03 Sep 2012

Teaching pt1: Alan introduces the new cycle with the 2nd application of mindfulness on feelings. Feelings (Skt. vedana) refer to 1) like/pleasant, 2) dislike/unpleasant, or 3) neutral. Although feelings could be considered part of the mind, feelings get their own application and their own skandha due to their primacy. Feelings arise in reaction to 1) too much, 2) too little, or 3) wrong kind of the 4 elements. 

The hedonic response to feelings is to want pleasant feelings to stay and unpleasant feelings to go away. In this practice, we are learning to look at pleasure and pain with interest and recognition—i.e., without moving towards or backing away. Feeling arise in space, and awareness is like space.
Meditation: mindfulness of feelings. Let awareness permeate the field of the body and maintain an ongoing flow of mindfulness of sensations associated with the breath. Take special interest in feelings associated with those tactile sensations of the 4 elements. Examine whether pleasant/unpleasant is intrinsic to the experience or whether it is our mode of experiencing. Is feeling static or arising moment-by-moment? Does observing feelings change them in any way?
Q1. What is the difference between non-grasping and ignoring? 

Q2. Is thinking, “This might be cancer,” grasping? 

Q3. Does vipasyana require grasping at an object? 

Q4. In loving-kindness practice, is it better to attend to one person at a time? 

Q5. When doing the body scan, I experience the body as being hollow like space, and yet, we know the body is solid. 

Q6. When practicing mindfulness of breathing in the supine position, I’ve had the following experience which has been replicated. In the beginning, with full-body awareness, there is a lot of rumination, and as it dies down, I progress to mindfulness of breathing at the abdomen, and as it dies down further, mindfulness of breathing at the nostrils. At the 20-30 minute mark, there is an abrupt shift in the breath whereby the body has fallen asleep but awareness is on. There is clear awareness of prana (although not bliss). Is this practice on track?

Meditation Starts at 24:30

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This week we return to the second of the four applications of mindfulness and very briefly there is this highlight on feelings which could so easily be simply included in the third of the four applications of mindfulness, namely four applications of mindfulness to the mind, after all at least mental feelings are occurring in the mind but the physical and mental feelings are giving their own special category, their own special highlight. The reason is kind of obvious and that is that we care, whether we like to or not, we care about feelings, we care about pleasure and pain and we have no choice in the matter, really no choice. And from the Buddhist perspective we have no choice about it forever, I mean there is just no end to it, not death, not enlightenment, not anything: so it is really core and as His Holiness Dalai Lama said many years ago at one of the Mind and Life meetings, and my sense was it was a very individual search, his own quest, a kind of introspection rather than drawing on his incredible erudition, but he commented that he felt that the deepest impulse we have as human beings is the impulse of caring. It is more fundamental and more primal than the derivative experiences of let’s say craving and hostility in a more afflictive mode, or in a more benevolent mode, loving kindness and compassion.

(2:39) Why do we crave anything? Because we care. And why do we get upset about anything, hostile, aggressive, hateful? It is because we care. And likewise for loving kindness and compassion: it is all stemming from this caring, so I really think he nailed it. And there it is, this prime mover that literally does move us and we will never relent, that it will never cease in terms of our own well-being until we have fulfilled our own interest, our own well-being, it will never let us rest, not even if you become an arhat according to Mahayana, even then you’ve not fulfilled even your own self-interest let alone bodhichitta in the interest of others because you have not realized dharmakaya. So even there, even an arhat from the Mahayana perspective cannot just rest, after sometime, timeless time, something moves and then the arhat is set, nudged, catalyzed, moves onto the bodhisattva path. So that is why it is said in Mahayana, there is only one final destination: perfect awaking. So it is very core, that is why naturally among the five skandhas, feelings gets its own skandha and among the four applications of mindfulness, feelings gets its own application.

This Mudra is so marvelous, this mudra of meditative equipoise, left hand beneath right hand above and the thumbs touching. Left hand symbolizes wisdom and the right hand symbolizes methods of skillful means and one could say compassion. So the left is supporting the right and if we look the array of practices that I am commonly emphasizing wherever I go, that is the array of shamatha practices, the four applications of mindfulness and the four immeasurable, these four applications of mindfulness are the perfect basis for the cultivation of the four immeasurables, they are the cognitive basis.

(5:00) And so as we closely apply mindfulness to feelings arising in the body, feelings arising in relation to the senses, the five physical senses, back to the physical domain again, so this is a kind of extension of our first week which was very much attending to the body and the physical field but now within those, or relative to these, there is something that really catches our interest and that is our feelings: do you like it or not? The visual, the auditory and so forth. Today we will focus on the tactile but boy we really care about it, even when we are dreaming and all we have is a mental body and are not even aware of our body lying in bed, even then we care about this little figment of our imagination and the so called physical feelings that are arising in a dream body – we even care about that. We care about mirages, feelings arising in mirages, in other words: we are really care.

So we are focusing today on these feelings arising in the body and here is a cognitive basis for empathy, because without empathy there is no such thing as loving kindness, if you do not have the sense that the other person is wishing for happiness, experiences joy, then you will never experience loving kindness for them if you do not know that they wish for happiness and they are experiencing happiness, they have potential for happiness, loving kindness is never going to happen - so there has to be that empathy. I can feel no empathy for a cell phone, I look at it, it just leave me cold because I am just assuming that it has no feelings, I just use it. It is an “I – It” relationship, I am the “I” and here (cell phone) is the “It”, get over it, but there is nothing to get over because there is nothing there, it is just zero consciousness so there is no empathy for that.

As we are attending to the feelings arising in the body we are laying now a cognitive basis for empathy with all the sentient beings we are likely to encounter, let’s leave out those in the formless realm, we do not need to worry about those, for the rest in the form realm, but really the desire realm, that is where we live.

There are 7 billion human beings but there are also all these others creatures all of whom are embodied and so when we look at the more primitive animals like insects, reptiles, others mammals and so forth, at least for myself I do not really know what is going on in their minds, if they are experiencing anxiety, hopes, fears and so on. We do not know what is going on in the mind of these creatures. But when it comes to physical pain of course I do not know either but I can draw some inferences. For example I can draw inferences even for earth worms as I see that they are struggling across the pavement and it is getting dryer and dryer and they are going slower and slower. I let my imagination play and my imagination says: “I bet they are not feeling so good because it is too warm and they are not getting enough water element. I bet they do not like it.” It is primitive but I know they are feeling too dry. I know they are struggling and are not getting what they want. Whether it is the worms or any other kind of sentient beings, here is something that I can say, ok, I can empathize with you.

I was reflecting this afternoon and I think when we are talking about the feelings arising in the body for all of us human beings and animals, that my sense of it is: too much, too little, or wrong - of the four elements. Too much of the earth element you feel crushed, it is too much, like this is hurting, lighten up. But if it is too little you may feel vertigo, you may feel disoriented and so forth. And then the wrong kind: sometimes, we just get pressure where we don’t want it, or in a way we don’t want it, it does not feel good, too much, too little and wrong, inappropriate, disagreeable. And then water, if you have too much water you can be drowning, you can be sweating; and then I was thinking of fish and they cannot have too much water but they can have too little, for example fish on the beach. For one little insect one drop of water is deadly so one drop is too much. Too much fire is painful, too little is freezing.

So earth, water, fire and air, too much, too little and wrong, that is true for all of us creatures here of two legs, four legs and so on; too hot or too cold, we all get that one. I think even the most basic primitive sentient beings. Even the most basic and primitive sentient being, like a hydra as Francisco Varela suggested, which is the simplest organism that actually has a nervous system, but we do not know if they have consciousness. But there are very primitive organism, that are conscious, and even they respond to too much heat or too much could. We know because they move away or they move towards in the presence of too much heat or too much cold.

It is really basic. And just by the way, that too much, too little, and dysfunctional, that lies at the very core of Indian and Tibetan traditional medicine. So basically human disorders, physiological, psycho-physiological disorders are understood in terms of too much, too little and dysfunctional and I’ve applied that same format to the Buddhist model of mental health in terms of conative, attentional cognitive, and affective: too much, too little, and dysfunctional; seems to be a pretty good model that works again and again.

But the point here is that by attending to, really closely applying mindfulness to feelings arising in the body, we are establishing a cognitive basis for empathy for other human beings so we can easily get it looking at somebody else’s facial expressions and we can start seeing what they are experiencing, inferring very, very well and so empathy for all other human beings so similar to ourselves and to other primates, it is very, very easy to see in the facial expression of chimpanzee, dogs and so forth. There is no problem by seeing their facial expressions and we can empathize and see what they are experiencing.

That is the foundation for the cognitive basis for empathy and empathy is the basis for loving kindness, compassion and the four immeasurable. So this is very deep, very important, these close applications of mindfulness to feelings. We are getting in touch with the feelings but we do not need to meditate to get in touch with feelings. Now again when we speak of vedana, translated here as feeling, feeling is a standard translation from Sanskrit and Pali, what we are referring to is very primitive. So we have emotions with tremendous nuance. I imagine, I know that Paul Ekman did this, when Eve, his daughter does the CEB Teacher Training, will go through this wide array of this tremendous vocabulary we have in English, this wide spectrum of the emotions which we feel – very, very nuanced, right? But when we are talking about feeling, vedana, we are just talking about pleasure, pain and indifference, like, do not like and do not care, it is really simple, really primitive, but those are the ones we care most about and that move us away, from or towards: like, do not like, and neutral.

(14:00) And so part of the brilliance of classical Indian is that they come up with the notion that zero is a number and not an absence of number, it is an enormously useful concept, imagine mathematics with no zero. As zero is a number likewise the Indians also brought that same kind of insight out of the realm of quantity into the realm of quality, and that is the feeling of neutrality, indifference and equanimity, it is not an absence of feelings. The cell phone has an absence of feeling, zero feeling, whereas feeling just neutral, at ease, neither happy nor sad, that is not no feeling, that is not an absence of feeling, it is a feeling, zero feeling. As zero is a number, neutral feeling is a feeling. That is actually a very useful point.

So as we now are about to begin the meditation, as we closely apply mindfulness to feelings, now I suggest on the skin and inside the skin so you have the borders are quite clear, the tactile, the somatic field, as you attend there it is not just feeling your feelings for which you need no training whatsoever, but rather it is closely applying mindfulness to them.

(14:50) When the Buddha addressed the first noble truth, reality of suffering, he said here is the reality of suffering, recognize it. It is a very simply statement but it is quite revolutionary because when we experience the reality of suffering, physical or mental, our first response tends to be as sentient beings, make it stop. I am going to try to move, I am trying to just make it go away, I do not want to deal with this and so whether medically just by taking a drug that suppress the symptoms like a depression or discomfort in the body and so forth, just make it go away, kill the messenger. So that is a natural response when we experience pain or mental suffering, we just want it to go away, we do not want to look at, we do not want to recognize it, we just want to stop it. If we identity with somebody else as a source of the pain we just want them stop or go away or vanish. We do not want understand anything: just stop, go away because you seem to be the source of my suffering: that has not served us very well because exactly how far away from reality can we get? That is why the Buddha said here is the reality of suffering, know it, recognize it, and so to recognize it is to closely apply mindfulness to it, to know it, to ascertain it.

(17:22) Now to the best of our ability simply to be aware it. And so as the Buddha said earlier to Bahiya: in the seen let there be just the seen, and so forth. So now likewise in the feelings of pleasure, pain and indifference arising in the body let there just be the feelings of pleasure, pain and indifference. Let them simply arise within the space of the body, simply be present with them, aware of them without recoil, without dissociation, without retraction, without withdrawing, but also very much without fusion, without identification, without grasping, without thinking: my pain, my suffering, my body, I hurt, I am in pain. Neither going forward in grasping nor pulling back in grasping, to be free of; just like space, simply be aware of and attending closely to the feelings arising within the space of the body.

Some of you reported in one conversation that in the practice of mindfulness of breathing pleasant sensations are arising, it happens, energy is flowing up, some bliss arising, pleasant feelings, sukkha come up, sukkha, sense of well-being arising in the body and so forth. It is good, that is pleasant, why not? Sometimes could even be bliss, frequently it is kind of neutral, and then especially when you have been sitting for a while, a sense of discomfort may arise here, there and everywhere and so then it is dukkha, unpleasant feelings. The idea here in this practice is simply attend to it, let it be, observe closely and closely apply mindfulness to the rise and passing of the feelings as much as possible without grasping but again not with disassociation, just being totally present. So there is a key right there. When we are experiencing distress in the body maybe because of illness, injury and so forth, then the hedonic response is if you can to make it go away and if you can get to the underlying the causes of it, for example maybe it is an injury so you maybe need medical treatment or you have being sitting too long in one posture so you really need to move otherwise you may injure your knees and so forth. So that is a hedonic response of just doing what we can to make that feeling go away because it is an unpleasant one or make a pleasant feeling stay and so that is the hedonic response. But the eudhamonic response, or the wisdom response, would be - and these are not incompatible and both have their place - but when we at least for the time being see there is nothing I can do about the discomfort or maybe for the time being I see there is nothing that needs to be done about the discomfort, then we see all right, how about strategy number two, and that is instead of resisting, instead of struggling with it, instead of identifying with it, instead of disliking it, be more like a scientist of discomfort, look at it with interest, look at it with inquiry, seeking to understand it. Is it static, is it changing? And there are other questions to pose and you know what they are already. But attend closely to it and then you may find the feelings arise and they simply arise in space but it does not get you in its grip: it’s just arising in space. So even if it’s arising in space it may still be an unpleasant feeling, you recognize it as such but it is not seizing you and you are not seizing it. It is arising in space and your awareness is like space.

A very brief commentary, especially over the last four hundred years modern science and technology have provided a tremendous service for humanity as a whole to help us suffer less because of nature, the four elements, and this is actually a very prime directive, if you go back to Francis Bacon, early seventeenth century, one of the great pioneers of this great new quest of modern science, he made it quite clear that a prime directive, and he was very influential in kind of giving the tone, the orientation, the direction to what we now call modern science, but he was looking at nature as something from a very traditional perspective, and that was nature scares the hell out of us, I mean fire, earthquakes, floods, diseases and so on: nature was not a friendly place for going out on vacation, it was a place that was very frightening, largely unknown and could really cause damage to you, to your body, to your family, your village, it was very frightening. And so part of the motivation of modern science was: let us understand nature so that we can start to control it; it is not a terrible idea. For example, in New Orleans, Louisiana, it is very good they have dikes - that is controlling nature. When the dikes broke there is a catastrophe for the city. In the Netherland, no dikes, no Netherlands. So we may say once again, too much, too little and wrong. Too much control and wrong control and we will have global warming and there will be all the environmental catastrophes that we have caused: too much and wrong. But too little control and our little shelters are falling down and we are freezing to death, or we are swept away by floods, and so forth.

So it is quite important to find the right amount and the right kind of control over nature, but in short science and technology have been a tremendous help to humanity, providing food for us, medical care, protection from the elements and so on. For example you can live and do retreat in Finland with the long winter there. Without science and technology it would be pretty tough. And even here without air conditioning it would not be so easy to live in Thailand and so all of that is good.

And for the eudhamonic we cannot criticize modern science and technology, saying that they have not helped us also with finding liberation, enlightenment and genuine happiness, since modern science was never designed to do that; it was not designed to do and does not do it and so people who think that is the only source of knowledge then have really put themselves in a very limited situation. Happily we do not have to choose: are we going to be spiritual or are we scientific, we will be eudhamonic or we will be hedonic. We do not have to choose. We can actually be wise.


Settle your body, speech and mind in their natural states.

(30:00) And now let your awareness permeate the whole field of the body and maintain an ongoing flow of mindfulness of the sensations throughout this field, of your body breathing, this whole ripple effect of the respiration going even into your legs and your arms. Maintain the flow of mindfulness of the system breathing.

As you have done before be aware of this flow of respiration, the sensations associated with it, but without being involved, caught up in it, identified with it, or of course without controlling or regulating in anyway.

(31:45) And with this being the constant, something you - in a manner of speaking - can hold on to, a point of reference, a point of engagement of your mindfulness with the present moment, maintain a field-awareness of the whole space of your body and take a special interest in any feelings that arise, not so much the tactile sensations of earth, water, fire and air, of course they arise and you are aware of them, but a special interest now in the feelings that arise in relationship to or in response to or in the way that you experience the tactile sensations of water, earth, fire and air in the body: attend to pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, observe them closely.

(33:40) Every so often when we experience these feelings, especially pleasant and unpleasant feelings, we tend to focus on that which catalyzes, arouses, triggers the feeling, and then label and identify it as pleasant or unpleasant, as if those qualities are intrinsic in the appearances or in the objects themselves. Consider that this may not be true. We say: that’s pleasant, that’s unpleasant, because of the way we experience it, and the subjective mode of experience, and not simply in the objective appearances. Observe closely, is this true or not?

(36:53) When you are experience pleasant and unpleasant feelings in particular, these are the ones that catch the attention, examine closely the sensations themselves, the tactile sensations of earth, water, fire and air. Examine to see whether the pleasant or unpleasant qualities are intrinsic to the elements themselves, these emergences in the space of the body, or whether the pleasant and unpleasant is rather in your mode of experience. Examine closely.

(38:41) One experiential sign of an unpleasant feeling arising is the desire to move. Note the desire then direct your attention to that which aroused the desire, the feeling, and closely examine its nature. Is it static or arising moment by moment?

(41:30) You are observing a system here, a field of experience. But now take a special note: when you do direct your mindfulness to feelings arising within this field - does that influence your experience of the feelings, in other words is there an observer participancy here? Does it make them diminish, increase or change them in any way, by the sheer fact of observing them closely, with mindfulness?

(48:00) If at times you want a bit of breather, a bit of rest, of course come back to the breathing, and deepen the sense of relaxation, stability and the clarity that are brought forth through this practice.

Transcribed by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Revised by Phil Gardner and Erik Koeppe

Final edition by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Posted by Alma Ayon


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