Mindfulness of Feelings - 2nd Frame of Reference to Mindfulness

The basics of understanding Mindfulness of Feelings By Dr Thura Limbin

(Dr Thura Limbin is a Mindfulness practitioner at Letchworth Dhamma Nikethanaya Buddhist Meditation Centre. Recommended reading material for Advanced Mindfulness Practitioners at the Letchworth Dhamma Nikethanaya Buddhist Meditation Centre). This is a short text to help explain how to contemplate and to think about feelings in Mindfulness. I have referred to the original Sutta and various Buddhist Books to write this short text.

Mindfulness of Feelings  -  2nd Frame of Reference to Mindfulness 

The basics of understanding Mindfulness of Feelings

By Dr Thura Limbin

ü  (Dr Thura Limbin is a Mindfulness practitioner at Letchworth Dhamma Nikethanaya Buddhist Meditation Centre. Recommended reading material for Advanced Mindfulness Practitioners at the Letchworth Dhamma Nikethanaya Buddhist Meditation Centre)

This is a short text to help explain how to contemplate and to think about feelings in Mindfulness. I have referred to the original Sutta and various Buddhist Books to write this short text.

Feelings is the 2nd frame of reference from the 4 frames of reference with respect to Mindfulness. Compared to the other three frames; the body, mind, Dharma. It is the shortest in length and with the least number of steps. However if considered from the perspective of the meditation practitioner the shortness belies its usefulness and complexity.

In the Pali the original term for feelings is Vedanta. It has two meanings “to feel” and “to know”. To feel and to know the perceptions which arise from the body and the mind. What does this mean in practice? It does not mean what is commonly understood by the term feelings.

It does not mean emotions or other complex psychological and other mental phenomena such as thoughts. These comes under mindfulness of the mind

I think it is best understood as the bare affective sensations which arise from perceptions or experiences. One can use the phrase “how does it make you feel?” “Happy, sad or neutral?” It concentrates on the affective part of our minds which responds when we come into contact with mental or physical objects. The sutta describes three types of “feelings”. There are pleasant or happy feelings, unpleasant or sad feelings, and neutral feelings.

The daily act of drinking coffee is a useful example. I would say that in a cup of coffee there are various modalities of perception. The two obvious ones are the temperature and the taste. Let us look at the temperature, you would agree that when it is boiling hot or freezing cold. The bare affective feeling is one of being unpleasant, if it is the same temperature as your mouth it will have the quality of being neutral. There will be a certain warmth which will feel pleasant. Critically on hot day a cold ice coffee will feel pleasant, the same ice coffee at the same temperature on a freezing day will have an unpleasant feeling.  It is not the actual temperature that’s Vedanta it’s the Affective tone which accompanies it. The same thing can “feel” different dependent on context or the situation.

Feelings have a central role in mindfulness, because they are triggers or mental switches which acts to trigger thoughts, emotions, intentions and ultimately our behavior. We try to obtain pleasant feelings. We are ignorant or are unaware of neutral feelings.  We are adverse and try to avoid painful or unpleasant feelings. Feelings in themselves are not the problem.  Sometimes it’s the automatic reflexive and negative responses to the 3 types of feelings which is the culprit. Mindfulness of feelings allows us freedom to control the avalanche of emotions and thoughts and behavior which arise from them.

The other critical and unique aspect in mindfulness of feelings, is that we are asked not only to consider the type of feeling, but its Ethical outcome and usefulness. It is further classified into ethical/skillful or unethical/unskillful. I will touch on this later.

Where do feelings in the context of mindfulness arise? What causes feelings? In Buddhist psychology there are 6 areas where sensations or experiences arise which give rise to feelings.

These 6 areas are called the 6 sense bases and the 6 sense objects. When a sense object comes into contact with its respective sense base or organ. Contact between the object and its sensory receptor occurs. This in Pali is called Phassa. If the person is conscious of this contact, perception and recognition of the object arises with in the mind.

Five of the 6 senses are well known to us as the 5 senses which allow us to perceive our internal and external worlds. When light contacts our eyes we perceive sight, when sounds contacts our ears we have the perception of hearing, when aromas contact out noses we have the perception of smells, when flavor  touch our tongues we perceive taste, when sense objects contact our bodies we can perceive touch, pain and movement.

Importantly there is a sixth sense base and its sense object. The sixth sense base or receptor is the conscious mind. This can be understood if we consider that the mind to have conscious and unconscious states of perception.  Although the sense organs are “perceiving” all the time we are not aware of them all the time. This is because our attention is not always focused on all of our senses all the time. This can be clearly understood if you just stop and think about this now. While you are reading this text you are focused upon your vision sense organ your eyes and the sense object this text. You are likely unware of the perception bodily contact of the chair, If you’re sitting down or the feel of the paper you’re holding. However you will become aware if you focus your mind to these sense objects. In the same way the Conscious mind is only aware of thoughts when they arise out of the subconscious into its awareness. The six sense organ is the Conscious mind and its sense objects are the thoughts and mental processes which it experiences. Contact occurs when they float up into the consciousness into the sphere of mental awareness.

Vedana or feelings arise when there is contact between the sense organ and its specific sense object. There are 6 types.

When thinking about feelings we need to distinguish between the feeling and the perception of something. Both feelings and perception are both types of experiences. The difference is that perceptions are modality specific. This means we can only see with our eyes, we can only taste with our tongues. Feelings are not about the type of experience of perceiving something, feelings are really about how we “feel” about that perception in a basic and affective way. After perceiving something does it make you feel happy, sad or neutral? For example if we taste salt on our tongue the perception is how strong the salty taste is to us. How we like or dislike the taste of salt is the feeling in mindfulness.

There are 6 sense objects and sense bases, each type of perception can give rise to 3 types of feelings, the pleasant feeling, the neutral feeling and the unpleasant feeling.  It can be seen that in total there are 18 different types.

There are 2 two simple steps to contemplate in mindfulness of feelings. Both of these steps are essential to grasp the usefulness of feelings. The first step is to place the feeling into one of three categories, as already written above. These are Pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings and Neutral feelings. This is the first step because how we respond to feelings is determined by its category. We like nice feeling, we dislike nasty feelings and we tend to look over neutral feelings. I will explain later the consequences of the possible responses.

The next step after we have categorized the type feeling (pleasant or unpleasant or neutral) Is to classify those the feelings into 2 further categories. We need to decide if the feeling is Ethical and skillful which is good for us. Or Unethical and unskillful which is bad for us. Ethical and skillful feelings allow us to progress and develop in mindfulness, Unethical and Unskillful feelings set us back and block progress.

Let’s look at the first step, categorizing feelings how it makes you feel; happy sad or neutral. Why is the classification important? The Buddha placed feelings in a separate frame from the body and the mind for an important reason. Feelings can be a powerful force which can determine how our mind works and how our body behaves. The vital place of feelings in Buddhist Psychology can be understood by its relationship to the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering in dependent origination is attachment and craving. Craving is caused by feeling, specifically pleasant feelings.

In mindfulness and in Buddhism it is not the feelings that cause suffering it’s our mental focus and relationship to feelings which can cause suffering.

I will now consider each of the 3 types and explain what can happen if they are left in the untrained mind. When we let uncontrolled, automatic reflexive processes occur triggered by feelings.

Let’s look at pleasant feelings. We like pleasant feelings, we try to obtain and hold on to pleasant feelings. The taste of good food, nice drinks, the feel of holding your lover alcohol smoking and many others.

Pleasant feelings can trigger the psychological craving and the need to obtain them through repeated behaviors.

If we are not mindful then we may become addicted and only become aware of the negative aspects and suffering, when damage has occurred to our body and mind. No one is an addict to the first cigarette or alcoholic drink. It’s usually after repeated exposure that a physical addiction has happened. Pleasant feeling is not suffering, it is our psychological and physical responses and consequences which can cause suffering.

It is obvious that not every pleasant feeling causes craving or cause suffering, some pleasant feelings can be good for us with no suffering.

Neutral feelings, these are feelings which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. How can they be a cause of suffering? Classically the problem is that neutral feelings can cause delusion and apathy. The delusion is the false belief that things remain static and are permanent. This causes apathy and inaction when instead we sometimes need action. This is because we typically respond less to something which is neutral, we try to obtain nice feelings and avoid nasty feelings. But we can become complacent with regards to neutral feelings. On the surface somethings appear neutral and unchanging and they do not stir an emotive response or action. In Mindfulness one understands that permanence does not really exist. It is really change which is occurring very slowly or too small for us to perceive. This can be seen with the deadly killer diseases, like lung cancer, or skin cancer or even stress. It is sometimes the small but significant changes that we don’t notice that harm us. In my own life one practical experience is sun exposure, on a sunny hot day I do not take much notice of the sun, but I suffer the pain of sunburn the next day. The lesson I learnt is to wear sun cream. Neutral feeling in itself is not suffering. it is our response and consequences which may cause it.

It is also obvious that not every neutral feeling causes apathy indifference and delusion and therefore causes suffering. Some true neutral feelings which arise in mindfulness do not cause problems this is the feeling of even mindedness from equanimity.

Unpleasant feelings, these feelings can lead to the mental states of aversion and hatred. If uncontrolled the feeling of unpleasantness can lead to the cascade of mental states such as anger and behaviors such as avoidance or violence. Unpleasant feeling is the hardest to control as they usually illicit an automatic and emotive response. This is the rapid fight or flight response which we all experience. In a biological sense painful feelings can be useful to survival it helps us to avoid damage to our bodies by avoiding dangerous situations. It can cause fear and help us avoid them through our actions. The unpleasant feeling itself is not always the cause of problems. It can be a useful signal to prevent damage to our bodies. It is our response to the unpleasant feeling which determines this. The pain of underachieving spurs us to try harder. The initial prangs of hunger when dieting, discomfort at starting sitting meditation. These are the short term harmless pains, which if we tolerate will result in long term happiness. We need to determine which type of unpleasant feelings need a quick response and which ones need to be tolerated. Most of us have the experience of holding on to the hot plate and placing it on the table to save it and our food! Unpleasant feeling does not always lead to suffering it is our awareness and mindfulness and the correct response that determines the outcome.

Placing feelings into ethical and skillful categories

The next step is to classify the feeling not in its affective tone but to place it into its ethical nature and skillfulness.

If we look at the teachings of the Buddha he did not state that all pleasurable feelings leads to craving, or that all neutral feelings lead to delusion or that all unpleasant feelings lead to hatred. He was not too concerned with the actual feeling. What is more important is the ethical consequence of the feeling. The feeling can lead to unethical and unskillful acts, which cause suffering and hinder progress. Or if the feeling leads to ethical, skillful acts which helps progress and decreases progress.

Each pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings can be further categorized into these 2 groups

Deciding and contemplating the ethical outcome requires practice, wisdom and mindfulness. It requires a deliberate slowing down of mental processes. We need to get out of the automatic reflexive, unaware state of mind.  This second step requires mindfulness to be in the present and to realistically, and objective appraise the feeling. Critically it requires use of skills which are found in the other 3 frames so in my personal opinion it is best practiced after we have some mastery of the full practice.

The first stage to contemplating the ethical outcome and skillfulness is to be in a psychological state of equanimity or mental composure. You will find it very difficult to make correct assessments if your mind is disturbed. One way to gain mental composure is to practice the body contemplations such as breathing meditation this will calm and ground the mind in the body. I would add that if possible having some basic understanding of the states of mind is helpful. In the mindfulness of the mind meditation, we practice awareness of the angry mind, the lustful mind the distracted mind the deluded mind. We need to reach a mind free from these negative states as much as possible. Once the mind is composed and clear then we can contemplate what is skillful/ethical or unskillful/unethical with respect to feelings. Deciding what ethical and skillful requires knowledge from the 4th frame specifically the 4 noble truths and the eight fold path. At the minimum you would need to be experienced with the body mindfulness before this is attempted.

Ethical/skillful feelings can be used for progress. Unethical/Unskillful feelings need to be abandoned as they cause suffering and hinder progress.

I will give examples of the different types of ethical/skillful and unethical/unskillful for each of the 3 types of feelings.

Pleasant feelings which are ethical/Skillful

Joy from meditation, sympathetic joy at others achievements, Happiness due to charity, happiness from altruistic acts, and happiness from learning.

Pleasant feelings which are unethical, unskillful

Feelings of pleasure from material gain, from excessive use of food, drugs, intoxicants, hyper sexuality, joy at suffering of others or oneself any pleasant feeling which leads to attachment, lust, craving and ultimately suffering.

Neutral feelings which are Ethical/skillful

Results in True equanimity born out of mindful awareness, which allows one to not to be shaken by life’s changes with the understanding of change as universal truth. Mental Composure which allows one to make wise choices.

Neutral feelings which are Unethical/Unskillful

Results in dull indifference apathy and inaction due lack of awareness of change makes no wise choices or makes them too late.

Unpleasant Feelings which are Unskillful/Unethical

Results in hatred, aversion, avoidance, anger and possibly even violence.

Unpleasant feelings which are Ethical/Skillful

Unpleasant feelings can have a purifying effect and help to understand suffering, Unpleasant feelings are always transient can help to understand impermanence.

Unpleasant feelings can arise from lack of skill, and knowledge they can spur development of skill and learning.

Tolerating unpleasant feeling in the short term for long term happiness, hunger in dieting, craving when abstaining to cure addictions, doing exercise, acquiring new skills, starting meditation. Tolerating others who are different to us.

This is only the basics, mindfulness of feelings allows us freedom to choose skillful, ethical ways we respond to feelings. This requires us to gain theory and practice in the skill. If we don’t use these skills then we are left to the automatic and knee jerk reactions to our feelings with; craving, delusion and anger. Which can lead a cascade of negative emotions from our mind and bad behavior from our body.

There is a total of 6 steps in mindfulness of feelings I have only touched upon the first 2 steps.

The other 4 practices are; contemplation of the arising and disappearance of feelings, contemplation of external and internal feelings, maintaining awareness of feelings only to the extent needed for knowledge and remembrance and lastly Remaining independent and not clinging to anything in the world.

What we are trying to do is to create a cognitive Gap between the initial feeling and the response, in that gap that we have the freedom to choose the correct and skillful response.

Here is the instructions for Mindfulness of feelings from the “Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference”


"And how does a monk remain focused on feelings in & of themselves? There is the case where a monk, when feeling a painful feeling, discerns, 'I am feeling a painful feeling.' When feeling a pleasant feeling, he discerns, 'I am feeling a pleasant feeling.' When feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, he discerns, 'I am feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.'

Here is the instructions for Mindfulness of feelings from the “Satipatthana Sutta: Frames of Reference”

"When feeling a painful feeling of the flesh, he discerns, 'I am feeling a painful feeling of the flesh.' When feeling a painful feeling not of the flesh, he discerns, 'I am feeling a painful feeling not of the flesh.' When feeling a pleasant feeling of the flesh, he discerns, 'I am feeling a pleasant feeling of the flesh.' When feeling a pleasant feeling not of the flesh, he discerns, 'I am feeling a pleasant feeling not of the flesh.' When feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling of the flesh, he discerns, 'I am feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling of the flesh.' When feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling not of the flesh, he discerns, 'I am feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling not of the flesh.'

"In this way he remains focused internally on feelings in & of themselves, or externally on feelings in & of themselves, or both internally & externally on feelings in & of themselves. Or he remains focused on the phenomenon of origination with regard to feelings, on the phenomenon of passing away with regard to feelings, or on the phenomenon of origination & passing away with regard to feelings. Or his mindfulness that 'There are feelings' is maintained to the extent of knowledge & remembrance. And he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on feelings in & of themselves.

Recommended reading material for Advanced Mindfulness Practitioners at the Letchworth Dhamma Nikethanaya Buddhist Meditation Centre

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