To most of us the word ‘feelings’ is pretty much interchangeable with the word ‘emotions.’ But the Buddha grouped emotions with other mental phenomena like thoughts. We will explore the sense of this grouping when we study the Third Foundation of Mindfulness.
The best way I can think of to show the difference between feelings and emotions is to talk about my two little granddaughters. Oh goody!
The elder of the girls at 2-1/2 has a complex array of emotions that she feels and expresses all day long. She says ‘I love you’ in a heartfelt way. She can say ‘I’m sorry’ with true remorse. Yesterday, riding by a lawn full of inflated Christmas decorations including a Santa on an airplane with a moving propeller, her first word was ‘Mine!’ That was a strong emotional response, typical of a two year old. The decorations were not just interesting or pleasing to her. They were something she felt strongly that she had to have in that moment. Of course, she knew they weren't hers, so she quickly added a more modest and reasoned request: ‘Let’s go back and look at that again.’ But that first 'Mine!' was such a clear (and funny) display of strong emotion. As she grows, she will have an even greater array of complex emotional responses to the world and her experience.
Meanwhile her little sister at nine months has feelings. She observes her world with all her senses, interacts with it with curiosity. If an experience is pleasant, she smiles, laughs or moves her body to the rhythm of music and sings. If it is unpleasant she cries or cranks until someone feeds her, changes her diaper, or sees she is rubbing her eyes and so puts her to bed. Over the course of the coming years she too will develop a complex range of emotions, but for now she is a perfect model for the instruction in the Second Foundation of Mindfulness. She experiences pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. Our practice is to notice that we do too.
As I write this I am sitting here with a lovely view of the mountain. It is a pleasant experience. I am at ease in my body, neither too warm nor too cold, no aches or pains. I recognize this also as a pleasant experience. I do notice my stomach is beginning to register a little hunger, but it is not to the point of unpleasantness. So I register this as a neutral experience, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
Being mindful, we can note our bare feelings about every aspect of our current experience in this way. The Buddha’s instructions for contemplation of feelings are: When feeling a pleasant feeling to know ‘I feel a pleasant feeling;’ when feeling an unpleasant feeling to know ‘I feel an unpleasant feeling;’ when feeling a neutral feeling to know ‘I feel a neutral feeling.’
Give it a try right now. Without trying to change anything about your current experience, simply pay attention to the physical experience of being here. Sit with an open awareness of experience, alert to all senses. Then note each aspect of your experience as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in that moment.
If you prefer, you could do a slight variation. Sense into your experience and seek out a pleasant sensation. Be with that for a bit. Then seek out an unpleasant sensation. Be with that for a bit. Then seek out a neutral sensation. This could be as simple as picking a patch of skin on your thigh to notice. Be with that for a bit.
Notice how this exercise relies heavily on what we learned in the First Foundation of Mindfulness: To sense into physical sensation. We dive back into the First Foundation again and again. We ground ourselves in its wisdom.
What are the benefits of this kind of noting?
First, it is an aid to mindfulness, another form of noting what is arising and falling away in our present experience.
As we practice, we begin to see that these feelings change. What is pleasant or unpleasant one minute may become neutral in the next. This helps us to develop an awareness of the nature of impermanence and frees us to let go of our dependence on them for our happiness.
Feeling tones are like the weather. We would think it absurd to get emotionally wrought because clouds move across the sky or the sun shifts positions throughout the day. Just so, as we notice pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences arising and falling away, we recognize that these experiences are natural and inconstant. Just like the weather. We become less reactive to them.
There are several other benefits that we will discuss in our first class in January. For now we can just incorporate this practice into our meditation and into our day. You might experiment with looking for the pleasant experience within a neutral or even unpleasant experience. For example, while shopping in a crowded grocery store aisle, you might feel rushed, anxious to get the list accomplished. But if you look for the pleasant within the experience, you might find that the aisle is full of bright colors and patterns, the music is something you’d like to dance to, and the other shoppers and store employees are ready to smile at the least provocation, if even just one person (that might be you!) is anchored into the moment and the pleasure of simply being alive. It won't take any longer. The list will still be taken care of, but so will you, and in the process you might spread some joy. 'Tis always the season for that!