World of Feelings, May 18th, 2009

Larry Rosenberg

Larry Rosenberg photo © Dorothea BowenFeelings, or vendana, are extremely important in the Buddhist scheme of things. At one point the Buddha says that all things converge on feelings. He was not using the word in its contemporary sense, where it is more or less synonymous with emotions. Emotions come later in the Buddhist scheme. It is actually of great practical significance to realize this distinction. The term feelings—sometimes called sensations—refers to everything that comes in through the sense doors, including the mind.

When I teach beginner classes at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, students are often extremely sensitive to sounds. They're new to meditation, expecting an experience of peace and quiet, and we're located on a busy street in the middle of the city. Sounds come in our windows just as they do for everyone else. Trucks roar by, horns honk. On the other hand, we often hear birds chirping, squirrels chattering.

The meditation hall at the center is not far from the kitchen, and sometimes elaborate and delicious meals are being prepared during a sitting. The aromas waft into the hall and give us a preview of things to come.

With every one of these sense objects, there is an immediate and spontaneous feeling that is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The scent of vegetable curry drifting through the vents, the sound of a mockingbird going through his morning performance: pleasant. A cement mixer groaning by: unpleasant. The sound of crickets, which goes on all day in the summer: neutral. We don't necessarily notice these feelings—that's part of the problem—but they do take place. Moment by moment, all day long.

Emotions arise because you are not mindful of the feelings.

You smell something pleasant and think, "Ah, vegetable curry. I wonder when this sitting is going to end. I can't wait. I do hope they made enough." An elaborate mental state can build up very rapidly. You feel a throb in your leg and think, "Oh, my God. What if it gets worse? What if I have to run out of here like an idiot? Why did I ever come to this retreat? Why did I take up meditation in the first place?"

So clear feeling, that initial moment, is followed almost immediately by attachment, aversion, or boredom. Thoughts—from the mind, the sixth sense—have a flavor too, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We can use the breathing to help us watch the mind in the same way that we're mindful of the body. And thoughts, if we don't watch them, have a way of really getting out of hand, leading to all kinds of mental states—terror, deep sadness, lust, fierce anger, strong craving—and the often destructive actions that come out of them.

In the Buddhist scheme of things, feelings make the world go round. We spend our whole lives trying to pile up good feelings and avoid bad ones; in the face of neutral feelings we tend to space out with thoughts and fantasies. Probably you even opened this book in the hope of having some good feelings.

The problem is that we become slaves to this process. We don't look closely at the feelings that stimulate our reactions; they elaborate themselves into moods, emotions, and a sense of self, which sometimes results in unskillful actions. You grab the person who makes you feel good, kill the one who makes you feel bad. All of the areas that give human beings problems—sex, money, power, drugs, ethnic strife, war—have their source in feelings.

The Buddha saw feelings as the weak link in this chain. If we can catch them at their source, if we can skillfully see them, we can liberate ourselves from unnecessary suffering. We can shortcircuit a process that leads to all kinds of human misery.

- Larry Rosenberg, Breath by Breath (Shambhala Publications)

Photo © Dorothea Bowen

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