We are continuing our investigation of the second foundation of mindfulness – vedanā, or feeling tones. In the last frame, we saw how overlooked feelings cause automatic reactions that condition the mind.
📖 How mindfulness of feelings untangles the mind from reactive patterns, part 1
We explored how our reactions to pleasure strengthens craving and grasping, reactions to pain conditions aversion and aggression in the mind, and how neutral feelings, when overlooked, lead to ignorance.
We went on to show how mindfulness is the key that illuminates this pattern and begins to unwind it – how when we attend to feelings with mindfulness without reacting, the very same feelings turn into the vehicle that we use on the path to liberation.
Recognising the three marks of existence in feelings
This inner alchemy happens as we learn to abide in a simple, direct knowing of what is present without getting lost in stories and reactions. Without attempting to control or resist our experience. We have called this quality of attention “bare knowing”, sometimes “just seeing”. This is what vipassana meditation is pointing to. It is about gaining insight into the nature of our feelings. Even more fundamentally, it’s about recognising the universal characteristics of all phenomena – summed up as the “three marks of existence”.
One of the first things we discover as we learn to attend to feelings with mindfulness is their impermanent, ever-changing nature. It’s like observing a dance, where we see how they arise, stay for a while, express themselves, and then pass away or morph into something else. We all know that it is the nature of our feelings on some level, but we we often don’t act according to this understanding. We need to see this deeply for ourselves, experientially, not intellectually. This discovery makes it easier to tolerate discomfort. We see that there is no point resisting – or fighting – something that passes away by itself. That the aversion just maintains the very energy that we want to get rid of. And with pleasant feelings, we see that there is no point clinging to something that is so transient by nature. We can enjoy them without being attached, and we see how this grasping tendency just increases the thirst in the mind. And we recognise neutral feelings as a natural part of life. We stop ignoring them and increase our capacity to be present and show up to what shows up, throughout our days and our lives.
The way of mindfulness is not to judge our reactive habits, but to bring awareness to them. When we are not aware of the root level of sensation – the vedanā – we don’t see that it is these feelings that we react to. We project our desire and aggression, believing that it’s the circumstance that is the source of our happiness or suffering. We work hard to arrange our lives, trying to find that perfect life situation, and then keep it. Chasing after that possession, job, person, thinking that maybe that next achievement or experience will finally bring that happiness or satisfaction that we are longing for. Or that once we get rid of that particular circumstance or problem or pain, then our suffering will go away. This is not to say that our circumstances don’t matter, but our mistaken view – that external circumstances have the magic power to make us content – keeps us running, and looking for happiness in the wrong places.
Through mindfulness, we become aware that it is the vedanā that we react to. That our craving or aversion is not about the external thing, but about the feeling that it represents for us. This is the recognition of the truth of dukkha – “unsatisfactoriness”. It is about coming to terms with the fact that nothing “out there” can ever be the real source of happiness, and that there is no way to have only pleasant feelings.
The third characteristic is the recognition of the empty, selfless nature of feelings. We often take feelings personally. We have a bad day, and our entire outlook on life is filtered through the heavy feeling tone at the time. We identify with the feeling, and something simple like “this interaction didn’t turn out as I had hoped”, quickly becomes “I failed”, which leads to the belief “I am a failure”. This is how identification with feelings can turn into limiting beliefs that we are not enough, we will never succeed, we don’t deserve to be loved, or whatever it is.
Mindfulness helps us see how feelings come and go in awareness, like the sound of birds in the forest. There is nothing to hold on to. We see how there is nothing solid or personal about feelings. They truly don’t belong to anyone, and they certainly do not define who we are. There is nothing to call “my feeling”. Feeling are just feelings. And this realisation of anattā – or “no self” – is not some philosophical idea or something to believe. It has to be experienced directly. And when it is, feelings start to lose the grip they have on us.
When we don’t have a direct experience of these truths – or when we ignore them (ignorance – avidyā) – we are easily moved by the changing winds of our feelings. We see this in children. How they are ensnared by feelings. It is as if the world is going to end when the toy disappears, or when the mother is not available. They don’t yet recognise the fleeting, impermanent nature of feelings. Think of yourself as a child, and compare with today. You probably have more access to equanimity. As we mature, we find more acceptance, we have enough wisdom to see and tolerate that the ups and downs are part of life. At least at times – and this is where practice comes in. As we practice and gain direct experiential understanding of the “three characteristics”, our equanimity is naturally strengthened. And this capacity it the master key on the path of mindfulness. It is this stability of mind that enables us to stay balanced in the midst of the changing feeling tones, and thereby liberate the mind from reactivity.
Worldly and unworldly feeling tones
So equanimity opens up space and freedom – it is a quality of mind that has a certain taste to it. And this points to the next step in the instructions; which has to do with further discriminating the various qualities of feelings:
We learn to differentiate between “worldly feelings” (arising from sense contact) and what are called “spiritual, or unworldly feelings” (arising from within, through renunciation).
So what do we mean by spiritual feelings? How do they arise from renunciation?
Happiness beyond conditions
When we hear renunciation, we may think of stark discipline, denying pleasure or sacrificing enjoyment for some future gain. But really, renunciation is about non-addiction. We refrain from being hooked and attached. And the feeling tones that arise from this have a different quality to them, a different taste.
Let’s return to the equanimity. This is an example of a neutral, spiritual feeling. It arises from within when we let go of attachment. And it has a certain quality to it – it feels good! It often feels better than pleasant sensory experience. This is because it doesn’t condition the mind toward craving. And it doesn’t carry the seed of ignorance (like a neutral worldly feeing might).
As we pay attention to vedana, we learn to discern and differentiate worldly and unworldly feelings. This ability becomes important because it points us to a different understanding of what happiness is.
We recognise these spiritual feelings as arising from within. That they are part of our inner essence, meaning that they are not dependent on external stimuli.
The path points us inward, where we find ways of accessing what is already available within.
Just as we use shamatha (concentration practices) to still the mind and cultivate concentration, we can use “heart practices” (known as the Bramaviharas, the four immeasurable virtues) in order to access the wholesome feelings states of loving kindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), joy (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā)
Below practices are designed to help cultivate loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.
Guided mindfulness meditation on loving kindness, 18 minutes:
🧘 Guided mindfulness meditation on feelings, 18 minutes:
Guided mindfulness meditation on compassion, 12 minutes:
Guided mindfulness meditation on vedana & equanimity, 30 minutes:
To summarise, the practice is not to fight or judge our behavior. We are not trying to avoid worldly feelings, or to strive for having only spiritual feelings. We don’t need to abandon pleasure – we remain in the world and we can enjoy what life has to offer. What we abandon is the attachment to the pleasure.
And we do this through mindfulness, by increasing our awareness of feelings and illuminating the reactive patterns of the mind. Over time, this gives rise to insight, and we see the unsatisfactory, self-less and impermanent nature of feelings. And through this process, our equanimity grows and we learn to stay with the feeling tones without reacting. So instead of strengthening the tendency to grasp and cling, and fight, we now strengthen our natural, innate capacity for wisdom, compassion and equanimity.
And we see that these inner feelings – or spiritual feelings – have a very different quality to them. They arise from within, not dependent on sense contact, and we begin to get a different understanding of what happiness is and where to look for it. This understanding enables more effective strategies for wellbeing. It’s a bit like planting a garden – by learning to differentiate between seeds, we can be more intentional with the type of seeds we are planting, and how we cultivate them.
This concludes the second foundation of mindfulness. The path continues with the inquiry on the third foundation of mindfulness – THE MIND.