Mindfulness of Feeling

By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

One quarter of the Buddha's teaching is based on feeling, which is the first truth that he taught for forty-five years. It is in not understanding this truth that we are leashed to repetition of birth and death in one form or another. To a lesser degree it also is one of the four foundations of mindfulness as outlined by the Buddha in several Suttas. An ordinary person and a more enlightened one differ from each other in their response to feelings. While an ordinary person, for instance, would cling to the pleasant feeling and reject the unpleasant, the more enlightened one neither clings to the pleasant nor rejects the unpleasant. Rather he pays total mindful attention to both and always maintains a balanced mind with regard to both.
All living beings, without any exception, feel. Not very many of them, however, use feeling as a means of gaining deeper insight into the reality of their experience, while avoiding emotional reaction. Human beings who use their mind to think and create are in a very advantageous position. Unfortunately, however, not many human beings use their feelings as a way to develop their humanness or humane qualities. There are many human beings who have not learned to use their unlimited mental capacity and feelings for further development of their mind.
When somebody asks you, "How are you?" You would say "I am fine." or "I have never felt better." or "I am O.K. and how about yourself?" or "I don't feel well today." or "I have a bit of an upset stomach. " or "I feel miserable today." Here you express your feelings but not any particular reason for how you feel. If you were to perform a psychological analysis you would make a distinction between feelings and sensations. In your daily expression, however, you use these two terms indiscriminately. In order to maintain consistency in this article, I, too, therefore, will use the term "feelings" indiscriminately to mean both "feelings" and "sensations". It may be better to put the difference between these two terms on the back burner until you have completely read this article. I am not trying to make any neurological analysis here of how feeling occurs. My attempt is to point out how feelings should be used as an object of mindfulness training so that you would be able to live with all kinds of feelings without having a nervous breakdown.
Feeling should be used as a mechanism for gaining deeper insight into the reality of feelings. We know from the moment we were born until we breathe our last breath we operate on feelings. Feeling arises from the periphery due to designation contact or from the deep down our own state of mind due to impingement contact. As soon as our senses come in contact with their objects we become conscious of our feelings caused by peripheral contact. Initiated simultaneously with the development of our nervous system, feeling was present even as we were in our mother's womb. When our mother ate hot food we felt the heat. When she ate cold food we felt the cold. When she was angry we felt her agitation and tension. When she moved we felt her movements. When she sang we heard her singing. When she cried we heard her cry. When she laughed we heard that too. While we may not be able to recall this, nevertheless, we felt all of them.
As soon as we were born we cried not only because we felt sad that we had to leave our mother's womb, or not only because we thought that if we did not cry that people wouldn't pay attention to us, but because we felt the change of atmosphere. From the warm, dark and comfortable environment in the mother's womb we were thrust into the cool, blinding bright light and uncomfortable surroundings with several people around us. We had never experienced this before. From the moment we started our struggle of life as a unicellular being, we have been experiencing feelings. From the moment our nerve cells or neurons began to develop we have been experiencing our feelings. When the feeling pleases us we wish to have more of it and when feeling does not please us we wish to reject it. This is our natural reaction. Our entire search--struggle, achievements, improvement, development, inventions, working hard or not, desire to live or not to live-- depends on how we feel. Our search for food, clothing, medicine, shelter, sex, heat, cold, and much more, depends on our feelings. When we feel cold we look for heat. When we feel hungry we look for food. When we want to evacuate we go to a suitable place to fulfill that feeling. We have discovered, manufactured, developed or improved many things because of what we feel. We create and procreate according to our feelings. Even our reasoning began from our feelings. All that we do depends on our feelings. Our reaction to any situation depends on how we feel. After reacting to the situation we may rationalize our reaction. All our emotional reactions depend on how we feel about a situation. Repeated emotional reactions to feelings gradually nourish our ego. When emotional reaction becomes a habit we rationalize our emotional reaction and defend ourselves saying, "I have every right to defend my feelings when somebody hurts my feelings."
When we begin to learn the universal nature of feelings we begin to train our minds to use it for the benefit of all living beings, rather than becoming selfish. When we learn to train our minds to use feelings as objects of our mental development, we learn more about it and make the full use of it with deeper understanding. When you universalize your feelings you become more mindful about not saying anything to hurt anybody. Nor can you do anything to destroy any living being. All living beings feel the fear of death. Of course, if you ignore others' feelings, you may justify doing anything. Most of the time your justification does not come with feeling. You rationalize anything if you can ignore others' feelings. Religious fanatics are well known for this. Some people, while putting their own religions on high pedestals, use abusive or disparaging language to attack people belonging to other religions, because they ignore their feelings.
All these are but a few examples of how much you suffer from your own feelings. If you look at your feelings with understanding, you would not be very upset to see somebody different from you. You won't get annoyed if someone speaks a language you don't understand. If you understand the nature of feelings you can listen to somebody's complaints of pain without yourself complaining. If you don't understand feelings you may be very obnoxious, arrogant and insulting, and later suffer for this behavior.
When you train yourself to have mindfulness of feelings your whole attitude will change and you will feel more comfortable in noticing differences in the world. Notice your feeling--pleasant, unpleasant or neutral--focus your total attention on it without thinking or saying, "Ah! My head aches," or "My leg aches," etc. Unless you pay total attention to your feeling, you won't know what is behind it. Pay total attention to your own feeling and begin to notice the pleasant feeling behind your unpleasant feeling. Only by giving total attention to something can you notice what is behind that thing. If you have enough patience to observe your feeling, you will also notice that it is changing. You would not notice this change in feeling if you did not pay attention to it. It is your attention, not the word, that brings things to the surface of your mind.
Suppose you feel depressed. If you pay total attention to this feeling without adding any other emotion to it, you will notice your depression gradually diminishing. Of course, you may make your depression more miserable and even may have manic depression lasting for several days if you become attached to it. Or you can get rid of it very quickly if you learn to accept the reality of change that takes place during every moment of your feeling. Fortunately for you even unpleasant feelings are impermanent.
Suppose you wake up one morning with a terrible headache. Immediately find a reasonably quiet place in your house or apartment and spend some time quietly sitting down, closing your eyes and watching your headache without any presumption or worry, but paying total attention to it. Soon will you notice your headache diminishing slowly. But if you worry about it, you may make your headache worse by adding more tension or pressure to it, because you add another feeling--worry--rather than dealing with just one feeling--headache.
Suppose one night or for several nights in a row you cannot sleep. Following morning you wake up and you feel a little uncomfortable. If you begin to worry about not sleeping you may have more uncomfortable feelings. Now it is this worry, not the sleeplessness that makes you feel greater discomfort. If, on the other hand, you take it easy and don't worry about not having a good night's sleep, you feel better. This means that you can use your feelings to make you feel either comfortable or uncomfortable, depending on how you deal with your feelings.
Suppose one day you feel very peaceful, joyful and happy. Look at that feeling as it is and try to pay total attention to it. As long as you feel peaceful, joyful and happy, try to pay total attention to it and let it fade away when it fades away. Don't try to make it permanent. If that feeling disappears, don't get upset; simply accept the disappearance. Welcome it as it is. By accepting it you allow yourself to recreate it in your mind at another time. If you worry about its disappearance you won't permit it to come back. What you are really doing by accepting the disappearance of your pleasant feeling is learning to relax and be comfortable with the change in your own feelings. You cannot force any feeling to stay with you as you wish. It slips away from your grip. The harder you try to keep it with you the quicker it disappears. If you simply accept it as it comes and let it go as it goes away, you maintain your equilibrium and this permits you to relax.
By the same token, if an unpleasant feeling arises in you, don't try to reject it or push it away prematurely. It takes time for any feeling to go away. You have to cultivate patience with unpleasant feelings as well. If you lose your patience with it, you lose the pleasantness that can follow the unpleasantness, and even magnify it. When you "take it easy", you make things simple and more comfortable for yourself. Simply pay total attention to your unpleasant feeling. You may have certain unpleasant feelings due to a chemical imbalance in your brain. You must admit that whether you like it or not, things in your body and mind change all the time. If you experience certain unpleasant sensations due to a change in hormone balance, you may prolong the imbalance by worrying or by being impatient. If you relax and pay total attention to the hormone imbalance your mind generates better and more positive hormones to transcend the imbalanced state.
Inadvertently, you cultivate a certain mental attitude towards numerous things and persons. This attitude can cause you pleasant or unpleasant feelings. When you mindfully look at your own state of mind, you will see that it is your own attitude that has created that state of mind which results in one feeling or another. Feeling does not come from the object that you perceive but from your own state or mental attitude. This is why when several people look at the same object they can have several different feelings, several different opinions about the object.
If you mindfully watch your own mind and feelings, you can see very clearly and unequivocally that what you feel is your own creation and that you are totally responsible for it. Mindfully watching the continuous change of your own feelings can make you abstain from emotional reactions and make you see the truth of your own feelings. Mindfulness of feelings will not cause you to think obsessive thoughts or abusive thoughts or harmful thoughts. By unmindful thinking you abuse your mind. The abused mind always generates abusive feelings, which always is painful.

Bhavana Newsletter Vol. 11. No. 3 July - Sept. 1995