The Four Foundations of Mindfulness Part 11

As noted in the last post in this series I need to back-track a bit to discuss another aspect of the second of the meditation practices of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” which is mindful awareness of feelings.

As noted in earlier parts of this series, one need not be a Buddhist to study these Buddhist approaches to meditation. These basic practices can easily be adapted to your current beliefs whether you are one who believes in God, one who does not, or one who is not sure what to believe.

Please read the earlier posts of this series, at least the previous one or two posts, to be aware of the principal themes and practices offered so far.

To recap, the second of “The Four Foundation of Mindfulness” is the practice of mindful awareness of feelings. As noted in the earlier posts on this second practice, by feelings the Theravada Buddhist teachers refer to only three basic feelings: satisfied, unsatisfied, or neutral. In the earlier posts of this series, where I discussed these three basic feelings I did so only in the context of feelings that arise from contact with sensory experiences such. The feelings of satisfaction that arise from tasting a hot apple turnover is one such example. The feelings of dissatisfaction of tasting poorly cooked food at an expensive restaurant is another. The neutral, or non-descript, feelings that arise after tasting food that is neither very good nor very bad is a third.

The first key point in this practice of mindfulness is to simply identify the basic feeling tones of satisfaction, unsatisfaction, or neutrality as you encounter sensory phenomena such as sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell.

The second key point is to notice how each of these feeling rise to a very particular mind-state or set of urges.

Does the feeling of satisfaction give rise to a desire to have “more” or to repeat the experience again and again with the hope that each time the experience will be just as satisfying? This sense of grasping, or restless longing, let alone any sense of aching hunger or craving, is the mind state to be on the look-out for. The basic belief of Theravada Buddhist teachers is that feelings of sensory pleasure will give rise to grasping, or restless longing, or fully blown aching hunger and craving, unless a person intervenes to stop the chase.

Does the feeling of dissatisfaction give rise to anger, resentment, irritation, a desire to push the experience away, or to harshly judge other people who may be the source of the irritation? This mind state of anger, irritation, or harsh judgement, let alone any urges to respond aggressively are the mind states to be on the look-out for. The basic belief of Theravada Buddhist teachers is that feelings of dissatisfaction will give rise to anger, resentment, harsh judgement, grasping for comforting pleasure, or aggression unless a person intervenes to calm the mind and consider more skillful modes of acceptance and creative response.

Does the feeling of neutrality give rise to a certain hazy response to a non-descript experience where one is no longer really observing the rising and passing of this non-descript experience? In general the neutral or non-descript reactions to experiences that are neither very pleasureable or very dissatisfying are, by definition, less vivid. Being less vivid it can be harder for a person to really take notice of the arising and passing of neutral mind states. The basic belief of Theravada Buddhist teachers is that neutral feelings tend to give rise to a certain form of ignorance or indifference that causes one’s practice to lapse into lack-of-awareness where they miss whatever is going on in that moment.

To repeat, in all these matters the first key point is to identify whether the reaction to sensory phenomena is satisfying, unsatisfying, or neutral.  The second key point is to notice that each of these feelings tends to give rise to very identifiable mind states of either grasping, aversion, or ignorance, unless one is vigilant enough to forestall these mind states from arising or gathering too much momentum. This practice of noticing the mind states that arise from the three basic feeling tones is the first part of the third of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.”  The second part of this third practice of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” is the willingness to not judge oneself for having these mind states of grasping, aversion, or ignorance, but simply to receive the experience with compassion without acting on the impulses attendant to these experiences as they arise and pass. There are other steps that are outlined in the fourth of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” that help a person work with unwholesome states that arise from satisfying, unsatisfying, or neutral feelings.  But a discussion of this fourth aspect of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” will have to wait two or three weeks.

Before proceeding to this fourth practice it is important to note that in addition to satisfying, unsatisfying, or neutral experiences that arise from sensory experiences, there are also the satisfying, unsatisfying and neutral experiences that arise from non-sensory experiences. The Theravada Buddhist teachers often refer to these non-sensory experiences as “other-worldly” pleasure, or “other-worldly” dissatisfaction, or “other-worldly” neutrality. For our purposes I feel it makes sense to stick with the designation “non-sensory” as I feel the term “other-worldly” is confusing and inaccurate.

These non-sensory experiences of pleasure may arise from acts of charity and love, or the act of attaining a level of discipline about not chasing after worldly pleasures. In short, diminishing the fires of restless aching hunger gives rise to feelings of joy and freedom. Non-sensory experiences of real contentment also arise from deep states of peace that arise from a very calm and properly concentrated mind. They also arise from satisfying epiphanies of insight into the nature of one’s long-term patterns or the nature-of-reality in general. In short, deep penetrating insight into the truth of one’s life and the truth of this life in general are very satisfying experiences to have. The point is these non-sensory experiences of pleasure do not give rise to feelings of grasping, restless longing, aching hunger, or craving. One is encouraged to seek and extend these non-sensory experiences of joy and delight assuming one does not cling to these experiences when they do pass.

The non-sensory experiences of dissatisfaction which might arise from a sense that one has backslid in their practice and are far from their goal of liberation need not give rise to feelings of anger or irritation or harsh judgement. Rather the sense of sadness of how far one is from their goal of high attainment can be a very useful motivation to re-dedicate one’s self to more sustained efforts.

The non-sensory experiences of neutrality are best described as feelings of equanimity where one takes both good fortune and bad fortune, favorable and unfavorable conditions, in stride and is not tipped upside down by either one. The practitioner is able to be fully mindful during such experiences and indeed such equanimity is one of the seven factors of enlightenment.

What is important is that all of us are warmly encouraged to enjoy the non-sensory pleasures and satisfactions that arise from wholesome states and efforts. In fact it is a basic tenet of Theravada Buddhist teachings that the joy of these non-sensory states exceeds the pleasure of sensory experiences. The teachings assert this greater joy meets the needs of the individual so completely that it is much easier to let go of the restless aching hunger for sensory experiences. Since the experiences of sensory delight are, by their nature, fleeting and since they inevitably turn into experiences of sorrow, pain, lamentation, and grief letting go of any effort to chase after sensory pleasure is very helpful. This does not mean one need forego all sensory pleasures, but rather that one does not cling to them when they pass and one does not chase after them as if they were the cure-all of one’s search for fulfillment in this life.

The joy of non-sensory experiences of charity, concentration, insight, and universal compassion are central to the path that leads out of suffering.

More next week on the non-sensory joys and pleasures of the path.


Will Raymond

Author of The Simple Path of Holiness

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