Tonight’s theme is what the Buddha called the Second Foundation of Mindfulness, which refers to pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling tones. These arise whenever one of our senses has contact with an object. In Buddhist philosophy, there are six sense doors: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and mind.
During meditation practice, we make an effort to guard the sense doors so that pleasant feelings don’t lead to attachment and craving, unpleasant feelings don’t solidify into aversion, and neutral feelings don’t evolve into dullness, boredom, and delusion. Unless we practice bringing awareness to feeling tones, we react to them unconsciously.
In his book From Suffering to Peace, Mark Coleman notes that because our brains are wired to avoid threats to our survival, we tend to focus on what is wrong with the world. As a result, we may feel unpleasant emotions of anxiety and helplessness.
Our attention gravitates to news stories of starving children, destructive wars, extinct species, and huge wildfires burning in Australia. Meanwhile we tend to downplay reports of parents adopting babies, people rescuing refugees from boats in the Mediterranean, and animal lovers nursing maimed pelicans or fostering abandoned dogs and cats.
Mindfulness develops our capacity to see things as they are, including the full range of what the Buddha called the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Coleman cites poet Jack Gilbert, who cautions, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world.”
I have been making it a practice to celebrate acts of goodness that I encounter. In a Sierra Club magazine, I read about two wealthy US fashion executives, Doug and Kris Tompkins, who were so committed to nature conservation that they purchased large tracts of available land in South America and donated them to create national parks in Chile and Argentina. The biggest challenge was their recipients’ initial skepticism about the motivations behind such an unprecedented gift.
Fifteen years of living in Mexico provided Mark and me with many pleasurable and painful experiences. Despite witnessing instances of violence, corruption and petty bureaucracy, I was often impressed by the kindness and honesty of neighbors and strangers. One day, just as we arrived at a small hotel in a remote mountain village called Quetzálan, our car broke down. (unpleasant) The hotel’s manager presented us to his son, “Javier,” who happened to be an auto mechanic. (pleasant)
After examining the car engine, Javier informed us that he would have to order a replacement part, which would take days to arrive. (unpleasant) When he learned that Mark and I were due to teach at the Universidad de las Américas the next morning, Javier suggested that we take a bus home and leave our car keys with him. He promised that once the car was fixed, he would return it to us. Full of misgivings, we boarded the bus, wondering if we would ever see our car again. (very unpleasant)
Three days later, Javier showed up in our repaired auto and returned the keys. (very pleasant) He requested only minimal payment for his labor, the replacement part and his bus fare to return home. (pleasant) We insisted on giving him a generous tip, and we parted ways with mutual respect. (pleasant)
Most people look for excitement, ignoring most of what seems bland or in the background. At any moment we can wake up and notice the miracle of even being able to perceive what is unfolding. Each November and December, I sweep up brown leaves that seem to fall endlessly from an oak tree near our driveway. For me, the leaves—neither beautiful nor ugly—have a neutral feeling tone.
Yet the same stimulus can evoke a variety of feeling tones, depending on the context and circumstances. One of my music therapy clients noticed a pile of leaves outside my home office and exclaimed, “You are so lucky to live next to trees that remind you of autumn!” For her, those same brown leaves had a pleasant feeling tone.
My sister Amy is an artist who likes to draw attention to scenes that most people miss. Her most recent drawings depict senescent flowers, caught at the moment when they are no longer in full bloom, but before they have shriveled, dried and dropped their petals. These sketches portray bowing flowers, which usually have a neutral feeling tone, in a way that makes them look humble and dignified. Through her art, floral senescence projects a pleasant feeling tone, and symbolically allows the possibility to view human senescence with a similar attitude.
As Coleman says, what goes on “out there” in the world is similar to the highs and lows of our inner landscape. When we pay close attention to the mind and body, we observe pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and sensations. We may have to make a special effort to detect what feels neutral.
For weeks after my mother’s death in December, my body was full of uncomfortable sensations—heavy limbs, an aching heart, and a tight jaw.
I felt sleepy during the day and wide awake in the middle of the night. When I simply noted these sensations and labeled them as “unpleasant,” I avoided adding judgments about how the body “should” be responding. Emotionally, sadness alternated with numbness, which was especially unpleasant.
My mind was so flooded with memories about my mother that I found it hard to concentrate on the present moment. Because our relationship was close, most of my memories have a pleasant feeling tone. But it still feels unpleasant to remember her struggles with leukemia. Especially during the holidays, I missed her presence and worried about my father being without her for the first time after 73 years of marriage.
Compassion practice for myself, my father, and all those who are mourning loved ones has helped to calm unpleasant worries. During daily meditation sits, I notice pleasant emotions of gratitude arising. I feel grateful for being on the Dharma path, for support from our sangha, and for Mark’s loving insistence on maintaining our regular rhythm of meals and walks with our dog Amanda.
Amidst so many strong feeling tones, I have been taking refuge in the neutral physical sensations of breathing and sensing my feet touching the floor. I make an effort to notice tranquil moments between waves of emotion as well as neutral gaps between thoughts.
*Take a moment right now to notice a predominant feeling tone in your body. Are you aware of a pleasurable sensation? Or is the most obvious sensation uncomfortable? Are there parts of your body that you tend to ignore?
Coleman points out that even simple organisms move towards what is safe and pleasurable and away from what is painful and potentially threatening.
Human beings have evolved with similar self-preservation instincts to seek food, warmth, and protection from harm. But we have a capacity to train our minds and to understand that we can’t avoid all discomfort or experience only pleasure. Much of life is out of our control. The trick is to navigate what feels pleasant and unpleasant without being frustrated by our preferences and reactions.
Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein views practicing with unpleasant situations as training for dying. He says that although we would like to die with a peaceful state of mind, it is likely that there will be some amount of pain or discomfort at the end of life. If mindfulness of feeling tones is an established practice, at the time of death, we will be in a place of greater ease.
A story about Thai monk Ajahn Chah sheds insight on how to work with feeling tones: One night he was on a solitary retreat in a little hut in the forest, not far from a village. Suddenly loud music blared on loudspeakers from celebrating villagers. At first Ajahn Chah was annoyed, thinking, “Don’t they know I’m here on retreat?” Soon he realized that the problem was in his own mind, not in the sound. Anger was increasing the noise internally. While people were having a good time, he was making himself miserable. He had the insight: “The sound is just sound. It’s me who is going out to annoy it. If I leave the sound alone, it won’t annoy me. It’s just doing what it has to do. That’s what sound does… This is its job….” Once he saw that he was not averse to the object itself but to the unpleasant feeling tone, Ajahn Chah was free of reactivity.
As we meditate, we observe repeatedly how conditioned habits of pursuing fleeting pleasures and fleeing pain destroy inner peace. That clear recognition allows us to let go of old patterns of grasping that create agitation. Gradually, we develop enough equanimity to stay steady and balanced regardless of circumstances.
One morning during a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock, I entered a state of sublime concentration that lasted for hours. My familiar impediment of restlessness subsided, and I was content to sit motionless. With my mind free from thoughts and desires, I sensed light permeating my being. When the lunch bell rang, I almost floated down the hill to the dining room. Unrushed and savoring each bite of food, I felt spacious and full of equanimity.
Afterwards, I returned to the meditation hall with the expectation that the blissful state would continue. To my dismay, the next sit was characterized by uncomfortable body sensations, frustration, and mental reactions. Any efforts to calm my mind were unsuccessful. Noting “disappointment, disappointment,” I realized that clinging to the pleasure of equanimity was causing me to suffer.
Mark Coleman reminds us that when we comprehend the ephemeral nature of bliss, we can enjoy it when it comes and accept its departure gracefully. If we recall that unpleasant circumstances are impermanent, we don’t need to escape or reject them. He observes that by “simply witnessing the waves of joy and sorrow, the ups and downs, with a clear awareness, we learn to step off the wheel of reactivity… [We] discover freedom and ease right in the midst of wherever we are.”
The Buddha’s instructions are explicit that mindfulness of feelings point to way to ultimate freedom:
“Whatever feeling one feels, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neither-pleasant-not-unpleasant, one abides contemplating impermanence in those feelings, contemplating fading away…contemplating relinquishment. Contemplating thus, one does not cling to anything in this world. When one does not cling, one is not agitated. When one is not agitated, one personally attains Nibbana.”
Let’s try an adapted form of Mark Coleman’s guided meditation called Exploring the Waves of Joy and Pain (pp. 67-68).
Sit with eyes closed. Become aware of the flow of experience within you.
Notice the changing physical sensations, the movement of breath, the ebb and flow of emotions, the flicker of thoughts and images.
Bring a curious attention to the totality of your inner experience.
With awareness, sense waves of pleasure and pain as well as reactions to changing feeling tones.
Notice what feels pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
As you identify the quality of an experience, become aware of your reaction to it.
Do you resist or avoid unwanted aromas or noises?
Do you reject anxious thoughts?
Do you hold onto pleasant feelings?
With neutral experiences, does your mind space out or get distracted?
It is natural to react to stimuli.
This practice is to notice reactive impulses as fully as possible.
If you hear an unexpected sound, how do you react?
Do you judge the source of the noise?
Does an unpleasant sound create so much dissatisfaction that you cannot enjoy other pleasurable experiences that might be arising?
Notice that when you grasp at what feels pleasant and resist what feels unpleasant, you experience a continuous push/pull struggle.
This meditation trains the mind to recognize reactivity with an open awareness. A clear perspective allows us to respond more skillfully to whatever arises. By developing the quality of equanimity, we enhance our ability to access it when we need it most—in the midst of intense emotions, in relationships, or at work. Learning to be present with the full range of experience without being rocked by impulsive reactions is a tremendous support for finding wisdom and wellbeing in any situation.