Sacred geometry

Tuesday Morning Instructions

Date1st October 2006
Retreat/SeriesSilent Autumn Retreat, Finland 2006


This practice of insight meditation is based, or has as one of its most important elements, one particular discourse of the Buddha that's called the teaching on the four foundations of mindfulness, which I mentioned the other day. So as we move through the days here, we're expanding into the four foundations of mindfulness. The first day we worked only with the breath. Second day we included the body. Both of those are actually aspects of mindfulness of the body, breath obviously being part of the body. They make up the first foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of the body.

This morning I'd like to expand the practice a bit further and talk about the second foundation of mindfulness. This is mindfulness of what's called vedanā. That's a Pali word, vedanā. There's a potential problem with translation here because usually this word, vedanā, gets translated as 'feeling.' In English, we usually use the word 'feeling' to mean 'emotion.' It gets a bit complicated, but it's not really -- emotion actually comes under the third foundation of mindfulness. So we're talking about something else here, and I'll try and explain what that is. So vedanā is what we could call 'feeling-tone.' It's not emotion. It means the quality in every experience, in every moment, of being either pleasant, or unpleasant, or somewhere in between (somewhat more neutral). So mostly a pain in the leg is unpleasant. Every moment, and every experience, has a quality to it of vedanā. It's either pleasant, or unpleasant, or somewhere in between.

You can see this. You can see this with the breath. Sometimes the breath feels very nice, comes in just comfortable, smooth. The quality, the vedanā quality of the breath at that moment is pleasant. Sometimes -- very normal -- the breath feels stuck or rough or blocked in some way, uncomfortable, and then the vedanā at that moment of the breath is unpleasant. A lot of the time the breath is quite neutral -- it's neither particularly pleasant nor particularly unpleasant. But this goes for every moment and every experience, in all the senses. We take some food -- it's pleasant, often, or sometimes unpleasant, or sometimes it's just nothing in particular. Or a body sensation -- we can have a nice feeling in the body or a painful feeling, like I said. Sound -- sometimes you hear a beautiful bird or some beautiful music, but if I had long nails and I scraped down a blackboard, you know, like they have in a classroom, to most people it's unpleasant. But everything has this. A thought, just a moment of thought, even a thought has a vedanā tone to it, a feeling-tone to it. When we walk, when you place the foot on the ground, sometimes the floor is cold or uncomfortable and there's just a slight, very subtle 'unpleasant' there. Or sometimes it's a nice carpet and it feels warm, and it's quite nice to put your foot down. So all moments, every experience.

Now, most people when they hear this think, "Yeah? So what?" Which is understandable. When I first heard it, I was actually -- I didn't like this at all. I thought this was something really not nice, horrible I thought. It made life sound so cold, and in little compartments, and very materialist and reductionistic. I actually stopped practising meditation for four years. [laughter] It wasn't just because of that. But then I was talking with my friend the other day, and she said when she first heard it, it made her feel so much better because she could trace all the difficulty that she was making for herself; all the complexity actually had its roots in something very simple. So for her hearing this, it was fantastic. It's quite interesting. As I went on in practice, I realized it actually is not reductionistic. It's pointing to something very profound and potentially extremely freeing if we only pay attention to this element of our experience. This is something we tend to overlook.

Now, again, for most people, or maybe just some people, some people can feel this right away -- it's very clear in a moment whether it's unpleasant or pleasant or neutral. It's very clear and they have that sensitivity. Other people, it takes quite a while to even -- "What actually is being talked about here?" And so I think for everyone, even if it seems fairly obvious, there's a practice involved of developing the sensitivity to vedanā. It's not only in extreme moments when someone punches you on the nose or something that you feel vedanā. Every moment. So right now, okay, we're sitting here, and there's just the voice coming or whatever -- maybe there's some strong vedanā, "It's really boring." [laughs] But we can develop the subtlety, the sensitivity of the attention. This is what the Buddha is saying, really encouraging us to develop that sensitivity. It takes practice. So to regard it as a practice, to turn the attention towards this vedanā tone, to that aspect of experience, and develop the sensitivity there so that in any moment we're aware, "Ah, yeah, I can feel the pleasantness," even if it's just a little bit, or the unpleasantness, or, "Actually, it's in between."

So the Buddha says a curious thing when he's talking about these foundations of mindfulness. He goes through, and he's talking about the body, and he says, "See the body in the body," and then he says, "See the feeling in the feeling." You think, "What's he talking about, 'see the feeling in the feeling?'" Different people have different opinions about this, but one of the things I think he means is when something is unpleasant, we tend to not just see it as ah, it's just a moment of unpleasant feeling. Instead, what happens? Self, ego comes in. "I'm having an unpleasant meditation because I am a bad person, or I'm lousy, or I'm not very spiritual, or I'm a bad meditator," etc. Self, again, comes in. This is what self does. It wraps itself round. So instead of seeing the vedanā in the vedanā, the feeling-tone in the feeling-tone -- it's just unpleasant, it's just pleasant, it's just neutral -- we make it about me. We make it about me and my life and my history, and not just me -- my parents and my grandparents. Can we just see the feeling in the feeling?

When there's pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, what's also important to notice is that we have a typical reaction to each one. When there's pleasant, we grab on to it, we want to keep hold of it, or we want more of it. When there's unpleasant, we want to get rid of it. And when it's neutral, we're usually just completely not interested, bored, and hoping something more interesting turns up. So all this is very human, very human. But it's in this reaction that the suffering happens. So can we, first of all, notice the vedanā in any moment, then second of all, notice the reaction? If it's pleasant, am I grasping? Am I wanting more of it? If it's unpleasant, am I just pushing it away? If it's neutral, am I spacing out and getting bored? So that's very important, these two aspects: noticing the vedanā and then noticing the reaction.

Now, it's not that we're trying to get rid of vedanā. Actually you can't get rid of vedanā. At one level you can, for a moment, but that's much later on. Basically, any moment has vedanā in it. So to try and get rid of vedanā is pointless. You're not going to succeed. Rather, it's that we want to begin to see certain things about it. We want to see, first of all, what the reaction is. We want to see, also, that they're just coming and going, coming and going, coming and going. Can we see this impermanence of vedanā? Even if we're sitting in meditation, we've got a pain in our knee or in our back, you see -- unpleasant, unpleasant, unpleasant, moment after moment; it actually can't even last. If you really look at it, it's a moment of unpleasant, and a moment of unpleasant, and then it's okay, and then a moment of unpleasant. They're flickering in and out of existence, and you begin to see there's no point even trying to hang on to vedanā because they just come and go. If it's pleasant, it's also impermanent, on a very narrow level and on a larger level. So to notice this impermanence.

And then because it's impermanent, as I said, it's pointless to try and hang on. It's pointless to get too upset about it, because it will pass. It will pass. One of the other teachings of the Buddha, he talks about things in themselves not being able to really satisfy us completely and forever. This is the teaching about dukkha, about unsatisfactoriness. Everything is changing all the time. Just seeing that changing, you see you can't hang on. There's no point hanging on. So we look and we see them changing, we see there's no point in hanging on. They're just happening by themselves. They don't really have much to do with me. It's just happening, it's just happening, it's just happening. If I am able to relax my relationship with these vedanā -- so if it's unpleasant and I notice I'm pushing it away, if I can relax that pushing -- then I might notice something very interesting, that the suffering goes out of the experience. In other words, I can have unpleasant sensations of pain in my knee, but if my relationship with it is relaxed, I'm no longer pushing it away, genuinely relaxed with it, there is no suffering there. The suffering just gradually drains from the experience. So this is why attention to this vedanā becomes so important. Here is a key to freedom. So the vedanā, the feeling-tone in itself, is not a problem. Unpleasant, pleasant, in the middle -- it doesn't matter. The problem comes with our relationship to it, with the relationship.

If you have some experience with this, or if you get some sensitivity to this, what you also see as it goes deeper is that when we relax this pushing away or pulling, we're actually taking away the food for vedanā. So when we push away something that's very unpleasant, that very pushing makes it more unpleasant. We're feeding it by trying to get rid of it. It's completely counterintuitive, because of course we want to get rid of it, but actually the pushing away feeds it. What happens when we relax this pushing away, relax the pulling, is that things begin to calm, to soften, to settle. It's not that everything just becomes grey and completely boring. It's more that a space opens up, a real space of loveliness there. So if you have some experience with this, to begin to see, to look into this pushing and pulling with the vedanā.

Sometimes, too, it's worth playing a little bit between two modes of investigation. We can be quite focused on something -- the breath or sensation in the body or a vedanā -- quite a penetrating focus, or we can be quite spacious in the awareness. So we're sitting here and there's just a sense of space, and maybe there's some unpleasant sensation in the body or pleasant or whatever it is, and because of the spaciousness it's just one thing happening in that space. So there are two ways of using the attention: narrowly and much more spacious. They're both useful. So when we're contemplating the body or the breath or the vedanā, to maybe experiment in a gentle way between these two modes and see what difference does it make.

Okay. Now a general point. With all these instructions that we give, it's an enormous amount of information, and it's not to expect that anyone comes on a week-long retreat and takes it all in and practises everything. It's too much. No one could do that. So just if something stands out for you, take that and explore it a little bit. Discover for yourself that piece. But be simple in the practice and take what speaks to you. The rest you can just -- in one ear and out the other ear, and another time. Okay.

So if you'd like to come into a posture that's upright. If it's possible to connect with some sense of ease in the posture, some sense of openness. So the ease and the alertness balance each other. And then today in the practice, really being anchored in the breath, using the breath as the principal anchor point, focus point, the place of calmness, of collectedness, of simplicity. And then, at times, if the body is really calling the attention, to let the breath go and explore the body in the way that Kobe talked about yesterday. Or sometimes just out of curiosity, we're interested in the life of the body. Or you may decide at some point, "Let me investigate this vedanā. Let me see if I can investigate that in the body or in the other senses." So just intentionally, to let the breath go and focus on the vedanā, explore the vedanā. If ever there's confusion or there seems like too much going on, just to come back to the breath and to nourish oneself with the breath.

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry