Feelings (written 2015)
It's not uncommon to find science related books and magazines in our home. We all have an interest, though the particular topics of interest vary. So, recently, in the Christmas loot, Discover Magazine's issue of the top 100 science stories showed up. The title of #78 caught my eye: “Plotting the Pattern of Emotion”. The surprise discovery was “...our sensations are preloaded with emotions.”
This is indeed an important discovery, only it's not. It's a confirmation of what the Buddha taught some 2500 years ago. Sensation, he found in his own body laboratory, comes pre-loaded with a “feeling tone”. That is, whatever enters the sensory gates, whether that be hearing, sight, smell, taste or touch, and he included thought, counting the mind as a sense gate, will be perceived as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
What science has been able to add to this is observation by an external party of the actual firing of brain cells, noting that neurons firing in one direction will accompany a participant's report of positive feelings, and in the other direction of negative. “Our subjective feelings” the article goes on to say,”are actually intertwined with perception.”
The Buddha made it clear that we should not just accept what he said as true, but should examine our own experience. Science is the method of examination that Westerners tend to most readily accept. But each of us can confirm these external affirmations by looking closely at our own personal and private experience. Touch a horse's soft nose, and the velvety sensation is immediately perceived as pleasant. If the horse objects and bites your hand, that new touch sensation will be unpleasant. A bowl full of glowing summer fruit is a pleasant sight, and if you lean in for a sniff, you may be rewarded by a sweet and pleasant aroma. A week later in the heat, the unpleasant smell may draw your attention before you look reluctantly towards the shriveled and leaky fruit.
What is the importance of this knowledge for a person striving to live mindfully? The importance is in what happens a nano second later. We move instinctively toward what is pleasant and away from what is not. We are caught like a fish on a hook and if we are not aware of being caught we begin a chain of behaviors that lead inevitably to suffering.
Let's revisit the horse. If the horse does bite, we may well react in anger. As we might with the child who doesn't obey, the spouse who says something hurtful, the clerk who can't answer our query, the neighbor who doesn't share our views on how loud it is appropriate to play music. What is traditionally called “aversion”, the instinctive pushing away of all that is unpleasant, leads to endless cases of conflict, from a scuffle in the schoolyard, to slammed doors and ultimately to violence and wars. The instinctive wish to get rid of what seems to be the cause of suffering, escalates the suffering itself through the mental anguish of struggle.
“Clinging”, the instinctive movement toward, the holding onto what is pleasant, is no less painful in the long run. It is clinging that leads us to deny aging, to keep smoking because it “calms” us, to become overly possessive of a friend or lover. And when we grow old anyway, or our breathing becomes painful, or the friend or lover leaves, we exacerbate our pain in thinking mistakenly that it should have been otherwise.
One aspect of mindfulness is to train in seeing the emotional tone, the feeling tone which accompanies sensation. Without the benefit of expensive scientific equipment, each of us is in the unique position of being able to see this, when we train in looking. Over and over, life gives us the opportunity to not swallow the hook, falling into old patterns of reactivity. Instead, we train each time we see the bait, to swim around it with curiosity, letting it swing there in the water undisturbed.