The following is an excerpt from a book in progress. This chapter is a meditation on vedana, which is the second of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness and second of the Five Aggregates. Each of those teachings are about observing the nature of vedana deeply so as to breakthrough to the insight that it is "not me, not mine, and not myself" and thus be liberated from suffering. Here is the first phase of that meditation in which I we practice mere recognition of vedana and all its associated process.
“Breathing in, I am aware of my feelings.
Breathing out, I smile to my feelings.”
The word used in the suttas for feelings is vedana, but translating vedana as feeling can create some confusion. In English, “feeling” usually relates to either sensation, which is an aspect of perception, or emotion, which is an aspect of mental formations. Both perception and mental formations are khandas in their own right, so vedana means something else. The Buddha gives a major clue about its meaning in the Sattipatthana Sutta, in which he describes how to practice with vedana. The Buddha instructs, “Whenever the practitioner has a pleasant feeling, she is aware, ‘I am experiencing a pleasant feeling. The practitioner practices like this for all the feelings, whether they are pleasant, painful, or neutral, observing when they belong to the body and when they belong to the mind.” Thus, “feeling” is not meant to be understood as physical sensations or emotion but as the quality that accompanies these kinds of experiences – quality being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
As I sit in meditation, I allow my deep awareness of perception to carry me into contemplating the quality of each perception as it arises – feeling, vedana. I bring mindfulness to the quality of the present moment - sitting upright and relaxed, breathing calmly. I notice, “This is pleasant,” or, “This is unpleasant,” or, “This is neutral.” After breathing with this awareness for several moments, I gain a feeling for the general quality of inhabiting my body in this moment. I may then concentrate deeper and tune in to the specific sensations fluctuating in the various areas within the body. Perhaps there is a tingling sensation in the feet. “This is unpleasant.” Perhaps the nose is itching. “This is unpleasant.” Maybe I enjoy the sensations of the chest expanding and contracting with the breath. “This is pleasant.” Neutral feelings don’t usually call my attention on their own. If I want to look for a neutral feeling, I bring my awareness to the sensations of the hands resting on the lap or the tongue pressing against the roof of the mouth. I Practice in the same way with pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings that arise in all the other senses as well. I note if it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral when I see the trees swaying in the wind, hear a bird chirping, or smell the aroma of incense. In the mind, practicing with vedana is a process of recognizing the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral quality that accompanies mental objects such as thoughts, memories, and emotions.
Each of these experiences is like a drop of water that all together make up the river of feeling within me in every moment. My practice is to observe each one as it arises and dissolves while noting its origin in either the body or the mind. As I observe each feeling, I smile. Smiling is very natural when I am relaxed, alert, and at peace. I don’t smile in a contrived way, or to deny the reality of an unpleasant experience. I smile to recognize what is there. Imagine you are walking down the street when you spot a friend coming towards you from the opposite direction. Neither of you have the time to get distracted with conversation. You’re not going to run away from your friend, and neither are you going to try to chase them off. So, you just smile to each other as you pass to say, “Hello. I know you.” In this way, I greet each feeling as it enters awareness - whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – without attachment or aversion. I remain myself, solid and peaceful.
This is the state of body and mind with which I can look deeply into feeling and face its true nature. This is a revolutionary act. Because feeling arises seemingly instantaneously with perception, I tend to take it for granted and overlook its impermanent, conditioned, and unsatisfactory qualities. Overlooking is the basis of ignorance and is what makes feeling so compelling. In this stage of mere recognition, however, I can observe the sense of craving, both subtle and overt, that rides along with each perception. The Buddha defined craving as two kinds: craving for becoming (for something to be) and craving for non-becoming (for something not to be). In their most extreme forms, they manifest as greed and hatred. If I pay close attention however, I can notice subtler forms of various kinds of attachment (the urge to possess, continue, or control) and aversion (the urge to annihilate, hide, or ignore) floating on the surface of almost every conscious moment.
That feeling gives rise to craving is a truth that is best known by the body at the level of my heart, bones, and gut. Merely thinking, “feeling is craving”, produces no liberating effects. Instead, I tune into my body to intimately know the effects of each experience of craving. I become familiar with the sensations of my heart lurching forward from my chest to go get that box of cookies I just remembered is sitting on the kitchen counter. I make friends with the feeling of the center of my upper back being pulled as if by an invisible string when the awareness of an impending due date suddenly interrupts my concentration. I breathe into the expansive feeling in my chest at the sight of a vast horizon and breathe out with the tightening of my face upon hearing the TV in the next room.
The Buddha began his teaching with a thesis, which he called dukkha. Usually translated as stress or suffering, it can be easy to misunderstand the role of dukkha in our moment-to-moment lives and fail to see how it characterizes every sensory experience we have. Another translation I find more useful is unsatisfactory. The Buddha’s thesis is that there is no sensory experience that can satisfy or pacify the mind’s grasping and wandering behavior. No sensory experience is ultimately satisfying. Rather than rationalize his claim with a system of metaphysics, concepts, and definitions, the Buddha gave us a method of discriminative investigation with which we can verify it for ourselves. Simply be mindful of your present moment experience and notice how each sensory experience gives rise to an either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling, which in turn gives rise to craving made of attachment and aversion. This craving will propel you into action (or inaction) that will be the basis of yet another feeling ultimately resulting in craving. And on and on and on until we spend an entire lifetime grasping for one sensory experience after another never having been satisfied along the way. With the First Noble Truth, the Buddha declared that our sensory experience of life is inherently unsatisfactory. No matter how good things are, they could always be better. With the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha pointed to craving as the cause of life’s inability to satisfy our desires. So, it is the taint of craving that I am seeking to dissolve from my feelings in every moment that I have the wherewithal to practice mindfulness.
The simplest way to do this is with an honest and frank recognition of the unsatisfactory nature of feeling. Rather than wallow in the abyss between life and my expectations, I adjust my expectations to align with life. “Oh. That cookie didn’t put my mind at ease? Of course, it didn’t. It couldn’t.” “Oh. That meditation didn’t free me of suffering? Of course, it didn’t. It couldn’t.” “Oh. This relationship isn’t healing my anxiety and lack of self-worth? Of course, it’s not. It can’t.” Dukkha is not a problem; it’s just dukkha. Viewing experience this way has two effects: first, it removes craving from the equation so that my mind can settle and cease its constant running from the present, and second, it reveals the nagging feeling of being let down and disappointed by life to be utterly absurd. When these two effects are generated by mindfulness, I give up seeking satisfaction, fulfillment, or gratification in the world of the senses – the world of feeling -and instead enjoy the peace, stability, and freedom of a mind that is not chasing after or running away from anything.
This is the experience of nirodha, the Third Noble Truth, and is in fact a non-experience. It is the conscious and mindful non-experience of craving, which is why it is most commonly translated as cessation. We can realize cessation any time we enter meditative concentration. After settling the body and mind with conscious breathing, take a moment to be mindful of what you’re not presently craving. “Huh. In this moment, I’m not craving anything.” Even if you do recognize some subtle sense of craving like wishing the pain in your back would stop, you can still be mindful that, “Right now I’m not craving this or that specific thing,” whatever it is. Ice cream. Sex. A million dollars. Should craving arise when you do turn your mind to those objects, just smile and shake your head. This dukkha is a silly thing, isn’t it?
Really sense and feel what the absence of craving is like. It seemed paradoxical to me to concentrate on a non-object or a non-experience until I realized that the non-experience of craving is in fact the experience of peace. It is easy to miss, however, when the mind is trained to be constantly on guard against unpleasant feelings and chasing after pleasant ones. How many moments of true satisfaction have I let slip by simply because I didn’t recognize the joy of not craving? As I heard Ajahn Passano once say, “Many people finally recognize the inherent peace of a mind not gripped by craving and then ask, Now what?’” to which he replies, “Well, can’t you just be peaceful?” Meditation is my opportunity to totally soak in this peace, to concentrate on in and allow it to pervade my whole body. In Plum Village practice, we call this drista dharma sukkha vihara or dwelling happily in the present moment. Every time I turn my mind towards non-craving I am convinced that this is the peace, the joy, the liberation the Buddha was talking about. This is it.
It is, however, a momentary experience brought about by the artificial conditions of meditative concentration. Obviously, I can’t spend my whole life sitting on the cushion to generate cessation. To make the experience of cessation durable so that it walks and breathes with me in my daily life, I must investigate the interdependent and impermanent nature of feeling to have a genuine insight into its unsatisfactoriness.