The Vipassana Retreat

10. Working with Feelings and Emotions

It is difficult for the practitioner to make progress until he or she has come to terms with feelings and emotions, as the practice itself, at least in the early stages, can bring up intense and persistent feelings and their associated emotions. So we will consider feelings and emotions together, as while they are two distinct contemplations in the framework of the practice, they tend to merge and overlap.

An emotion is an agitated mind state or disturbance caused by strong feelings about somebody or something. There need be no preference as to whether they are positive or negative as they are related to as just mind states: as ordinary or higher states of mind, that is, just mental events to be noted without seeing them as significant in any way.

Without judging or evaluating them, emotions are monitored throughout the day by labeling or mentally noting them. This helps to develop a more non-reactive awareness toward the emotion, without the tendency to identify with them or play back into the associated story. This practice helps one to relate to emotions more dispassionately while at the same time revealing the transitory nature of mental events.

The clarity now that one has in relating to the emotion can then be taken a step further by tuning into the underlying feeling tone that is associated with an emotion, such as unpleasant feeling. In this way the feeling quality itself is highlighted, thus allowing for the primary feeling to be investigated as it has become distinct from the emotional content.

In the context of the Contemplation of Feelings we need to understand what precisely is meant by feelings. While the term ‘feeling’ (vedana) refers to physical sensation (kayika vedana), it also includes mental feeling (cetasika vedana) as well. The practice of attentiveness to mental feelings – not just sensations or physical feelings – needs to be stressed, because by differentiating feelings from their associated emotions, you can defuse the emotional charge once you have developed the ability to catch the underlying feeling tone.

Let us take a closer look at feelings and how to work with them. In the English language, we use the term ‘feelings’ interchangeably with ’emotions’. For example when we say, “I’m feeling delighted”, we are referring to the emotion of happiness or delight. On the other hand, a Vipassana meditator would note that a pleasant feeling has arisen and that the emotion is one of delight. So in the context of the practice, the term ‘feeling’ is used in the technical sense of a quality of pleasant (sukkha vedana), unpleasant (dukkha vedana) or neither pleasant nor unpleasant, that is neutral feeling (upekkha vedana).

To make a statement of the obvious, as sometimes the obvious can be overlooked: we are beings on the sensory plane. We live in the world of the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. It is through our senses that we experience the world and through the sense impressions at the sense doors that we experience feelings.

Feelings are the source of our liking and disliking. If we are not aware of the underlying feelings, we tend to automatically react to sense objects with liking or disliking, which is what is conditioning us and keeping us in trapped in cyclic existence (samsara). We ‘pull in’ and have attachment to what we like and ‘push away’, have aversion to what we don’t like. What we then experience is coloured by ‘liking, disliking’ – ‘pushing and pulling’.

What tends to be overlooked and so should be looked out for is the effect of neutral feelings. For when there are neither obvious pleasant nor unpleasant feelings manifesting, the mind is ignoring feelings or at least is not aware of feeling, and therefore can become confused and reactive because of having lost presence of mind.

For the majority of us on this blue planet, we spent our lives in constant effort to increase pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant feelings; while more pleasant feelings are sought after as they bring the emotional enjoyment we call happiness. Whether we are aware of it or not, feelings are all encompassing in life. So we can appreciate the Buddha’s pithy saying on feelings: “All things converge on feelings”.

The feeling by itself though, in its primary state, is quite neutral, when it just registers the impact of an object as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Only when repeated emotional elaborations are made, such as when one’s personal story is involved, will there arise aversion, happiness, hatred, anxiety, greed or fear.

Feelings and emotions need not be mixed, as they are separable. In fact, many of the weaker impressions we experience during the day stop at the mere registering of very faint and brief feelings. This shows that staying with the primary feeling is possible and that it can be done with the help of awareness and self-restraint, even in cases when the urge to convert feeling into emotion is strong.

For the Vipassana meditator, it is essential to work with feelings, especially one’s mental feelings, or feelings associated with states of mind. By monitoring feelings one can maintain one’s equilibrium in the practice, which allows the enlightenment factor of equanimity to mature.
There are occasions when the mind is calm and alert and one is not totally preoccupied, and so is able to notice feelings clearly at their primary stage. Then it is just a practice of monitoring what feelings are present even when they are faint and brief throughout the day. In fact, working with feelings as a practice starts with establishing awareness on minor feelings. For example, many times during the day when the mind is quiet one can be noticing minor body sensations and or feelings that come and go.

If, however, one is unable at first to clearly differentiate feelings, it is a useful strategy to ask oneself a checking question: ‘What feeling is present?’ In this way, the meditator can highlight the predominant feeling and be able to focus on it rather than being confused by the jumble of fleeting feelings and their successive emotional states of mind.

It is of particular importance to dissociate the feelings from the thought of ‘I’ or ‘mine’. There should be no ego-reference, as for instance, “I feel”; nor should there be any thoughts of being the owner of the feeling, “I have pleasant feelings” or “I have pain”. Awareness of the feeling tone without the ego-reference allows the meditator to keep the attention focused on the bare feeling alone.

In working with feelings there should first be an awareness of the feelings when they arise, clearly distinguishing them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. While there are degrees of intensity of feelings, with close attentiveness, it is clear that there is no such thing as a mixed feeling.

When noting feelings, attention should be maintained throughout the short duration of the specific feeling down to it’s ending or passing away. If the vanishing point of feeling is repeatedly seen with increasing clarity, it will become much easier to catch and finally to stop or inhibit thoughts and emotions. These normally follow so regularly, being habitually linked through conditioning to their associated feeling tones: pleasant feeling is habitually linked with enjoyment and happiness, while unpleasant feelings are linked with aversion or pain, while neutral or indifferent feelings are linked with ignorance and confusion.

When ‘bare’ attention, that is, registering the feeling without reaction in a state of receptivity, is directed to the rising and vanishing of feelings, the polluting add-ons or defilements are held at bay and inhibited from further elaboration. So gradually the gross feelings weaken and fall away, one loses interest; thus dispassion arises, which is a natural, effortless ‘letting go’.

A trap to watch out for is not acknowledging pleasant feelings, especially pleasant feelings and sensations that arise from the fluency of the practice and later stages of insight. There is usually no problem in noticing unpleasant feelings, but you should be on your guard with regard to pleasant feelings as they arise, as we are predisposed to get attached to them very easily and thus lose equanimity.

Through one’s own direct experience as a Vipassana meditator, it can be confirmed that the ever-revolving round of the wheel of life (samsara) that we tread, can be stopped, with karma producing activities neutralised at the point of feeling, and that there is no inherent necessity that feeling is automatically followed by attachment or aversion. This is done by the practice of being mindful at one of the sense doors and intercepting the bare feeling between the linkage of sense impression and craving.

Like all mindfulness exercises, it is essential that the practice of awareness of feelings be applied in everyday life, especially whenever feelings are prone to turn into unwholesome emotions. So by practising awareness of feelings, the benefits will be immediately apparent in one’s relationships and dealings with the external world: for example, an increase in compassion and equanimity, as well as in one’s own clarity and peace of mind.

In the teaching of the Five Aggregates of Clinging, the Buddha likened feelings to bubbles. If feelings can be seen in their bubble-like, blowed-up and bursting nature, their linkage to aversion and attachment will be weakened until the chain is finally broken. Through this practice, attachment, which is a kind of stuckness to feelings, will be skillfully eliminated.

This does not mean that this practice will make one aloof or emotionally withdrawn. On the contrary, mind and heart will become more open and free from the fever of clinging. Out of this seeing, an inner space will be provided, for the growth of the finer emotions: loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and on-looking equanimity.