MIndfulness of Feelings I

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 81-90)

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 81-88) 

Burdened with years, the householder Nakulapita went to see the Buddha. He said, “I am aged, venerable sir, come to the last stage, afflicted in body, often ill. Let the Blessed One instruct me.”

“So it is, householder,” the Buddha replied. “If anyone carrying around this body of yours were to claim to be healthy even for a moment, what is that other than foolishness? You should train yourself thus: ‘Even though I am afflicted in body, my mind will not be afflicted.’”

Nakulapita delighted in the Blessed One’s words. He paid respect to the Buddha and left. Then he approached the Venerable Sariputta and asked him to explain in detail the meaning of the Buddha’s brief statement.

Venerable Sariputta said, “A person who is unfamiliar with the teaching of the Buddha regards the five aggregates as his self. With the change and decay of these aggregates, there arises in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Thus, he is afflicted both in body and in mind.

A noble disciple who has heard the Dhamma, on the other hand, does not regard the aggregates as his self. The aggregates may change, but sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair do not arise in him. Thus, though he may still be afflicted in body, he is not afflicted in mind.”

Nakulapita rejoiced, since this wise advice would lead to his welfare and happiness for a long time. Gunaratana, Henepola. The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English (p. 81) 

The Five Aggregates are form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.  “We can say that the entire teaching of the Buddha is based on feelings. Toward the end of his life, after forty-five years of teaching, the Buddha said, “Bhikkhus, I have taught only two things: suffering and the end of suffering.” The story of Nakulapita points to the essence of the Buddha’s teaching on ending the feeling of suffering. FFM pp. 81-82). 

As we continue exploring the teachings of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, it is important to remember that the Buddha gave these teachings for the purpose of freeing the mind from suffering. “He is talking about liberation, not about simply getting more comfortable in our lives or sorting out our personal histories. Although these may be helpful by-products of the practice, the teachings in this discourse address the very largest questions of birth, aging, disease, and death, and how we can be free in this great cyclical wheel of existence. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (p. 81).

What are feelings?

In the Buddhist sense, feelings arise from both bodily sensations (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touch) and mental (thoughts, perceptions, memories) and the focus is only on the quality:  pleasant, unpleasant and neutral (neither pleasant nor unpleasant).  Another term for feeling is mental impression.  Unlike in the English language, feelings do not include emotions.  Emotions are mental formations, a separate aggregate.

“Thus to contemplate feelings means quite literally to know how one feels, and this with such immediacy that the light of awareness is present before the onset of reactions, projections,  or justifications in regard to how one feels”.  Analayo p. 156

Feelings arise from contact of the sense bases with the sense objects.  The sense bases are eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind.  What the senses sense are sense objects:

Eye/Visible objects

Ear/Sounds

Nose/Smells

Tongue/Tastes

Body/Tangible Objects

Mind/Mental Objects

The process works as follows.  The sense base makes contact with the sense object.  We become aware of the sense object when we pay attention (consciousness).  Feelings then arise (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral).

The intensity and clarity of a particular feeling depends on a number of factors.  For example, in the case of seeing an object, these factor include the condition of the eyes, the lighting, and our mental state.  That is why two people can view the same object and have different feelings.

Meditating on Feelings

It is possible to retrain the mind so that feelings don’t take over our lives.  Feelings arise and fall away constantly.  We can observe this in our meditation to see that feelings have the three characteristics of impermanence, inability to provide lasting satisfaction and of selfless nature.  We can then realize that our feelings are not “us”; they arise and fall away just like all other phenomena.  So, when an unpleasant feeling arises, we know that is just a mental impression and will fall away to be replaced by another.  This leads to freedom as we become less attached and influenced by our feelings.  Goldstein noted that “we don’t need to analyze, judge, compare, or even particularly understand why these feelings are happening..  It’s simply to know that  pleasant feeling is like this, unpleasant feeling is like this, neutral feeling is like this.” P.85

Notes on feelings:

An advantage of working with feelings is that they are easy to notice once one becomes aware of their presence.

We often don’t see that it is the feeling that we’re attached or averse to, and not the object itself.  Take for example, a loud sound that you hear in the middle of the night that keeps you awake.  It is not the sound but the feeling of the sound that causes dissatisfaction.  Similarly, if you feel annoyed by a person, it is not the person but the unpleasant feeling that causes dissatisfaction.  Similarly, pleasant feelings can cause dissatisfaction.  We can get attached to a pleasant feeling from having a cup of tea.  It is not the tea but our feeling about it that is pleasant. It too causes dissatisfaction when the feeling falls away.

Often we try to escape unpleasant feelings by seeking sensual pleasures.  The Buddha noted: “Being contacted by that same painful feeling, one harbors no aversion to it. . . . Being contacted by painful feeling, one does not seek delight in sensual pleasures. . . . If one feels a pleasant feeling, one feels it detached. If one feels a painful feeling, one feels it detached. If one feels a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, one feels it detached. This, bhikkhus, is called a noble disciple who is detached from birth, ageing and death; who is detached from sorrow, pain, displeasure and despair, who is detached from suffering. . . . “This, bhikkhus, is the distinction, the disparity, the difference between the instructed noble disciple and the uninstructed worldling.” Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (p. 68)

The Buddha summed it up as:

“Desirable things do not provoke one’s mind,

Towards the undesired one has not aversion.”

For our meditation practice, we can adapt our Meditation of Breath to note the arising and falling away of feelings.

Reflection

Re-read this talk and reflect on the role of feelings in your life.  Can you see how we get attached to mental impressions and how they are the root cause of suffering?

Meditation

Practice daily mindfulness of breath and observe the arising and falling away of feelings.  Notice their impermanence, inability to provide lasting satisfaction and their selfless nature.

Next: Mindfulness of Feelings II Previous: Mindfulness of the Body: Summary