2022-03-29 Satipatthana (49) Arising and Passing of Feelings
3:47PM Mar 29, 2022
This week we are doing the second exercise in the fourth foundation for awareness. The first, second, and third exercises of five have to do with ways in which we select out of our environment things to cling to, react to, or get caught in. There is a vast sea of sensations, perceptions, and experiences in any given moment. When human beings are born, we slowly start to make a process of selection. We zero in and pick up what is important to emphasize, to gather together, and construct into the different things that we experience.
We know that the brain is a constructing apparatus that takes in sense data and reconstructs it into reality – into how we experience or know reality. Mostly, there is a good enough relationship between what we see and what the mind constructs, so we can find our way in the world. But this is a construction process, and sometimes you can see it go a little bit awry.
Probably a couple of times a year when I go hiking on the trails and mountains near here and I see a little stick or a root of a tree that is half out of the ground snaking along, for a moment, I think it is a snake. My mind has somehow constructed the snake out of it. Or there is a particular tree that I go by where there is an early side growth on the trunk, and it looks like the cutest little dog head sticking out. I always see that dog and smile. There is no dog there, but my mind somehow reconstructs it from the pieces – it looks like a dog.
So the mind constructs. It is also partly a selection process. We select out of our environment those things that we want to prioritize – things that are important for us. As I like to say, many years ago, I was looking for a futon bed couch. I started looking as I was driving around, paying attention to that. Back then, many years ago, I was surprised by how many futon shops there were. I had no idea – they just kept popping up. I had never really paid attention to them. But now that I was prioritizing them, they were on my mind, and I was noticing them.
We tend to notice the things that interest us. When I go down the supermarket aisles, there is a tremendous amount of stuff that is just a blur – that I have no interest in and I do not really take in. I can't tell you later what I passed by. I am looking for something that I particularly want. When I know I am in the aisle where it is, then I start looking and searching for it., and then – "Oh, there it is".
There is a selection process. This is all very normal, but then the selection process also becomes the places we cling to. For the areas in which we cling to self – to our own experience or a sense of who we are – the Buddha emphasizes five areas that we prioritize – that we preferentially pick up on, or we select or project. As part of the construction process, we place emphasis on these.
These are the five heaps – the five groupings, five divisions – five ways in which we group our experience into heaps of things, and then we prioritize these over others. The Buddha sometimes called this a "burden". He also referred to it very explicitly as a constructing process of the mind. To some degree, the mind constructs our experience of each of these five domains or groupings.
The first one is appearances, usually translated into English as "form". It refers to the appearance of the body – the physicality – the way it appears to us. The second one, which is today's topic, is vedanā – the feeling tones of experience: whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant or unpleasant. This was a whole exercise near the beginning of this text. The second foundation of mindfulness is about this as well. There, the exercise was just to know it: to know pleasant as pleasant, and to know unpleasant as unpleasant.
In the fifth Foundation, the instructions are to know the inconstancy of the experience. To know when pleasantness arises, that it is arising – it appears. If it persists, to know that it persists. Then to know when it passes away. To know the arising and passing of these feeling tones.
As I said in the meditation, the analogy for this inconstancy is a peaceful lake surface. A gentle rain comes along, and drops fall on the lake and make little ripples – little concentric waves that go out – little splashes. Those little splashes are there for a moment, and then they are gone. The after-effect might be the ripples that go out. The sensations are like the splash, then there might be a ripple through us – the after-effect. If the rain is falling hard, it might seem like it is a constant experience. But if we look very carefully, we see that actually, in fact, there is just a moment of splash, and then another one, and another one – just a lot of them happening all around.
In terms of the construction or selection process, some of us will prioritize whether we are comfortable or uncomfortable. We navigate the world by looking for what is pleasant and what is unpleasant – avoiding the unpleasant and wanting the pleasant. This is how we give priority to the sensual world and sensuality: seeking comfort and to be comforted by by experience. We may not care that much about our appearance or that of other people. We are only interested in whether it is physically comfortable or pleasant. We do not care much about our ideas, opinions or stories of things. We just want to be comfortable and pleasant.
Of course, this is a matter of degree. But this is part of the grouping of our experience – one way we prioritize and select. For the Buddha, this is one of the areas of clinging. Of five groupings of clinging, one of the groupings of clinging is clinging to the feeling tones of experience.
The antidote to clinging is not to avoid feeling. But rather, the antidote is to see that the sensations that are the basis for the construction – the basis for the grouping and the clinging – are constantly arising and passing away, arising and passing away.
It is not necessarily easy to see that. But we are now in the fourth foundation. Since there are four foundations of mindfulness, or a path, this implies that, as we settle down and get concentrated and focussed in the mindfulness practice, at some point, we are settled enough that, in that settledness, we become the calm surface of the lake.Then it becomes obvious that the sensations of pleasantness and unpleasantness are appearing and disappearing. In that seeing, it is obvious that we are trying to hold on or cling to them.
It is fascinating how clinging gets highlighted when things are coming and going, appearing and disappearing. It is almost as if clinging is not quite successful when things pass away. In deep meditation, it is possible to feel the mind go towards an object, like: "I want that", and by the time the mind gets there, in that fraction of a moment, the experience has gone away. There is a pleasant experience: "That's nice. I want that" – and by the time we get there, it is gone, because it arises and passes so quickly.
In that process, not only are we beginning to let go of clinging, but we are also beginning to appreciate, hopefully, the mind's clarity. To see that clearly. To see something very simply, in and of itself. To see pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant or unpleasant in a simple way that is not connected with our stories, not connected to the past or the future, not connected to our preferences, and not connected to our fears of where the experience is going. There is a clarity and simplicity – the feeling tone is just pleasant, or it is just unpleasant. It is coming and going; it appears and disappears. There is a rhythm to it. It pulses into existence and pulses out. Our awareness of the feeling – the perception of it – is moving and shifting around.
In this way, we begin to loosen up the grip of clinging to feeling and selecting it out of the wider field of our experience. As we do that, at some point our attention becomes much more spacious and allowing – more choiceless and more available to whatever is happening, without that selection process operating.
So it's great to learn not to cling so much, and this is one of the ways that the Buddha taught. The benefit of doing this is that, as we cling less, we can love more. As we cling less, we can have more goodwill. Our hearts' care for the world can grow. We can care for ourselves more. These are the rewards and benefits from learning how not to cling.
For today the topic is clinging to pleasant and unpleasant. Over the next 24 hours, you might see how much you prioritize or select out of your environment. See how important it is for you to orient yourself. See what choices you make, whether things are pleasant or unpleasant. Is this a neutral thing? an interesting thing for you? Is this particularly strong for you? If you can see how important this prioritizing is, then can you also see the ways in which pleasantness and unpleasantness come and go through the day? What shifts for you when you see the feeling is coming and going, and you realize: "Oh, this is the way it is for now. Just for now. It will pass". Thank you, and I look forward to being here with you tomorrow.