Contemplate feeling as feeling, the Buddha instructed in the famous Sattipathana Sutta. We might often have heard this instruction.
When feeling a pleasant / painful / neither-pleasant-or-painful feeling, he understands „I feel a pleasant / painful / neither-pleasant-or-painful feeling“ (MN 10 §32).
What are these feelings (vedana)? They are not emotions, like anger, fear, happiness, etc. While the latter all contain feelings, what the Buddha meant is on a far more basic and thus more easily approachable level. It is our habitual, intuitive reaction to any experience. Basically, we either like, don’t like or ignore an experience.
Warm sun on skin – pleasant.
Seeing the dentist from close up – unpleasant / painful.
Eating slice of plain bread – neutral.
All these feeling tones are highly individual, based upon former experience and might change over time.
While they occur so often over a day, that we will most probably fail to recognize only a fraction of them, they are nevertheless one of our main decision boosters. If we are not mindful of them, they can fairly easy decide what we do next: I want what’s pleasant, shove away what’s unpleasant, and will get bored or restless by neutral experiences.
Therefore practicing with them, being aware of them and having enough equanimity to hold them, is an essential part of our practice. Freedom can only occur if we are not driven and continuously triggered by sense experience from the outside and thoughts and emotions from the inside.
But caution here! The quotation above does not say: Ignore them and be equanimous – Be a robot and feel nothing. It rather emphasizes the importance of feeling and wants us to be aware of them. And therefore we have to allow ourselves: to feel.
How often do we want to get over and done with the unpleasant? We get restless, nervous, frustrated with it. In a nutshell: we tense up around the unpleasant. We get equally nervous and restless when we remember that the pleasant is not made to stay. Even if we practice regularly, it can occur that feeling degenerates to a mere pre-stage of „letting go“. Still we entertain the wish to change the experience rather than to explore it.
Do we allow ourselves to explore and be with these feeling tones? To face them in all their facets and notions? Can I sit, walk, stand, lie down and be with and allow whatever is there?
There is nothing harmful in pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Neither is there something „bad“ in feeling the energy of anger, in feeling the shakiness of fear or the surge of longing. Harmfulness kicks in the moment I act upon or nourish such a notion with further thoughts. Feeling them in the body, the heart, the mind will over time ease up the tension we built up around them. This might not solve the causes and conditions that lead to the feeling. But finding some freedom from the clinging will help us to see clearer, to become less rigid.
Finally it will help us to find enough ease to make informed decisions, which are not driven and triggered by feelings.