When we practice mindfulness of feelings, we shift our focus from noticing the impermanent, conditioned, and selfless nature of the body to identifying these same three characteristics as attributes of the mind and mental objects. As we begin to investigate feelings, the interdependence of the mind and body becomes evident.
In the same way that we isolated the body from all other objects of consciousness when we began the body contemplations, it is essential to remain mindful of "the feelings in the feelings". We need to avoid dwelling on any judgments, decisions, or internal commentary that may arise based upon the feelings we are observing. We must be careful not to identify with the feelings and consider them "ours". We simply maintain a mindful awareness of each feeling as it presents itself to consciousness from moment to moment.
We began exploring the aggregate of feelings in the chapter concerned with purification of virtue (in the book Swallowing the River Ganges). We described how a feeling automatically arises whenever a sensory experience occurs. A feeling in this context is not an emotion, but rather the direct experience of a sense object as being pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
Describing Worldly & Spiritual Feelings
The Buddha further describes feelings by dividing them into three pairs. The first pair contains pleasant worldly feelings and pleasant spiritual feelings. A pleasant worldly feeling arises when we have contact with a pleasant sense object, or when we think about an aspect of worldly life that brings us pleasure (thoughts of family, friends, personal interests, and so on). A pleasant spiritual feeling arises in connection with meditation practice, such as when we experience the joy associated with deep concentration, when we have a spiritual insight, and so forth.
The second pair includes unpleasant worldly feelings and unpleasant spiritual feelings. An unpleasant worldly feeling arises when we have contact with an unpleasant sense object or when we think about an aspect of worldly life that brings us psychological pain (thoughts of losing a family member, failing at some task, losing a job, and so forth). An unpleasant spiritual feeling arises in connection with meditation practice. We may experience disappointment, for example, when our spiritual progress is slower than we thought it would be, or we may experience fear when we realize just how impermanent everything really is.
The final pair of feelings consists of neutral worldly feelings and neutral spiritual feelings. A neutral worldly feeling is a feeling of indifference. It arises when we have contact with a worldly sense object that neither brings us pleasure nor pain, or when we give consideration to an aspect of worldly life that holds no interest for us. This feeling may arise, for example, when we see the same billboard on the way to work each day, or when we hear a weather report for a place we have no plans on visiting. A neutral spiritual feeling, however, is experienced as equanimity and is the result of spiritual maturity. A mind possessing the quality of equanimity experiences every object of consciousness without attachment or aversion. It develops naturally as we proceed with our practice of meditation and continue to observe things as they are.
Feelings Arise Automatically
Although feelings automatically arise whenever there is sense contact, the type of feeling that we experience can be influenced by our perception of the sense object being experienced. For example, hearing someone sing while we are listening to the radio may result in a pleasant feeling, but hearing someone sing when we are trying to meditate may result in an unpleasant feeling. Recognizing that we cannot control everyone or everything in our life may create an unpleasant feeling, but realizing that there is no self to be in control can result in a feeling of equanimity.
If we are not aware of the feelings as they rise and fall from moment to moment -- if we are not guarding the sense doors -- we may either react to the feelings we experience or to the objects upon which the feelings are based. The tendency is to grasp at pleasant feelings or objects, to resist unpleasant feelings or objects, and to become bored with or indifferent toward feelings and objects that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. This reactivity is part of a conditioned chain of events that occurs without the necessity of a self driving the process.
The following contemplations support the arising of insight into the nature of feelings, the ways in which we react to those feelings, and the impersonal causes and conditions behind the feelings themselves. The contemplation of feelings plays a key role in helping to break the chain that keeps us in bondage to our sensory experiences.
For the first exercise, choose any one of the sense organs to work with for an entire day. Observe the particular feelings that occur when sense objects are encountered through that sense door. When feelings occur, their presence may be experienced as bodily sensations or merely intuited without having specifically located them in the body. However, it is essential to directly experience the feelings and not just to theorize that they must have occurred. Determine whether each feeling that arises is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In the following days, repeat this process for each of the other sense organs. Remember that the mind is considered a sense organ that experiences thoughts, feelings, volitions, and other mental formations as its sense objects.
The first contemplation enables us to recognize how feelings arise spontaneously when sense contact occurs. It reveals how feelings are conditioned by those contacts, and how we have no choice as to whether feelings will arise. It also helps us recognize just how incessantly consciousness is being impinged upon by feelings.
To practice the second exercise, we continue to meditate by focusing on the rise and fall of every in-breath and every out-breath, noticing with great precision their impermanent nature. Whenever the mind shifts its attention to another object of awareness, we recognize the impermanent nature of that object, and then gently but firmly return to the breath. If at any point, however, we realize that we have lost our focus for an extended period of time, we immediately reflect back to see what initially distracted the mind's attention. We may find that it was not the thoughts, images, or sense objects themselves that we were reacting to, but to the feelings that were associated with those experiences.
The second contemplation illuminates the conditioned nature of the mind and the way in which the mind reacts to feelings without any conscious consideration on our part. It enables us to discover how the mind grasps after pleasant feelings or the objects that provide those feelings, how it resists unpleasant feelings or objects, and how it becomes bored or indifferent with feelings or objects that are neutral. As a result of this contemplation we realize that the mind's reactivity to sensory experience is conditioned, dependently arisen, and occurs without a self in control of the process.
In the final exercise, we use feelings as an opportunity to discover the true nature of our moment-to-moment experience. This contemplation, if diligently practiced, will lead to significant insights.
After sitting in meditation for an extended period of time, bodily pain begins to arise. The first strategy is to watch the rise and fall of the painful feeling and then to return to our breath. However, if the feeling is very intense, we will find it difficult to stay focused on the breath. When this occurs, we begin using the painful feeling as the primary object of our meditation.
Resisting or Avoiding Feelings
The typical response to an unpleasant feeling is to resist it or to engage in some activity that may change the nature of the feeling we are experiencing. In terms of sitting meditation, we may decide to change positions or to slightly adjust our posture. By doing so, however, we lose our concentration and are not following one of the most important principles of insight meditation: to remain choicelessly aware of whatever arises to consciousness. The issue with pain, more than the unpleasant feeling itself, is the fear of being overwhelmed by the experience. As a result, we tend to mentally and physically tighten around pain when it occurs. This response serves to intensify the unpleasant experience.
To practice this contemplation, we are to relax, soften, and settle into the experience of the painful feeling. We are to become so intimate with the pain that we can penetrate our misperceptions about the unpleasant feeling and see it for what it really is. We will then be able to recognize the impermanent nature of the pain and discover that there is no pain in the knee, back, or other location as such. The place in which we feel the pain actually keeps shifting from moment to moment. Further, if we are very attentive, we realize that between pulsations of pain, there is the absence of pain.
We will also find that the quality of pain keeps changing. We may first experience the sensation as burning, then as pressure, then as throbbing, and so forth. If we are able to remain fully present with the pain, it often reaches a point where it breaks up and completely disappears, showing once again its impermanence.
By remaining present with the experience, we will also become aware of the unsatisfactory nature of feelings. Of course, with painful feelings this is quite obvious. However, if we were to remain choicelessly present with the most pleasurable of feelings, we would eventually see them change into unpleasant feelings. This makes all feelings, even pleasant ones, impermanent and ultimately unsatisfactory.
As we continue to observe the painful feelings, we discover their selfless nature. We realize that what is actually occurring is the rise and fall of unpleasant feelings, concurrent with the rise and fall of the awareness, or consciousness, of those feelings. There is no self as part of, behind, or in control of the process. The feelings arise due to sense contact, and in effect, the feeling itself is the feeler. When this insight occurs, we discover the difference between a feeling and the mind's aversive reaction to that feeling. This insight transforms our relationship to feelings, enabling us to maintain our equanimity with whatever feelings arise.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Wisdom Publications. ©2001, www.wisdompubs.org
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About the Author
Matthew Flickstein has been a practicing psychotherapist and insight meditation teacher for over twenty-four years. Matthew is the founder and resident teacher of the Forest Way Insight Meditation Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, which specializes in long-term retreats for lay practitioners. Matthew is the author of Journey to the Center: A Meditation Workbook, Swallowing the River Ganges, and a co-editor of the best-selling meditation manual Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.