Roots of Mindfulness: Satipatthana - 3

Talk 3- Wednesday 10/16/18 - Mindfulness of Feeling-Tone (Second Foundation) - Prepared Talk by Tim Burnett © 2018

Talk 3 audio recording


Talk 3 notes 

[Note that Tim often departs significantly from his notes when speaking but the notes themselves might be valuable to read]

The second foundation of mindfulness as describe by the Buddha is really fascinating to me and something I've been trying to study and understand for many years. It's another point where Buddhist psychology and Western psychology don't line up very well. Another idea where we don't have a good word for English to label what they're encouraging us to understand and being people of words that makes it a little harder for us to access. But I think this foundation is really important to our well being individually and to our well being as a society and a planet. Understanding this foundation more clearly really and truly leads to a better world in my view.

The second foundation is called vedanā in Pali and Sanskrit both. It's most often translate into English and "feeling" or "sensation" but neither of those is quite right as we'll see. Sometimes it's translate as "feeling tone" which is closer but has other problems.

What vedanā is it the powerful ability of the mind to flavor every moment of experience with a mild to strong taste. The taste can be positive, pleasure, or negative, unpleasant, or just neutral kind of unflavored in our experience but it's still been through ths flavoring process. It's described as depositing the three flavors of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral but it's more accurate to say that the flavors are infinitely varied along a continuum with super delicious at one end, neutral no real obvious flavor in the middle, and super icky and unpleasant and gross at the other end.

So something can be very mildly pleasant, or basically neutral but kind of slighly unplesant and so on.

But here's the important thing about this: this is understood as something the mind does right away very early in the process of cognition. An object is perceived, recognized as an object of some kind, flavored, and then we realize we like it or we don't like or we have no opinion about it, and then the mind starts cooking up all the reasons why our preferences and opinions and judgements make perfect sense.

We tend to spend out waking hours at the outbox of that process. Oh I really dislike that, or her, or this way of doing it, and here's the reason why. Or wouldnt it be great if we changed our schedule here and were outside more or there were more talks or fewer talks or more or fewer words in the guidance during practice and so on. I'm talking about the kinds of opinions and views that we have all the time. And I think during retreat you can experience their awesome power to move you around.

What this is saying is those ideas and perceptions which we tend to take for granted as kind of complete and sensible are actually layers and layers of construction that our mind has wrapped around an earlier moment.

And it's saying that this mental factor, or mental process, they call vedanā is what kicked off the whole chain of events.

So a study of vedanā is moving our attention from the outbox of the process to the inbox and seeing if we can watch how the mind adds layers and layers to this initial moment of experience. And then we can start wondering if that process is serving us and our world very well.

So you can see why "feeling" isn't quite the right translation as feeling implies emotions and emotions are part of this little assembly line. They get wrapped around the experience after it's been flavored as pleasant or unpleasant. I'm sure it varied radically from person to person and from time to time but maybe the typical order is:

1) have an experience of some kind

2) the mind dips it's paint brush into the pleasant or unpleasant flavor pot and paints a flavor on the experience

3) depending on it's flavor we wrap an emotional response around it

4) depending on the interaction between the flavor and the emotion we wrap a cognitive layer around it

And that cognitive layer can be all kinds of things: a theory, a plan, a judgement, an opinion, an expectation, some kind of resistance like the thought "this should not be happening!"

The cognitive layer can be positive or negative to our way of thinking about positive or negative. "This is awesome, I can't believe it! Yahoo!" might be wrapped around an experience that gets flavored as very pleasant and wrapped with a mix of joyful emotion and expectations and hopes that this pleasant experience will continue.

And you can see in that example how this system has a kind of "waiting for the other foot to fall" quality to it. What if this wonderful thing isn't the lasting change in our life that we wrapped some hopes for around it? What if it stops or goes away? What if it all proves fleeting or phony in some way? And you can see how in this system this second unpleasant step is not so much that we're revealed the true essence of the original experience but that something shifted that caused the mind to wrap the next moment in unplesant flavoring which triggered a cascade of less happy-making wrappers.

So the downstream mind we experience as our usual thought and option filled head full of stuff in Buddhist psychology can be thought of a kind of wrapping factory. In the middle of the tasty wrap there's some kernel of direct experience but boy you can't really feel it any more.

But the total package is not as real as we think it is. It's constructed. By our mind. And not by ourmind as a stable fixed process that always runs consistently and like scientifically and logically but by our mind as an ever changing process that colored and conditioned by everything in the universe!

As an aside the different schools of Buddhism then went on to argue for some millenia about whether this original nugget of experience that gets the flavoring and all the wrappings wrapped around it is itself real and stable or is that just an even more subtle confabulation that's itself conditioned and constructed. It's a little like atomic physics getting things down to neutrons, electrons and positrons and then along comes high energy physics to say well it looks like from this data that there's a heck of lot more going on intside those particle. And are those particles really there in any kind of consistent existent way or are they a side effect of the measuring process. But before I get myself in trouble by talking about quantum physics which I know nothing about I'll stop with that. But just to cast a little healthy doubt on the idea that anything actually exists in a separate stable way. Just for fun.

Regardless of the ultimate nature of reality I have found inquiring into the process of this second foundation of mindfulness profoundly helpful. As you get glances at this process of flavoring and layering taking place it really helps you lighten up. It's profoundly liberating. And it's not just an idea although we are in the realm of words and ideas right now as a way of pointing our minds towards this next level of inquiry. But that's a little like the famous metaphor of the finger pointing to the moon. Figuring out the right words for this and having an academic understanding is useful as we need to know which way to point the finger but it's not the moon. It's not the liberative experience of feeling into this process more directly.

And just like with the mindful movement the invitation is here to not worry about this stuff AT ALL. My first 6 or 7 years of meditation practice were solely devoted to counting my breath and I seem to have come out kind of okay. Staying with breath in the body all week is fabulous. Is essential actually. Part of me is a little embarassed to be going on about this fabulous metaphors - flavors! wrapping! - as it may all just be a distraction from settling more deeply into the felt sense of each moment. Okay?

So the chapter in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra on vedanā is so short that we can read the entire thing:

[p. ]

The really radical thing in here which makes a lot of sense when we're talking about it - when we're finger pointing - but quickly falls apart against the weight of our conditioning is that nothing whatesoever has an essential flavor right out of the box.

With foods this is obvious enough. I don't like peanut butter so I could say "peanut butter tastes bad" which is my experience actually but that is not a true statement is it? My actual experience, so far, is that when I eat something with peanut butter in it I've noticed that I consistently have an unpleasant eating experience. But you might love peanut butter meaning not that there's a stable "you" who loves something that's always the same exact experience called "eating peanut butter" it's that the results have so far been consistent enough. You've come to associate peanut butter with a pleasant experience. And even that's not a simple thing if these teachings are to be believed. There is a vast number of moments when you eat anything - remember doing the raisin exercise in MBSR if you've take that class? - and that in most of those experiences the mental flavor painting apparatus painted "pleasant" on those moments and then you added a positive emotion or a possitive association or a judgment or even an anticipation of the next moment of experience - we say to ourselves in the middle of one bite "this is so good!" which helps to condition the next bite actually. We're like a walking self-fulfilling prophecy all the time.

But it's all so conditioned and relative and personal isnt it? Oh man I saw Scott ruin a percectly good piece of raisin bread last night with a huge slab of peanut butter - gross! And I bet he was having a very different perception of the same time. This rich and complex experience we call "peanut butter."

Another important point her is you know how in Western thinking we make a huge distinction between thought and matter. Or basically matter - physical stuff - and everything else.

Well in Buddhism they don't make that distinction. That's pretty radical all in itself but I'll refrain myself from going too deep into that beyond saying that in Buddhism the mental bit of experience and physical bits of experience are all in the same pot. They are all just exeriences, each one a conditioning agent that affectt he next one. So in the case of peanut butter it might be that I have a different structure to my taste buds than Scott does, that's possible. And in Western science and culture we'd say "ah ha!" that's the reason why Tim doesn't like peanut butter. Mystery solved. Excellent.

But in this system a moment of experience that's meditated by my taste buds is not any different from a memory from my paste or an opinion or my mood. Every moment of experience is a coalescence of every one of these factors and many many more besides. It's all happening moment by moment and some of these factors trigger others in little chains which creates the illusion of continuity in our selves. And there's ANOTHER huge difference between the Buddhist system of thinking and our dominant default way of thinking. The very idea of our self having the kind of stability we think it does. Back to this question of "who" - who is doing all of this experiencing is that person "me" in the way I think of myself or as the "me" just the really big downstream result of all of these mental processes of exeriences conditioned by other experiences flavored by the mind and wrapped up by the mind in a so so so many layers of thought, emotion, conceptualization and so on.

Ooh I do enjoy this stuff I admit it. But it is helpful is what matters. So here's the invitation:

Keep working on slowing down and paying attention to each moment of experience as best you can. And here we include experiences of all six senses - the five usual ones plus the thinking mind - every thought is an experience too. No different from a taste or a sight or a sound.

See if you can tune in to moment of experience more fully and as you watch slip on some magnifying glasses that are set to pleasant-neutral-unpleasant. Feel and notice a moment and be curious if it's flavored at it's core with pleasant flavoring or unplesant flavoring. And then refrain from letting your attention be carried downstream to all of the reasons why you are perfectly justified in your analysis here. That mental stream carries us away from direct experience. So paddle your way back upstream to the source. And do that again and again. Just another way of working with attention just like bringing your awareness back the breath. Bringing your awareness back bare experience with it's flavor coating. Yum. Yuck. Yuck. Yum. I actually do think the English words pleasant and unpleasant are really helpful here. They're kind of mind and have less "me" in them. Better than like or dislike or positive and negative. It's kind of not big deal that something is a little unpleasant and once you get used to that it becomes no big deal that something's really unplesant. You develop the ability to stay with the experience and just note is as "unpleasant." And maybe that's enough. Stop there. Let that experience go. Free up your attending apparatus to notice the next moment. Maybe the next moment will also be unpleasant. But then again maybe it will be neutral. Or maybe it'll even be pleasant. But same thing with pleasant. Note it "pleasant" and then let that go too so you're available for the next moment. So easily we toss a rope of thoughts and concepts around a pleasant moment like a lasso: "excellent! finally a plesant meditation, how'd I do that, how do I keep this going?"

But then here the thing you're no longer having that pleasant experience that point. At that point what are you doing? Thinking! Right. And a special category of thinking called grasping which Buddhism has quite a bit to say about. Generally grasping thinking is...unpleasant and conditioned with fear and various other things.

Aren't we special! It's like the mind is almost designed to turn lemonaide into lemons over and over again. This is part of why practice in general and retreat especially can be difficult.

But the good news is everythings conditioned and everything's changing. With increased awareness and curiosity and patience gradually the patterns of wrapping and reacting and refraining from wrapping and reacting become more skillful and more oriented towards an overall sense of wellbeing. The pleasant and unpleasant don't have to push us around so much and what is a huge relief. We can just be with what is with more kindly and gently and with a lot more resilience and acceptance that's for sure.

Whether with practice the mind tends to flavor more things pleasant or not I really don't know. I think in the full expression of the tradition upon becoming a Buddha this particular mental faculty just comes to rest. The paint brush is set down and the lids are tightened onto the flavor pots never to be opened again. But that's Buddhism, we're here for more practical matters and this is a very practical matter.

Probably the most famous Zen poem was composed early in the emergence of the Zen tradition in China where it's called Chan. It starts with these powerful lines:

The great way is not difficult,

simply set aside picking and choosing.

The great way is our life. If we're less moved by the pleasant and unpleasant flavoring our mind is painting onto experience it's easier and easier not to pick and choose. To just meet what arrives moment after moment.

And that's the opportunity of these days on retreat. Just meet what's offered. Set aside picking and choosing even if you ideas are just right on and sensible about how it should be different. When you find yourself carried really far downstream with some resistance or opinion or judgement, when you find yourself really strongly pick and choosing how you think you should be or the practice should be or what Karen or I should do our say, when you are captured by picking and choosing...take a breath. Smiling a little helps. Noticing tention int he body helps that's a great indicator of the results of this process when it's caught you: you almost always get tense. Maybe always actually.

[logistical note on interviews and there will be an opportunity to talk to Karen and me. Appreciation for the cell phone stewardship. Open door at the nurses' cabin if something is really challenging you but if it's more you're feeling tight around an opinion or plan - picking and choosing - maybe practice with that for a while before you come see us or write a note].

Such a blur of words and explanation in this talk. We need a poem or a song or something. Thanks - no air quotes intended - for your song requests. Some good ones! Topical about silence and about the way the mind constructions reality.

But I'm going to attempt to channel Tracy Chapman and sing a love song instead. Lest we think this whole topic of vedanā is some kind of intense analytical process only. It's actually about love. Loving our experience as it is. Loving this world. Loving each other.

If you…..wait for me.e.e

then I'll…….come for you

Although I've trav…eled far

I always hold..... a place for you….in my heart


If you….think of me.e.e

If you miss me….once in a while

Then I'll return to you

I'll return and fill that your heart 



Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I'll way...baaack to you

If you'll be wait-ate-ting


If you...dream of me 

Like I-I-I...dream of you

In a place that's warm and dark

In a place where I....can feel the beating of your heart 



Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I'll find my way...back to you

If you'll be wait-ate-ting


(oh) I've….longed for you 

And I….have desired

To see your face, your smile

To be with you wher-e-e-e-ver you are 

[octave up] 


Your touch

Your kiss

Your warm embrace

I'll way...back to you

Please say you'll be wait-ate-ting


Together again

It would feel so good to be [up]

In your arms

Where all my journeys end [up]

If you can make a promise 

If it's one that you can keep

I VOW to come for you

If you-u wait for me 


And say you'll hold


A place...for me 


In your heart.


A plAce for me, in your heart.

A plAce for me, in your heart.

A plAce for me, in your heart.

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