Vedana — Nothing is Neutral, or is it?

The Buddha placed the notion of “feeling tones” pretty high up in his teachings. Known in Sanskrit as vedana, these feeling-tones refer to the way sensations and thoughts get sorted by our minds into pleasant, unpleasant or neither.

When hearing this, my first thought was always “what about feelings that are both pleasant and unpleasant, like nostalgia?” But I’ve since come to think of a single hit of nostalgia as actually a constellation of many different sensations and vedana.

These vedana have been coming to the fore in my sitting meditation practice lately, usually with some kind of reminiscence woven in, and it got me thinking …

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The pleasant / unpleasant feels often get the most attention from our conscious mind. You could say that a main function of having an attention span is to limit our exposure to the details by tuning out the neutral vedana as “inconsequential”. There is good reason for this: take a scene like sitting beside a stream in a forested glade with bird and insect life all around, the smells, the feeling of the sun’s warmth. There is simply too much sensory input to process through our focused attention span without overwhelming ourselves. Instead, most of it fades into the background, our peripheral awareness. Or else never even enters our field of experience at all. There are whole brain circuits in charge of keeping input out of our mind.

This is one reason why in meditation often we close our eyes. We tend to favour quieter locations. Because during meditation we are making a deliberate attempt to be as aware as possible. This has powerful effects on those input-dampening brain circuits. It requires, at least initially, that we create an environment with less input, so that we can focus more intently on noticing every sensation that is present.

I’ve found that even after meditation (so, off the cushion as it were) there is a lot to be gained from being a little more mindful of the full spectrum of feeling including the neutral. For one thing, the neutral tones are far more numerous than the rest, and so by becoming more aware of them we are coming closer to a complete experience of life. Also, there is something to be said for coming to see the world less as a source of entertainment and conflict.

A more comprehensive awareness of the plainness of reality promotes a kind of sensory moderation that in itself is liberating from the push and pull of striving and attainment. Think of how a flower grows on time-lapse through day and night, wind and sun and rain, with a total lack of vainglory and a simple impression of selfless expression. Total surrender to its own being with no regard for right or wrong, sun or rain, pleasant or unpleasant.

Thirdly, there is an important amount of insight in the very arbitrariness of these “neutral” experiences — the sound of the refrigerator kicking in. Bzzzzzzz… reality. Mundane reality. Not a psychodrama of wonder, delight and horror. Just … refrigerator turning on. Chains of cause and effect. Neighbour loads a trailer. A smell of smoke.

And then you have the Tantric viewpoint, which takes neutral beyond the mundane, with realizations that bring deep insight even from the neutral vedana. If we take the object of these neutral feeling tones into deeper awareness they have the same capacity to reveal the nature of mind as any other experience. Tantrikas place great weight on the insight that all phenomena are “intrinsically luminous” — even the mundane. Even the agonisingly painful. All can be taken skilfully as objects for deepening consciousness.

In Buddha’s original teachings, in fact there are no true categories of feeling, not to the Enlightened Ones. All is simply taken as “such”. This is the essence of equanimity — full comprehension of the entire input stream, without preference for any of the vedana. All simply are in possession of suchness — tathātā. That page is a highly worthwhile read. And another name for the Buddha? Tathāgāta: “one who goes such”.

A human. Transmuted, through the effortless effort to let things be just as they are, into a frictionless passage for cause and effect, in each moment synchronised with and manifesting of the beginningless and endless suchness of reality.

Let this be the goal and the actual attainment of all beings.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle. — Thích Nhất Hạnh