Feeling Tones, Perceptions, and Mental Formations
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, offered a helpful description of feeling tones:
"There is a river of feelings within us, and every drop of water in the river is a feeling. To observe our feelings, we sit on the side of the river and identify each feeling that flows by. It may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A feeling lasts for a while, and then another comes. Meditation is to be aware of each feeling. Recognize it, smile to it, look deeply into it, and embrace it with all your heart. If we continue to look deeply, we discover the true nature of that feeling, and we are no longer afraid, even of a painful feeling. We know we are more than our feelings, and we are able to embrace each feeling and take good care of it."
Identifying the Feeling Tones and Their Associated Volitional Energy
The traditional instructions for establishing mindfulness put a strong emphasis on the importance of bringing a wise awareness to our feelings to understand and work with them. To work with feeling tones, we first need to understand what feelings are and are not.
Feeling tones are basic functions of mind. They are said to be the basic "flavor" or "tone" of our experience. It is the degree of pleasantness or unpleasantness associated with a given object, life circumstance, or state of mind.
Feeling tones are more basic than emotions. Feeling tones are, however, deeply interrelated to mental formations (thoughts and emotions). We will be working with mental formations in a future lesson, but for now, we will work directly with feeling tones and their related volitional energy.
- Pleasant Feeling Tone and Desire: Pleasant feeling tones arise when we identify with an experience as being pleasant. We come into contact with an object, through the six senses and we recognize it as pleasant. It is important to understand that the object is received as being pleasant because we perceive it to be so. When we take an object to be pleasant, we tend to see its pleasant characteristics. We have desire for it and we tend to cling to it, thinking that our happiness depends upon it. This is often called "desire for being".
- Unpleasant Feeling Tone and Aversion: Unpleasant feeling tones arise when we identify with an experience as being unpleasant. We come into contact with an object, through the six senses, and we recognize it as unpleasant. It is important to understand that the object is received as being unpleasant because we perceive it to be so. When we take an object to be unpleasant, we tend to see its unpleasant characteristics. We have an aversion to it, and we tend to push it away, thinking that our happiness depends upon it not being present. This is often called "desire for not being".
- Neutral Feeling Tones and Ignorance: Neutral feeling tones arise when we are indifferent to an experience. When we identify with an experience as being neutral, it is neither registered as pleasant or unpleasant. We come into contact with an object, through the six senses and we recognize it as neutral. It is important to understand that the object is received as being neutral because we perceive it to be so. When we take an object to be neutral, we tend not to pay much attention to its characteristics and become attached.
Mindfulness of Feeling Tones and their Associated Volitional Energies
Perception and feeling tones arise each time contact occurs at the six sense spheres. Every moment of our life experience has a feeling tone associated with it. Despite the fact that feeling tones are ever-present, they tend to remain below the surface of our conscious awareness, profoundly influencing our state of heart-mind.
We tend to overlook the feeling tones. It is difficult to see them because we have a tendency to get caught in our reactivity to them instead. We confuse the object with our feelings, telling ourselves that “this object is unpleasant or pleasant.” Or we get caught up in the reactive emotions, concepts, and thoughts that have been triggered by the feeling tone.
Mindfulness asks us to bring our practice to the feeling tones themselves. We learn how to identify the current state of feeling tones in our present moment experience.
Continuing with the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, "Looking deeply into each feeling, we identify its roots as being in our bodies, our perceptions, or our deep consciousness. Understanding feeling is the beginning of this transformation. We learn to embrace even our strong emotions with the energy of mindfulness until they are calmed down. We practice mindfulness of breathing, focusing our attention on the rise and fall of our abdomen and take good care of our emotions, just as we would take good care of our baby brother or sister. We practice looking deeply into our feelings and emotions and identify the nutriments that have brought them into being. We know that we are able to offer ourselves nutriments that are more wholesome, we can transform our feelings and emotions. Our feelings are formations, impermanent, and without substance. We learn not to identify ourselves with our feelings, not to consider them as self, not to seek refuge in them, not to die because of them. This practice helps us cultivate non-fear, and it frees us from the habit of clinging, even clinging to suffering."