Being aware of feelings
The next “stage” of walking meditation is paying attention to feelings.
The word “feeling” has a specialized meaning in Buddhist meditation practice. In everyday speech, we use the feeling to refer to a number of different things. We might say, for example, that someone’s skin feels cold. Here we are referring to a physical sensation. We might also say that we feel angry – here referring to an emotion. By “feelings” in the context of Buddhist meditation practice we mean neither of these things.
The word feeling (vedana) refers to a basic sense of liking/disliking, or comfort/discomfort, or pleasure/displeasure (feelings can also be neutral, if you’re not sure whether you like or dislike them). These feelings are gut-level responses that are less developed than emotions like anger, or love, or joy, or sadness.
Feelings often stand between sensations and emotions. For example, you turn up in the office one day, and find that a co-worker is using a particularly pungent perfume that you don’t like. There is the sensation of the perfume itself. Then there is a gut-level response that you don’t like this particular smell (that’s the feeling), and then there is a variety of emotions that you might experience in response to that feeling; emotions such as anger, or compassion (on a good day).
We experience feelings in relation to just about every sensation we perceive, whether visual, or auditory, or tactile, or whatever. Particular colors have their own feeling tone — that’s why we have favorite colors: we like the feelings that those colors evoke. There are some sounds that we enjoy hearing (our favorite music) and some that we dislike (some other people’s music). There are also odors and tastes that we involuntarily like or dislike. And physical contact can be pleasant or unpleasant too, of course.
When we are doing walking meditation, there will be feelings associated with the body, from a niggling pain, to a pleasant feeling of relaxation. There will also be feelings associated with things that we see, and hear, and with all of the other sensory modalities that we experience – including those that are imagined. Thoughts and images that arise in the mind also have feelings associated with them.
In paying attention to feelings, the important thing is simply to notice them without either clinging to them or pushing them away. When we are unaware, it is very common for the mind to start grasping after experiences associated with pleasant feelings.
An example would be when I talked earlier about walking past shop window displays. The shopkeeper has arranged goods and advertising in the window that he or she hopes will give rise to pleasant feelings. She or he doesn’t do this just in order to make your life more pleasant however. He or she hopes that the emotion of desire will cause you to stop and look, and possibly even to come in to the shop and make a purchase.
We also respond emotionally to unpleasant feelings. So you might, as in another example above, feel anger towards the colleague who has such bad taste in perfume. Anger is a form of aversion or rejection.
In practicing mindfulness, we’re trying to be more aware of how our experience moves from sensation, to feeling, to emotion, so that we have more choice over what emotions we experience. Of course, the aim in meditation is to cultivate positive emotions and to eradicate negative emotions. So we try simply to notice what feelings arise, without letting our mind unmindfully stray into negative emotional patterns.