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Feeling happens

Experiencing something as unpleasant is neither a judgment of myself nor the situation. It's just how it is.


I've been working lately with the second foundation of mindfulness -- Vedana, which is often translated as mindfulness of emotions or of feelings. It's really less and more than that, and probably is more accurately described as mindfulness of feeling tones.

The Buddha laid out the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the Sattipattana Sutta. The first foundation is mindfulness of body, which he talked about at length -- from knowing that you're breathing in to knowing that this body will be a corpse and all your internal organs will rot and fall out of your skeleton on the charnal grounds.

The second foundation gets a lot fewer words. Essentially, it’s about the feeling tone that comes before full-blown emotions. It’s an unconscious assessment we make thousands of times a day about every sensation or phenomena we experience. We hear a noise, we respond – we like it, we dislike it – even before we give it a name: “motorcycle.” Lawnmower. Ice cream truck.

The Buddha identifies those feeling tones as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.

The automatic responses are the building blocks of judgment. They’re also described as the seeds of what the Buddha called the three poisons – passion/aggression/ignorance, or greed/hatred/delusion. That feeling tone – pleasant/unpleasant/neutral – determines whether we take a protective or open attitude toward the situation.

What we tend to do when we're not aware of the feeling tone that comes before the thought is to tell ourselves a story about why the situation feels unpleasant or pleasant, what caused it, what we can do to change it or to make it stay. This is where we go from mildly miffed (unpleasant feeling tone) to full-blown rage. This is where addiction begins as we reach for something to make the unpleasant tone go away or to hang on to the pleasant one. This is where unskillful behavior abounds. This is where we panic as the unpleasant tone becomes fear and anxiety about it increasing and becoming unbearable.

But what I found this week was that if I could stop at "unpleasant" and not spin a story, it wasn't unbearable. It's the stories -- the what ifs, the how-could-he-have-said-that-to-me, the a-glass-of-X-would-make-me-feel-betters -- that make it unbearable. "Pleasant" quickly turns to "unpleasant" if we expect that things will never change.

I first worked with this a few years ago, and I had great difficulty with it. Part of that, I see now, was a reluctance to admit to unpleasant feelings. I was supposed to be happy, no matter what the circumstances, to appreciate life even when it was painful. So many people had bigger problems -- what right did I have to complain about mine?

What's changed now is that I know that experiencing something as unpleasant is neither a judgment of myself or the situation. It's just how it is. I don't have to justify or explain, even to myself, why it's unpleasant and prove that it deserves to be labeled that way. I don't have to defend it or push it away. Unpleasant is a fluid state, as impermanent and ephemeral as all of life, and it will change.

This is the beauty of revisiting the basic, foundational teachings after you've studied and meditated for some time. Every time you come back to them, you are different and what you find is different. It's an exploration, with kind curiosity, not a competency you have to master to move on.

Buddhism, really, is simple. The Buddha taught suffering and the end of suffering. All the rest of it is elaboration on how to make it happen, refinements, different doors.

Lama Lhundrop, a Kagyu teacher, writing about the second foundation, says : “Our feelings will be accompanied by awareness, and as we are aware of them and the connected judging process, we can find ways to let go of them, one after the other. Due to mindfulness we can avoid further chain reactions with all the connected emotional trouble.

“Mindfulness of feelings also has the effect that we get to know ourselves better and do not run away from our feelings anymore. They become familiar experiences of great variety but without any special importance. In spite of their great variety they are all the same in one respect: they come and go without leaving traces.

“This meditation gradually leads to non-identification with feelings or sensations. Feelings will then arise without secondary thoughts that create a connection to an imaginary I or self. They are simply what they are: feelings, a flow of experiences, ever-changing.”

Or, as the Buddha is quoted in the sutta: “His mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘Feeling exists’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached and clings to nothing.”

But (my aside), while being detached and not clinging, we are fully present and appreciative of whatever we encounter in each fleeting moment.

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