Initially mindfulness involves working with the four factors individually in order to understand how we are living, but we can also approach them as dimensions of experience that are to be integrated consciously each with the other as we proceed with practice. The problem and therefore motivation for separating them out is that our experiences are polluted with conditioning and confusion. Working through these four arenas of mindfulness individually then helps us to clean up our internal debris. Once cleaned of patterning, reactivity and unspoken intentions we need to integrate and practice mindfulness of being, that is, the natural, naked embracing of experience in as total a manner as possible without manipulating or avoiding whatever naturally occurs. For some, this can emerge as initial practice. In my own personal experience the two ways of working are naturally related. My focus and intention of practice is integration of the arenas of being, but at times paying specific and careful attention to one of the four arenas of mindfulness can stimulate and facilitate opening further, or more deeply, to experience.
So, a central reason that we break mindfulness down into different objects of meditation is to gain clarity, understanding and insight into the nature of each and how one affects the other. Attempting to work with all of them together is too great a challenge for most people, and can be highly confusing. In part, this confusion arises because within the context of Right Mindfulness we are not just getting present, but seeking to develop direct insight into the nature of impermanence, interdependence and the lack of a separate, isolated self, and how they exist and play out as part of our own personal experience. As most of us haven’t yet awakened this knowledge within us, working with each object of mindfulness individually makes it easier to perceive directly and therefore to recognise and know these intrinsic aspects of reality for ourselves.
The commodification process I described regarding the body is also present with the range of feelings that we generally allow ourselves to experience. So much of our experience takes place within collectively normalised agreements on what it is okay and not okay to feel. Unconsciously, we measure the worth of our experience in relation to unspoken rules that define this narrow field of acceptable feelings held in place by the status-quo. Because the majority of what we feel is not at all unique, we can recognise it, with time, as conditioning that emerges from implicit, collective agreements that we have usually accepted unwittingly. The outlines of these agreements help us to define who and what we are, and who and what we are not. The edges come into play when we practice mindfulness of feelings, especially if we are willing to go really far/deeply with the practice. I would hazard a guess that for some of us, much of our extreme behaviour is a desire to break out of this conditioning, which is stifling, ultimately deeply unrewarding, and in Buddhist terms, a form of Dukkha.
To live a truly human existence is to embrace the whole potential field of feeling without fear, control or manipulation. For those with enough courage it can be quite a ride.
In working with feelings we are exploring the sensations within our body that accompany experience. We can get angry for example, but what are the actual sensations in the body that accompany anger? In working with the feelings we are brought face-to-face with our tendency to quantify and judge what we experience. Feelings are the basis of attraction and aversion and they tend to stimulate our decision-making in an impulsive manner. We act out very often in order to avoid experiencing certain feelings.
Mindfulness of feelings means becoming more conscious of how experience is saturated with interpretation and we can with time reduce our impulsive urge to jump to interpreting feelings, to simply allowing feelings to bring us in touch with where we are and with what is taking place. As we learn to acknowledge the simplicity of the body and connect more thoroughly, so we acknowledge feelings and let them be as they are.
On the cushion we can practice acknowledging feelings and recognise how we label them as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, without trying to change them. There is an energetic response that is felt as a movement away or towards, an opening, or closing. This is the process of developing awareness. At this stage we can actively label what we are doing using the threefold system, or simply acknowledge what arises feeling how we experience it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
Through developing consistency in this and allowing all manner of feelings to emerge, we begin to notice how we live through a constant stream of feeling and how this stream is constantly marked by our judgements. Going even further with this process we can begin to perceive how our feelings are intimately connected to the way we identify ourselves in relationship to the world. So, not, I think therefore I am, but, I feel, therefore I am. Yet, if you go further, you might observe that feelings are not you, and that you are not your feelings. And that what you believed yourself to be was held in place in great part by your interpretative relationship to feelings and your nurturing of specific feelings over others.
On the cushion we develop the capacity to stay with feelings that are unpleasant, let go of holding onto or grasping at pleasant feelings, and give equal attention to neutral feelings, which is possibly the hardest part. This strengthens our capacity to be with all three without trying to manipulate one way or the other. Through this on the cushion practice we also strengthen our capacity to stay out of reaction when similar feelings come up throughout the day off the cushion. Underneath our labelling of experiences, and within these three categories, is naked experience as it is and without interpretation. To embrace experience in this naked manner, which lets go of the need to interpret and conceptualise, is an experience of deep and profound connection.
Our feelings are actually a great source of information and at times wisdom, especially when they become cleaned of our value judgements. In the shamanic realm, of which I participate actively, feelings connect us to the natural world and feelings are the basis for personal power. Through exploring feeling we are able to learn how to align with the movements of energy and change in the natural world.
Feelings are not to be repressed or pushed away, and neither indulged in, and this is a good moment to talk about what it means to acknowledge experience without identifying with it.
ThichNhat Hanh talks of meeting experience with a smile. Ramm Dass uses a nice analogy of inviting both experience and neurosis in for a cup of tea. Both are playful indicators of the fact that in developing mindfulness there is energy involved; it is not a passive affair. Energy is present in meeting experience openly and allowing its presence to emerge, remain, and pass without interference. This points to the third factor of mindfulness; expressing appreciation for experience. By expressing appreciation for experience regardless of its impact on us, we disarm the power that a given moment and its accompanying feeling have over us. We don’t fight and we don’t try and force, we allow things to be and in doing so we allow them to leave. It is in a way similar to the movements of the tides, which come and go continuously, touching the shore intimately, expressing themselves at times with great force, with power and aggression, and at other times with gentleness and sweet caresses. The shore remains as a constant, present. It doesn’t run away because a tide takes a particularly challenging or uninviting form. The fourth factor of mindfulness is defined as insight into experience. This means gaining understanding through perceiving accurately the nature of things. The understanding that is gained through clear, honest perception brings us closer to the truth of what is in front of us, which is ultimately naked experience. In a way this plays out as a microcosm of the four Noble truths; we experience the pattern and then the suffering or separation the pattern has caused us, we see its roots and the structures that keeps it cycling back into our experience again and again, we continue to observe, then we see its end approaching and the possibility of a substantial break from its habitual, self-sustaining nature, and finally, we see how through maintaining practice we will be able to sustain the opening and freedom tasted.Working with mindfulness of feelings is one of the gateways to knowing impermanence. Impermanence is a key teaching within Buddhism informing us that nothing at all remains the same. For some this can seem like a lofty ideal, something so big, so abstract, so out there, that in its universal theme, it is almost better to say okay and continue living as we were before. For others instead it can remain at an intellectual level. Thinking this idea through, reading the texts, enjoying the confirmation of this profound truth by the sciences, we feel somehow we have got it. Neither of these ways of relating to impermanence produces much in the way of change though. Working with mindfulness of feelings instead gives us direct access to the impermanence of the stream that makes up our experience of being alive. When we rest in that stream, we see how fleeting life really is and how difficult it is to hold on to any part of it.
One last point with regards to feelings is that they are intensely wrapped up in our identification with ourselves as special, or unique. Although many of us would be embarrassed to admit it, some part of us feels that we are indeed special. Such specialness can exist both in believing in our greatness and our potential, as well as the opposite, believing that our suffering, misery and depression are unique and somehow special too. In both cases our investment in specialness separates us greatly from authentic presence. The idea in itself becomes a possession.
This idea of unique and special is one of the great many myths that are nurtured both by organised religion and by the New-Age and Self-Help movement. Enormous amounts of money are made by appealing to this fallacy. Religions manipulate the same false idea through the promise of salvation and the certainty and rightness of dogma for those who believe, who follow, and that are therefore chosen and special.
In conclusion, to take apart our identification with feelings is to see the entire structure of value judgements that we give to the world and how we form these judgements based on the simple evaluation of experience as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, that is, as good, bad, or uninteresting. This is a very sticky, messy game that usually ends up binding us to co-dependent relationships with the arenas of life we participate in, with others, with work and the circles that influence and give meaning to our world. This game keeps us extremely limited and closed into very narrow frames of experience, which we generally refuse to move out of unless forced to. Outside of these artificial walls are unknown feelings, unknown possibilities, fear and potential threats. Bringing mindfulness to all this leads to greater sobriety and greater choice, and therefore, greater freedom. Practising mindfulness in a disciplined and consistent form that honours our feelings as well as assisting us to pierce through them leads us to loosening the rigidity that characterises our notion of ourselves and of the world.