One of the things I quite like about Buddhism is that it doesn’t require a lot of faith. I have a naturally questioning character so if I’m asked to blindly believe something or I’m told something is simply a ‘mystery’ it makes me want to question even more.
What Buddhism instead offers is a set of tools that over time we learn to use. As we practice with each we acquire greater skill and with greater skill comes greater appreciation. So I thought it might be useful to share some of the tools I use and have used over the years. These ideas and techniques are therefore not mine but have been culled from various sources. They may not represent the proscribed way to do things, the ‘best way’ or ‘right way’, but they work for me.
Arguably the primary practice within Theravada Buddhism is mindfulness. It’s by no means the only one, but it is at once the most accessible and the sine qua non progress in terms of how clearly we see will be considerably slower. I’ve mentioned mindfulness before so I don’t want to cover old ground again but rather want to focus on the aspect of mindfulness that I’ve found the most useful in terms of its application.
Vedana sati is the second of the four foundations of mindfulness and means mindfulness of our feeling reactions. We might not always realise it but we are sensitive creatures. Each day as we go about our business things happen that cause an emotional reaction. Very often we’re so focussed on the information we’re taking in that we miss the emotion that’s been attached. We might even find these emotions a distraction and so we’ve learned to tune them out. That doesn’t mean they’re not there, it just means we’re not paying them attention.
It’s worth bearing in mind that when you bottle up emotions they keep fresh for a very long time! We’ve all had the experience of walking along the street when suddenly some childhood memory pops into our heads unexpectedly. It might be some past injustice or a time when we embarrassed ourselves, and we’re left wondering, ‘Where did that come from?’ Well, perhaps it never went away. Perhaps it was just not fully processed at the time and so it stuck around until it popped back into awareness.
Vedana sati isn’t complicated. On one level it simply requires us to note whether the feeling we experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Most events will probably be neutral, and some are certainly pleasant but it’s the others, the times when someone cuts the queue, lets the door go on us, doesn’t pull their weight or shifts the blame onto us that we need to watch. This is where it gets interesting.
You can spend a lot of time on the ‘self-help’ shelf trying to figure out how to be less irritable, easily frustrated, quick to anger, jealous etc. It’s easy to take the position that there’s something to fix, that we need mending. But what if you’re not broken? In her excellent little book, ‘My Stroke of Insight’ Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor points out, ‘Sensory information streams in through our sensory systems and is immediately processed through our limbic system. By the time a message reaches our cerebral cortex for higher thinking, we have already placed a “feeling” upon how we view that stimulation – is this pain or is this pleasure? Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think.’ (italics by the author)
So what does that mean to us? It means that no matter how spiritual we might be, no matter how enlightened we consider ourselves, vedana or feeling reactions will happen. You can’t stop them because the limbic system referred to above is part of the so called reptilian brain, the part of the brain which through which all incoming stimuli must pass before moving on.
Does that mean we will always be victim to our feelings? If you find yourself asking this question then start by first asking yourself why you think feelings might be a problem. Feeling reactions are a normal part of this human experience. They’re just part of the deal. But actually when we look more closely at what takes place, even though we always have these reactions it’s what happens next that needs more careful examination.
When a feeling reaction occurs we can easily and very quickly start to build a story around it. We add to it in a way that might explain it, justify it, judge it etc. Again it’s a natural reaction, if something hurts us we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, so thought fills in the inevitable missing pieces of the puzzle and creates a full blown narrative. But the thing to remember here is that that’s just a story in thought. It’s not real, even if the initial feeling was. The characters we create in our mind, their motivations, their reasoning, it’s all just a projection in thought. I’m not saying that it’s wrong, but we need to see it’s a creation; a fantasy. And yes, it might very well be wrong. Either way it’s what we add to the reaction and, in fact, we don’t need to add anything.
When we’re mindfully present we can stay with the feeling reaction and watch the tendency of thought to write a story without indulging it. This is about not creating others. It’s about accepting the feeling that arises and noticing that it doesn’t need to lead to action or further thoughts. When we’re mindful in this way, we can then see a broader perspective that allows us to act in a way that isn’t either just an emotional reflex, conditioned from past behaviour or based on the fantasies we’ve created.
Sometimes we do need to act and act quickly. For example, you see your child sticking a toy into a plug socket. Our reaction is fear in case they get hurt, maybe even a little anger if we’ve told them not to and they’ve disobeyed us. When we learn to be mindfully present with that we can respond immediately in a way that’s very clear, very firm but not venting emotion. We can sound cross without being controlled by anger.
When we learn what vedana are and we become mindful of these arisings we find a middle way between feeling and thoughts. We can experience both without identification and respond from a place of seeing clearly. We feel what is present but we’re neither controlled by those feelings nor are we inhibiting them in a way that pushes us towards indifference.
This is about finding balance and it requires a little practice. Where we find things triggering us in a much bigger way than the initial event would suggest then that indicates something that requires further investigation. For that we take mindfulness of feeling reactions – vedana sati – and take it into meditation on feeling reactions – vedana vipassana. Perhaps we’ll look at that next time.