How We Benefit from Mindfulness of Feeling Tones

Category: Buddhist Meditation | Buddhist Path | How to Meditate

We can be mindful of the feeling tone of experiences - pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.

Mindfulness of Vedanā (Pleasant, Unpleasant, or Neutral Feelings)

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, from the Satipatthana Sutra, offer us instructions on what, exactly, we are to be mindful of while meditating. We begin by observing our breath and body, then feeling tones, our state of mind, and the nature of reality itself. Each of the four is worthy of in-depth contemplation. But for most people, the second foundation of mindfulness needs a bit more explanation. What is a feeling tone, anyway?

Vedanā is a Pali word that is typically translated as “feelings.” In English, we often equate feeling with emotions, but this is not what is meant in this case. Vedana is more accurately translated as feeling tone or hedonic tone. Namely, is the sensation, thought, emotion, or experience that is arising in our awareness pleasant, unpleasant or neutral?

Everything in our human experience can be described in one of these three ways. In fact, we assign a feeling tone to everything, even without knowing it. The problem is, when we skip over noting sensation, we move straight to reaction instead. By doing this, we cause ourselves and others unnecessary pain and suffering.

  • Pleasant: When we experience something we would label as pleasant, we tend to attach or grasp to it. We want to hold on to pleasant sensations, feelings and experiences, and we suffer because we can’t.
  • Unpleasant: When we experience something we might label as unpleasant, we want it to go away. We avoid, suppress, or ignore unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or sensations, which typically makes them last longer or recur.
  • Neutral: Most things in our lives are neutral, evoking neither a strong pleasant or unpleasant feeling, and so we tend not to notice them at all. This only sustains our delusion, as we remain indifferent, apathetic or complacent.

Practicing mindfulness of feeling tone and noting sensations can help us avoid much suffering. Slowing down and noting how we’re labeling our experience gives us the opportunity to prevent habitual reactions. It’s this habitual reaction, and not the phenomena itself, that’s the true source of our pain.

Feeling Tones and Freedom

Name anything you deem as pleasant, chocolate cake for example, and you’ll find someone who disagrees. The pleasant-ness of chocolate cake does not inherently exist in the chocolate cake, nor is it unchanging. By your seventh piece of chocolate cake, you may not like it as much either.

Unpleasant or neutral feeling tones exist in the same way. Stub your toe while doing something you enjoy, and the pain doesn’t quite hurt as much. You might pass a stranger on the street and feel neutral about it, yet this same person is embraced when a loved one walks by. Crying can feel pleasant, while a joyful thought may feel unpleasant. And all of it can change at any moment.

The above feeling tone examples serve to remind us that feeling tones don’t exist in the object, experience, thought, or emotion. Feeling tones arise in the mind. Remembering this can help create more space between the experience of our outer and inner world, and our reaction to it. When we practice mindfulness of feeling tones, reaction to feeling tones becomes an intentional choice.

Imagine if we could enjoy pleasant feeling tones without becoming attached? We’d perhaps feel more gratitude for each joyful experience and take fewer things for granted, knowing that nothing we perceive as changing will last.

What would life be like if we could better remain present with what’s unpleasant? We’d be capable of processing stress, anger, and even trauma in healthier ways. Our capacity to endure the challenge of spiritual growth would expand, as would our compassion.

And what if we became more mindful of all that we might label as neutral? We might see the stranger on the street as somebody’s loved one. We’d question what it really means to be indifferent, and if, in that moment, we’re encouraging a wholesome or unwholesome state.

Practicing Mindfulness of Feeling Tones

We can practice mindfulness of feeling tones during meditation and outside of formal meditation. In meditation, we might begin by working with the body. As we scan the body, we note which feeling tones arise and observe our reaction to them. Outside of meditation, we can do the same.

  • Note which feeling tone is arising in your body and/or mind in this moment
  • Assign it the label of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
  • Note if you are reacting or if you feel the urge to react in a certain way
  • How does bringing mindfulness to this feeling, and your reaction, change the situation?

Ultimately, mindfulness of feeling tones helps us connect to the four types of wisdom. Everything is changing, suffering is avoidable when we see things as they are, and nothing exists in merely just one way. When we realize this truth, we’re offered an unchanging experience of bliss and well-being, which transcends the merely “pleasant”.

You may also be interested in our companion article on Noting Practice Meditation.

About the Author: Sara-Mai Conway

Sara-Mai Conway writes articles about Buddhist meditation based on her practice and experience
Sara-Mai Conway is a writer, yoga and meditation instructor living and working in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Her writing and teachings are informed by her personal practice and Buddhist studies. When not at her desk, she can be found teaching donation-based community classes in her tiny, off-grid hometown on the Pacific Coast. Learn more about Sara-Mai Conway here.

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