Second Foundation of Mindfulness

During the month-long March retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Donald Rothberg gave a Dharma talk about the 2nd Foundation of Mindfulness. I’m adapting parts of the talk to share with you tonight:

A while ago, when I started discussing Joseph Goldstein’s recent book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, we touched upon the four Foundations of Mindfulness: the body, feeling tone, mind, and Dhammas or categories of experiences. The second Foundation refers to Vedana or pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feeling tones, related to body sensations, emotions, social interactions, thoughts, and experiences. By noting feeling tone, we can avoid reactivity and hence suffering.

The Buddha taught that spiritual ignorance leads to habitual tendencies, and that there are four factors in every experience: 1st we have contact with an object; 2nd an associated feeling tone arises without mindfulness; 3rd unpleasant feeling tones lead to aversion, pleasant feeling tones lead to desire, and neutral feeling tones lead to ignorance; and 4th aversion leads to pushing away, desire leads to grasping, and ignorance leads to confusion or spacing out. Feeling tone runs the spectrum from agony to ecstasy. About 98% of our experience is neutral, but we are not interested in what lacks drama.

When we meet feeling tone with mindfulness, we gradually develop wisdom that allows us to transcend habitual reactions. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray stresses the importance of noting feeling tone and observes that many meditators attend retreats to find inner peace and bliss. Instead, they encounter pain and the roots of suffering. One meditator told Reggie, “I’m practicing to stay in the moment—unless the moment is unpleasant. In that case, I’ll eat a cookie!”

Most people tend to shoot themselves with a second arrow whenever they have an unpleasant experience. They add self-judgment to the original unpleasantness: “I shouldn’t be uncomfortable right now.” In the aftermath of my recent foot surgeries, the perception of pain was worse whenever I added a negative reaction. In general, the chronic stress of reactivity heightens the perception of physical pain.

In our Dharma practice, we can’t avoid pain, but we can avoid suffering. We must learn to stay with what is unpleasant in order to investigate and to understand our habitual tendencies.

Ajahn Chah, a Thai forest monk who was Jack Kornfield’s principle Dharma teacher, said, “Mindfulness is like a net that catches proliferating, automatic reactions.” The aim of practice is to be responsive and free instead of reactive. Vipassana practice trains us in responsiveness, and Metta practice trains us to open our hearts. As we observe the inner working of our hearts and minds, we study how to develop mindfulness and how it is to lose it. We learn to note what is truly happening. And we need wisdom and ethics to apply what we learn in daily life.

As we practice Insight meditation, we watch how feeling tone arises and passes away. In the process of investigating with curiosity and interest, we notice two types of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. First there are worldly experiences that are connected with our senses, thoughts and emotions. Then there are meditative experiences that include pleasures that are good and beneficial to develop, such as concentration, peace, calm, joy, and rapture.

Try looking for when either pleasure or pain become strong, and hang out with the feeling tone for a while. You’ll begin to see that it is very personal whether or not you like something. Pleasure is not inherent in an object. Donald described a family celebration during which his aunt urged him to eat extra servings of her delicious baklava. After the fourth piece, he found the taste decidedly unpleasant! The problem is not what we perceive as pleasant or unpleasant, but the reaction, which leads to thought chains and to emotional stress.

I realize that some unpleasant experiences are in service of spiritual growth. By facing old traumas or difficult memories during prolonged retreats, I release related emotional and physical blocks and feel a sense of liberation.

As Ajahn Chah taught, “There are two types of suffering. One leads to more suffering. The other leads away from suffering.” Through practice, we learn to distinguish between being lost in emotional pain and waking up to mindfulness.

Note if physical pain lasts after a sitting. Often it disappears as soon as the closing bell rings! But if a sore knee continues to ache after you stand up, perhaps your meditative posture is not beneficial for your body.

We can connect feeling tone to the Three Characteristics of Buddhism: suffering, impermanence and the absence of a solid sense of self. We like impermanence when unpleasant sensations arise, but not when pleasant ones pass away. Feeling tone can spark a fixed sense of self: “I like this. I dislike that.” Feeling tone is at the root of wars and conflicts. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela resolved not to meet aggression with reactivity.

In your practice, note when feeling tones arise and pass away, without any reaction. Those are precious moments of freedom.