SOME LIKE IT HOT, OR NOT: Mindfulness of Feeling, or Recognizing the Feeling Tone of Experience
by Philip L. Jones
In his book, Touching Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh has said "Peace is all around us - in the world and in nature - and within us - in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed."
What keeps us from seeing that peace is all around us? It is our tendency to get caught in our experiences. We get caught in our experiences because we don't see their true nature. We see our experiences as being permanent, satisfactory and as having a solidity to them. Through the practice of insight meditation we begin to investigate our experience so that we can see for ourselves what is true about our experiences and how we get caught in them.
In the first section of instructions we learned how to ground ourselves, how to settle ourselves and develop concentration using the sensations of breathing. In the second section we explored opening to the body, to physical sensations and we discovered a number of insights about how we relate to them. We also learned experientially how insight practice is different from concentration practice. As we move to different aspects of our experience, we begin to focus on more and more subtle experiences. Sometimes they may be easy for us to see, at other times quite difficult. It mostly depends upon how much concentration and mindfulness we have been able to develop at any particular moment. During this section we will explore mindfulness of feeling and then look at working with distractions.
MINDFULNESS OF FEELING
In the tradition of Insight Meditation, feeling refers to the tone of an experience, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Although in our society we often use the words "feeling" and "emotion" interchangeably, in insight meditation they are distinct. Feelings are part of our automatic response to sensory input through any of the five sense doors or through thoughts. Emotions are much more complex and involve moods, such as anger, desire or joy, as well as physical sensations and thoughts, often stories we tell ourselves. Feeling is actually part of the foundation upon which emotion is built, so developing some ability to be aware of feeling allows us to be less reactive to emotions as well.
It is important to be aware of feeling because this is what keeps us hooked into our conditioning. We are conditioned to react to pleasant sensations with sense desire and attachment. We want more of the pleasant feeling and believe that more will make us happy. We are conditioned to react to unpleasant sensations with anger, fear and aversion. We want to get away from the unpleasant and believe that doing so will make us happy. A neutral feeling is often un-noticed. However, we may experience aversion, in the form of boredom, to neutral feeling. This may then give rise to other mind-states that undermine our meditation, such as sleepiness, searching for something more exciting, or getting caught in a conversation in our mind. The constant effort to get the pleasant and to avoid unpleasant and neutral keeps us from finding that peacefulness comes from simply being what is present in our lives in this moment, whether things are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Mindfulness of feeling begins the process of de-conditioning these patterns of reactivity.
The key way of working with feeling is through mindfulness. Simply being aware, in a non-judgmental way, of whatever comes into awareness. Simply being aware of whether it has a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling tone. As we practice mindfulness of feeling, we begin to see for ourselves how our reactions to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences dominate our lives. The ability to recognize the feeling of an experience allows us to break our identification with it, to become unstuck from the experience. We can begin to see it as just an experience that is happening rather than "my experience" or "me." This awareness of how we react creates the possibility of responding to feeling with more flexibility and appropriateness for each situation rather than simply reacting based on our past conditioning.
Instructions for Mindfulness of Feeling
• Begin your meditation as previously instructed using the breath as the primary object of meditation.
• If a sensation or experience in the body is strong enough to pull your attention away from the breath, allow your awareness to rest in that sensation.
• Notice whether the experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
• As different experiences become predominant in your awareness, continue to notice the feeling quality of each experience, and your reaction to it such as holding on, pushing away or becoming bored.
• As you meditate with the feeling quality of experience, notice whether it is something that lasts, or whether it is something that comes into awareness, is present for a while and then dissipates.
• If you become lost in thought or sensations, when you notice it look back at the thought or sensation to see whether it was pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This will help to reveal how the mind gets caught in reacting to the feeling-tone of an object of experience. Then, gently return your attention to the breath and continue with the instructions above.
• If you ever feel confused about what you are experiencing or what you should do, simply return your attention to the breath.
• Continue with the practice of mindfulness of feeling until your meditation period is over.
• After your period of meditation, you may find it useful to reflect on what you have noticed about your experience. Here are some questions to explore as you reflect on your experience. Does every moment of your experience have a feeling-tone, either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Is there actually a tendency to hold onto the pleasant, to push away the unpleasant and to be bored by the neutral? If you bring mindfulness to a pleasant experience does it last or does it come into awareness and then leave? How about unpleasant experiences and neutral ones?
• During the day, spend some time noticing the feeling tone of your experiences and how you react to them.
WORKING WITH DISTRACTIONS AND DIFFICULTIES
Insight meditation is a practice of opening up to your experience, a practice of opening your heart and seeing more clearly what is true in your life. It begins with being open to and compassionate towards yourself. As you develop some concentration, you may begin to notice thoughts or feelings or sensations that pull your attention away from your object of meditation. You may perceive these experiences as difficult or distracting. However, the rule of thumb in insight meditation is that nothing is a distraction. Instead, everything is a potential object of meditation.
Try to meet these "distractions" and "difficulties" with kindness, without judging them as good or bad. You may find yourself wanting to avoid certain thoughts, feelings or sensations, or you may find yourself wanting to hang onto them. Simply be aware of the desire to avoid or to cling, meeting those judgments with kindness as well. Being mindful of the feeling tone of an experience can be helpful in getting disentangled from it and seeing it more clearly.
Working with Physical Sensation and Feeling in Daily Life
What we have been practicing is one of the tools in this practice. So far we have worked on three tools: mindfulness of the sensations of breathing, mindfulness of physical sensations and now mindfulness of feeling. When you practice on your own, you can use these tools in two different ways. First, you can focus your attention on one aspect of your experience to develop a more comprehensive understanding of it. Second, you can use whatever tool is appropriate as different experiences arise into awareness.
In your daily life attempt to use both approaches. Take a day to just be aware of the feeling tone of your experiences and how you react to them. Then on another day simply try to bring mindfulness to your experience when physical sensation becomes predominate or when you notice the feeling tone of an experience.