Feelings–Worldly and Unworldly

I am amazed that each talk on the Satipatthana brings new perspectives on the whole of the Buddha’s path. I am deeply inspired by the first half of talk #12, so much so that I want to get some thoughts down in an effort to crystalize the teaching in my own mind as I think it is another major key to understanding the path.

Meditation on Feeling

Initially, meditation on feeling is becoming aware of whatever arises, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral dependent upon contact with the senses. It is the pleasant feeling, not the sense experience itself that brings the underlying tendencies of desire, aversion and ignorance about in us. Recognizing that there is this layer of feeling between the object [sensing the object] and the arising of desire — we’re desiring the pleasant feeling itself, but mistakenly believing the object to be what we are after. This clarification is critical for understanding attachment, which of course is important for understanding non-attachment, freedom and the end of suffering!

What today’s talk is focused on is a further refinement of the meditation on feelings that opens up a whole new perspective on practice–one that not only helps explain the motivation for practice and happiness on the path, but also connects the compassion practices with the path towards liberation. I’ve recently had the question arise: what does compassion have to do with liberation? Why does opening the heart lead to freedom–isn’t freedom all about understanding emptiness and non-attachment? How does generosity function? Is it just a symbolic act of ‘letting go’ and non-attachment that reminds us to cling less? Or is there something more to it?

Worldly and Unworldly Pleasures

The further distinction made by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta with regards to feelings is that he instructs us to distinguish between worldly pleasant feelings and unworldly pleasant feeling; worldly unpleasant feelings and unworldly unpleasant feelings; worldly neutral feelings and unworldly neutral feelings. Joseph’s amazing commentary on this sheds a lot of light on the matter: worldly feelings are feelings associated with our common, ordinary experience — experiences arising through the six sense gates. Worldly feelings have the underlying tendencies of desire, aversion and ignorance. Unworldly feelings he defines as those arising dependent upon the practices of renunciation. The feelings arising from renunciation are the feelings that arise from practices such as Sila, Meditation, Concentration, Generosity, Equanimity, and Lovingkindness. The peace and calm brought about by an open heart gives rise to a pleasant feeling NOT from sense pleasures– it is free from desire, craving, clinging and attachment. It brings happiness without leading to suffering!

By learning about this distinction, contemplating it, meditating on it and getting clear around it we are offered the opportunity to replace our endless search for happiness in the world of impermanence and dissatisfaction with a happiness that is born of the heart, comes from within, does no harm, increases with the growth of wisdom, and spreads with our acts of compassion and generosity. This feels like a tipping point.

Unfolding the Satipatthana Sutta: The Body

The Satipatthana Sutta is a series of meditations prescribed by the Buddha for the ending of suffering. It is composed of 4 main areas of focus, often referred to as “foundations of mindfulness” but also more quaintly called the “proper pastures” for a practioner to focus his/her attention.

The first of the Satipatthanas, or pastures, is the body.  The second is feelings (defined as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings that arise dependent upon contact with sense experience). The third is the mind. The fourth is Dhammas, often translated as mental formations.. but I haven’t gotten that far in the practice yet and my suspicions are that this is more geared towards contemplation of the major teachings.

Working through the meditations, I’ve become interested in how they are unfolding. The issue of pacing has come up for me. How long should I stay with one meditation before moving to the next? Is it important to work through them in order or is it ok to skip around? Should I work with whatever facet of experience is presenting itself more clearly in the moment?  Is it really necessary to contemplate snot and puss? Really?

Interestingly, some insight came when I inadvertently listened to a talk out of order. The talks by Joseph Goldstein have long titles and they show up on my smartphone playlist with the numbers truncated, which causes some difficulty in getting to the exact spot where I left off with the talks. I ended up skipping the last section of the body meditations — the four elements. I discovered my mistake because I am also reading the Analayo text that the talks are based on, so I was expecting the elements meditation. I went back and listened to it and discovered that the progression of meditations is quite illuminating and pedagogically brilliant.

Beginning with the breathing, in a very simplified way–one is aware of long breaths and short breaths. At this stage, the meditator is even encouraged to reflect whether “I am breathing in long” or “I am breathing out long”; “I am breathing in short” or “I am breathing out short”. Breaking the breath into both parts makes the practice easier, but also brings additional concentration and steadiness. Using a phrase like “I am breathing…” seems also designed to make the meditation immediately accessible to a beginner. In the later stages, such self-referential language disappears. There is a brilliance to the way this all unfolds and this easily accessible, simple, yet powerful practice is just the beginning.

I won’t go into such detail on the remaining reflections on the body, but consider the way each reflection deepens our awareness and brings our impermanent, impersonal nature into greater and greater focus. Simple awareness of the breath becomes more subtle awareness of the breath and the whole body. Awareness of the body in the four main postures of sitting, lying, standing and walking is expanded to include the body in any posture. Like the simple breathing practice, this is very accessible with regards to the body itself. Awareness of posture becomes awareness of movements and motion and begins to consider the motivations and appropriateness of the movements– considerably more detailed and complex than the posture meditation, but similar. It is just more subtle. And this seems to be how it unfolds. Sometimes going to a more subtle practice illuminates the practice that precedes it. Attempt to be aware of each small movement and suddenly you find you’ve become very in tune with the postures of the body–or effortlessly aware of the breathing process. The meditations start to form a continuum, to weave a more complex and whole picture.

Not only do the different meditations lead you into deeper concentration, but they are also designed to combat specific hinderances. After contemplating the movements of the body, it is contemplated in it’s many parts. Contemplating body parts one by one is to focus on the unattractive aspects of the body which counters our typical tendency to treat the body as an object of lust and desire–focussing only on the attractive aspects. Visualizing internal body parts takes us beyond the skin into the world of organs and bones, blood, bile, sweat, fat and hairs. Not only combating our desires for physical forms, I found that it erases racial boundaries as well. These contemplations are all meant to be done “internally and externally”, meaning in ones own body and the bodies of others. Seeing people as a sack of internal organs, with blood gushing through veins and bones stacked upon each other is like seeing right through someone’s skin.. right past it. We are all composed of the same set of parts. Many lines get erased. I’m just like these others. This body is no different than that one. Identification and attachment loosens.

Beyond the body parts comes the contemplation of the elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. The qualities of these elements are within us and seeing them within the body–seeing the body as a collection of these elements and their properties further depersonalizes the body. We are a field of elements. Just like the play of nature or any other compounded thing–there are interdependent forces at play in constant flux.

And then comes the charnel ground!  Contemplation of the body in dissolution. Bones scattered. Back to dust. A direct contemplation of impermanence with regards to physical form. This contemplation may seem gruesome, but it is the truth. This is our fate of our body, just as it is the fate of all other bodies. There’s no room for lying to yourself about it. You look right at it. This concludes a pretty thorough examination of the body. The meditations build on each other and illuminate the truths of dukkha, impermanence and no-self within this very body of ours. And the contemplations of the body are just the FIRST step of four. The first foundation. The others will no doubt methodically deconstruct our delusions just as this first foundation deconstructed our physical form.

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.



| vs. /

This dharma talk, the 6th in the series by Joseph Goldstein on the Satipatthana Sutta, is about the refrain – specifically, the instructions for the meditator to remain “Independent, not clinging to anything in the world..” while contemplating the 4 abodes of mindfulness.

Something that Joseph said during this talk took my breath away and had me smiling from ear to ear. It was the smile of finally seeing something – finally understanding something that’s been heard many times but never truly understood.

He was talking about our tendency to “lean forward” into the future. The subtle habit of the mind to look for things in the next moment – the next day – the next whatever. Planning mind is a version of this, he said. So are many forms of desire. He had been speaking, in particular about the “desire of continued existence” and he used this phrase about “leaning forward”. Then he said the truly amazing thing.  He said that leaning forward of the mind is what is called in Buddhism, “Becoming”.

To understand the idea of “leaning in” or “leaning forward” one can think of several examples or instances that illustrate the concept. One is posture. Standing straight vs. leaning on something for support. The sitting posture of meditation is itself an embodied example of not-leaning in — of independence with regard to the things of the world. Being aware of arising and passing at any of the six sense gates, without a grasping or reaching for objects; without proliferating thought – that is being independent. Contentment with what is rather than continuously seeking more, new, and different experiences is another form of independence. It is stillness instead of motion; being instead of doing. In some ways, it all comes down to practicing this:


instead of this:


‘Becoming’ is one of the twelve links of dependent origination. It is the one immediately preceding birth-and-death. The Buddha is telling us to do our meditation independent from clinging to things of the world – telling us not to lean into the next moment; not to grasp at whatever is arising and passing. When we do, we bring ourselves into the future, because by craving, by wishing, by grasping and clinging — we are leaning into the future. That is we are engaged in, and powering, this process of becoming.  We are spinning the wheel of Samsara.

Buddhist psychology and buddhist metaphysics are intertwined to a great degree (they might even be identical, but that is another topic for exploration). What Joseph’s comment did for me is allow me to a) see the connection between the subjective sense of “leaning” and the function of “becoming” and b) gave me an insight into the meaning of “becoming” that had been lacking before. On the cushion, you can directly experience this sense of leaning. You can see it clearly (and more easily than you can in the midst of daily life). Knowing what the leaning feels like – it is possible to understand what it means not to lean. It is a glimpse of the possibility of stillness in the midst of motion. Practicing non-leaning is another way of practicing non-grasping, non-clinging and ultimately, non-attachment — it’s just a very direct and practical instruction for how to do it.

Any instruction that is is clear in the mind and offers such a powerful insight into practice is very, very welcome on the path. Joseph’s series on the Satipatthana is full of them.

Satipatthana Sutta (Book and Dharmatalks)

My studies have led me to the Satipatthana Sutta in the form of this book:

Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realizationby Analayo

It is a wonderful text and delves into the components of the sutta with great detail, allowing anyone to understand, contemplate and practice one of the methods of meditation taught by the Buddha himself. While the formula may or may not contain much novel meditative material (depending on what you’re already familiar with) it presents it in a structure which is very thorough and effective — reminding us not only what objects of meditation are useful, but how to most effectively approach these meditations in terms of mindfulness, independence (not-self), and impermanence — thus encouraging insight as well as a steadiness of mind.

Along with this book, I was also tipped off to a series of talks given by Joseph Goldstein, where he expounds upon the Analayo text chapter by chapter.  What a treasure!!


I’m very excited to make my way through this series and continue reading the book.  Why not join me!