Mindfulness of Feelings

Discussion Facilitator: Bruce Cantwell. June 22, 2019.

The Pali and Sanskrit word vedana means "feeling" or "sensation."

The instructions ask us to evaluate the feeling or sensation, so I'm going with the the catch-all feel of the feeling (as in appearance of the sight, tone of sound, flavor of taste, aroma of smell, feel of the touch, or opinion of the thought). I also cut personal and possessive pronouns and repetitious phrases.

How, does one observe the feel of feelings?

While experiencing a pleasant feeling, understand properly, "Experiencing pleasant feeling"; an unpleasant feeling, "unpleasant"; a neither pleasant nor unpleasant feeling, "neither."

While experiencing a pleasant feeling with clinging, understand properly, "pleasant-clinging"; without clinging, "pleasant-not clinging".

An unpleasant feeling with aversion, "unpleasant-averse"; without aversion, "Unpleasant-not averse"; a neutral feeling with clinging or aversion.

A neither pleasant nor unpleasant feeling with clinging or aversion "neither-clinging or neither-aversion"; without clinging or aversion, "neither-no clinging or aversion."

Observe the attributes of feelings internally, or externally, or both internally and externally.

Contemplate the arising of feelings, the passing away of feelings, the arising and passing away of feelings.

Establish awareness: "This is feeling!"

Develop awareness to such an extent that there is mere understanding along with mere awareness.

Dwell detached, without clinging towards anything in the world [of mind and matter].

This is how to observe the attributes of feelings.[1]


The first insight that comes to me is that the ancient term vedana means roughly the same thing as the modern term interoception.

Excerpt from Invisibila episode "Emotions":

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: Interoception is just your feeling of the sensations that come from the movements inside your body.

ALIX SPIEGEL: The easiest way to think about interoception is that it's the thing that senses the status of all these internal systems, monitors all the comings and goings. I think of it like an eye but inside your body, turned so it's looking at you.

In the same way that your eye takes in the world and then communicates what's going on to your brain, the interoception thingy surveys your body and then communicates what's going on with all these systems to your brain, only it doesn't do as thorough a job as your eye for good reason.

BARRETT: You don't feel these sensations in very high fidelity in the way that you see things in the world with a lot of detail. And you can hear things often with a lot of detail, but you don't feel things from the inside of your body with a lot of detail because if you did, you would never pay attention to anything else in the world ever.

SPIEGEL: So your internal eye keeps things super stupid simple.

BARRETT: So the way your brain is wired is to feel interoceptive sensations - the sensations from our bodies - as simple feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, calmness.

SPIEGEL: That is literally all your internal eye can communicate, those four sensations.

BARRETT: Pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, calmness.

SPIEGEL: But all day long, it's sending your brain status updates like a teenager on Snapchat, only worse.

BARRETT: Pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, unpleasantness, calmness.

SPIEGEL: Feel sympathy for a moment for your brain. There it is, trapped in the dark, silent box of your skull. It's getting these updates about these important sensations in the body, but it doesn't know for certain what's causing them. That unpleasant loop in the stomach just then, was that because the body was hungry or because the man who just sat down across the table is insanely good looking?

BARRETT: Arousal, calmness. How does it know what caused something when all it has are the effects of that thing? The answer is it has past experience, so it's guessing.

SPIEGEL: Whatever sensation you have in your body, the brain develops a theory - actually a whole bunch of theories - based on previous experience, and then uses them to make a prediction about what is going on.

BARRETT: When you have an ache in your body, it asks the question essentially, you know, in this situation, in this context, the last time this happened, what was the cause of that ache? And that's really what concepts are. Concepts are your brain's using past experience in order to make sense of incoming sensory input.[2]

Second Hand Insights

• Comparing vedana to interoception may also provide a parallel meaning to the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: "Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events."[3]

SPIEGEL: What Lisa is saying is that our concepts make the world. And it is hard to overstate how much this changes our idea of what is actually going on when we walk down the street. The usual idea is that you are taking in the true world around you and reacting to it, this real thing that exists outside of you.

But what she's saying is that everything around you is a blob until the concepts in your head shape it into a thing, and then you respond to the thing that you just created. The concepts themselves are the key.[4]

• Two definitions of nirvana or nibbana are "liberation" and "beyond all concepts."

HANNA ROSIN: Our brains rely on concepts, and concepts make our world, our culture, our systems. Which is why it's useful to know which concepts are shaping us and which ones we're passing on to each other and to our children.

And you know what? If we make these concepts, we can unmake them. But even if we don't choose to do that, even if we decide to build the world just exactly as we've built it down to the very last brick, there in the back of our heads when we experience something that disturbs us can hover a liberating thought - this feeling I have, it doesn't have to be this way. There is nothing inevitable about the world that is.

BARRETT: You have more control over your own experience. You become more the architect of your own experience.[5]

According to Analayo: Developing understanding and detachment from pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings has the potential to lead to freedom from dukkha. This is achieved through directing awareness to the very first stages of the arising of likes and dislikes by clearly noting whether the present moment’s experience is felt as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “neither.” To contemplate feelings means to know how one feels with such immediacy that one is aware before reactions, projections, or justifications. This also develops intuitive modes of apperception, the ability to understand a situation or another person.[6]

[1] “MahāsatipaṭṭhānaSutta.” Mahasatipatthana Sutta - The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness, www.tipitaka.org/stp-pali-eng-parallel.shtml#24.

[2] Spiegel, Alix, et al. “Emotions.” Invisibilia, NPR, 1 June 2017, www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/530718193/emotions.

[3] Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. “What Do Buddhists Mean When They Talk About Emptiness?” Tricycle, tricycle.org/magazine/what-do-buddhists-mean-when-they-talk-about-emptiness/.

[4] Spiegel, Alix, et al. Op. cit.

[5] Spiegel, Alix, et al. Op. cit.

[6] Anālayo. Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization. Windhorse, 2014.

Bruce Cantwell