Mindfulness of feeling tones (Pali: vedana)

Mindfulness of feeling tones is a revelatory practice. The Pali term vedana refers to the hedonic tone of experience. Analayo (2009, p. 513) defines it in the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism as: “Feeling ‘feels’ in the sense that it feels such affective tones as pleasure, displeasure and hedonic neutrality.” When we come into contact, through one of our six senses, with the environment and experience a smell, a taste, a sight, a physical sensation, a sound, or a thought, is the experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant (which I will call neutral for short)? Brewer et al. (2012) distinguish between affective tone, feeling tone, and valence: “The valence of this affective tone is conditioned by associative memories that were formed from previous experiences"

Here I shall use the term “feeling tone" to refer to the tonality of our affective experience, rather like musical tones refer to musical sounds. Musical tones are qualified by their duration, pitch, intensity, and quality. It is the same with the feeling tones; they can be light, habitual, or intense. At any given moment we are assailed by numerous feeling tones coming from our senses, which are being impacted by the inner or outer world. It is important to see that feeling tones are constructed; they are not a given, they do not reside in the object we come into contact with. So, different people can experience different feeling tones when they come into contact with the same object, for example a painting or a piece of music. Moreover, they will be different according to our circumstances. When we are in a good mood, children’s sounds can be experienced as pleasant; if you are exhausted they can be unpleasant.

Feeling tones arise quickly and have a profound impact on our behavior. Once I had an unpleasant experience and an hour later I found myself talking unpleasantly to my husband, who had nothing to do with the previous experience. Feeling tones, especially unpleasant ones, have a tendency to seep sideways and propagate in other things—people, situations, and objects from which they did not originate.

We can experience many feeling tones at any given moment, so in formal meditation it helps to narrow the focus of our attention to one of our senses in order to perceive feeling tones more clearly. Thus we can cultivate mindfulness of feeling tones in association with just one object of concentration. The meditator can be mindful of the breath, and then add one more element to this with an experiential focus led by the question “How does the sensation of the air in the nostrils feel?" Generally it will feel neutral and thus this meditation will enable the meditator to become more aware of this and other neutral feeling tones.

In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, Bodhi (Bodhi and Nanamoli 1995, p. 401) translates a nun’s teaching:

Pleasant feeling is pleasant when it persists and painful when it changes. Painful feeling is painful when it persists and pleasant when it changes. Neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling is pleasant when there is knowledge and painful when there is no knowledge.

We can have a conflicted relationship with neutral feeling tones, as they are generally associated with boredom. But if we consider them from a meditative perspective, they are restful (or at least nothing bad is happening). If there is a neutral feeling tone, we can choose to know it fully and it can then become the source of a peaceful state of being in the moment. Or we can connote it negatively and even confabulate: “Nothing is happening . . . This is boring . . . I am bored . . . I am boring . . . Nothing works in my life!” Thus we can quickly go from neutral to unpleasant feeling tones. This is one of the challenges of formal meditation, especially sitting meditation, as most of the time nothing is happening and this can be experienced as boring. But if we know the peacefulness, clarity, and restfulness of a neutral feeling tone, we can know for ourselves quiet contentment both within and outside meditation.

When we meditate, we can become aware of unpleasant feeling tones. When we have a thought, this is a contact with a new object, which can produce a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling tone. Our thoughts have some trigger words, which lead to strong unpleasant feeling tones like “this is unfair,” “this is wrong,” “he does not respect me.” The process proceeds from trigger words to unpleasant feeling tones to emotional upset. It can be difficult for us to notice or be mindful of the first contact with the trigger words that generated the feeling tone, and still less to observe how the feeling tone develops into more elaborated and magnified upset through our generation of looping stories and meanings. Physical sensations are clearer because as soon as we experience an unpleasant sensation, we are aware that we do not want it (this, of course, is a survival mechanism). The problem in reacting strongly to unpleasant feeling tones is that when we add to that experience by confabulation and “catastro- phizing,” we make it even more unpleasant. This is what the Buddha points out in the Sallatha Sutta found in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Bodhi 2000, p. 1264):

When the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one.

Mindfulness of unpleasant feeling tones helps us to be with the experience without adding anything to it through “creative engagement.” Sometimes we realize that all we can do is accept things as they arise. At other times we see clearly that we can do something to transform them, either inwardly or outwardly. Mindfulness will not take the pain away but it can change the way we engage with it.

Neutral feeling tones are the baseline that is the mid-point between pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones. If we were to assume (as people do) that the baseline should be a pleasant feeling tone of, let us say, a minimum of five on a ten- point scale of pleasure (one being low levels of pleasure and ten being very high), then we only have a five-up-to-ten range of pleasant experience and the rest is interpreted as neutral or unpleasant. If instead we perceive that the baseline is neutral then we have a range of potential positive feeling tone from at least one to ten. We are not grasping for relatively strong positive feeling tones in our moment-to-moment experience but are able to derive peace and pleasure from neutral feeling tones right up through the full range of positive feeling tones. And with practice, negative feeling tones, particularly less intense negative feeling tones, can become areas of growth as a result of concentration and enquiry. We are more acutely aware of unpleasant feeling tones than pleasant ones due to the positive-negative asymmetry effect (Taylor 1991) but by increasing awareness of neutral feeling tones and therefore the full range of pleasant feeling tones, we effectively re-equilibrate how we feel. In this manner we discover more opportunity to appreciate happiness and joy in our lives. And we appreciate experientially that quiet contentment in the neutral state is positive.

Another method is to repeat inwardly and silently these sentences:

I appreciate my efforts I rejoice in my success I am grateful for my existence

Mudita means finding joy and happiness in others’ happiness and can be contrasted with envy and with taking joy from others’ suffering. The phrases can therefore also be used in relation to different categories of people: those we like and who support us, or those we have difficulty with, etc. We can also add to the list things in nature and animals:

I appreciate your efforts I rejoice in your success I am grateful for your existence

In this type of practice, concentration resides in repeating the sentences and experiential enquiry is cultivated when we genuinely see the goodness in ourselves and others. It helps us to shift our focus from only what is difficult and negative. Those who do not like to repeat sentences silently inwardly while meditating can connect with the resonance of the quality of the exercise by experientially asking: “What is it I can appreciate right now about this experience? What is it I can rejoice in? What can I be grateful for, however small?”

To conclude, when trying to be mindful of feeling tones, we focus on contact with an object in experience such as a sound or a visual object, and deepen that focus to be aware of the quality that arises upon that contact. The experiential enquiry element resides in noticing how the feeling tone changes over time or how the feeling tone changes when there is contact with a different object (such as a thought, a new sound, or a new visual object). In this manner we become progressively more aware of different feeling tones that arise with different objects and also of how these feeling tones change within themselves. This growing awareness of feeling tones both during and outside meditation practice enables us to be more aware of and freer from their impact on our mood, communication, and actions.

Another aspect of our “feeling” life is more intense “feeling-sensation” or “affective sensation.” The feeling tone is the tonality we experience immediately upon contact. That can be followed by a more intense feeling or affective sensation. We quickly give a meaning to this feeling-sensation, calling it sadness or anger for example, and then it becomes a full-blown disturbing emotion because it appears to associate with some previous event or period of intense sadness or anger.

Rather than analyze the meaning of the intense feeling and the stories associated with that meaning, it helps to stay with the feeling-sensation, focusing on the location within the body where it is felt. Then one can concentrate on it and, with experiential enquiry, examine it. Is it heavy or light, agitated or calm, solid or fluid, hot or cold? Is it still there in the same way? How long does it last?

On one occasion I visited a flower shop and the cashier seemed to look at me as if I was stupid when I did not understand what she said to me. I felt something intense and unpleasant in my chest area so I paid and left but decided to observe mindfully the unpleasant feeling-sensation without falling into the reactive storyline of “I will never go back to this shop.” The feeling-sensation continued for about ten minutes as I observed it. Over the next two hours, whenever I thought about the incident, the feeling-sensation returned for a few seconds and stopped when I stopped thinking about it. I deliberately took time to focus on and experience the sensation in my chest. After two hours, even when I thought about the incident, the feeling-sensation did not return. By being mindful in a questioning way, the feeling-sensation did not settle and intensify into a disturbing emotion. It just evaporated. There are many light feeling-sensations that we experience throughout the day that we do not need to embed and make stronger than they need to be. By focusing and using experiential enquiry, we can free ourselves from much emotional negativity and turmoil.

When there is great emotional intensity, it is generally because something has shocked our whole system—mental, physical, and emotional. Then we have to accept the need to process such a shock and that it will take time for its effect and reverberations to pass. When my brother and my father died, each time it took my system a year to begin to recover from these losses. Meditation and mindfulness helped me to be with these feeling-sensations and not to magnify them unnecessarily. With such intensity, creative meditative distractions can remind us that we are not only this intense feeling-sensation but that we can still enjoy nature, help others, and receive their support.

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