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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Love it? Hate it? Meh. Why that matters

Most people take their thoughts for granted. I think, therefore I am, and I don’t think about where the thoughts come from, whether they are accurate, what biases they contain. We believe our thoughts tell us what is happening, and we follow them. We’re addicted to thoughts. If we aren’t having thoughts, if we’re bored, we panic.

To break that addiction, the Buddha prescribed the Foundations of Mindfulness. The first is Mindfulness of Body. We become aware of our bodies and rest our attention there. Typically we use the breath to practice. We pay attention to the breath, and when we notice that we’re lost in thought, we find our way back. Over and over.

By staying with the breath – or coming back to it – we cultivate an ability to pay attention to one thing, to stay in the present moment. The breath tethers us to now.

The Pali word for the second Foundation is “vedana.” It’s sometimes translated as Mindfulness of Emotions, but it’s more basic, more foundational than that. It’s about the feeling tone that comes before full-blown emotions. It’s an unconscious assessment we make thousands of times a day about every sensation or phenomena we experience.

We hear a noise, we respond – we like it, we dislike it – even before we give it a name: “motorcycle.” Lawnmower. Ice cream truck.

The Buddha identifies those feeling tones as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.

The automatic responses are the building blocks of judgment. They’re also described as the seeds of what the Buddha called the three poisons – passion/aggression/ignorance, or greed/hatred/delusion. That feeling tone – pleasant/unpleasant/neutral – determines whether we take a protective or open attitude toward the situation.

You can practice Mindfulness of Feeling Tones with each of the senses: what do I smell? Taste? See? Hear? Is it pleasant – do I want more? Unpleasant – take it away? Huh?

The idea here is just to feel in a direct way, without any commentary, and to see the reactions of immediately judging any experience as agreeable or disagreeable, to become aware of these judgments, which are constantly happening. To become aware of them gives us the opportunity to stop the chain, says Lama Lhundrop, a Kagyu teacher (Kagyu is the lineage of HHDL).

Sharon Salzberg relates the second foundation to the classic teaching of the hindrances that prevent us from moving forward in meditation: desire for sense pleasures, anger, laziness or boredom, restlessness, and doubt. These states are said to weaken wisdom.

By becoming aware of the feeling tones that precede these states, we can progress toward achieving equanimity, the ability to be with whatever happens without being pulled into it.

Lama Lhundrop: “Our feelings will be accompanied by awareness, and as we are aware of them and the connected judging process, we can find ways to let go of them, one after the other. Due to mindfulness we can avoid further chain reactions with all the connected emotional trouble.

“Mindfulness of feelings also has the effect that we get to know ourselves better and do not run away from our feelings anymore. They become familiar experiences of great variety but without any special importance. In spite of their great variety they are all the same in one respect: they come and go without leaving traces.
“This meditation gradually leads to non-identification with feelings or sensations. Feelings will then arise without secondary thoughts that create a connection to an imaginary I or self. They are simply what they are: feelings, a flow of experiences, ever-changing.”

In the beginning, Mindfulness of Feelings is an awareness of how every feeling triggers a chain of chain of reactions. As you become more adept, you can simply feel feelings, without reactions or judgments.

The Buddha said: “His mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘Feeling exists’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached and clings to nothing.”

This is a dramatic departure from the way we normally operate. When something is pleasant, we want to hang on to it, to have more. That clinging causes suffering. Everything is impermanent and fluid – trying to hold onto it is futile. Similarly, trying to escape from painful or unpleasant feelings leads to suffering and addiction to our means of escape. And detachment or delusion or ignorance keeps us from fully experiencing what’s there in the present moment.

Because Buddhists aren’t zombies. The idea is not to stop feeling but to feel what is here in the present moment without piling on reactive thoughts or history or projections. By clearing those away, getting to the foundational feeling tones, we can relate to emotions rather than be controlled by them.

Pema Chodron writes:

Emotional reactivity starts as a tightening. There’s the familiar tug and before we know it, we’re pulled along. In just a few seconds, we go from being slightly miffed to completely out of control.

Nevertheless, we have the inherent wisdom and ability to halt this chain reaction early on. To the degree that we’re attentive, we can nip the addictive urge while it’s still manageable. Just as we’re about to step into the trap, we can at least pause and take some deep breaths before proceeding.