With Mindfulness of the mind we are learning to recognise and acknowledge the whole range of mental formations as they arise in our experience. Feelings were defined as qualitative sensations of experience and are mental formations in themselves, but what constitutes mental formations exactly? They are the content and activity of the mind. The mind itself doesn’t exist as a separate entity, or permanent fixture, so we can only really know the mind by being conscious of its content. Consciousness allows us to be aware of mental formations. The mind then is understood as the flow of mental activity which is subject to frequent change.
The idea of the mind and consciousness can become complicated rather quickly and lead one down the road of philosophising. As these blog posts are primarily concerned with the experiential dimension of practice and enquiry, let’s accept for now that there is consciousness and there is content and that mindfulness here means bringing awareness and insight to the latter, which I have placed into categories below;
1. Mental processes; thinking, imagining, fantasising, judging, reasoning, desiring, remembering, and forgetting, and so on. It includes mental formations such as beliefs, ideas, doubts, and views and more.
2. The quality of attention and awareness; sharpness, drowsiness, sleepiness, distraction, concentrated, unconcentrated, open, curious, disinterested, scattered, cramped, aware, unaware, etc.
3. Mental/emotional states; jealousy, irritation, annoyance, boredom, bliss, delusion, aversion,desire to harm, desire to help, excitement, etc.
4. Emotional states; love, anger, fear, courage, empathy, compassion, etc.
Basically anything that you can define within personal experience is a mental formation of some form or other. Each has its own distinct form and flavour. None of them constitute a self or me and none of them are permanent. They have a duration and their intensity waxes and wanes. Some can be considered as explicitly positive and negative. Some are preferable to others. Some we covet and others we push away, or may not have met yet. In practising mindfulness the content is not so important. What matters is how you relate to it. The 7 factors of mindfulness remain the same as does our need to apply them to each of these phenomena as they arise in our everyday experience.
Mindfulness of the feelings
‘Feeling is present at every moment of experience.’ Bikkhu Bodhi
What does it mean to feel? We often take feeling for granted, never really taking the time to investigate what is really going on when we say we feel this or that. We often fail to appreciate the richness, complexity, and also potential simplicity of the process of feeling, and yet, feeling marks each and every experience we have, have ever had, and will ever have. Our beliefs, ideas, self-image, are all infused with particular ranges of feelings and we use our feelings to judge whatever takes place both within and without as good, bad, or unimportant. For many, feelings are the gateway to truth, to authentic understanding and self-expression, whilst for others, especially my grandparents’ generation, feelings are unimportant, a form of self-indulgence, perhaps even weakness.
Feeling leads to the formation of emotions, but feelings are not emotions. Feelings are the sensations we experience, and for mindfulness practice, they are the quality of sensation in the body and can be labelled simply as positive, negative, or neutral. This threefold category is traditionally applied to practising mindfulness of the feelings. That is we use our attention, our awareness, to observe how we have an impulsive tendency to react to feeling by labelling it as positive, negative, or neutral causing us to act accordingly. Feeling is rarely allowed to be as it is; instead it is subjectively made important, or unimportant. We charge feelings with meaning. Taking interpretation of what is felt as a determining factor in how we choose to go forward and act. Feelings actually function as an elaborate code through which we forge the direction our lives take.
Ultimately, separation between body, feelings, emotions, states and phenomena doesn’t exist. One flows into the other. They are profoundly interrelated. These categories though act as convenient method for defining experience and working with its more recognisable dimensions. The body feels for example, or rather we feel through the body, and emotions are felt within the body, and are accompanied by feeling. Emotions and other mental states are within the body, infused with feeling and directly related to phenomena. Our feelings are stimulated by the physical in the form of our body and the ‘external’ world. So, an important understanding to make clear here is that these four realms of experience are really not separate.