This is one of a series of transcripts of contemporary talks which I have found particularly instructive.
This talk was made available by Dharma Seed.
Vedanā — Feeling tone and attention. Practice instruction.
Insight Meditation Society — Retreat Center : Cultivation — Investigation — Contemplation: Insight Meditation Retreat for Experienced Students.
Good. Let me request your attention again for some clarifications about our exercise. I would like to introduce the second of the Satipaṭṭhānas. You may remember Vēdanānupassanā, the contemplation of feeling tone. And, as many of you will know, the term “feeling” is a misnomer in this particular case. A feeling can be many things. What is meant here is the amount of pleasure or displeasure connected with any event in our experience. That is what the term Vedanā, in Buddhist psychology, means. It is quite precise in this meaning. Albeit without a proper correspondent translation in many many languages in which Buddhist teachings are translated. So it’s a strange case where we know exactly what something is, and yet we don’t have a proper name for it in our language. Or we need to scrounge a bit. One of the terms that is, I believe, precise but somewhat technical is called, “Hedonic Tone”. From Hēdonē, pleasure.
We are speaking of something that is very precise, something that is connected to every event in our experience, be that a mental event, like a thought, or a memory, or a fantasy, or a concept. And it is connect dot all sensory experience, connected with our five outer senses. So everything we can taste, touch, hear, see, smell. Each of these events in our experience, and it’s probably a useful way to think of your experience as a succession of events. Each event in our experience demonstrates these four Satipaṭṭhānas, if you remember the map. So it has a somatic dimension, it has a pleasure/displeasure dimension, it has an affective dimension connected with mood and tone and intentionality, and it generally has a cognitive dimension. IE, we are going to bring a sensory experience under some form of heading connected with perception, connected with memory, connected with naming. That’s very easily found out; we don’t just want to taste the strawberry, we want a story the strawberry. We want to know where it’s from and what it cost and who harvests it, and whether I’ll get it tomorrow, and why these ones are smaller than the ones I got yesterday. Very quickly a sensory experience is something we want to contextualize. Preferably in a story that involves Me.
If you think of events, discrete events in our experience, given the fact that we are sensate, that we are sentient, that we are receiving stimuli, then some of the stimuli hold pleasure value. And some of them hold displeasure value. And there’s a huge chunk in-between that we don’t register. They are not technically neutral; it’s just that w are indifferent to the stimulus. … Our Vedanā dimension doesn’t lean either way. So think of this as a spectrum experiences. Vedanā, on one hand, is pleasant, on another hand is unpleasant. And there is a bit in the middle where we are not quite sure what it is because it’s not intense enough to lean either way.
If it would be more intense, or if we would pay a little closer attention, both would do the job, it would lean either way. Become mildly pleasant or mildly unpleasant. As it stands, it already takes some meditative training to make that indifference margin grow small. The teachings tell us if we bring attention to the indifferent it generally becomes pleasant. If we refer to the indifferent with ignorance, it generally becomes unpleasant. Or stays indifferent. [I’m still skeptical about this last bit. I’ve found, so far, that many formerly indifferent feelings… or _unnoticed_ feelings, can be pleasant… but I’m not convinced that none of them will become unpleasant.]
You will have to verify that in yourself. What I would like to acknowledge is the power these feelings of pleasure and displeasure exert on, particularly, our attention. Attention is much governed by pleasure and displeasure. Obviously pleasure is generally followed by liking. Liking is followed by wanting. Wanting is followed by following through on wanting. By what Buddhist teaching calls “grasping”, “attachment”, “identification”.
Not liking is generally followed through by not wanting, or wanting to get rid of, which, in Buddhist psychology is another form of desire. Desire to get rid of things is no less a desire than the desire to get things. It’s called Vibhava-taṇhā and it’s a crucial feature that goes way beyond what we would understand to be “desire” in a sort of Western psychological context.
“Desire” is quite comprehensive, as a term. And it is one of the consequences of Vedanā. If you find teaching on Vedanā, which is touched in many places many places in the Buddhist discourses, you find it invariably between being “contacted”, on a sensory level, and the experience of forms of desire. In there between is Vedanā. As a meditator we try to acknowledge the power Vedanā exerts on the governance, on the economy of our attention. Because much of our attention goes to places that have to do with our seeking and avoiding pattern. Obviously we seek what is pleasant and we seek to avoid what is unpleasant. This is a very very fundamental principle. It’s not just due to higher primates. It’s found in very simple forms of life. Very simple structures, a couple of amino acids already is enough, and the thing will move towards things; it shows signs of irritability. It will propel itself towards what is perceived to be nourishing, pleasant, gratifying. And moves away with its little [flagella] from what is toxic or non-nourishing or unpleasant. This principle of irritability is very much at the basis of all life. And it is also at the basis of our attentional direction.
Much of what we call involuntary attention is basically governed by seeking stuff that is nice and avoiding stuff that is not nice. What is nice is quite subjective. There is some agreements; human beings do better with certain temperatures than in others. There’s a range where they tend to feel more at ease. And if it’s much below and much above that, they tend to feel not so at ease. But much of what we experience as pleasant or unpleasant is highly subjective. It is hinging on conditioning. It is hinging on what we have developed. It is hinging on, to a certain extent, culture. It is hinging on training. Some of it is hinging on just physiology. I believe there are studies about children changing their taste at a certain age. I remember very well when I started to like olives. Olives were horrible for the first couple of years of my life and then suddenly they became really good. And I am told that there are taste changes that are quite documented and have something to do with the gustatory development of papilla in children.
We tend to attribute the amount of pleasurability or displeasurability, if there is such a word, into the object. We tend to outsource what we experience subjectively as pleasure, and attribute that to the object. Habitually. When you do _this_, this is really unpleasant to me. So I attribute responsibility to my feeling unpleasant out to you. Conversely, we obviously attribute the pleasantness we experience when we are stimulated in appropriate ways, and think that it is _this thing_ or _this activity_ that gives me the pleasure. We all know this is only partially true. That strawberries don’t always taste the same way. That we sometimes we like being stimulated in one way, and sometimes we precisely don’t like being stimulated in the very same way.
Involuntary attention is what governs most of our attentional activity. Unless we train. We can completely survive on involuntary attention. That’s one of the things nature has organized for us. That we can survive. Unfortunately, involuntary attention doesn’t actually provide a good basis for understanding the mind. While it helps us survive, and while it’s very useful, if sudden things happen, unforeseen things happen, things we don’t know about, things that are harsh or dangerous, then involuntary attention is a fall back which allows us to cope. So our attention goes to anything loud, sharp, sudden, unforeseen, new. The advertisement industry has understood this. If they don’t change the bottle, they at least change the wrapper every six months and write “New!” on it because they know it gets our attention.
The novelty bit is that which pulled our attention out. Involuntary attention always feels like attention is being pulled out of us. It’s an appeal. Voluntary attention is a lot less dramatic. It means, I make a deliberate decision to attend to something. To bestow my attention to something. To process an object, a person, a topic, a theme. A sensation whatsoever. So when we encourage you to stay with the breath, then what we suggest is basically, stop following involuntary attentional patterns, and develop voluntary attentional patterns. If we wanted an un-Buddhist language for this, Choose a somatic object and cultivate voluntary attention. Doesn’t sound very inviting, I know.
But it’s maybe more honest to speak that way. What we actually say is, “Stop following your habits and do something which you wouldn’t do normally.” Because usually you give your attention to stuff that promises gratification. Preferably immediate gratification. Preferably solid, reliable, gratification. And that is what involuntary attention does. It’s kind of hovering in the background and says, “Well, what’s on offer here today? Where could I sit? Where’s the nicest smile? Is there something to eat? Can I be suitably entertained here?” And if it looks like there is nothing for me on offer, it says, “Okay. Okay. I just go inside and rummage around in my memory banks. And think of something nice. If you guys don’t give me something nice here, then I just go away. And get something nice. Or fantasize something nice. This is just not good enough for me. My precious attention, sorry, is not gonna waste time with you guys. I just go and think of something nice.”
That’s what involuntary attention does. So there’s a quite clear deal. I want to be seduced, basically. And I’m gonna be available if your offer is commensurate. If not, I just go dissociate into fantasy and into memory. You may recognize this pattern in your meditation practice. That sometimes the intensity of the promise, or the intensity of gratification by attending to a breath, just doesn’t seem to cut it. And that’s why the mind wanders off. That’s why involuntary attentional patterns take us off. And that’s where the thinking comes from. Much of the thinking.
Now some of us, if we are more pleasure oriented, then we will probably think nice things and fantasize pleasant things and redecorate the hall and test pizza recipes or thinking about this year’s bathware or so. And if we are somewhat more anxious oriented, then we will be probably thinking of what dangerous things are just about to happen right now. There’s this ticks out there who are just waiting. And while I studiously avoid the outdoors I’m surrounded by people who keep going out. They bring them in. And then there’s all kinds of things that can go wrong in my meditation. Various joints can get undone. My mind can kind of start to flip it’s lid; there’s many things that can go wrong. Countless risks that are about to basically become manifest in my life. So if we are anxiety oriented, I have to continually, my thinking will not be preoccupied by pleasure seeking, but it will be preoccupied by avoiding or controlling or worrying. I keep myself vitalized by worrying. I have suspicions when I am content. It just means I’m not getting the message here. This feels frivolously peaceful. There must be something to worry about. This is a type of tendency.
Or you just hate things. If you are a kind of a Dosa Cherit [sp?] then you’re thinking, you just kind of, you go in and say, “Awww. Why don’t they crank up the AC here? How can the Buddha have meditated in Northern India? I don’t know how he did it.” Or, “We need more color here. Why don’t they do more color? We need gold. And red. Blue makes my mind peaceful. Where is the blue in here?” Or we think, “They should be uniformed. Meditators should be uniformed. I want them dressed in white. White is a spiritual color. All this lurid colors.” So you go in and your thinking is preoccupied with things that you don’t like. Some of us have trained the mind to engage with aversion. Meet things, find things, focus on things, that are not pleasing to us. This is similar habit. It’s a little more unpleasant to experience, but it can be quite vitalizing. It can be quite useful. The Pali texts have a term for it. It’s called Randagavesi [sp?]. It means “looking for the crack”. It’s the fault finding mind. And if you have a fault-finding mind then you will find lots of faults. Because this is a highly imperfect world. Not just you will find such things outside, but also … this mind will turn in on itself and start to find fault with its own capacities, with its own performance, with its own state.
All these things, the fear-based mind, the desire-based mind, the anger-based mind, and there is another one, the confusion-based mind. That is giving rise to all kinds of things. Doubt and vacillation, confusion. All this is gonna fuel attentional processes. Depending on my predilection, my temperament, and my obviously psychological history, I am probably prone to one of these four. I may not be exclusively prone to just one. You can have a mix. You can have lice and flea in this world. Just because you have one doesn’t mean your are not going to get the other. But there is generally a preponderance of one. And it’s good to recognize that. [I’m… what? Desire-based followed by Anger-based.]
Involuntary attention will gravitate to engage with the world of its experience in the way according to your temperament and you’re predilection. So you will get this world all the time. So the hatred one will always find things that are just not well. Not good. Not done properly. This shoddiness wherever you’re eye falls. There are things that are just not good. The desirable one will find things to enjoy. Wants to maximize enjoyment. What is the most I can get out of this situation. What is the most pleasing, the most delightful, the most appreciative, the most… these are nice people. Greedy folks are nice people to be around. They love to share. They are generous. The confusion one are fast and generally pulled into different directions. Feeling of not understanding what’s happening. Feeling of having three clear thoughts and then the fourth one calls everything into question. Three steps forward, one step sideways, this kind of thing. And these patterns, they will manifest. You will recognize them in your perceptual activity. You will recognize them in your attentional activity, you will recognize them in your thought and in your emotional patterns. That’s what I would expect to be normal.
Deliberate attention, and that’s where Vedanā comes in in a big way, is trying to un-clutch the connection between pleasant and unpleasant and your ability to give attention to something. It’s an attention that you deliberately give to something. Not because it promises to gratify or it satisfies your attentional pattern of confusion or of fear or of aversion. We are trying to establish a type of attention that becomes available irrespective of pleasant, unpleasant. And it turns out that this is more difficult than meets the eye. It is a very deep seated pattern. And it takes some effort to deliberately cultivate attention for something that doesn’t hold the promise of immediate gratification.
And if we do, lo and behold, we find out that if we give our attention to something, this may actually become exquisitely pleasant. It is possible that the breath, from being a boring, crummy breathing thing [that] I’ve been doing for as long as I live, and why should I be interested in [it]? It may be possible that this becomes an exquisitely refined experience that instills me with bliss. This is possible. If you have experienced that you know what I talk of. If you haven’t then I wish that you try this out. Because this is very conducive to stillness and it is very conducive to contentment. And it is very conducive to confidence. Just to know that this is possible, even if it is not possible for you now, to know that it is possible for your mind is gonna be very very useful. It will make you a lot less prone to advertisements. And to self-despair and to confusion.
Identifying Vedanā as they occur in our experience is a crucial feature. It’s a necessary step. Now Vedanās don’t talk. They are generally rather short. They say things like, “Mmmmm!” and “mmmmm.” If they say more than that, they are probably no longer Vedanās. Then it’s probably already the follow up on this. Usually a pleasant Vedanā is not just followed by liking and wanting. It is also followed by a mood of happiness. A mood of serenity. A mood of, “Oh! This is nice. I love this. I could really get into this.” And unpleasant Vedanā is generally followed by a mood of either aversion or a mood of gluttonous or disappointment or despondency. There’s various patterns but usually these Vedanā are fairly quickly connected with mood and with types of volition. Usually we don’t pick up on the Vedanā but we pick up on the follow up qualities. So we pick up on the liking and we pick up on the mood that goes with the liking.
This happens so fast that the actual Vedanā that was the trigger remains, often enough, undetected. Or it takes some work to go back to the point where the Vedanā occurred. We are interested, I like you to pay particular attention to this today, when in your system something registers as pleasant or as unpleasant. It’s important to understand that this is one of the few qualities that is _not volitional_ in teaching. You don’t actually have a choice whether something appears pleasant to you or unpleasant while it happens. This is not a matter of choosing. It’s not even a moral question.
Obviously there are consequences of this and then things will get in some way ethical and they will get volitional. But at the moment of occurrence, Vedanā is a resultant quality. In other words, it hinges on your conditioning. And it hinges on your particular type of body, maybe, whether this is experienced as pleasant or as unpleasant. And all we can do is acknowledge that this takes place and acknowledge what it triggers in us. The earlier we can understand this, the earlier and more sober we can acknowledge where it happens in our experience, the better are our chances to deal with the follow up process. To consent to it, or to not consent to it. To contemplate it or to follow through on it.
So as a practical exercise, I suggest today you stay with the breath. There are various qualities of breathing that I suggest you pick up. How deep it goes, how fast it goes, how much tone there is, how much pizazz an in-breath has. How rough or how smooth it is. How big the resistance of the body is; these would all be somatic qualities you can contemplate in your breathing. Or at least ask the question and see whether one of these qualities: depth of the breathing process, rhythm of the breathing process, tone of the breathing, smoothness of the breathing, resistance of the body when it is breathing, some of these qualities may speak to you more than others. And when you stay with the breath, and you find that your mind has wandered off, do acknowledge two things:  has it wandered off to something physical? Ie, a sound or a sight or a touch sensation, or a touch sensation, or something you smell? or has it wandered off to something that has come up from your mind: a thought, a memory, a fantasy.  Second question: is what my mind has wandered off to pleasant, or is it unpleasant? So you have two questions. You are not doing an analysis; you are just doing a scratch statistic.
[Example:] Lawn mower coming up. Sound. Physical. Unpleasant. Back to the breath. Keep doing this for the day. So you want to have some statistics on two qualities regarding your so-called meditation distractions. Are they mostly pleasant, are they mostly unpleasant? Are they mostly mental? Are they mostly physical? No analysis. No big questions. Leave as much of your life out of this as possible. Just study the phenomena as focused as possible. And then return to the breath. If nothing happens, just see whether the breathing is pleasant. Whether you can find something pleasant in the breathing. Be actively interested to find something pleasant in the breathing. Find places and be ready to lower your threshold for what is pleasant. Mildly okay may be okay. It doesn’t have to be ecstatically gratifying. [Wow! What a wealth in one paragraph!]
Are we clear? Good. let us practice.
So, check in. Posture. Orientation in space. Key areas: sacrum and lumbar spine. Upper chest. Position of my head. And then you go to the notorious spots in your body where you know tension is held and you’re whispering soothing words. Visualize gentle touch. You’re breathing into these areas and soften, widen, deepen. We are interested in befriending. We are interested in welcoming. We are interested in expanding awareness. Touching the strongest point of a sensation and then enveloping that sensation and see whether the awareness can become bigger than the sensation. And by that we gradually move away from object awareness to field awareness. That helps us to establish inner spaces of the body. Softening, widening, deepening.
Please take this Vedanā exercise, the pleasant unpleasant, mental physical throughout the day with you. And over to Christina.
Christina Feldman Speak: A very very strong encouragement to continue this exploration into the walking periods. To begin to a little bit trace this movement from sensory impression inwardly or outwardly to Vedanā, the mood, and then very often really sensing how that moves into more of a behavioral adjustment as I either go towards or I go away from, and how often that takes us off the walking path, how often it makes us forgetful that we are either on a walking path. Because we have something else going on here that’s really being triggered. A process is being triggered by a very simple raw ingredient, sort of being turned into something else. So really to follow that through as we move into the walking period.
Remember that your walking period really does begin as we begin to move out of the sitting. It can be challenging, the walking practice. So many more sensory impressions. So many more opportunities to be lost. So many more opportunities, actually, to find our feet. Think of it as, really, almost a metaphor for our lives. This is really important. It’s really important to really see those opportunities to be lost, the opportunities to find our feet in the present moment in the body.
Two things to consider; focus and pace. I think often these are very relational to the mood of the moment. Can be a way of taking care of the mood of the moment. If the mind feels very heavy, dull, sleepy, don’t walk too slowly. You’ll walk yourself into a trance. Just pick up the pace a little. Just keep it slightly less than a normal walking pattern but don’t walk yourself into a trance. If the mind is very speedy, counterintuitive, but slow down. Slow down. Settle. Don’t feed the agitation.
Maybe realize in the calming the agitation. Focus again if the mood feels very contracted. Sometimes it’s more useful to be aware of the whole body walking. If the mood feels very agitated, again counterintuitive, get precise. Make your focus of attention really much more specific. Much more precise. Being aware that your mood in a single walking period can change so many times, can’t it? Doesn’t stay the same. This is a question of responsiveness, rather than being formulaic. “This is how I walk. This is the right way to walk.” No. Actually, as I walk, am I actually taking care of the mood of the moment in a way that really supports and fosters being fully present in the walking period?
[Discussion of class logistics.]
Note: Text in bold I found particularly instructive. Text in [square brackets] is either redacted or commentary by me. When the public decides there is massive demand for greater clarification, I will happily supply it.