Practicing “Feelings within the Feelings,” we deepen our intimacy with experience by bringing mindfulness to feelings – again, not as a disassociated observer, but from within the feelings themselves. Feelings here are not emotions but the “feeling tone” or “felt sense” of experience.
To see for yourself what is meant here, take a moment to close your eyes and just sit, with your hands resting on your lap, palms down. Settle yourself into the experience, noting how it feels to sit here – physically and energetically. You may note such feelings as “heavy,” “grounded,” “stable,” or “dull.” Then, maintaining your attention, turn your palms upward and note if there’s a change in the feeling tone. You may find yourself feeling “light,” “open,” “receptive” or “vulnerable,” among other possible feelings.
Such feelings are not emotions. Feelings are a primal experience that the Buddha points out most generally precedes any reaction or emotion, though emotions can also produce feelings in the body. The importance of bringing mindfulness to feelings or sensations cannot be over-estimated. It is at the junction between feeling and reactivity that mindfulness provides the possibility of freely choosing how to respond to any given situation.
Feelings are categorized as being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and of a physiological or psychological nature. If you bite into a ripe, juicy lemon the sensations that arise are physiological; if you simply imagine doing so, the sensations that arise are of a psychological nature. It is interesting to consider how the body reacts to imagining biting into the lemon similarly to actually doing so. In all Yogic teaching, thoughts are considered as, or even more important, then physical action.
The Buddha noted that feelings condition our whole world. We spend huge amounts of energy trying to create and prolong pleasant feelings while pushing away and trying to avoid unpleasant feelings, and we become confused, bored or simply “checked out” when experiencing neutral feelings. This grasping, aversion and ignorance, called the “three poisons,” are the roots of duhkha, poisoning the experience of life. If mindfulness is not present, feelings quickly give rise to moods, emotions, perceptions, ideas and whole stories and identities that cause duhkha for us and for those with whom we interact.
Hatha-yoga practice can either help us grow in awareness and insight, or create duhkha, depending on whether mindfulness is present or not. For example, when practicing an asana you enjoy, experiencing the pleasure of a sensuous stretch, or the psychological pleasure of the “successful” performance of a challenging posture, if you are not mindful, you will get caught in craving and clinging, seeking to prolong or repeat the feeling as soon as it wanes (as it most assuredly will, all phenomena being impermanent). While it is indeed a pleasure to accomplish a challenging posture, without mindfulness, as the Gherandha-Samhita warns, asana practice becomes an obstacle to liberation because the ego-gratification is clung to, and identification with ego and the body becomes more rigid and solid. We get caught in pride and our identity as someone who can do “advanced postures.” When conditions change (through illness, injury or age) and we can no longer do what we used to do, we can become discouraged and even suffer despair.
Practicing difficult postures, we may experience unpleasant feelings. Mindfulness shows us how quickly the mind seeks to push the unpleasant away, to eliminate it. Such aversion creates tension that is often more painful than the original sensation. The Buddha referred to this added anguish as “the second arrow.” The first arrow is the experience of discomfort or pain; the second arrow is the tension, anguish and unease of our aversion.
Bringing awareness to neutral feelings cultivates greater clarity about our experience. In fact, most of our experience is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Because this is so, we spend much of our time seeking intensity of feeling, or falling into boredom. Through greater awareness of the neutral aspect of experience, we remain present to experience and cultivate greater ease, enjoying the calm of neutrality.
Zen’s understanding of “pure practice” is to not add anything extra to the experience other than mindful attention. If we bring mindfulness to our feelings, we can experience “pure joy” or “pure pleasure,” untainted by clinging or grasping. But in order to be able to experience pure pleasure, we must be willing to experience “pure pain” or “pure discomfort,” free of aversion and resistance.
The most pain avoidant people have the least joy in their lives. In trying to armor ourselves against pain, we numb ourselves to all experience. In opening ourselves to felt experience, we allow ourselves to live life fully, not caught in patterned habits of reactivity. Rather than conditionally reacting to experience, we can choose to respond creatively. The doorway to this freedom is in bringing mindfulness to our feelings before they condition our reactivity.
Along with practicing mindfulness of feelings while practicing asana or in any of the classic "postures" mentioned by the buddha (sitting, standing, lying down and walking) we can take moments periodically throughout the day to stop and scan our body: what are we feeling as we wait in line at the bank? What feelings are present when we are just sitting down to lunch? There is literally nothing we do that we cannot take a moment for this quick body scan.