Part.1 Mindfulness: Introduction
Part.2 Mindfulness: the Body
Mindfulness of the feelings
‘Feeling is present at every moment of experience.’ Bikkhu Bodhi
What does it mean to feel? We often take feeling for granted, never really taking the time to investigate what is really going on when we say we feel this or that. We often fail to appreciate the richness, complexity, and also potential simplicity of the process of feeling, and yet, feeling marks each and every experience we have, have ever had, and will ever have. Our beliefs, ideas, self-image, are all infused with particular ranges of feelings and we use our feelings to judge whatever takes place both within and without as good, bad, or unimportant. For many, feelings are the gateway to truth, to authentic understanding and self-expression, whilst for others, especially my grandparents’ generation, feelings are unimportant, a form of self-indulgence, perhaps even weakness.
Feeling leads to the formation of emotions, but feelings are not emotions. Feelings are the sensations we experience, and for mindfulness practice, they are the quality of sensation in the body and can be labelled simply as positive, negative, or neutral. This threefold category is traditionally applied to practising mindfulness of the feelings. That is we use our attention, our awareness, to observe how we have an impulsive tendency to react to feeling by labelling it as positive, negative, or neutral causing us to act accordingly. Feeling is rarely allowed to be as it is; instead it is subjectively made important, or unimportant. We charge feelings with meaning. Taking interpretation of what is felt as a determining factor in how we choose to go forward and act. Feelings actually function as an elaborate code through which we forge the direction our lives take.
Ultimately, separation between body, feelings, emotions, states and phenomena doesn’t exist. One flows into the other. They are profoundly interrelated. These categories though act as convenient method for defining experience and working with its more recognisable dimensions. The body feels for example, or rather we feel through the body, and emotions are felt within the body, and are accompanied by feeling. Emotions and other mental states are within the body, infused with feeling and directly related to phenomena. Our feelings are stimulated by the physical in the form of our body and the ‘external’ world. So, an important understanding to make clear here is that these four realms of experience are really not separate.
Initially mindfulness involves working with the four factors individually in order to understand how we are living, but we can also approach them as dimensions of experience that are to be integrated consciously each with the other as we proceed with practice. The problem and therefore motivation for separating them out is that our experiences are polluted with conditioning and confusion. Working through these four arenas of mindfulness individually then helps us to clean up our internal debris. Once cleaned of patterning, reactivity and unspoken intentions we need to integrate and practice mindfulness of being, that is, the natural, naked embracing of experience in as total a manner as possible without manipulating or avoiding whatever naturally occurs. For some, this can emerge as initial practice. In my own personal experience the two ways of working are naturally related. My focus and intention of practice is integration of the arenas of being, but at times paying specific and careful attention to one of the four arenas of mindfulness can stimulate and facilitate opening further, or more deeply, to experience.
So, a central reason that we break mindfulness down into different objects of meditation is to gain clarity, understanding and insight into the nature of each and how one affects the other. Attempting to work with all of them together is too great a challenge for most people, and can be highly confusing. In part, this confusion arises because within the context of Right Mindfulness we are not just getting present, but seeking to develop direct insight into the nature of impermanence, interdependence and the lack of a separate, isolated self, and how they exist and play out as part of our own personal experience. As most of us haven’t yet awakened this knowledge within us, working with each object of mindfulness individually makes it easier to perceive directly and therefore to recognise and know these intrinsic aspects of reality for ourselves.
The commodification process I described regarding the body is also present with the range of feelings that we generally allow ourselves to experience. So much of our experience takes place within collectively normalised agreements on what it is okay and not okay to feel. Unconsciously, we measure the worth of our experience in relation to unspoken rules that define this narrow field of acceptable feelings held in place by the status-quo. Because the majority of what we feel is not at all unique, we can recognise it, with time, as conditioning that emerges from implicit, collective agreements that we have usually accepted unwittingly. The outlines of these agreements help us to define who and what we are, and who and what we are not. The edges come into play when we practice mindfulness of feelings, especially if we are willing to go really far/deeply with the practice. I would hazard a guess that for some of us, much of our extreme behaviour is a desire to break out of this conditioning, which is stifling, ultimately deeply unrewarding, and in Buddhist terms, a form of Dukkha.
To live a truly human existence is to embrace the whole potential field of feeling without fear, control or manipulation. For those with enough courage it can be quite a ride.
In working with feelings we are exploring the sensations within our body that accompany experience. We can get angry for example, but what are the actual sensations in the body that accompany anger? In working with the feelings we are brought face-to-face with our tendency to quantify and judge what we experience. Feelings are the basis of attraction and aversion and they tend to stimulate our decision-making in an impulsive manner. We act out very often in order to avoid experiencing certain feelings.
Mindfulness of feelings means becoming more conscious of how experience is saturated with interpretation and we can with time reduce our impulsive urge to jump to interpreting feelings, to simply allowing feelings to bring us in touch with where we are and with what is taking place. As we learn to acknowledge the simplicity of the body and connect more thoroughly, so we acknowledge feelings and let them be as they are.
On the cushion we can practice acknowledging feelings and recognise how we label them as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, without trying to change them. There is an energetic response that is felt as a movement away or towards, an opening, or closing. This is the process of developing awareness. At this stage we can actively label what we are doing using the threefold system, or simply acknowledge what arises feeling how we experience it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Through developing consistency in this and allowing all manner of feelings to emerge, we begin to notice how we live through a constant stream of feeling and how this stream is constantly marked by our judgements. Going even further with this process we can begin to perceive how our feelings are intimately connected to the way we identify ourselves in relationship to the world. So, not, I think therefore I am, but, I feel, therefore I am. Yet, if you go further, you might observe that feelings are not you, and that you are not your feelings. And that what you believed yourself to be was held in place in great part by your interpretative relationship to feelings and your nurturing of specific feelings over others.
On the cushion we develop the capacity to stay with feelings that are unpleasant, let go of holding onto or grasping at pleasant feelings, and give equal attention to neutral feelings, which is possibly the hardest part. This strengthens our capacity to be with all three without trying to manipulate one way or the other. Through this on the cushion practice we also strengthen our capacity to stay out of reaction when similar feelings come up throughout th