomfort. In the words of the stoic philosopher Epictetus:
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things”
Inquiring in to the nature of vedana:
OK, so Buddha says that reaction to pain is often worse than pain itself. Let us now spend some time to inquiry into our own experience of this teaching:
– In what ways do you react to pleasurable and unpleasant sensations in the body?
– Can you differentiate between the pain of the pain and the pain that comes from reacting or resisting the pain?
I had an experience just the other day as I was out in the forest with my dog. I started noticing that I was getting hungry. There was some sensation there, and then the mind started…
“It is already past lunchtime, and it is going to take me a while to get home. By the time I have prepared lunch it will be quite late, and then I may not be hungry for dinner… or perhaps I should just wait for dinner…”
This whole reaction started to cause me quite some distress and unease. Suddenly, I noticed and felt into the sensation of the hunger. There was a light tightening in the abdomen and some irregular pulsation. It was the first arrow. This slight discomfort of the hunger was totally tolerable.In fact, it wasn’t very unpleasant at all. So once I could stay with these sensations, the second arrow fell away. I was no longer worrying about the thoughts and potential scenarios. Instead, I could enjoy my walk back home with Luna.
Unpleasant sounds and hunger may sound like insignificant examples. The point is that, regardless of the experience, our tendency to react is the same. We experience pain and we create suffering for ourselves through resistance and non-acceptance. We keep the pain alive through the stories we tell ourselves about it.
This pattern is self-reinforcing and has deep consequences in our lives . Aversion conditions more aversion, to the point where we become unable to tolerate pain and discomfort. We turn toward sense pleasure as a means of escape. It takes our mind off of the discomfort, right, and so we experience pleasant sensations. And we like it! Naturally. We want it to stay, we try to hold on to it, we resist when it passes away, and we grasp for more. And this craving conditions craving in the mind. Neutral feelings are often overlooked, we ignore them as if they are not important, they just get in the way of the next thing. This ignorance conditions more ignorance, confusion and delusion in the mind.
So through this process, we are caught in a cycle of pushing away and running toward. There is no equanimity, no real freedom. We are at the mercy of the ever-changing feeling tone in the present moment.
There is a simile to illustrate this, which tells how hunters use a tar trap to catch monkeys. The monkey, filled with desire, grabs the trap with his paw and gets stuck. Thinking he can free his paw, he grabs it with his other paw which also gets stuck. Trying to free himself with his foot, and then the other foot, and finally the mouth. The more desperately he tries to free himself, the deeper he gets stuck. He is now at the mercy of the hunter.
We often do this in our lives; we get caught, and our strategies for freeing ourselves ensnares us further. We look for the answers in the wrong place. We are seduced by sense pleasure. Or in the tradition, we are seduced by Mara, the embodiment of the forces that stand in the way of liberation. We are at the mercy of attachment and aversion.
Inquiring into addiction
This teaching is not putting down sense pleasure. Pleasure in itself is wonderful. The problem comes with the reactivity part. We are inquiring into is how the attachment and aversion to sense experience conditions reactivity in the mind to the point where we lose our freedom and happiness.
We all have experience of being addicted in some way. When indulging in sense pleasure, there may an awareness in the background that the behavior is harmful or detrimental to our health. We may be aware that it further strengthens addictive patterns. There is often an inner, critical voice judging our behavior and tells us how we “should” behave or be different.
🔎 Inquiry on addiction and freedom:
When was the last time you engaged in a behavior that was not aligned with your highest intention? How did it make you feel before, during and after? Were you aware of an internal, critical voice?
But we also have a taste of the opposite. We know what freedom feels like. How does it feel when the mind is open, clear, nonreactive? What does peace feel like? Perhaps a sense like “ahh, finally” , a sense of being able to breath again.
🔎 Inquiry on freedom from addiction:
What is it like when the mind is attentive and yet non-reactive? What does it feel like to remain aware of the bodily sensations without clinging or aversion?
The power of Mara
Deep down, we recognise that sense pleasure will not bring the peace, relief or happiness that we were carving. We know that avoidance and distraction does not lead to healing or addressing the problem. And still, due to strong conditioning of the mind, we keep doing the same thing.
To make it more challenging, we have whole industries that benefit from this state of affairs. These are powerful forces that work to strengthen our habitual patterns – both internally and externally. Mara is quite strong.
So how can we use mindfulness to cultivate more of this peace and breathing room?
It takes practice
Coming back now to the Buddhas instructions in the teachings on the foundations of mindfulness (Satipatthana – “direct path to realisation”):
When experiencing a pleasant feeling, he understands: “I experience a pleasant feeling”; when experiencing a painful feeling, he understands: “I experience a painful feeling”; when experiencing a neutral feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neutral feeling”.
So it is very simple. But it is not easy to do, because this conditioning goes very deep. Our reaction to it is so immediate that we often don’t even recognise it. When we don’t see that it is the feelings that we react to, we tend to project our craving or aversion onto the object. We start believing that it, out there, is the source of our happiness or suffering.
Staying at the root level of sensation without acting on our impulse is how we cut the chain of reactivity. This takes practice. For those of you who have been to an Insight meditation retreat, at least in the Goenka school, this is what we do for 10 days.
Mindfulness is based on the insight that it is possible to retrain the mind through conscious attention. This is the neuroscience from thousands of years ago. We can see that, in any given moment, we have the capacity to be with what is without causing a reaction in the mind. We train this capacity not by judging our behavior, but by bringing awareness to it – illuminating it. We invite the spirit of investigation and curiosity. When we find ourselves caught in reactivity, we notice the distress in the mind, and we recognise it as a results from overlooking the initial feeling tone. We remind ourselves, “ah, this is the second arrow”. Once there is some mindfulness, we can come back to the somatic experience of our body.
When we do this, even if the sensation is unpleasant, we often find that we can acutally tolerate it. Perhaps it is not as bad as we thought. Perhaps we see how the story and the resistance is often where most of the suffering is.
And if it’s a pleasant experience, we see that we can stay with the enjoyment without the attachment. And often this makes the experience all the more satisfying.
🧘 Guided mindfulness meditation on vedana, 30 minutes:
“Bare knowing” to “Burn karma”
Mindfulness of feelings is established to the extent necessary for “bare knowing” and continuous mindfulness. Thus, he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world.
As we explored in the first foundation of mindfulness, “bare knowing” refers to the clarity of mind that enables us to see things as they are without adding judgements and stories. We attend to the constant flow of changing sensations in the body with loving awareness. We are aware of pleasure and discomfort without following the urge to react with clinging or aversion.
When we stay with “bare knowing” of the feeling tones, we process our experience in real-time. We meet it head-on, there is no avoidance, nothing to dwell on. The experience has a chance to express itself and pass through, and there is no accumulation of unfulfilled experience in the body.
One way to think about it is that we are settling a debt – we are not taking any more loans. In Buddhist language, we might say that mindfulness starts a process of burning karma from the past. We begin to process experiences that have been suppressed and stored in the body. In this way, mindfulness of vedanā is not only a process of waking up. It is also a way to relax the nervous system, integrate our psyche, and experience emotional healing as well.
The bottom line
The bottom line to understand is that when we overlook feelings tones (vedanā) they condition our mind and keep us stuck. And when we meet them with mindful and heartful awareness, the opposite is true. The very same feelings help us cultivate equanimity, compassion and wisdom. They become the fuel for our inner transformation.
So in the next frame we will go deeper into the mechanics of feelings, and how to practice with them.
This concludes the first half of the second foundation of mindfulness. The path continues with the inquiry into Vedana, part 2.
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