The Discourse-Grouping on the Feelings – translated from the Pali, with an Introduction by Nyanaponika Thera

Posted: September 16, 2014 in සරණක් සොයා ෴


“To feel is everything!” — so exclaimed a German poet. Though these are rather exuberant words, they do point to the fact that feeling is a key factor in human life. Whether people are fully aware of it or not, their lives are chiefly spent in an unceasing endeavor to increase their pleasant feelings and to avoid unpleasant feelings. All human ambitions and strivings serve that purpose: from the simple joys of a humdrum existence to the power urge of the mighty and the creative joy of the great artist. All that is wanted is to have more and more of pleasant feelings, because they bring with them emotional satisfaction, called happiness. Such happiness may have various levels of coarseness or refinement, and may reach great intensity. These emotions, on their part, will produce many volitions and their actualizations. For the purpose of satisfying the “pleasure principle,” many heroic deeds have been performed, and many more unheroic and unscrupulous ones. For providing the means to pleasurable feelings, thousands of industries and services have sprung up, with millions of workers. Technology and applied sciences, too, serve to a large extent the growing demands for sense-enjoyment and comfort. By providing questionable escape routes, these purveyors of emotional and sensual happiness also try to allay painful feelings like fear and anxiety.

From this brief purview one may now appreciate the significance of the Buddha’s terse saying that “all things converge on feelings.” From such a central position of feeling it can also be understood that misconceptions about feelings belong to the twenty Personality Views, where the Aggregate of Feeling (vedana-kkhandha) is in various ways identified with an assumed self.

Yet, feeling by itself, in its primary state, is quite neutral when it registers the impact of an object as pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent. Only when emotional or volitional additions are admitted, will there arise desire and love, aversion and hate, anxiety, fear and distorting views. But that need not be so. These admixtures are not inseparable parts of the respective feelings. In fact, many of the weaker impressions we receive during the day stop at the mere registering of a very faint and brief feeling, without any further emotional reaction. This shows that the stopping at the bare feeling is psychologically possible, and that it could also be done intentionally with the help of mindfulness and self-restraint, even in cases when the stimulus to convert feelings into emotions is strong. Through actual experience it can thus be confirmed that the ever-revolving round of Dependent Origination (paticca-samuppada) can be stopped at the point of Feeling, and that there is no inherent necessity that Feeling is followed by Craving. Here we encounter Feeling as a key factor on the path of liberation, and therefore, the Contemplation of Feeling has, in Buddhist tradition, always been highly regarded as an effective aid on that path.

The Contemplation of Feeling is one of the four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipatthana) and may be undertaken in the framework of that meditative practice aiming at the growth of Insight (vipassana). It is, however, essential that this Contemplation should also be remembered and applied in daily life whenever feelings are prone to turn into unwholesome emotions. Of course, one should not try to produce in oneself feelings intentionally, just for the sake of practice; they should rather be taken up for mindful observation only when they occur. There will be many such occasions, provided the mind is alert and calm enough to notice the feelings clearly at their primary stage.

In the Contemplation of Feelings, there should first be a mindful awareness of the feelings when they arise, and one should clearly distinguish them as pleasant, unpleasant (painful) or neutral, respectively. There is no such thing as “mixed feelings.”

Mindfulness should be maintained throughout the short duration of that specific feeling, down to its cessation. If the vanishing point of feelings is repeatedly seen with increasing clarity, it will become much easier to trap, and finally to stop, those emotions, thoughts and volitions, which normally follow so rapidly, and which are so often habitually associated with the feelings. Pleasant feeling is habitually linked with enjoyment and desire; unpleasant feeling with aversion; neutral feeling with boredom and confusion, but also serving as background for wrong views. But when Bare Attention is directed towards the arising and vanishing of feelings, these polluting additives will be held at bay; or when they have arisen they will be immediately cognized in their nature, and that cognition may often be sufficient to stop them from growing stronger by unopposed continuance.

If feelings are seen in their bubble-like blowing up and bursting, their linkage with craving or aversion will be weakened more and more, until that bondage is finally broken. By that practice, attachment to likes and dislikes will be reduced and thereby an inner space will be provided for the growth of the finer emotions and virtues: for loving-kindness and compassion, for contentment, patience and forbearance.

In this contemplation it is of particular importance to dissociate the feelings from even the faintest thoughts of “I” or “mine.” There should be no ego-reference, as for instance “I feel (and, therefore, I am).” Nor should there be any thought of being the owner of the feelings: “I have pleasant feelings. How happy I am!” With the thought, “I want to have more of them” craving arises. Or, “I have pains. How unhappy I am!” and wishing to get rid of the pains, aversion arises.

Avoiding these wrong and unrealistic views, one should be aware of the feelings as a conditioned and transient process. Mindfulness should be kept alert and it should be focused on the bare fact that there is just the mental function of such and such a feeling; and this awareness should serve no other purpose than that of knowledge and mindfulness, as stated in the Satipatthana Sutta. As long as one habitually relates the feelings to a person that “has” them, and does so even during meditation, there cannot be any progress in that Contemplation.

To be aware of the feelings without any ego-reference will also help to distinguish them clearly from the physical stimuli arousing them, as well as from the subsequent mental reactions to them. Thereby the meditator will be able to keep his attention focused on the feelings alone, without straying into other areas. This is the purport of the phrase “he contemplates feelings in the feelings” as stated in the Satipatthana Sutta. At this stage of the practice, the meditator will become more familiar with the Insight Knowledge of “Discerning mentality and materiality” (nama-rupa-pariccheda).

Further progress, however, will require persistence in the mindful observations of the arising and passing away of every instant of feeling whenever it occurs. This will lead to a deepening experience of impermanence (anicca), being one of the main gates to final liberation. When, in Insight Meditation (vipassana), the vanishing moment of feelings becomes more strongly marked, the impermanent nature of the feelings will impress itself very deeply on the meditator’s mind. This experience, gained also from other mental and bodily processes, will gradually mature into the Insight Knowledge of Dissolution (bhangañana). On reaching that stage, the meditator will find himself well on the road to further progress.

It is within the practice of Insight meditation that the Contemplation of Feelings can unfold its full strength as an efficient tool for breaking the chain of suffering at its weakest link. But from this Contemplation, considerable benefits can be derived also by those who, in their daily life, devote only some quiet reflection to their feelings and emotions, even if done retrospectively. They will soon find that feelings and emotions are “separable.” Even this reflective and retrospective contemplation can help them to a fuller awareness of feelings and emotions when they actually occur. This again can save them from being carried away by the emotional cross-currents of elation and dejection. The mind will then gradually reach a higher level of firmness and equipoise, just by that simple procedure of looking, or looking back at, one’s feelings and emotions.

This, however, should not, and need not, be made a constant practice, but should be taken up on suitable occasions and for a limited period of time until one has become familiar with the mechanism of feelings followed by emotions. Such an understanding of the process will result in an increasing control over one’s emotional reactions, and this will happen in a natural, spontaneous way. One need not have fears that one’s focusing the mind on the feelings and emotions, in the manner described, will lead to cold aloofness or an emotional withdrawal. On the contrary, mind and heart will become more open to all those finer emotions spoken of before. It will not exclude warm human relationships, nor the enjoyment of beauty in art and nature. But it will remove from them the fever of clinging, so that these experiences will give a deeper satisfaction, as far as this world of Dukkha admits.

A life lived in this way may well mature in the wish to use the Contemplation of Feelings for its highest purpose: mind’s final liberation from suffering.

Kandy, Sri Lanka
January, 1983


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