In the Entering the Path lecture on contemplation of feelings, Bhikkhu Anālayo describes the “function” of these feelings we’ve been considering these past few days… Imagine a prehistoric human is walking through the forest when something comes up in front of them: that human had to quickly decide: is this something to hunt and kill, or is this something that will kill me? The feeling happens very quickly to trigger the human into one direction or the other. But, he adds,
In the modern day situation, for most of us at least, this function is a little bit outdated. The tendency of our mind to immediately react to pleasure or pain can often lead to a whole chain of reactions, that on sober consideration of the situation, we probably would not have gotten into.
Anālayo also reminds us:
There’s nothing in itself good or bad about pleasure. There’s nothing in itself good or bad about pain. The question is always: What is the context? Where does this lead? Is it wholesome or is it unwholesome?
When teachers talk about wholesome and unwholesome, they are generally referring to what leads towards peace or away from it.
So what are some of these wholesome feelings that lead to peace?
Let’s first look at the counter-intuitive one… pain… a feeling of pain can lead to peace? Joseph Goldstein explains:
What are these unpleasant feelings not associated with aversion? Often we go through stages of meditation that are difficult. There are stages of practice where unpleasant physical sensations predominate. Or we might feel fear, misery, or despair about our practice or about the world…. This is what St John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” All of these are unworldly unpleasant feelings coming out of a deeper place of practice.
He goes on to say that neutral feelings not associated with delusion are “born of equanimity” – something we’ll discuss in a couple of Sundays from now.
Then Joseph lists several examples of times we may experience pleasant feelings that can lead to peace.
- Generosity – “Think of times when you were generous with someone, giving something out of love or compassion, respect or gratitude.”
- Love and compassion – “Sometimes we see the best qualities of humanity emerge in times of great disasters … In this response to suffering, there is the purity of a spontaneous, compassionate response, which brings its own kind of happiness.”
- Renunciation – “We renounce harmful actions, and this renunciation brings the unworldly pleasant feeling of nonremorse…. there is a certain strength and confidence and happiness from the moment we make the commitment to nonharming.”
- Concentration – “At first our minds are often restless and agitated, jumping from one thing to another,…. At a certain point, whether for short periods or sustained ones, the mind settles down, resting easily on the object of attention, carried on the current of mindfulness. There is an ease and pleasure here much greater than that our our usual sense delights.”
- Clear seeing – “And as insight practice matures in various ways, there is an even more refined kind of happiness.”
So putting this feeling stuff all together…
- Be mindful of feelings as they arise and pass away.
- One analogy for feelings is that they are like bubbles – they are empty; they burst quickly.
- Know whether the feeling is pleasant, unpleasant, or neither.
- Learn to recognize the underlying tendencies that come from the feelings.
- Know whether it is a feeling that will lead to peace or away from it.
This is something you can fit into a meditation, or even in your daily life. Sounds, smells, tastes, sights, sensations, thoughts… Are they pleasant, unpleasant, or neither? What’s your default way of reacting to that stimulus? What sort of situations lead you towards peace?
I welcome your reflections in the comments.
With best wishes,