At present, I’m visiting dear friends whom I met 13 years ago while studying Iyengar Yoga in Pune, India! A lot has changed, and, of course, there also seem to be essential elements of personality and character that feel immutably unchanged. No wonder it feels so compelling to subscribe to views of essential self-hood. How easily we conspire with illusion and let the cliché roll off the tongue: “You look exactly the same; not a day different from the last time I saw you.”
But, as practitioners of the Dharma, we know better, at least cognitively. We intentionally contemplate change, focusing our steady, mindful gaze on the relentless change of elements. Such contemplation slowly extirpates the illusions of permanency and separation, and liberates the Heart from its self-created prisons.
So let us continue the investigation of the Five Khandas (the five elements from which we fashion a sense of permanent self-ness or I-am-ness), one of the main categories the Buddha used to analyze human experience. Last Minute, we looked at the body as an aggregate of momentary sensations. The Buddha compared the body, with its seeming solidity, to a lump of foam.
This week, we will consider the second khanda,vedanda, or feeling tones. Feeling tones are not to be confused with or equated with the conventional sense of of ’emotions’ or ‘feelings’. Those phenomena come later. Here, feeling tones, or vedana, point to the ‘affective tonalities’ that arise each moment when a sense base (eye, ear, nose, etc) comes into contact with consciousness. So, each moment that consciousness contacts a smell or image or sensation, there are very fast and fleeting ‘tones’ of ‘pleasantness’, ‘unpleasantness’, or ‘neutrality’. And, when not seen clearly, these feeling tones condition more complex (and habituated) mental energies of grasping, pushing away, and/or ignoring. If freedom from conditioned reactions is our aim, then the Buddha exhorts us to bring these tonalities onto the stage of our meditation. When seen clearly, the Buddha compares vedana to ‘bubbles of water’, as opposed to objectively innate qualities in the experience to which we often so blindly react.
“Suppose, bhikkhus (practitioners), that in the autumn, when it is raining and big rain drops are falling, a water bubble arises and bursts on the surface of the water. A man with good sight would inspect it, ponder it, and carefully investigate it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in a water bubble? So to, bhikkhus, whatever kind of feeling there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: a bhikkhu inspects it, ponders it, and carefully investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insubstantial. For what substance could there be in feeling?”
-translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, In The Buddha’s Words
In practice, one of the more interesting times to contemplate feeling tones is while eating. Yesterday afternoon, during tea, my gracious hosts served some pastries and sweets. Each small slice of cake promised the gift of pure pleasure. But, if I was really paying attention, I noticed how each mouthful was a complex jumble of fleeting tones. Initial contact between tongue and pastry was accompanied by a delicious tone of pleasantness. But that quickly gave way to an odd unpleasantness as the sweetness swelled and became too much. The unpleasantness faded as I swallowed the morsel, giving way to a vague neutrality, which then, too, quickly turned unpleasant, which then gave rise to desire for another piece, which then propelled the hand forward, grasping for another chance to satisfy, ever and ever, ever and ever.
This week, I encourage you to watch for these tones. Pick a meal that you might eat alone, and for a period of five minutes or so, just watch each mouthful carefully with consideration of vedana and, as always, notice what you notice!
I’m off to pack my bag and catch a train to Munich. But let me know how this contemplation goes for you.
Originally published on March 2, 2012