Feeling is not a choice

These days it's a commonplace of Dharma teaching to be encouraged to practise in a more 'embodied' way. I can think of any number of people in Triratna teaching like this, quite apart from myself, and it also goes for other traditions. 'Bring it down into the body', 'come from the body… do mettā-bhavana from the heart… make it physical' they say. Is this just another new age fad - is it really dharma?

Yes, it is really dharma. It certainly springs from a peculiarly modern need, the need for a disembodied society to come down to earth, and that probably explains the trendiness some find fault in. But the need is not limited to our time - in fact Reginald Ray argues that the tendency towards disembodied, abstract human ideals arose universally in the centuries before the Buddha's birth and that his ideas were part of a revolution against it - the
Śramanic revolution.

The Buddha placed body awareness right at the centre of his teaching. It is is the nub of his teaching of prat
ītyasamutpāda, the insight that induced in him full Awakening. Body is a necessary condition for sense contact; because of sense contact, pleasant or painful feeling happens; because of particular feelings, strong preferences and attachments arise that are addictive. This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs, but it can be reversed.

If you look directly into your experience, you'll see it for yourself. What you notice and feel, when you stop and observe what is happening in your experience, is body. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches and perceptions, are all based on the sense organs, all of which are located in and on your body. And each object of sense perception - including mental perceptions, taking mind as a sixth sense perceiving mental objects - comes laden, automatically, with a quality of feeling. Each sight, each sound, each smell, each taste, each touch and each mental perception feels either pleasant, painful, or somewhere in between the two - it has some feeling quality. 'Feeling' is a slightly ambiguous word; the P
āli/Sanskrit it translates is vedanā, which would be better rendered as 'sensation-feeling'. It is feeling as a sensation (e.g. 'the feeling in my leg'), not an emotion (e.g. 'my feeling of distrust'). So the vedana of a sound or something you see is how that feels as a sensation. It's important to get this, because the feeling of something as a sensation is the basis for our likes and dislikes. Unlike the basic passive feeling, the pleasant and painful vedana, your likes and dislikes are active emotional reactions. And on the basis of likes and dislikes, and the emotions that emerge from those, everyone is building their character and their entire world - the network of relationships with people and things.

Feeling - vedana - is not a choice. When we taste something we don't choose whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant. That's why I call feeling 'passive'. We are passive to it. But at the next stage we do have a choice - or at least, a degree of choice. Whether on tasting that item we become upset or delighted, depressed or anxious, is somewhat under our control. The basic experience of its being unpleasant or pleasant, or somewhere between, is not under our control.

Do you get this - do you see how wide ranging the implications are? All our experience, from before we open our eyes in the morning, comes loaded with vedana. So all our experience is tempting us to react with some kind of emotion, a like or a dislike that can move instantly into hatred, resentment, irritation, desire, longing, envy, sadness, misery, elation, excitement.

This is the
subtle key of dharma. Sangharakshita says in 'Living With Awareness' (p.74) that being able to identify feelings (in the sense of vedana) is what makes it possible for us to follow the Buddhist path." When we notice pleasant feeling, we tune into our tendency to react with liking, then with a whole range of other emotions. Negative emotions like craving, elation, fantasy, heavy attachment, disappointment, self-serving or dishonesty. Noticing when the present feeling-tone is unpleasant empowers us also to notice the potential in us for emotions of dislike, then perhaps depression, low self view, anger, rage, fury, hatred, as well as more complex reactions like fear, concealment and pretence.

Of course your emotional response does not have to be negative! Of course, pain may evoke courage, compassion, kindness. Pleasure can give rise to generosity, honesty, empathy, or any other positive emotion, for positive emotion is by nature flexible and independent of the feeling it is responding to. However what most empowers you to respond positively is awareness of the feeling that is present. That most of all is 'what makes it possible to follow the Buddhist path'.

Present day alienation from the basic experience of the body automatically dulls awareness of feeling, since it obscures the subtlety of sensation itself. You just don't notice touches, sights and perceptions so much; so you don't notice their feeling-tone; so you don't notice the emotional reactions building up. So the tendency will be for more negative emotionality to build up.