31 January 2020

How Does It Feel?

What is your ‘felt sense’ in this moment? Yes, this moment. If you are not sure, pause and allow awareness to open to your physical experience. Deliberately inhabit the ever-present inner landscape of bodily sensations. Let the prevailing mood or atmosphere of body and mind become known to you. What do you notice about the overall quality of feeling you are experiencing now? Pause reading and just feel.

What do you notice? Is the prevailing feeling tone of your subjective experience pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Is it in flux? Whatever you notice, and no matter how rapidly it may be changing, feeling tone is always either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.

Three Hedonic Tones

Cultivating awareness of the hedonic tone of one’s experience is a significant part of mindfulness practice. Particularly in meditation, we can become keenly aware of how qualities of pleasantness, unpleasantness and neither-pleasantness-nor-unpleasantness (i.e. neutrality) arise out of the process of contact with bodily sensations, sounds and thoughts.

Sometimes the tone of the experience is clear, such as when there is intense physical pain (unpleasant) or when we are lost in a dreamy mental fantasy or a state of bliss (pleasant). Many times we simply fail to recognise this aspect of our psycho-physical process. Feeling tones can be subtle, habitual and easy to miss. Noticing them is a practice in sensitivity.

Two Discoveries

Mindfulness of feeling tone facilitates two important discoveries. First, it allows us to catch what happens next, i.e. what occurs conditional upon the arising of a feeling. If the feeling is pleasant, the mind tends to cling to the experience. If it is unpleasant, the mind tends to resist or avoid the experience. If it is neutral, the mind might overlook the experience altogether, or get caught in boredom or numbness, which inevitably gives rise to a renewed cycle of craving and aversion.

Second, we come to see how feeling tones are constructed by the mind. They are not implicit in the object we are in contact with. Our minds get this mixed up. If I like Marmite and you don’t, it says nothing about Marmite, right? We may experience different feeling tones when eating Marmite but this is due to our minds. Feeling tones also vary depending upon circumstances. If you are feeling happy, people and things may look or sound more pleasant compared with, say, when you feel sad, angry or anxious.

One Contented Person

Mindfulness facilitates a greater capacity to be with an experience without adding anything to it. In becoming aware of the hedonic tone of the moment, we can engage with it just as it is. We can appreciate pleasantness. We can develop an accepting attitude to unpleasantness. We can acknowledge neutral feelings. Greater sensitivity and flexibility of response help us step outside the dissatisfying loop of attachment and aversion and allow spaciousness and ease to find a foothold.

One final thought: mindfulness meditation emphasises embodied awareness and much of our bodily experience is hedonically neutral (an obvious example being the breath, which neither excites nor repels the mind). In deliberately cultivating awareness of neutral feeling tones, the meditator can discover how these often have a quality of restfulness or easefulness, i.e. how neutrality shades into pleasantness. In this way, through the simple practice of meditation, one’s ‘bandwidth’ for pleasantness broadens and one develops a subtle taste for quiet contentment.

The Power of Practice

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