28-Day Meditation Challenge Day 22: Feelings Feelings Fearings

This week, those of us following Sharon Salzberg’s program in the 28-Day Meditation Challenge were tasked with working with mindfulness of thoughts and emotions.

Salzberg takes an everyday and understandable approach to this. In her book, Real Happiness, she encouraged us to recognize, accept, investigate, and not identify with the emotions and thoughts that we saw in our practice.

I had a tough time with this: I don’t think there are emotions. What we call emotions are complex amalgamations of co-arising phenomena that our subconscious and conscious mind weaves together as a solitary unified thing. We might call it anger, or sadness, or happiness. There are perfectly good reasons for us to think of them as emotions, but they are constructed. All I could see when I looked for them was disparate body and energy experiences.

Therefore most of my exploration this week was the exploration of the mindfulness of feeling as it has been described to me by teachers and books. I recall learning that there are three feelings: we like something, we don’t like something, or we don’t have an opinion on something. Others will say we desire, we reject, or we ignore. Some will say that we cling, we fight, and we live in ignorance. It is a simple scheme, talked about by almost every teacher and author who speaks about Buddhism.

I said emotions cannot be found to exist. So what about feeling? Feeling is different. I could find something. However, the ‘feeling’ I found is less like something in and of itself and more like the ‘feeling’ of an action. Feeling felt like I had ‘done’ something or was ‘doing’ something with the objects of my experience.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche talks about the mindfulness of feeling in a document on the four foundations of mindfulness that can be found online. Of the mindfulness of feeling he says:

“The second stage of mindfulness is the mindfulness of feeling, which is simply relating to or working with our basic existence in the world as samsaric beings. In the general Buddhist approach, "feeling" refers to the feeling of working with our basic fear.” (p.7)

He goes on to explain this in a way that relates fear to objects:

“Fear is what suffering means. But what is this fear? It is the fear of losing something that is very pleasant, something that is very pleasurable, something that is very dear and loving, something to which you have become attached. It is the fear of losing that. Fear is also the fear of gaining something. That fear is the fear of gaining something that is unpleasant, something that you don't want. You always get what you don't want, and you don't get what you really want. That's what suffering here is. Fear is being expressed in these two manifestations, so to speak. The second manifestation of fear is gaining something that you don't want, that you don't expect.” (p.8)

Now, what strikes me here is that he uses a word that is used to describe an emotion that I don’t think exists in and of itself (“fear”) to relate to something that I don’t think is precisely emotion either (“feeling”), but I think he is right nonetheless. So, if fear does not exist why is his description so spot on? I think it is because of the action that we take when we feel what we conventionally call fear. There is movement involved when fear arises. We habitually act out when fear arises. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche connects fear to the feelings because the feelings involve actions and movements with respect to other things.

From my experience this week, I think that what ‘feeling’ really refers to is the felt quality of an action taken toward an experience that we objectify and treat as something we need to extract from our self and toss away (we don’t like), that we need to cling to and make part of our permanent self (we like), or that is so far removed from us that we don’t need to pay attention to it (we don’t care).

In the very ACT of objectifying our experience and treating it as something outside of ourselves, we create the situation that makes these three feelings inevitable. Why do we ACT to separate ourselves from our experience other than from our fear of it one way or another: of mistaking pleasurable things as separate (fearing we will lose it), not-pleasurable things as separate (fearing we will gain it), and ignorable things as separate (fearing we will have to deal with it)?

I believe that we can never experience anything but our experience. Though things in the world do arise and carry on this way and that way very well (a tree DOES fall in the woods even if no one hears it), when I am there to experience it, it does not mean that that experience is separate from me (a tree DOES fall in the woods, but that doesn’t mean I experience IT when I hear the sound it makes.)

Someone might argue that this view holds up until I am challenged by an oncoming bus. I would argue that there is far too much FEAR in our FEELINGS. We don’t want our experience to be fluctuating. We don’t want our self to be dispersed. We don’t want things to feel disparate and changing and unknowable. We don’t want our experience to be all there is. So we say, “I’m not going to look at that.” So we say, “Put that guy in front of a bus.” So we say, “I’ve got better things to do.”

Yet, I think contemplative practices are about deeply seeing what is there, not what I think should be there. If there are no emotions there, there are no emotions there. If I am always habitually ‘feeling’ my experience, then I want to see that ‘feeling’ for what it is:

kicking, gripping, and sidestepping experiences as if they aren’t the only thing I am

The opposite of such a thing is to rest with all experience as it is.

The last week of Sharon Salzberg’s 28-day meditation challenge is dedicated to lovingkindness, and I am looking forward to it. The lovingkindness practice that I worked with this morning was less challenging and allowed me to feel more focused and less like I was a monkey who was hit by a hammer. At the same time, I would not trade deeply looking into things for anything. The rested loving mind needs to be paired with a mind that looks deeply into things.

Have a diligent week.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

by Robert Colpitts