Meditation Talk: Mindfulness of Feeling
Last week we started our exploration of the four foundations of mindfulness with mindfulness of body. Once grounded in and aware of the happenings of our bodies, it becomes possible and accessible to begin exploring the second foundation: mindfulness of feeling, and so this is the topic of our discussion and our practice together today.
I think the best place to start as we venture into this journey is to actually define what we mean by feeling. So I’ll start by asking you: what does the word feeling or feelings mean to you?
Yea, so the beauty that we’re uncovering is that the word feeling actually addresses lots of different aspects of experience. We can use the word feeling to mean the actual, visceral sensations in the body, the way we relate to those sensations, and even larger to refer to the emotions that come from our relationship to the sensations. In terms of our exploration of feelings, we are, interestingly, talking about all of these...and subtly more. To explain this, I’d like to start with why we might want to pay attention to feelings at all. When the Buddha gave his first ever and most prolific teaching: the four noble truths, what he did was diagnose the suffering, the cause of suffering, and the antidote to suffering for all human beings.
The point I want to make here is that he suggested, and I offer this here merely as a suggestion and a point of curiosity, that the root of all suffering comes from the inherent nature of all of us as human beings to cling to and grasp at what we like and to push away or try to get rid of anything we dislike.
In my own experience, I have absolutely found this to be true. Moment by moment, I am constantly evaluating whether I am liking, disliking, or not caring about what I am experiencing in my inner and outer world. If something happens that I like, I do my best to keep that feeling, and if something happens that I don’t like I either simply react from anger or try to get away from the feeling of disliking, and of course if something is neutral, I’m almost guaranteed to ignore whatever caused it.
So let’s make this a little more tangible with some examples. On an arbitrary day just like any other arbitrary day, I meet someone that makes me feel funny: butterflies in my stomach, nothing else in the world exists, my heart flutters...ahhhh, love. For the next undetermined amount of time, what do I do? I make every attempt to spend time with this person, seeking out the source of those good feelings over and over again as if to relive the experience of our initial delight. Not only that, but maybe I also do my best to coerce this person into becoming “mine.” We get married and forge a bond that promises to make us feel good for the rest of our lives. We like something, so invariably, we cling.
But what about dislike? Let’s go a little smaller than falling in love - someone cuts us off in traffic and if you’re anything like me, words start flying from your mouth or frustration arises in your chest before there’s any sense of conscious control. “How dare they. So inconsiderate!” What is it that we actually don’t like here? What are we pushing away? Difficult experiences are often a little more complicated to dig through than positive ones, I think probably because with positivity, with our process of liking, there’s nothing really to hide or cover up, but with hurt and pain, we often struggle to be tender and vulnerable, to expose the deep roots of what is hurting. In our traffic example perhaps we don’t feel considered or the way we were cut off actually created a small amount of fear for our safety. In some way, we perceived a threat to our “ok-ness” but why then have we become enraged?
I would argue, from the process of my own investigations of mindfulness of feeling that the anger is the expression of pushing away at what we don’t like and that more deeply than the anger itself comes the dislike of our hurt, fear, or uncertainty.
Hopefully these examples give at least a small frame of reference for what I mean when I say clinging to good and pushing away at bad and how these acts as attempts to control our lives invariably lead to suffering...because the truth is that everything is always changing and much of our worlds are outside of our control. Mindfulness of feeling becomes a powerful exploration because it starts to bring awareness to this habitual process of liking and disliking, of the way our mind is constantly labeling as good, bad, neutral. Going back to what we actually mean by the word “feeling” then, we are talking about everything from the sensations in the body to the experiencing of sounds, light, smells, tastes, and thoughts. Perhaps these can all be lumped into the category of sensation or the receiving of information: in other words the feeling of feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, thinking. Then there’s the secondary layer of how we feel about what we feel. This is the often unconscious label of good, bad, or neutral - the Pali word for this is vedana. I’m not sure why I love it so much, but the word seems to embody the intention as I hear it. In this way as we become mindful of feeling, we pay deep attention to our bodies (hence why this is the first foundation of mindfulness) and as we are deeply aware we begin to notice when something happens in the body, when a sensation arises internally or externally, when we hear a sound or feel the air as it sweeps across the surface of the skin, we notice the basic visceral feeling and then we invite ourselves to be still enough to notice the vedana that accompanies the feeling. The question the mind is always asking: “how do “I” relate to this?” and it is out of this question that we get the quiet voice of vedana: like, dislike, don’t care. We can then become playful with our mindful attention to journey toward an understanding of how our emotions and thoughts may begin to respond to the vedana that came from sensation. What is the habit of mind that arises as I like something? Do I notice an energy arising in my heart and belly? Does the sensation and relational vedana remind me of something that happened in the past and therefore draw up some emotion in relation to the experience of the sensation?
The beauty that arises through the practice of mindfulness of feeling is that we begin to deeply touch the conditioning of our own minds - to see at the smallest levels how we are relating to our inner and outer landscapes of experience.
I think the thing I love most about this is how silly some of my inherent responses of liking and disliking are. My favorite example is a day when I decided to do my meditation practice in the living room of my home. As I sat, one of my dogs began to lick herself….over and over and over again. I could feel my mind fraught with dislike. I wanted to just for a moment break my practice and tell her to stop or be quiet...didn’t she know she was interrupting me?! I watched as my mind HONED in on the sound of the licking. It was as though nothing else in the world existed but that sound. My body became warm, my mind and body we were tight, and I did my best just to be with the feelings that were arising. Within a few minutes, she stopped. “Ah,” I thought. “Thank god.” And then the other one started. I was immediately engulfed in rage! How quickly my ease at the release of my suffering disappeared! It took about 3 minutes of me resting in utter frustration until I began laughing at my own ridiculousness - I was seriously fraught with rage over the sound of my dog licking. While this was a wild example as I swayed from total frustration to utter hilarity, I have found over and over again that as I investigate my innate vedana and my mental and emotional feelings that follow, that I don’t actually agree with what arises a lot of the time. I may have a quiet feeling of dislike for something but when I investigate, I really have no attachment to it one way or another. I may experience a wonderful feeling in response to something and feel my mind’s desire to pay more attention so I can keep the feeling, but I am also equally ok with moving on and exploring something new. The experience of seeing and coming to know our own feelings at the smallest levels speak to a depth of being in contact with ourselves and our moment by moment experiences that grants autonomy and the capacity for a larger awareness even in the most difficult moments. As we see what’s happening in our own bodies and minds, we grant the space for things to just be as they are - for us to enjoy enjoyment and to be ok even in the midsts of sadness and grief. When we allow ourselves to be as we are, feel as we feel, without pushing away at that which we dislike and clinging to that which we love, then in each and every moment we are totally and beautifully free.