Awareness of pleasant and unpleasant feelings*

The intention to bring awareness to feelings (or as some teachers have put it–feeling tones) has opened up another aspect of the machinery of self for inspection. Awareness of feeling tones is simple enough. Does any particular object in awareness have a pleasant feeling associated with it? Does it have an unpleasant feeling associated with it? Does it have neither a pleasant nor unpleasant feeling; is it neutral? Paying attention to the feeling tones, however, requires a good foundation of mindfulness. The feeling tones are often more subtle than other objects of experience.

So what have we learned so far, doing this practice now for a week or two?

It is important to allow for not just the “pleasant”, “unpleasant” and “neutral” labels, but also to notice relatively “gross” and “subtle” feelings in order to get fully absorbed in this practice. If we aren’t on the lookout for subtle shades of pleasant — too much of our experience ends up in the “neutral” bucket. Not everything is obvious right off the bat, but once we get more refined in the practice the subtle feeling tones provide a rich area for exploration and lead to some interesting findings.

The practice of observing the feeling tones brings a familiar objectivity and independence to a new and important realm of our being. As with mindfulness of body or mindfulness of thoughts, being aware of something quite consciously brings a sense of independence from the thing–a sense of freedom. Bringing this freedom into the area of “pleasant” and “unpleasant” may prove to be a powerful tool. After all, chasing the pleasant, avoiding the unpleasant and ignoring the neutral is the very root of greed, hatred and delusion!! These are the very things that have us overlooking our already perfect nature in pursuit of happiness in the realm of impermanent and unsatisfactory things.

Becoming aware of the mechanisms underpinning our attachments and building equanimity with them starts to give us a glimpse of what it would be like NOT to be thrown around by them. Practicing awareness of something is to turn our attention to it — to look for it, to look at it and to sustain that looking. Noticing when something is unpleasant brings with it a slight sense of success — we are doing what we set out to do, finding the feeling tone of “unpleasant”.  Bringing this process into consciousness not only weakens the reactive effect of the unpleasant sensation (if it happens unconsciously, we instinctively recoil from anything unpleasant) but it also balances the unpleasant with a pleasant sense of success in becoming aware of it. Likewise, pleasant experience is enhanced by awareness. Not only are we having a pleasant feeling tone, but we are successful in being aware of it and have the choice whether or not to grasp or cling to it–something we would typically do unconsciously by default.

So that’s what I’ve learned so far while working with feeling tones: look closely and respect the subtlety of feeling tones, bring objectivity and a sense of independence to the work, and that by bringing another aspect of yourself into awareness you can decrease reactivity, lessen your suffering and increase joy and contentment.  No wonder the Buddha used feelings as one of the four foundations of mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta.


* Feelings as I’ve been practicing with them are different than emotions.  Emotions are mind objects with many many complex interconnections, causes and manifestations. Feelings, or feeling tones are limited to the 3 flavors of an experience: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.



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