Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta 3.
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
Feeling – vedanã
This is our second pasture of mindfulness but unlike mindfulness of the body this is much simpler having effectively only one meditation. However, as we will see this single contemplation is both a little tricky and also of enormous importance. So just to set the scene we remember that the point of the satipaṭṭhāna is to establish contemplation of its object – here feeling – through diligence, clear seeing, mindfulness and concentration. Having these we then practice; this is how the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta describes it:
When feeling a pleasant feeling, he knows “I feel a pleasant feeling”; when feeling an unpleasant feeling, he knows “I feel an unpleasant feeling”; when feeling a neutral feeling, he knows “I feel a neutral feeling.” When feeling a worldly pleasant feeling, he knows “I feel a worldly pleasant feeling”; when feeling an unworldly pleasant feeling, he knows “I feel an unworldly pleasant feeling”; when feeling a worldly unpleasant feeling, he knows “I feel a worldly unpleasant feeling”; when feeling an unworldly unpleasant feeling, he knows “I feel an unworldly unpleasant feeling”; when feeling a worldly neutral feeling, he knows an unworldly neutral feeling, he knows “I feel an unworldly neutral feeling”.
So let’s unpack this.
The ‘definition’ reminds us we are cultivating contemplation of our object of mindfulness – feeling – through being diligent and having clear knowing, mindfulness and concentration. This is the ‘tool set’ we apply to our experience.
There are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings that come in two forms, worldly and unworldly. The contemplation is simply knowing which one we are experiencing while we experience it.
What are being felt are physical sensations and/or mental phenomena – that is our own thoughts and emotions. These can also be called “bodily and mental feelings”. This is what Joseph Goldstein says p.82:
Vedanã refers specifically to that quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness and neutrality that arises with the contact of each moments experience. These feelings arise with both physical and mental phenomena. There’s a sensation in the body or we hear a sound, and we feel it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Likewise a thought or an emotion – we feel it as having one of these three feeling tones.
When these bodily and mental feelings arise from grasping, aversion and ignorance, ‘the three poisons’, they are considered worldly feelings and they lead in turn to further worldly feelings and so create more and more suffering.
The Ven. Anālayo has something very interesting to say on worldly unpleasant feelings, concluding on p.170:
… aversion to pain can fuel the tendency to seek sensual gratification, since from the unawakened point of view the enjoyment of sensual pleasures appears to be the only escape from pain…. non-reactive awareness of pain is a simple but effective method for skilfully handling a painful experience. Simply observing physical pain for what it is prevents it from producing mental repercussions. Any mental reaction of fear or resistance to pain would only increase the degree of unpleasantness of the painful experience. An accomplished meditator might be able to experience solely the physical aspect of an unpleasant feeling without allowing mental reactions to arise. Thus meditative skill and insight have an intriguing potential for preventing physical sickness from affecting the mind…. In this way, a wise observation of pain through satipaṭṭhāna can transform experiences of pain into occasions for deep insight.
When however bodily and mental feelings arise from a general renunciation of the three poisons, the pleasure of meditation, the neutrality of equanimity and the pain of longing for a spiritual life that brings a deep happiness for ourselves and others, these are called unworldly feelings and these lead towards awakening. This is what the Ven. Anālayo has to say on this, p.158:
The distinction between worldly and unworldly (nirãmisa) feelings is concerned with the difference between feelings related to the “flesh” (ãmisa) and feelings related to renunciation. This additional dimension revolves around an evaluation of feeling that is based not on its affective nature, but on the ethical context of it’s arising. The basic point introduced here is awareness of whether a particular feeling is related to progress or regress on the path….
What is being described is a psychological process that takes a minute fraction of a second and is occurring continuously in both our waking and dream life. Early Buddhism describes how we become conscious of something either outside or inside of ourselves and this is then felt as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral which then causes complex emotional and cognitive reactions – some wholesome and some not. It’s all over in less than a moment. However if we can insert mindfulness into this process at the point of simply registering pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, the basic “feeling tones”, then we have a chance to disrupt the chain of self-destructive reactivity. This is how Joseph Goldstein describes the practice, p.85:
It’s the simple, direct and clear recognition of the feeling aspect of experience. We don’t need to analyse, judge, compare, or even particularly understand why these feelings are happening. It’s simply to know that a pleasant feeling is like this, unpleasant feeling is like this, neutral feeling is like this.
And a new source, Bhante Gunaratana, “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English” p.88:
As we observe the process, we should not try to put our feelings into words. Labelling sensations and emotions can actually distort them or disguise them as something else… we simply let the breath flow in and out. We stay fully awake and alert.
And the Ven. Anālayo from a new source, ‘Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna’ p.118:
Contemplation of feelings thus requires recognising the affective tone of present-moment experience, before the arisen feeling leads to mental reactions and elaborations. … From a practical perspective, this aspect of contemplation requires that one does not get carried away by the individual content of felt experience and instead directs awareness to the general character of experience in terms of its three affective tones: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
And again the Ven. Anālayo from ‘Satipaṭṭhāna, the Direct Path to Realisation” p.157:
To contemplate feelings means quite literally to know how one feels, and this with such immediacy that the light of awareness is present before the onset of reactions, projections, or justifications in regard to how one feels.
And this from one of my pieces of writing:
Being mindful of all the states above we know what is arising when it is arising. The aim is not to banish worldly feelings – rather we clearly see what is arising and this clear seeing prevents the worldly feelings becoming cloaked in emotional reactivity – getting caught up in our wanting and not wanting, grasping at what we pick and choose. However this is also true for unworldly feelings. Though these are not the basis for the three poisons they can easily become so the moment we grasp onto them in preference to something else. An unworldly feeling only remains unworldly as long as it does not get colonised by the three poisons and recognition of its transitory and not-self nature is not lost.
Practicing this is not that difficult. The intensity of our likes and dislikes, resting on the immediate sensations of pleasant and unpleasant, is very obvious once we begin to notice it. Applying this to our sitting meditation is as much of a revelation as it is an advantage because instead of sitting there struggling with our unwanted and probably negatively judged experience we begin to see it as a sequence of pleasant and unpleasant sensations. And it leads deeper. There is something deeply impersonal about bodily or mental sensations – they kind of just happen to everybody so there is nothing in them special to me. And deeper still, if we look for the person these sensations are happening ‘to’ or ‘within’ we can’t actually find anyone there. There are certainly sensations but on close observation they seem to simply come into being and then fade away but where they come from and where they go to is not at all apparent!
So we practice by resting our attention on either our physical sensations, our emotions or, if quick enough, our thoughts and simply notice whether they are being perceived as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When we become caught up in our thoughts that are the reactive elaborations on what we are feeling, we just note this as, “Thinking”, and return to our contemplation.
In sitting practice this becomes very subtle and the impermanence and not-self aspects of feeling become more noticeable. However holding this in awareness is hard because in a moment we are distracted back into not recognising the feeling and being immediately caught in the three poisons. During the day we can use the coarser like and dislike reactions to alert us to the initial feeling that preceded them. We can start the practice using the big juicy feelings that are starkly obvious.
Feelings are just weather systems changing perceived by someone who is not really there!
And why do we do it? The refrain informs us we are to apply the practice: Internally and externally – this could mean to our internal thoughts and emotions and physical reactions to the external environment, or more simply, seeing this happening in others and ourselves. Recognising impermanence – feelings, particularly when not cloaked in reactivity, are extremely fleeting. Maintaining bare attention and a continuity of mindfulness – which enables Independence, not clinging to the world – which is the secret of happiness!
My reactions to this contemplation
Reading back what I have written above it does not reveal the many hours of reading and writing this summary has required. It initially seems extremely clear but on greater reflection I have found it difficult to really understand. These are some of the problems.
The word ‘feeling’ – ‘Feeling’ is a potentially difficult word because we use it in different ways. Joseph Goldstein p.81 says in his Webster’s dictionary there are fourteen different usages. Some refer to emotions, “I feel happy”, some physical sensations, “I feel cold”, and some an attitude or an opinion, “My feeling is that this is worthwhile”. I would add that feeling can also be used for a general intuitive sense of something, “I sort of feel …” Feeling is a slippery word.
Usually I am very careful not to unthinkingly interchange the words ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ – something that we all commonly do. I try to use ‘feeling’ to mean the way or means by which I know, without having to think about it, that I am experiencing an emotion. So when I say, “I feel sad” there are three things going on in this sentence. First there is ‘I”, that’s me, the subject. Then there is ‘feel’ which is the means of knowing what is happening. And finally there is ‘sad’ which is the emotion known. Further more, I would now also say that I know my sadness because the feeling of sadness is in my body – say in my heart. So how do I know what emotions I am feeling? I know because I can feel the sensation of them in my body. This becomes even clearer when we use the psychological word for emotions – affect. We are far less likely to interchange the words feeling and affect. Feeling is a way of knowing. Affect is what is known.
When I first read the vedanã section of the Sutta I was unable for a long while to get my own understanding out of the way. My own use of ‘feeling’ as a way of knowing an emotion while not being the emotion itself completely obscured the Sutta’s use which is confusingly a combination of knowing and what is known. After a great deal of puzzling Bhante Gunaratana came to the rescue. He says ‘feeling’ describes both bodily and mental feelings and their reception as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral:
… the word ‘feeling’, vedanã, includes both physical sensations and mental emotions. For clarity, I use the word ‘sensations’ to refer to feelings that arise from external sensory contact and ‘emotions’ to refer to non-sensory feelings generated internally. When I use the word ‘feelings’, I mean to include both sensations and emotions. p.82
… developing mindfulness of feeling is distinguishing among the various kinds … pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. p.83
Here it is clear that Bhante Gunaratana is saying that ‘feeling’ includes what is being felt, in his words, “sensations” and “emotions”, and simultaneously how these are registered as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. And he goes on to give us the sequence of how this process unfolds:
… feelings arise dependent upon contact. Contact arises dependent on three factors – the senses, an object, and consciousness. p.87
So when through our senses we become conscious of an object – that is, everything – this sensory contact is received by feeling that sorts it into pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This seems clear enough and relates to our actual experience, first instant we sense something, second instant we move towards, away or neither and third instant, we add our reactions based on previous experiences. However I am left a little unsure by his division of external sensations and internal emotions. My own experience tells me that some sensations are internal – a physical pain – and while all emotions do appear internal they are also physical sensations, I can feel them in my body. However, apart from this, I feel this is a good explanation. By giving us a sequence for what is happening in each fraction of a second he has described the process exactly.
In the notes at the bottom of this piece I have appended two Buddhist systems that both contain the sequence shown here. The five khandhas – the psychophysical process of knowing – and the twelve nidānas – the chain of ignorance that perpetuates suffering. The point of both is to demonstrate that contemplation of feeling offers a unique opportunity in each moment to interrupt unconscious reactivity and exchange it for mindful response.
The felt sense –
For us familiar with the experience of the felt sense where does this fit in? After quite a lot of thought and just observing myself I think the felt sense – in its simplest form – is the same as feeling. It consists of thoughts and emotions and how I feel about them all felt in the body. I say “in its simplest form” because while we can be with our felt sense as an object of mindfulness, where we simply feel the felt sense and do nothing more, we can also follow the fuller, more complex process of Focusing created by Eugene Gendlin where the felt sense gives more information and is used intentionally for healing. In this Focusing way plainly feeling has extended into more complex psychological structures – all our thoughts and emotions.
So the question is; is the Sutta talking about the felt sense in another way or is it something that it doesn’t know about. After all it does seem to have a clear divide between bodily and mental feelings. Ven. Anālayo in ‘Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna’ p.119 makes sense of this muddle. He observes that irrespective of whether it is a physical sensation or a thought or an emotion, these are all received by feeling which is a function of the mind. However, once these experiences have been received they do in fact affect the body. Anālayo uses examples of the rising of hair and goose bumps when we feel joy but we could also say the sensation of our emotions felt within our body. So, he concludes, feeling is the intermediary between body and mind “in both directions”, p.122:
One aspect of this intermediary role is whatever happens in the body is mentally experienced through the medium of feelings. The other aspect is that the affective tone of mental experience influences the body through the medium of feelings. The actual experience of feeling thus usually affects body and mind.
Which is just rather a complicated way of saying when we feel something happening in our bodies and minds this can cause reactions that are both emotional and physical – so the felt sense without spelling it out.
NB. Having written the above now, several days later and after a little more practice, I am no longer sure of the accuracy of what I have said. This is what I have observed. There are no ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ feelings. There are physical feelings that come from outside my body and ones from inside my body. So as I sit here now I can feel the external chair and the gnawing of my stomach wanting lunch. But mental feelings, when meaning an emotion, are also physical in that I feel them as sensations in my body. So here I am thinking of a mood for instance – emotions with no clear link to thoughts. Also when I have a thought, which is almost always to some degree emotionally charged, I can feel its emotional charge physically. This could be anything, for instance something from the news that frightens or angers me. It’s as if the thought flashes through my mind but leaves an emotional trace and it is this that is physically felt. Likewise the registering of this as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral – actually on observation only pleasant or unpleasant – these too are registered physically as a sensation of opening towards or moving away. And finally all subsequent reactions, which make further rounds of feelings, these too are felt in the body. So the entire sequence, as it happens in each consecutive micro moment is felt within the body – there is a continuous, unbroken felt sense.
From the perspective of our usual practice we do not distinguish between these very subtle shifts in the stages of perception but rather on the body as the location of the felt sense and how if we interrupt the reactivity, (the story which keeps recharging the emotions), this clearly arises and then disappears. Further more, we do not name, even in a very subtle way, what we are experiencing – pleasant, unpleasant – because drawing from a much later strata of Buddhism that stresses ‘non-judgement’, we simply observe with no intervention whatsoever. However, at essence, the two ways of practicing come to the same thing. Both are means to step back using mindfulness from creating stories which defend who we think we are while obscuring ‘how things really are’.
Is vedanã really a feeling? –
Sometimes vedanã is translated as ‘sensation’. I don’t want to get into the semantics here but this is worth a pause – what does it actually feel like? As we have seen above the division between mind and body does not really exist. What is experienced in the mind is felt in the body. When I am mindful of what I am feeling I don’t experience it as a ‘thought’ but rather as a sensation in my body. Pleasant is actually a kind of expansive moving towards, unpleasant a contraction and moving away and neutral is, well, nothing. This puts me in mind of the intelligence innate within all cells that enable them to recognise and respond to conducive or non-conducive environments. Given that we are effectively a vast colony of trillions of cells all working together it is of no surprise that this collective expresses the key survival skill of all cells. When a life enhancing sense stimuli occurs they/we expand and encompass it, when a life threatening sense stimuli occurs they/we contract and retreat, or when there is neither one nor the other nothing much happens at all. The only problem with this analogy is that from the Buddhist point of view feeling is not morally neutral, as we have seen above it can be either worldly or unworldly depending on the whether it arises from the three poisons or renunciation and the other wholesome qualities. The thing with cells is that they crave life and from the Buddhist perspective craving, one way or another, is suffering!The Ven. Anālayo has something to say about this, p.162:
Considered from a psychological perspective, feeling provides quick feedback during information processing, as a basis for motivation and action. In the early history of human evolution, such rapid feedback evolved as a mechanism for surviving dangerous situations, when a split-second decision between flight or fight had to be made. Such decisions are based on the evaluative influence of the first few moments of perceptual appraisal, during which feeling plays a prominent role. Outside such dangerous situations, however, in the comparatively safe average living situation in the modern world, this survival function of feelings can sometimes produce inadequate and inappropriate reactions….
This seems quite helpful – it says that feeling is a primitive mechanism that enables us to very quickly evaluate a situation and do what is best to survive. However it also says that we can miscalculate what is happening in our environment and this in turn creates all sorts or stories or narratives that do not correspond to the actual situation. So remember here the ‘walking down the street’ exercise in the mindfulness course where we discover we make up stories about our experience which can be deeply flawed and also reflect previous emotional distress. Yet this biological explanation does not seem quite right to me – there has never been a time in our mammalian history when our fight, flight or freeze patterns have not been accompanied by the additional layer of personal reactivity. Memory is as intrinsic to us as is feeling, it’s not an additional pathological aberration that can simply be removed to leave feeling pure. And also this is not what the Sutta is suggesting. It supports letting go of reactivity but not letting go of the wholesome and skilful qualities that arise and accumulate through contemplation – mindfulness, concentration, kindness, compassion and wisdom.
On neutral –
Anālayo says that elsewhere in the Sutta’s the Buddha only speaks of there being pleasant and unpleasant feelings. This may be because ‘neutral’ feelings are not so much a separate category as a spectrum of feeling we do not yet have the sensitivity to recognise as pleasant or unpleasant. Perhaps it is because of this that neutral is linked to ignorance in the three poisons. It is essentially about unawareness.
I can vouch for the truth of this. When I first tune in I am unaware of exactly what I am feeling but within minutes my awareness has settled in my body and I can distinctly feel the sensations that are associated with pleasant and unpleasant. The only problem here are the biological associations that Anālayo and also myself make. For both the cell analogy and the rapid reactions of the amygdala there must be a neutral setting as plainly not everything triggers reactions. This being so neutral must both mean what I am yet to be aware of and also sensations that do not trigger reactions.
One last thing. Akincano Marc Weber says in his podcast – see below – that neutral feelings when we become more sensitive tend to become pleasant ones … I wonder why?
On pleasant feelings and the importance of joy –
A case in hand for the above might be the question should we avoid pleasant feelings which trigger an emotion of joy? Here is a very famous story recounted by the Ven. Anālayo, p.164:
On the eve of his awakening, the Buddha had exhausted the traditional approaches to realisation, without gaining awakening. While recollecting his past experiences and considering what approach might constitute an alternative, he remembered a time in his early youth when he experienced deep concentration and pleasure, having attained the first absorption (jhãna). Reflecting further on this experience, he came to the conclusion that the type of pleasure experienced then was not unwholesome, and therefore not an obstacle to progress. The realisation that the pleasure of absorption constitutes a wholesome and advisable type of pleasant feeling marked a decisive turning point in his quest….
After his awakening, the Buddha declared himself to be one who lived in happiness… it was precisely the successful eradication of all mental unwholesomeness that caused his happiness and delight. …Numerous discourses describe the conditional dependence of wisdom and realisation on the presence of non-sensual joy and happiness. According to these descriptions, based on the presence of delight (pãmojja), joy (pîti) and happiness (sukha) arise and lead in a causal sequence to concentration and realisation.
Extrapolating from the above, the entire scheme of the gradual training can be envisaged as a progressive refinement of joy.
The two arrows and the three poisons –
Lastly it will not have escaped notice that what we have been talking about here is really just the two arrows and the three poisons. Arrow one is the bodily and mental sensations felt as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and the second arrow is the subsequent emotional and cognitive reactions. The first arrow we can do nothing about – bodies have senses that are registered and evaluated by minds. But through contemplation we can interrupt the process and not add to this additional reactions that create further stories and all the unhappiness this encourages. Further stories that are driven by and create more grasping, aversion and ignorance – the three poisons.
Notes: The five khandhas, the psychophysical components of each person – a sequence of knowing and processing experiences in each consecutive moment. This starts with:
1. Our senses,
2. feeling (registering what is pleasant, unpleasant and neutral),
3. how these are understood and labeled (based on our previous experiences),
4. the reactions, internal and external, this impels and
5. the consciousness this is all held in.
The ‘twelve links’ (Nidānas = link, chain). This is a description of the process through which we become enmeshed in patterns of self-created suffering. These are:
1. ignorance – not knowing how things really are.
2. volitional forces – that is emotional and cognitive reactivity (automatic pilots).
3. consciousness – the starting point in every life and every moment.
4. name and form – the mind and body.
5. the six senses – the mind and bodies senses.
6. contact – between sense perceptions and feeling.
7. feeling – that registers the information of the senses as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
8. craving – and,
9. clinging – these two describe the experience of the three poisons cloaking feeling through ignorance.
10. becoming – which creates more karma leading to,
12. old age, sickness and death.
The twelve links is an important idea because it illustrates the central Buddhist vision of a universe that is in a constant state of change as a result of all its causes and conditions that have existed previously. This is called ‘dependent arising’ – paṭicca-samuppāda. The twelve links, traditionally, demonstrate how a life spent in reactivity born of ignorance creates a further life where sensory information and our basic impulse to move towards or away from sense stimuli is cloaked in further reactivity driven by clinging and attachment which in turn creates further lives marked by endless birth, old age, sickness and death. The whole sorry tale of cyclic or samsaric existence.
Things to do
I have found where this is really useful is in conflicts with others. Generally speaking when we are in conflict we spend a lot of time justifying our position with self-serving stories. “They did that ….”, “That’s what they are really like …”. This activity is hot and juicy and is the perfect place to drop the story – thinking – and simply observe the flow of pleasant and unpleasant feelings without any further elaboration. Doing this we turn ignorance into awakening!
And try it when sitting – it’s fascinating just feeling the flow of sensory information coming from sitting somewhere quiet and still. Generally very noisy!
And listen to this: http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/360/talk/43579/ Akincano Marc Weber is a wonderful teacher on this type of material – very precise and clear.
And the new books:
Anālayo, 2013, Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna, Windhorse Publications, Cambridge, UK.
Bhante Gunaratana, 2012, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, USA.