On Mindfulness of Feeling (Pleasant, Unpleasant, & Neutral)
The feeling we are talking about here is more accurately translated as feeling tone. It doesn’t refer to emotion at all, which are covered in the 3rd Foundation of Mindfulness. Feeling tone is the delicate filter that exists between what happens to us and how we respond. And for our purposes, there are only three types of feeling tones: Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. As humans, we’ve grown to be terribly aversive to unpleasant experiences and quite driven by the pursuit of pleasant experiences. And we’ve grown more and more intolerant of neutral. We get bored, and we go to the fridge, or we go to the cabinet, to the bar.
So what’s my point? We’re obsessed with pleasure. When we feel unpleasant, we need to push it away. And when we feel neutral, we feel uneasy and hurriedly create either pleasant or unpleasant conditions (often not to our own benefit).
This is why we practice with feeling tone in meditation. We learn to watch our desire for pleasure arise, often very strong, and yet still, pass away. We can sit with an uncomfortable and tight body through an entire meditation, noting its unpleasantness, getting curious about it. What makes this painful body so unpleasant? What I’ve come to realize through years of practice, is that my body suffers most when I’m most needing to be another way. True freedom from pain and suffering in the body for me is equanimity. It’s the ability to be with unpleasantness without judgment or aversion. In this way, we’ve changed our relationship to unpleasant. It’s just patterns of sensations, some hot, some cold. There was a vibratory quality and moved and it changed and it got more and less intense. And I just kept noting, kept noting. And then the bell rang. And it felt pleasant. But not as pleasant as I expected.
The teaching of feeling tone, or “vedana,” is a very deep one. But we begin by simply noting. As you go through your meditative practice, simply add a note of feeling tone. By way of example, I’m meditating and I’m pulled away from the breath by a sharp pain in my knee. I note the pain in the knee, then add “unpleasant.” And then return to the breath. Similarly, I’m meditating and I have a memory of a pleasant interaction I had with someone, and I notice that I’ve been pulled from the breath and I note, “memory,” or, “remembering,” and “pleasant.” And return. Because that happened to be a pleasant memory for me.
Begin to incorporate feeling tone into your practice. As you sit with unpleasant experiences, even such as the pain in the knee, and just label it unpleasant, the brain learns that you can tolerate pain. In neuroscience, it’s called raising the window of tolerance. So each time you are mindful of feeling tone you are raising that window for you. May it be so!
Dr. Zack Bein