The “first foundation” of mindfulness is the body, which involves being aware of the physical sensations of the body, the body’s posture, how we move, and so on. The second foundation is “feelings.” Feelings are internally generated pleasant and unpleasant sensations that arise in the body. This isn’t so much sensations like the physical pain that comes from an aching back (although that’s included). More important are the the pleasant or unpleasant sensations that arise, mainly around the heart and gut, which are produced by the brain, through the action of hormones and the vagus nerve. These pleasant and unpleasant sensations tell us whether we like or dislike something, or whether some experience is a potential threat or benefit.
They’re important because much of what goes on in the third foundation of mindfulness—the mind itself—results as a result of reactions to our feelings. Since what the mind does either creates more suffering, or relieves us of suffering, it’s crucial for us to learn to be more mindful and accepting of feelings.
Many of us, myself included, started off our practice being rather vague about what feelings actually are, or how we might go about observing them. I don’t recall ever having been given much guidance in that regard, and when I first tried to be mindful of my feelings often found myself confused about what exactly I was looking for. But feelings are very ordinary. They’re arising in our experience all the time.
So help you practice being mindful of your feelings, I’d like to offer a “Look and Feel Exercise,” which might take you five to ten minutes:
Look and Feel Exercise
Wherever you are now, just let yourself relax. Let the eyes soften a little. Spend a minute or so becoming more aware of sensations arising in the body, including the sensations of the breathing.
Now, begin to let your gaze slowly roam around, alighting on various objects. As you do this, notice any sensations that arise in the body, and especially in the heart or solar plexus. At the most basic level there will be certain things that you don’t like to see and that are unpleasant, some that you find pleasant, and some that your attention skips right over because you have no feelings about them.
Some things your gaze settles on may give rise to unpleasant feelings. You might be aware of a pile of unpaid bills, or a cobweb, or something that’s in need of repair. Where does unpleasantness manifest itself? Perhaps some of it takes the form of tension in certain muscles. Often it’s experienced as a tightening or twisting sensation in the gut, a sense of tension or tingling around the diaphragm, or as a sinking feeling around the heart. Notice those feelings as objects of attention. Stand back and observe them with interest.
Some things your gaze settles on may evoke pleasant feelings. If you’re outdoors this might be a tree, flowers, or a dog playing. If you’re indoors this might be a painting, photograph, or furnishings. How do you know you find these things pleasant? Where are those pleasant feelings? What are they like? Do they feel like softness, or warmth, or openness? Again, notice them with curiosity and interest.
Now, was there anything your gaze skipped over? Perhaps a bare patch of wall or floor, or a door? Probably your attention wasn’t drawn to those things because no feelings were evoked as they entered your gaze. Return to them now, and see whether they remain neutral, or whether feelings do in fact arise as you attend to them.
Lastly, bring your attention to the colors of things. Certain colors may evoke pleasurable or unpleasurable responses, but each color produces a different response: a red cushion produces a different effect from a blue one, although it’s hard to describe the difference.
Patterns and textures also evoke feelings. A patterned rug leads to different feelings compared to a wooden floor or plain carpet, even when both are experienced as pleasant.
Try this “Look and Feel” exercise several times, in different environments: at home, at work, outdoors, while walking or driving. Aim to notice feelings coming into being and passing away as your attention moves from one thing to another. As best you can, observe these feelings without reacting to them, just allowing them to be present. When we’re observing mindfully in this way, the mind doesn’t react to our feelings, and we experience a greater sense of peace.