The second foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of feelings. In the practice of mindfulness, feelings are not the same as emotions. Rather what is referred to as feelings includes three possible perceptions of inner or outer experience: 1) pleasant, 2) unpleasant, and 3) neutral.
We can have feelings about both external and internal experiences. External experiences are those which are perceived through the senses of touch, taste, sound, smell, and sight. Inner experience is that which arises without the contact with the senses and includes things like thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Most of us are strongly conditioned to pay attention to the external world of people and things; however, the more connected we are to the inner world, the less dependent we are on outer circumstances over which we have little control.
The three feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral determine how we relate to both outer and inner experience. We are conditioned to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, so our behavior often consists of unexamined, impulsive reactions to these perceptions.
Each feeling tone can bring emotions – a pleasant feeling tone may be correlated with satisfaction, pleasure, desire, enjoyment, or comfort, an unpleasant feeling tone is often correlated with fear, irritation, frustration, anger, confusion, or sadness, and a neutral feeling tone might be correlated with boredom, restlessness, apathy, or emptiness.
We instinctively grasp at and cling to that which we perceive as pleasant, resist what we see as unpleasant, and ignore or discount the neutral – and we unconsciously make up elaborate stories to justify our actions. We can get locked into our habitual responses which can cause suffering for ourselves and others.
Fortunately we can learn to tune into our relationship to feelings by watching our responses to inner and outer experience. This can be cultivated through meditation. With practice we become aware of habits, strategies, and urges in responding to what is perceived as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. We can then begin to ask some questions about our responses; “Are my responses useful? Is a response even necessary?” This may give us space to make wiser choices and have the flexibility to respond or not respond in a way that reduces suffering.
When we spend the majority of our time unconsciously clinging to desires and pleasurable experiences, we limit ourselves and we are not open to the entirety of reality. Gil Fronsdal makes the analogy of mind as a fist versus an open hand. He describes some of the limited uses of a fist – fighting, clinging, resisting, bracing oneself, or holding on for dear life. But he says that chronically making a fist prevents the hand from functioning at its full capacity. He talks of the broader usefulness of an unclenched hand – softness for caring for self and others, openness for sensing the world and receiving, flexibility for adapting to different tasks, and letting go of that which is no longer useful.
The ability to tap into inner resources and remain open to whatever is here in a given moment allows us to live with greater freedom and ease no matter what the external circumstances may be.