Click here for a pdf of this reflection. Other reflections in the Inner Landscape series are:
In the first reflection in this series, we began exploring the inner landscape — what we find when we look inside. We organized this exploration as a three-way conversation between our experience, the Buddha’s commentary, and the sciences of evolutionary psychology and neurology. We used the Buddha’s primary concern – alleviating suffering – to guide us.
We began with the question, “What is suffering?” At the very least it is something we experience. This begs the question, “What is experience?"
The Buddha suggested that experience could be categorized in five different khandas or clusters. We went through all five. However, we skipped lightly over the second khanda, vedana, or the feeling tones of painful, pleasant, or neither.
This reflection picks up there and looks at vedana in detail. It’s important to remember that even though vedana is often translated as “feeling tone” or just “feeling,” it is not emotion. Emotions are complex. Vedana is a component of emotion along with thoughts, beliefs, ideas and more. But vedana itself is just pain, pleasantness, or neither.
Vedana is the stepchild of the khandas. It has been misunderstood and overlooked – but I’m coming to believe it is central to developing an effective meditation practice or a happy life.
When the Buddha said, “All things converge on vedana,” – he was suggesting that vedana is pivotal in our experience. It’s one of the five khanda. It’s the seventh link of Dependent Origination — right in the middle where it gives rise to tanha (craving). It’s the second of the Four Foundations of mindfulness. The four are body sensation, feeling tone (vedana), mind and mind objects. This means vedana is a primary object for mindfulness training.
Despite its importance, there is very little about it in the text. For example, the “Satipatthana Sutta” (Majjhima Nikaya 10) goes on for many pages about the first, third, and fourth foundation. But the second foundation, vedana, has only one paragraph. In its entirety it reads:
And how does a person abide contemplating vedana as vedana? [That is, knows feeling tone directly on its own terms rather than through some other frame of reference.]
Here, when feeling a pleasant vedana, a person understands: I feel a pleasant vedana; when feeling a painful vedana, they understand: ‘I feel a painful vedana; when feeling a neither-painful-nor-pleasant vedana, they understand: 'I feel a neither-painful-nor-pleasant vedana.'
When feeling a worldly pleasant vedana [pleasant sense experience], they understand: 'I feel a worldly pleasant vedana; when feeling an unworldly pleasant vedana [lower jhana without tanha], they understand: I feel an unworldly pleasant vedana; when feeling a worldly painful vedana, they understand: 'I feel a worldly painful vedana';
when feeling an unworldly painful vedana [hindrance when in a jhana], they understand: 'I feel an unworldly painful vedana'; when feeling a worldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant vedana [indifference], he understands: 'I feel a worldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant vedana'; when feeling an unworldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant vedana [equanimity], he understands: 'I feel an unworldly neither-painful-nor-pleasant vedana.'
That’s it. It doesn’t even have my bracketed asides or highlights. The Vedana Samyutta has a little more text, but it doesn’t offer more explanation. We don’t find much about vedana elsewhere.
What the Buddha does say about vedana is that there are three kinds: painful, pleasant, and neither-painful–nor-pleasant.
The terms painful, pleasant, or neither- painful-pleasant might suggest they are on a spectrum from unpleasant to pleasant. So I tended to mush them altogether into a scale that runs from unpleasant to neutral to pleasant or from painful to neutral to delightful.
But the Buddha’s language suggests that there are actually three different kinds of vedana experience: painful vedana, pleasant vedana, and a third vedana that is neither of those.
Remarkably, 2600 years after the Buddha, neural science supports what the Buddha said: there are entirely different systems in the body for each of these three. So let’s look at what science has to say about them.
In the last reflection we noted that neuroscience suggests experience arises out of the information flowing through our system. There is more information than we can possibly attend to. Vedana may be the signal that says, “This information needs more attention.”
Painful vedana signals threat — a safety concern or imbalance may need attention. This might be a threat to physical integrity: there’s a bear in the front yard or there’s rattlesnake on the path. It might be a psychological imbalance like an insult or something is out of place: “Who put the glass in the wrong cupboard?” “Daddy, Billy is putting his hand on my side of the car seat!”
There is a neural system in the body that specializes in picking up signals of pain and threat. We experience them as fear, aversion, anger, hatred, uneasiness, imbalance, and so forth.
All these are painful even if they aren’t physically painful (yet). They may only be mentally uncomfortable. But they are uncomfortable and alert us to a possible danger and push us toward fight or flight.
These signals are sent (mostly) to the most primitive part of the brain — the lower brain stem. Indeed painful vedana feels primal.
Pleasant vedana relates to something the organism needs or wants in order to feel satisfied: food, sleep, water, shelter, sex, and so forth
There is a neural system in the body that specializes in picking up signals of pleasure. When activated, pleasant vedana lures the organism toward an object to satisfy the need.
These signals are sent (mostly) to the brain’s limbic system. When satisfied, the brain tends to release dopamine.
We experience these signals as liking, sweetness, desire, pleasure, and so forth. They create a kind of stickiness of mind that latches onto a pleasant object
Neither-painful-nor-pleasant-vedana arises when the body is awake but the mind is not. The needs for safety, satisfaction, or anything else are dormant. The pain and pleasure systems are quiet. There is very little signal of any kind. The brain’s arousal systems are quiescent.
When the mind is quiet, attentive, relaxed, undisturbed by pain or pleasure, it can become quite equanimous. We feel present, alert, and comfortable.
However, since we aren’t paying attention, there is a risk that we will miss something important and fall into delusion or confusion. There may be a threat to our safety or possibility of need satisfaction that won’t be met because we missed it. Without any arousal, we can be quiet, relaxed and inattentive without awareness. This is unwholesome vedana that is neither-pleasant-nor-painful.
We may experience this vedana as: boredom, stupor, thickness or density of mind, inattentiveness, lack of presence, ho-hum mind, fogginess, indifference, fatigue, and more.
There may be another kind of vedana that Rick Hanson calls a need for connection. It is not neutral. It has an arousal quality that can be positive or negative. So it sounds like painful or pleasurable vedana. However it doesn’t deconstruct into need for safety, satisfaction, or mental attentiveness.
In evolutionary terms, it seems to be more recent — emerging in higher mammals in the last million years or so.
For example, on a whale watch a friend of a friend saw three grey whales protecting seals from being eaten by several orcas. He wondered what would motivate whales to take care of seals? What’s the evolutionary advantage of that?
One advantage is complex but compelling. Intelligent species have complex brains that take a long time to mature. Since they rely more on intelligence than hard-wired instincts to survive, they are relatively helpless until they mature and learn. Bees are born adults. But humans, orcas, and whales (to name a few species) have prolonged childhoods. They depend on parents for protection and wisdom in order to survive. Without their parent’s care and compassion, intelligent children would not grow into adults.
One primary attribute of intelligence is flexibility – the capacity to adapt and learn from experience. So in intelligent creatures, caring and compassion are not narrowly focused. They are generalized and may arise in many situations.
There is no specific evolutionary advantage for whales to protect seals. But there is a huge advantage for a generalized instinct to care for smaller, more helpless creatures.
So wired into us is a huge sensitivity to children in particular and babies in general. If we show a human a picture of a baby person, monkey, lion, wolf puppy, horse, bird, or turtle, we think they’re cute. From a human perspective, there is nothing cute about a baby turtle. But recognizing it as a young animal can trigger feelings of warmth, caring, and protection.
Here’s another example: I woke up one morning to find Lila, our feline family member, curled up next to me, her body pressed against my chest, her front paws on my shoulder, and her chin resting on my chin. She was fast asleep.
All intelligent species seem to have a deep sensitivity to relationships, even to creatures who are a different species.
This 4th vedana is more complex than the first three and probably relates more to the neocortex. The neocortex comes much later in evolution. Connection vedana may not be possible without a neocortex of some significance.
It can be a strong urge or weak, positive or negative. Depending on life experience it may be strengthened or weakened. But it seems necessary for survival of intelligent creatures.
As I said earlier, connection vedana doesn’t really deconstruct into a need for safety or a need for satisfaction. It’s experienced as an urge to connect — to be in heart-felt relationship with another person or group of people. And without enough connection, it may be experienced as loneliness, isolation, or disconnection. One of the most painful experiences for a human may be being shunned, ostracized, or rejected.
After hearing Rick Hanson talk about the possibility of connection vedana and exploring it in my own practice, I have spoken with several other teachers about it. None of them accepted it. They see it as a variation of the three classical types of vedana.
However, I do notice in my meditation that many of my random thoughts are in the form of explaining something to somebody. Sometimes there is an earnestness to my inner voice to try to connect with the person I’m talking to in my mind. It’s as if I want the person to understand me so they’ll connect with me a little more.
Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to relationships or maybe there is some of this in all of us. And whether we think of it as a fourth vedana or a just a variant of the first three, I have found it very helpful to be more attentive to how it works.
Vedana and connection vedana may not in the text so much. But it’s not completely absent either. Here is a passage from the “Maggasaṃyutta,” Samyutta Nikaya No 41.2(2):
Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Sakyans where there was a town of the Sakyans named Nāgaraka. Then the Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, sat down to one side, and said to him: “Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop.
The Buddha seems to place a lot of importance on healthy, heart-felt compassion. Still, the Buddha was a guy. So he may not have emphasized relationship as much he would have if he had been a woman.
Or maybe relationships aren’t emphasized in the text because his teachings were passed down through patriarchal cultures that stressed individuality more than relationship — the Buddha’s teachings about relationship may have been diminished by unconscious bias.
Considering these possibilities, it may be helpful to correct the distortion in the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings by looking at it more carefully.
Remember, vedana signals a need for safety (from a threat or imbalance), satisfaction (of a need), clarity (in confusion), or connection (with others). We tend not to notice the signal because we’re too busy acting on it.
If a saber-toothed tiger walks up the path and we get engrossed in how awful that makes us feel inside, we’re more likely to be eaten than if all our attention is riveted on the tiger. If we see a lovely piece of fruit and get engrossed in how lovely it might taste, some other creature may get it before us. If we see a beautiful/handsome person and get engrossed in how good that makes us feel, they’re more likely to pass us by than if we attend to them
So these signals impel us to quickly focus attention on the beast, food, or person rather than our inner feelings. We may not notice the vedana.
The Buddha suggested it is very helpful to see vedana as vedana — to notice the signal itself apart from the object that triggers it. But he didn’t offer any techniques for doing it. We may have to come up with our own.
Here’s a simple technique created by one of my teachers, Tony Bernhard. He calls it a “mental app” which he named “The Vedana Meter.” Rather than installing the app on our smart phone, we install it in our mind. His version focuses only on the pleasant and painful dimensions of vedana. Here’s how it works:
You walk into the doctor’s office and say, “My foot is sore.” The doctor asks, “On a scale from zero to ten where zero is pain-free and ten is excruciating, how intense is the pain?”
After a moment’s reflection, it’s easy to give numbers: “In the morning, it’s usually a two. In the evening it’s a six. Right now it’s four and a half.” Those numbers are measures of painful vedana.
We could also set up a measure of pleasantness: “On a scale from zero to ten where zero is boring and ten is total delight, how is eating that cookie?” “…petting a kitten?” “…spring flowers?” “…your favorite music?”
The Vedana Meter has both scales. The pain scale runs from pain-free to the worst intensity you could experience without blacking out. The pleasant scale runs from ho-hum to the loveliest rush we could know without blissing out.
It’s also possible to combine both scales into one that runs from intense pain on one end to neutral in the middle and intense pleasure on the other end.
To create your vedana meter, imagine such a scale in your mind. You can design it any way you like. Tony’s looks like a circular car speedometer. Zero on the left is the most painful. Ten on the right is the most wonderful. Five in the middle is neutral.
The first image in my mind was a horizontal bar that ran from -10 on the left (torture) to 0 in the middle (neutral) to +10 on the right (bliss).
Another yogi’s vedana meter resembled a stereo equalizer with different scales for different frequencies.
Close your eyes for a moment and bring an image to mind of your meter. Once you have it, have a friend read the following words to you. Or if you’re alone, you can read them to yourself.
Notice how your meter responds to each. What’s important is not what you think about the phenomenon but how pleasant or painful it feels. See how these register on your meter:
Chocolate ice cream
Child on a swing set
A glass of milk
Sun on your face
Your 1st grade teacher
Stubbing your toe
Once you’re familiar with how your meter responds to a variety of experiences, you’re ready to bring it into meditation and life. For example, what does your meter register for this moment? Then notice it in other situations as you move through your day or various objects come to mind in meditation.
When I first tried out my app, it seemed pretty simple — perhaps even simplistic. But the results were unexpected.
To my surprise, I realized I’m basically happy most of the time. My meter is usually in the 3 or 4 range. As the day flows along, it sometimes dips to a -4 or -5. Sometimes it rises to a 6 or 7. But mostly it hovers in a moderately positive range.
This threw me a little. If you ask me at a random time how I’m doing, the first thoughts that pop into my mind are complaints. Those negative thoughts are the product of childhood conditioning a long time ago. Yet today, my thoughts still tend to say “I’m a -2 today” when my actual vedana meter is usually more of a +3. I didn’t realize how different my thought content could be from my mood.
Another surprise was how much I enjoy thinking. While meditating, I often view a thought sprint as an annoyance. But when I’m thinking, the meter can go up to a 6 or 7. The thought content can be negative while the process of thinking can be pleasurable.
Seeing how pleasurable thinking can be has made it easier to not fight thoughts. I understand the mind’s attraction to them. Rather than push them away, I can take in the pleasant vedana and release the thought content. The underlying uplifting quality can be healing if I don’t fight it. I don’t have to get lost in the content of the thoughts. That content can be released. I just rest in the pleasantness behind the specific thoughts and let it radiate outward.
Another observation I’ve had and heard from others is what happens when vedana is in the negative range. If I see that feeling tone with dispassionate interest, the meter tends to move in a positive direction on its own.
I’ve come to appreciate that vedana – the pre-verbal painful and pleasant dimensions of everyday experience – may be so subtle as to be under-noticed. Yet it may have tantalizing insights to share if we learn to listen to its moods with an opening heart and a quieting mind.
As I mentioned earlier, one difficulty in recognizing vedana is that it is a signal, which can trigger an urge. The Pali terms for these urges are tanha or chanda meaning respectively unwholesome or wholesome desire.
Psychologists and neural scientists call these “drive states” — we want to do something and are gently or strongly compelled to act. If the urge is for safety or balance, the vedana signal will be unpleasant: pain, fear, aversion, or anger that urges us to fight or flight. Anger tends to trigger aggression. Aversion tends to trigger flight.
If the urge is for satisfying a need, the vedana signal will be pleasant: a sweet desire or wanting that draws us toward the object. If the urge is for connection, the vedana signal might be loneliness or disconnection.
So there is the signal (vedana) that can trigger a drive state (tanha or chanda) that moves us toward or away from the object. The drive states themselves (chanda and tanha) can be so strong that they mask the vedana. We are less conscious of the signal and more conscious of the object or the drive to move toward or away.
Nevertheless, it is possible for something to be strongly negative and slide off us like water off a duck. And it’s possible for something to be strongly pleasant, and have very little urge to act.
So it’s important to be able to notice not only how painful or pleasant something is but also how strong the urge is to do something about it. Some things can be very pleasant but I’m fine whether I have it or not. Sometimes I’m compulsively driven. And sometimes I’m in between.
Tanha is a good candidate for a mental app. Tony Bernhard calls it a “Wanting Meter.” Rather than measuring pain or pleasantness, it measures the intensity of desire or aversion — wanting to be rid of something or wanting something.
We can create a Wanting Meter in a manner similar to creating a Vedana Meter: produce a mental image of a scale that runs from powerful aversion to neutral to powerful desire. Then add numbers to the scale. That’s it.
The Wanting Meter may not need to be pre-calibrated. We pre-calibrated the Vedana Meter by thinking of various painful and pleasant sensations and seeing how the meter responded to each.
But the intensity of wanting is not tied as directly to raw sensations. For me, chocolate often produces pleasant vedana. Sometimes I crave chocolate; other times I can take it or leave it. The pleasantness of chocolate may stay the same but the strength of wanting can vary widely.
An insulting remark might trigger hatred or mild annoyance or indifference or even slight pleasantness that someone is actually paying attention to me.
Thoughts might be fueled by a powerful craving to solve a problem or by a faint wondering.
Since the intensity of desire or aversion for a specific object can vary, pre-calibrating the Tanha Meter is less effective or necessary. We can simply start using it.
The Vedana Meter I described does not envision all aspects of vedana — just the painful and pleasant dimensions.
As I became aware of the possibility of another kind of vedana — relational vedana — a little checkbox appeared next to the meter in my mind. If the vedana had anything to do with relationships — even if only the mind explaining something to someone — that little box was checked. Sometimes, instead of a checkbox, there was a light that was on or off.
As I became aware that neither-painful-non-pleasant vedana was more than a zero point on the other scales, I added another scale that went from clear mind to thick-foggy mind.
But adding that to the mental image made it more complex. The complexity became a distraction. So I dropped it but remained attentive to how clear or blurry awareness was even without a new scale.
Depending on your temperament, you may find it helpful to upgrade your Vedana Meter to version 2.0 that includes a relationship relevance indicator and a mental-clarity scale. Or you may find it more helpful to keep in simple.
Without the urge to move away from or toward, there would have been no evolutionary advantage to the signal. So once an urge is active, the signal has done its job and may recede into the background. That is one reason vedana is hard to notice.
Tanha is seen as the weak point in the chain of Dependent Origination. It’s seen as the easiest place to release tension and stop the flow toward suffering.
When we relax tension, we may notice the vedana — the signal that triggers the tanha. With that awareness, we become familiar with a place before the tanha arises. There is a tiny bit of tension in vedana. If we can see it and relax, tanha is stopped before it can even start.
We don’t have to alleviate suffering. All we need to do is relax the tension before suffering arises.
That puts us on the path to true freedom.
Anguttara Nikaya, Book Nine, No. 14
Others in the Inner Landscape series:
Copyright 2018 by Doug Kraft
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