the way of Silent Mind-Open Heart  



Working with the Hard Stuff:
Exploring the Causes of Discontent and Contentment

by Philip Jones


This talk was originally presented at a retreat in St. Louis on 3/1/08.

If we were on a longer retreat, I would spend time giving instructions on working with the different aspects of our experience that we can meet with mindfulness: the body, feelings, states of consciousness and the contents of the mind. It is really helpful to break our experience down in this way and to explore what it is like when we relate to one of these particular areas of experience with mindfulness as opposed to being all caught up in it.

But since we only have today and part of tomorrow, I'm just going to focus on working with the feeling-tone of our experience. The reason I'm focusing on this is because it is crucial for learning to work with the hard stuff in our lives. Things like anxiety, depression, self-critical thoughts, judgments about others, anger, fear and uncomfortable sensations in the body.

I also want to focus on this because the first full day of a retreat can often be filled with hard stuff. When we slow down and open up to our inner experience, it can be a shock to see all of the difficult stuff that can come up. Actually, one of my friends has told me that for the first two or three years that she attended retreats she was miserable throughout every retreat. Yet she knew, at some level, that what she was doing was helpful, so she stuck with it.

It can be exceptionally hard to stay awake, to stay present in the midst of the hard stuff. It takes a courage to ride the beast of our emotions and our minds and to take that ride again and again. It takes courage and a lot of patience. But when we are able to do that, even if for just a few moments, we experience some of the spaciousness and open-heartedness that is always here.

So I'm going to spend some time first, sketching out a cognitive framework, or a theory, of what
our experience is like at a very basic level, the role of feeling in this, and how the way we relate to feeling leads either to discomfort and discontent or to spacious awareness and contentment. And then, we'll spend the remainder of the retreat bringing mindfulness to our experience, with special attention placed on actually investigating feeling-tone. It is my hope that having a cognitive framework to guide our investigation will make it easier to actually be present for the hard stuff.

Sense Contact and Feeling: A Model

We were all born with five physical sense organs and, from the Buddhist perspective, with a sixth mental one.
The physical sense organs are the mechanisms for:
And the mental sense organ is the mind, which is the mechanism for thinking or cognizing.

If a sense object, such as a sight, a sound or a thought, impinges on the sense organ with sufficient intensity, then simple consciousness or awareness of that sense experience arises. For example, if sound waves touch the ear with sufficient intensity, there is first simple consciousness that hearing is occurring. This is followed by a perception or recognition that it is the sound of a bell that is being heard. So the consciousness that arises when sense organ and sense object come together is just the knowing that there is hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching and knowing occurring.

When these three (sense object, sense organ and sense consciousness) come together, it is said to be sense-contact. (Diagram of Sense Contact) When your concentration is strong enough and mindfulness is clear enough, you can see this occur for yourself. There is no control in this. It is simply an impersonal, conditioned process.
As long as there are sense organs, sense objects and the capacity for sense consciousness, sense contact will occur, periodically.

When sense contact occurs, there will be a feeling associated with it. Once again, this is simply an impersonal, conditioned process. We have no control over this. And this is also something you can see for yourself.

In Buddhist psychology, the term feeling refers to whether there is a pleasant, unpleasant or neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant tone to an experience. Here in the West we often use the term "feeling" interchangeably with the term "emotion". So we might speak of feeling angry. Or we might say that I am feeling hurt. Or that I'm feeling happy.
But from the perspective of Buddhist psychology, these emotions are all more complex states than feelings. These emotions are made up of thoughts, sensations in the body and the feeling tone. So feeling, in the Buddhist sense, is a more basic quality than emotion is.

Types of Feeling

The Buddha spoke about there being six types of feeling: worldly pleasant, worldly unpleasant and worldly neutral feeling, and spiritually pleasant, spiritually unpleasant and spiritually neutral feeling. (Diagram of Feeling)

Pleasant Feeling
An example of a worldly pleasant feeling would be the pleasantness we might experience when tasting a piece of sweet chocolate, or when we hear someone praise us. An example of a spiritually pleasant feeling would be the happiness that we feel when we've been unconditionally generous, or the happiness we experience from a concentrated mind or from a spiritual insight.

Unpleasant Feeling
An example of a worldly unpleasant feeling would be the unpleasantness we might experience when we step on a sharp rock or a thorn, or when a self-critical thought arises in the mind and we believe it. An example of a spiritually unpleasant feeling would be the unpleasantness we experience when our body becomes sore from staying in the same position all day while we meditate, or when frustration arises because it seems that we aren't making the spiritual progress that we had hoped for.

Neither-Pleasant-Nor-Unpleasant Feeling
An example of a worldly feeling that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant would be the feeling that arises when you look at an advertisement in the newspaper but you aren't interested in shopping. You see it but it barely registers because it is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. A spiritual feeling that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant is what we experience when we meet a moment of experience with mindfulness. We are content in that moment or, another way of saying it, there is equanimity with regard to that sense object.

Perception and Feeling
Some of you may have already realized, that while the occurrence of feeling is out of our control, the type of feeling we experience can be influenced. First there is the difference between worldly and spiritual feelings. If we are just relating to our experience in terms of comfort --- seeking the pleasant and trying to avoid the unpleasant, then we are likely to experience worldly feelings. If we are relating to our experience as part of our spiritual practice, then we are likely to have spiritual feelings. This is one way that our Perception affects the feeling that we experience.

Perception may also affect whether we experience pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling. Here's an example: Imagine that you slip behind a steering wheel, start your vehicle and pull out into the flow of traffic. Then as you pick up speed your vehicle starts to slide and you crash into another vehicle. If this happens when you're playing bumper cars, you may perceive it as pleasant, as exciting and lots of fun, while if it happens on the highway it is pretty unlikely that you will perceive it as fun and pleasant. So the way that we perceive our experience can affect whether the same experience is perceived as pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

The Conditioned Process Leading to Discontent, or to Contentment

Now we are going to look at the larger conditioned process within which feeling occurs. I want to emphasize, once again, that this is a model of what we experience in each moment. And, as a model, it is something to be investigated in our own experience, not something we are just supposed to believe.

The Buddha called this model paticca samuppadda, or Dependent Origination. There are twelve steps to the whole dependent origination model, though sometimes the Buddha presented it with fewer than twelve. The twelve steps are Ignorance –>Formations–>Consciousness –>Name and Form –>Six Senses –>Contact –>Feeling –>Craving –>Clinging –>Becoming –>Birth –>Aging and Death. I'm just going to present the part that is crucial in understanding how this process leads to either discontent or to contentment in the present moment.


You may want to refer to the diagram of the conditioned process of the origin of dukkha or suffering, unsatisfactoriness or discontent.

We begin with sense contact, which occurs in each moment of our experience. Then, when feeling arises, whether it is worldly or spiritual, and Ignorance about the sense experience or thought is present, then Craving will arise.

Craving, or tanha in the Pali language, is both a reaction to the feeling and an intention. Craving refers to the wish that life would be different from the way that it is. We are craving, or wish, for the pleasant to be here and to stay. This is the quality of greed or sense-desire. We are craving, or wish, for the unpleasant to go away and to stay away. This is the quality of hatred or aversion. If we have craving for that which is neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant, it is often in the form of boredom which is really a kind of aversion. Another possible response to neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant is ignorance or non-awareness. We just tend to not notice it because it isn't dramatic. An example is not noticing Awareness which is always in the background but doesn't have an affective charge to it. A third kind of response is to spiritually neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant feeling. That response is a desire,or craving, for more contentment, more equanimity. This can be a skillful response in the short-term as it motivates us to keep practicing. So it is a kind of craving that leads to the end of craving.

It is important to be aware that we can get just as caught in spiritually pleasant and unpleasant experiences as we can in worldly ones.

Craving is an intention that leads to an action: Clinging, or upadana in the Pali language. We grab hold of the pleasant to try to make it last. We unintentionally grab hold of the unpleasant as we try to push it away. One of the ways that we do this clinging or grabbing-hold is that we "identify" with an experience, we get caught up in it. We think it is who we are. For example, if a pleasant feeling and loving thoughts arise, we may think "I'm such a loving person", or if a unpleasant feeling arises in the body, we may think "I'm in awful pain." These forms of "identification" are very common ways that we cling. The Buddha talks about them in terms of "I", "me" and "mine". Taking something to be who I am, or taking it to be an aspect of "my" experience, rather than viewing it as just an impersonal phenomenon that comes and goes, just like the weather. The weather is a totally impersonal process. It just changes as the complex conditions that affect it change.

Craving and Clinging have been likened to a tree or bush. We can cut it back any number of times, But as long as it has a taproot it will grow back again and again. We cut Craving and Clinging back by meeting Feeling with Mindfulness. This allows us to transcend the impulse towards holding on or resisting in that moment. But the taproot still remains. As a result, Craving can, and often does, arise again in the next moment.


The taproot that ultimately causes craving and clinging to arise is avijja, which is translated as ignorance or confusion or delusion or non-awareness. This is not ignorance about a theory, including the theory I'm talking about right now. It is not ignorance about how to do something, or ignorance about why something works in a particular way. This is ignorance about the true nature of our experience. This is the ignorance that we try to counter with Wisdom which is why we are doing Insight Meditation, to gain Insight or Wisdom about the True Nature of Experience.

Ignorance takes Three Forms:
We take the impermanent to be permanent;
We take the unsatisfactory to be satisfactory; and
We take the selfless to be self.
Let's explore each of these in a little more detail.

We take the impermanent to be permanent.
As a result of this misperception, we believe that pleasant sense objects, unpleasant sense objects and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant sense objects are permanent. So, though we usually aren't conscious of it, we believe that it is possible to achieve a state of permanent pleasantness. As a result of this belief, we make an effort to hold on to the pleasant sense experience. Unfortunately, it is similar to trying to hold water in our hands. In the end it all just flows away. And we end up with a feeling of frustration, disappointment or discontent.

Because we take the impermanent to be permanent, we also believe that if we don't struggle with the unpleasant, it will never go away. As a result we end up grabbing onto the sense experience in an effort to push it away.
This struggle, this resistance to the way that life is, actually gives it more energy and creates the conditions for more unpleasantness to arise. You may have experienced this in your own meditation practice. If a pain arises while you're sitting, the more you resist it, the more difficult it becomes. But if you meet it with mindfulness and curiosity and some courage and determination, if you just open to it, then it subsides. Although a similar painful feeling may arise in a similar location in the next moment or two, because the conditions are present for that to occur.

People often carry the belief in the possibility of permanent pleasantness to their ideas of enlightenment. They imagine that enlightenment must be a state of permanent bliss. What it actually is, though, is the ability to be content with whatever is in each moment, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neither.

The second form of ignorance is that we take the unsatisfactory to be satisfactory.
As a result of this misperception, we believe that if we can just hold onto the pleasant objects, then our lives will be satisfactory. We believe if we can just get enough pleasant sensations in our lives then they will be fine. Or if we can just push the unpleasant objects away, then our lives will be satisfactory. But since these sense objects are impermanent, they don't last, and therefore, they are not ultimately satisfying, they are not ultimately a refuge.

No matter how much effort we put into holding on or pushing away, even when we have a pleasant experience, eventually it will end and there will be an experience of deprivation, loss or frustration. In other words, dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. Then in response to the unpleasantness of deprivation, craving for more pleasantness will arise once again. And the cycle of seeking will repeat itself. So we stay stuck on this hamster-wheel of life, chasing after lasting happiness, but never finding it.

An example of this was cited in a NY Times article. It spoke of a study on our tendency to cling to as many options as we can, even when it costs us to do so. What the researchers discovered is that we cling to the options not so much to keep our options open but to avoid experiencing the unpleasantness of losing options.

This is a cycle of addiction, and we are all junkies for the hit of pleasant feeling, until our Wisdom is strong enough that we are totally free of this pattern of conditioning.

The third form of ignorance is that we take the selfless to have a self, an enduring essence of some kind.
As a result of this misperception, we believe that there is actually some thing "out there" or "in here" that can be grasped or can do the grasping, some thing that can be controlled or that is in control.

Part of this confusion about things is also related to our use of language and concepts and our confusion of levels of reality. Our languages and concepts are very useful tools. But when we carve something out of the flow of experience and name it, if we aren't aware that this is what we are doing, then we confuse the name with the process it points to and we believe that there is a thing there, a subject or an object.

An example of this is the "body." If you look at a person you probably think they have a body. But if that "body" were placed in a human anatomy lab and the students spent time dismembering it and then spread everything around the room on tables, where exactly would the "body" be? And if they took the "heart" or "liver" and dissected out all of the various structures and laid them on separate tables, where would the "heart" or "liver" be?

In a conventional or relative level of reality, there certainly is such a thing as my body and your body. But in terms of ultimate reality, independent and separate things such as "body" do not exist. There is only an interdependent whole that we can call Life or Truth or God or BuddhaNature, but which is really beyond language and concepts.

The most basic belief that we have as a result of the misperception of the selfless as an enduring self, is the belief that there is a self and an other, a subject and an object, a me and a you. This belief leads us into all of the struggle that we have with life. It leads to our belief in all of our other dualistic divisions of reality and to the judgment and emotion that I am better than you, or I am not as good as you. The judgment and emotion that I don't have enough, or that you will take what I have because you don't have enough. And so forth.

So because of our ignorance about the true nature of our experience, craving arises, then clinging arises, and then we are stuck with the suffering and the unsatisfactoriness of an experience which is impermanent and selfless, or beyond our control.

So that is a model of how our reactivity to the feeling-tone of our experience leads to discontent or suffering.
The Buddha put this together from examining his own experience and I have to say I find it pretty amazing.

The Way to Contentment: Mindfulness

Fortunately for us there is an alternative to getting caught in craving and clinging. That is to meet Feeling with mindfulness, and to overcome ignorance with Wisdom, which results from practicing Insight Meditation, from bringing mindfulness to each moment of our experience.

(Diagram: Freedom and Wisdom)

Mindfulness is described in a number of ways but one of the simplest is in terms of Bare Attention. As I mentioned last night, Bare Attention involves what I like to call the Three Bares of Mindfulness:
Bare of Judgment
Bare of Decision-Making, and
Bare of Commentary or Storytelling.

Bare of judgment means that when an experience comes into awareness it is not judged as right or wrong, good or bad; it is simply perceived. For instance, when a bell sounds and mindfulness is predominant there would be a non-conceptual recognition that hearing was occurring without any judgment about whether what was heard was good or bad, loud or soft, etc. Just the experience of hearing.

Bare of decision-making means that we are not using the experience to try to solve a problem. When a bell sounds and mindfulness is predominant, we are not trying to decide whether it is the dinner bell or the door bell. There is simply the experience of hearing the sound. Or, if a thought arises "I wonder if my mind is concentrated enough to do insight meditation?" Rather than trying to make a decision in response to this thought, we are simply mindful of it as a thought that has arisen into awareness.

Bare of commentary means that we are not responding to a sense experience by getting caught up in a story about it. For example, when a bell sounds and mindfulness is predominant, we don't start thinking about how much we enjoy, or dislike, the sound of bells and recalling all of the other times we've enjoyed, or disliked, the sound of a bell. Or if an unpleasant physical sensation arises in our knee, we don't get caught up in a story about how our knee is going to fall off, or how we will be permanently crippled, if we don't move right now. We just notice that the thought has arisen in our mind. We are open to it, we accept it and we allow it to be, without grabbing on or pushing away. We recognize that it is just a thought without getting caught up in the content of the story.

Mindfulness is like holding something with an open palm as opposed to a clinched fist. It is like viewing clouds from the perspective of the sky, simply noticing them arising and passing through without any sense of them being good or bad clouds. They are just clouds. Mindfulness allows us to rest, if only momentarily, in a spacious state of mind in which we can see things as they are, separate from our reactions to them. For example, mindfulness gives us the ability to recognize that a repetitive sound is just sound and that our irritation with it is a reaction, a judgment about how things should be. By settling into this mental space, we are able to see the truth of our lives in each moment. This allows us to develop a clear seeing and a wise understanding of how to respond. In other words, mindfulness is a condition for the arising of Wisdom

Mindfulness is not just a dry mental quality, however. At its core, mindfulness is love. To truly and unconditionally love someone or something is to accept them just as they are. This is what we are doing in mindfulness when we meet a moment of experience without judgment, decision-making or commentary. We are seeing it just as it is and in that seeing, we are accepting it, loving it, opening to it, cherishing it.

Mindfulness and the Triangle of Transcendence

These qualities of mindfulness allow us to transcend the normal dualities that we get caught in.
(Diagram: Triangle of Transcendence) So in the present moment, when feeling arises and we meet it with mindfulness, there is no reactivity to it, in other words, no craving. For example, we recognize that there is a pleasant thought or an unpleasant thought or a neutral one, but we don't react toward or against it. There is also no ignorance about it, we intuitively understand that it is impermanent, not ultimately satisfying and not an enduring thing. We simply see it as what it is and let it be. And in doing this, we are at peace with it, we are in love with it. In other words, we experience Contentment or Equanimity in this moment.

Development of Wisdom and Tasting Freedom

As we are able to meet more and more of our moments of Feeling with Mindfulness rather than with Craving, we come to see for ourselves what leads to peacefulness in our minds, hearts and lives and what leads to struggle and suffering. In other words, Wisdom arises. The more we let go of our struggle and trust mindfulness, the less agitation there is in our minds and hearts, the more love there is and the quieter our minds become and the more open our hearts become. And eventually, some day, we recognize that which we've been seeking. We understand that it has always been here, but we didn't recognize it. We understand that it has not been separate from us. We have a strong taste of Freedom, of Truth.

Forgetting and Remembering

What happens after this is that at times we may forget and get caught in Craving once again. When this happens, we may conclude that we really didn't taste Freedom. Or we may conclude that we had it but lost it and now have to find it again. But what really happened is that our conditioning, our karma, is continuing to play out. We haven't seen through all of it yet. And so sometimes we forget what we know is True. But if we can meet that moment of forgetting with acceptance and mindfulness, then we will be back on the Path of Contentment once again.




Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving), Majjhima Nikaya 38, The Middle Length Discourse of the Buddha, translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, 1995, pp. 349-361


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© 2007, Philip L. Jones