2021-07-05-Vedanā (1 of 5) Introduction to Feeling Tones
9:39PM Jul 5, 2021
On this Monday, we have a new topic for the week. In some ways it is a continuation from a couple of weeks ago when we did the first foundation of mindfulness – mindfulness of the body. This week, I would like to talk about the second foundation of mindfulness, feelings, in the usual English translation – feeling tones. The Pali word is vedanā, and it is sometimes thought to be one of the central practice topics for the teachings of the Buddha. It is phenomenally important. It is like the linchpin or the foundation for so much of the Buddha Dharma or for practice. So it is a very important topic and gets a whole foundation to itself.
Now the word in Pali is vedanā. It is, I believe, a cognate, related – in the way Indo- European languages relate to each other – to the English word "witness." Or it could be related to wit – someone who is clever. They have wit. And in Norwegian, the word "vite," probably similar, means "to know." The Pali version is "vid." The root word is "vid," which means "to know," or it could also mean, in Pali, "to experience."
So vedanā refers to what is known, what is experienced, what is felt. But felt as sensations, as feelings. We are focusing here on sensations in the body. So on sensations that are known, and that are felt. Exactly where the line is – between knowing something and feeling sensations – is not very clear, because these arise together and are closely connected. But we are talking about a way of knowing. As a way of knowing, it is a subjective way of knowing. It is what we know subjectively.
I want to give an analogy that can highlight (or point out) the way in which this is so important. Maybe you are responsible for a workplace, maybe a factory, maybe a warehouse, maybe a corporate building – someplace where many people come to work. Many visitors come to this place as well. People come from all over the world. And it is covid times. So you want to make sure that you keep people at your workplace healthy.
People are coming from all over. They are flying in and, there is no way of controlling who shows up. How are you going to keep your employees – people working with you – safe? Then you realize that the only way into the workplace is through the front door. No matter where everyone is coming from, everyone has to go through that front door.
So what you need to do is set up a welcoming station where you take people's temperature, give them a covid test, whatever it takes in order to make sure that they are safe to come into the building. If they are safe, then you allow them in. If they are not safe, then they cannot come in. That way you keep all the people covid-safe in your building.
There is a kind of common place. It is like a funnel, a neck, a doorway, a passageway through which everything goes. The wide range of human experience, all the different things we can experience in the world, and the things that are going to happen to us, go through that passageway as they come into our experience.
Everything goes through the doorway of feeling, or feeling tones – affective tone. That is a particular tone or quality of the things that are known, as we know things, as we experience things. They can be either pleasant, painful, or neutral. Pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, sometimes we say. But the middle word literally means pain. It is anything from the mildest discomfort to intense pain. Pleasantness can be anything from the mildest pleasantness to intense pleasure.
Neutral is that which is neither pleasant nor not pleasant. In fact, that is the way it is worded in Pali, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. For the uninitiated, it can seem like, "What's the big deal?" It can seem kind of dull and boring just to focus on things being pleasant or unpleasant or neither. But it turns out, it is a common denominator, or it is the door that everything goes through. Every experience we have has one of those three qualities in it.
So if you can station yourself at the door and watch everything that comes in, then you do not have to let in things that are not healthy for you. You can let in things that are healthy for you. You can leave out what is unwholesome and bring in what is wholesome.
It gives you a vantage point, a tremendously important place, to stay healthy, to stay well. It is easier to stay right there and notice the feeling tones, then when things get more complicated. You could go out into the world and analyze everything in the world – all the complicated aspects of it – think about it and figure it out. It can take a lifetime to figure out the world. Or you could go inward and really discover the inner life. It is also a kind of complicated world of thoughts, memories, histories, experiences we have had and accumulated, and how they all come into play.
But everything, inner experiences and outer experiences – in the sense of knowing anything, feeling anything – goes through this little door of being either pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. So what's the big deal about that?
The big deal is that people who do not practice or have a strong kind of mindfulness awareness practice often can act automatically on whether things are pleasant or unpleasant. Neutral, maybe not. If something is pleasant, there is an automatic desire for it – for more of it. If something is unpleasant or painful, there is a desire to push it away or not have it there.
It can be so automatic, so quick, that we do not even see that the two are separate. We experience something as pleasant and with that comes a feeling of "I want that." If we are feeling something unpleasant, with that comes, "I don't want that" – pushing it away. But these are actually two different movements.
When I was practicing vipassanā in Burma, I sat a long retreat. There was a particular moment that taught me this lesson in a very powerful way. Every day I would go in to see my teacher – most days, six days a week – for practice discussion, to talk about my practice. He lived in a little cabin and there was an entryway and, just next to the entryway, was the door going in. To the right there was a little altar. Usually, there was a statue of the Buddha on the altar. You did not have to pay any attention to it. It was on the way in to see him.
One day – I had not seen it before – there was a new wooden Buddha sitting on that little altar. My mind was very mindful at this point. I was able to track things more closely than I usually can. So I noticed the statue of the Buddha, and I noticed that it was beautiful.
The first thing I noticed was really pleasant. I felt the pleasantness of pleasure looking at it. Then I saw there was a desire to have it. But those things happened in clear distinction from each other – sequentially. Seeing the Buddha, recognizing it as such, experiencing the pleasantness of it, and then wanting it.
When I saw that the experience of pleasure and the wanting were very distinct – two different activities of the mind, I said, "Oh. There's a possibility for freedom here. It's possible that I don't have to pick up the desire. I don't have to get involved in it." It was just like, "Oh. Just a fleeting desire comes and it goes."
But that desire arose influenced by that sense of pleasure. But because it was so clear –the distinction between them, the desire had very little authority over me. It had no influence on me, just, "Oh. It's a desire." I saw that these two were different. And that was the beginning – the discovery – of a pause, a gap, in experience, where there is a possibility of freedom.
It is possible to leave the pleasant alone. It is possible to leave what is unpleasant alone, and not get involved in the reactivity to it. Or, it is possible that this is the automatic way that the mind can work. That yes, we see the pleasantness clearly, and it is possible to see the desire, or the aversion that has come from pleasantness or unpleasantness. And because it is so clear, it might be possible to just not get involved. It is just desire. It is just aversion. Just a blip in the mind. And you let it go.
But if these two are yoked together – the feeling tone, the vedanā, and our reaction/ response to it, our desires around it – and we do not see them as being two different things, chances are we are already in the stream of desire. We do not have enough strong attention to not be pulled – kind of on automatic pilot – into the desires.
This can be quite intense in our lives. Something very unpleasant happens, and we immediately bark at someone. We see something very pleasant, and immediately, that is what we want. The compulsions are so strong. It is not simply an innocent desire we have. These desires sometimes come with tremendous compulsion. And we say things and do things that, later, we will regret. We realize that we were not free. Something inside us which was not, in a sense, us – not our choice, our will, or our decision, has taken over and pushed us to do things we actually did not want to do.
To be able to slow down enough to notice pleasant experiences as pleasant, and unpleasant experiences as unpleasant, can give us a tremendous amount of choice –freedom. We can stop the automatic ways in which reactivity arises. We have more choice. One choice is to do nothing and just to let it be as it is. Another choice is to change gears and be careful to not automatically give in to the desires and compulsions that are there.
For the Buddha, in his teachings, vedanā is a kind of door, like a narrow, narrow neck of a funnel that everything goes through. To start paying attention to feeling tone is a powerful way to develop mindfulness, but also a way to discover freedom. Feeling tone – pleasant or unpleasant – is mostly independent of our desires. It is just the nature of things. I will talk more about that tomorrow. But the consequence of them, how desires get evoked in response to them? "That" is where we are trying to discover our freedom, so there is no compulsion. There can be wise desire, appropriate desire, but no desire that we are compelled by. Compulsion is the antithesis of freedom.
That was the introduction. We will talk more about this in the next few days. In the meantime, you might want to see, study, reflect, and have conversations about what the role, impact, or the influence that pleasant and unpleasant experiences have on you. What kind of gut reaction do you have to them? What kind of wisdom do you have about them? How does it work in your life? Thank you very much.