Mindfulness is a Buddhist practice that has become popular in non-Buddhist circles these days. However, many popular books and magazine articles about mindfulness don't explain it the same way the Buddha did. How is mindfulness practiced in Buddhism?
The Buddha taught that mindfulness has four foundations. These are mindfulness of body (kayasati), of feelings or sensations (vedanasati), of mind or mental processes (cittasati), and of mental objects or qualities (dhammasati). This article will look at the second foundation, mindfulness of feelings.
Contemplate Feeling as Feeling
The Buddha's teaching on mindfulness can be found in the Satipatthana Sutta of the Pali Tipitika (Majjhima Nikaya 10). After teaching his disciples to train themselves to recognize and acknowledge their feelings, he told them this was the practice of contemplating feelings in, or as, feelings.
"Thus he [a monk] lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally, or he lives contemplating feelings in feelings externally, or he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination factors in feelings, or he lives contemplating dissolution factors in feelings, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in feelings. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, "Feeling exists," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, a monk lives contemplating feelings in feelings." [Nyanasatta Thera translation]
In other words, sensations are sensations, not my sensations. There is no soul or permanent essence of self to which the feelings belong. By the same token, it's useful not to identify with your emotions and assume they define who you are. See also "Sunyata, or Emptiness: The Perfection of Wisdom."
Let's go back to acknowledging feelings. Psychologists tell us to be in touch with our own emotions and not suppress them or ignore them. This is good mental health hygiene. Human beings are remarkably good at suppressing or ignoring emotions they don't want to feel, but doing this causes us a lot of problems and can even make us physically ill.
For example, people with chronic anxiety disorder can become so used to feeling anxious that they teach themselves to just ignore it. That's a common coping mechanism. However, the anxiety is always there, gnawing away at the edges of consciousness and causing both behavioral or physical problems.
The first step in releasing anxiety is acknowledging it. It so often happens that a person's spiritual path begins when she acknowledges something that she didn't want to face -- I am afraid all the time; I don't like myself; I have everything I want and I'm still not happy. For many, this is the first step toward waking up, or what's called enlightenment.
Anger is another sensation people lie to themselves about. How many times have you seen someone who is really, really angry yell, "I'm not angry!"? The first step to releasing anger is acknowledging that it's there. See also "Anger and Buddhism."
Working With Sensations
Buddhism has developed many ways to work with sensation in a mindful way. For example, Soto Zen teacher Gil Fronsdal suggests a mindfulness practice for dealing with anxiety while meditating.
"If there is a lot of energy coursing through the body, imagine the body as a wide container where the energy is allowed to bounce around like a ping pong ball" he says. "Accepting it like this can take away the extra agitation of fighting the restlessness." See also "Working With Worry: How to Practice Buddhism When You're a Nervous Wreck."
Notice that the teacher advised us not to fight with the worry. This means not trying to suppress it, reduce it, or control it. Just acknowledge and observe it. Let an unpleasant emotion pass through you without lingering, like water through a sieve. This gets easier with practice.
Don't Judge What You Feel
We've been talking about unpleasant emotions, such as anger and worry. However, judging something as "bad" or "good," unpleasant or pleasant, is also a kind of manipulation. It's important to understand that anger, for example, is neither good nor bad. Anger happens.
What we do with the anger, however, is either skillful or unskillful. We either learn to let it pass through us, or we harbor it. And if we harbor it, it will continue to jerk us around and make us miserable.
When we sort sensations and emotions into "good" and "bad" bins, we're setting up a dichotomy that makes us want to cling to the "good" and avoid the "bad," and the Buddha taught us that is unskillful. It causes us to go through life being jerked around by what we like and don't like. Ideally, we set a middle course between attraction and aversion -- see "Equanimity."
Practicing with pleasant sensations is no different from practicing with unpleasant ones. All sensations are impermanent. When pleasant sensations arise it's fine to enjoy them, but don't cling to them. This can cause you to live in the past and ignore the present.
The same is true of physical sensations, pleasure and pain. We've been mostly looking at emotions in this article, but the second foundation applies to physical sensation also. There's nothing wrong with enjoying pleasant sensations when they arise, but when we cling to them or pursue them, they become a hindrance. Physical pain causes less suffering when we learn to accept it dispassionately, without judging.
This second foundation is similar in many ways to the third foundation, mindfulness of mind or mental processes (cittasati).