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Everything Leans

"Deep is this dependent origination, and deep its appearance."

"Whoever sees dependent origination sees the Dharma;
whoever sees the Dharma sees dependent origination."

- Buddha [MN:28, DN:15]


Explore Dependent Origination

VEDANA - BEYOND REACTIVITY


Stabilising the Practice

The following practice is an insight practice. It presumes that you are already familiar with the practices of guiding and sustaining attention on your breath and body. Some degree of stability in the attention is necessary for insight practices. If you're not able to sustain your attention on an object for more than a few breaths, you might find this difficult to do.

You're welcome to continue reading and exploring this vedana based approach. But it might make more sense to practice with developing mindfulness of body and gathering an embodied mind first. See how it goes, you can always return to the foundational practice of cultivating loving awareness after having more of a sense of where practice can lead.

Changing Gears

We can use the gift of presence to pay attention to what is right here and now. This can make a real difference, particularly when our attention meets phenomena that are quite obvious but aren’t receiving the fullness of attention. That is a profoundly helpful practice, it may be the essential practice to do for most of us most of the time. Yet in this meditation we are going to turn the lens of attention towards something that is here and now, but is probably not obvious.

Vedana is a Subtle Ever-Present Factor in any Experience

A direct translation of vedana would be sensation, or feeling. But we get closer to the full meaning by using an uncommon word (adopted from Greek) - ‘hedonic’; this literally refers to pleasant or unpleasant sensations. We could say vedana is the categorisation of phenomena by the hedonic response they elicit. Which although quite accurate may need quite a bit more unpacking.

Whenever a phenomena makes contact through a sense door there is a vedana. To give an example, whenever we hear a sound, we automatically define it as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant.1

Take Three

Pleasant, Unpleasant, & Neither-Nor are the three hedonic responses outlined by the Buddha. Three is enough to cover everything. We could say in colloquial terms, we determine that something is either nice, not nice, or neither-nice-nor-not-nice.

Where Did it Come From?

This makes a lot of sense if we think evolutionarily. We could propose that it is rooted in the automatic preconscious movement of finding out if this new event-object is lunch (prey), or is about to make me lunch (predator), or is neither.

Where is this Leading?

When we would have encountered these types of things they would have developed into three types of automatic responses: recognising food collects the mood of wanting; threat provokes aversion; neither, ignoring and boredom. All three of these automatic responses are dukkha; they are all craving, including boredom with its inherent wanting something else, & not wanting the ‘this’ that currently is.

Vedana and the potential for escalation into dukkha is present in every experience, regardless of its life threatening or life essential level of import. It's always there, which is so insightful to hear about. Because if you're like me, you didn't notice it was happening, and knowing about vedana can make for a radical change in how we live.

Ways to Practice

Our practice is to not escalate from vedana into dukkha. There are two insight practices that open to vedana and develop non-craving modes of response. I call them 'Never Give Up' & 'Hidden in Plain Sight'. Both of them are rooted in an understanding that any experience can evoke any vedana. It depends. It is not that all moments of gentle touch are pleasant, and all moments of pressure are unpleasant. All the context and conditioning matter, not least of all our mood and way of looking.

1 - Never Give Up

This is a term used by many people, but I am inspired to borrow this phrase from the Dalai Lama, mostly because thinking of HH has a pleasant vedana to it. In our vedana practice it refers to staying steady and simple; resting attention at contact with noticing the vedana that is present. We are bringing attention to something we were not attending to, so it might feel like it should be hard to find. Yet for most people it is not difficult to sense the vedana's impact, even if we can't access the moment of categorisation.

Feel the contact of your body with the floor or seat you're in. Notice that in addition to the sensations, you can have a sense of whether this is pleasant, unpleasant, or neither-nor. In this attentive mode we are not so reactive to the pleasant or unpleasant sensation. When we pay attention to vedana we are less likely to fall into 'tanha' (craving - demanding). We are less entangled in it, not so identified with it, and thereby not contributing to escalation momentum. If I notice this noise is unpleasant, that is an acknowledgement of it's perceived reality. If I don't notice I will likely develop a story about why it shouldn't be happening, and possibly looking for someone, or something to blame, or find fault with.

Resting at Vedana is Simultaneously more Spacious and more Intimate

Rather than being in an outer orbit of a 'tanha' relationship ("I must get, or get rid of this"), we come in a layer and get closer to the phenomena. This practice also reveals or manifests something more pleasant because it moves us into a vaster space that has more allowance and less contraction. We'll see more about this in the guided practice below.

2 - Hidden in Plain Sight

This term is taken from the cryptography field of steganography, where something essential is hidden in common articles, like a code encrypted into a picture.

In our practice this refers not just to the uncommon event of looking for the vedana, but specifically to paying closer and more interested attention to the neither-nor experiences. Most of the phenomena of a lifetime are not going to hit a high scale of pleasant or unpleasant. Furthermore, things we wouldn't want to lose are overlooked. If you have functional eyesight you probably haven't been that appreciative of it for many days. Yet you would really miss it if it started to fail.

Whether it is something classified as unimportant, boring or ignorable, that experience has been overlooked and subtly rejected. Yet we can turn to the unseen, and choose to bring it more fully into view. If we hold attention here amazingly the experience becomes more pleasant. Let's explore why that happens via a little theory about the practice.

The Nature of Attention is not Neutral

Maybe you already see this, but let's break it down, for it is another key revelation of Dependent Origination. When we pay attention to someone we meet, it is an act of kindness and care (metta). In many ways that is what we like about meeting people; the reciprocity of kind attention. When we pay mindful attention to experience, or the phenomena of an experience, it is also metta (kindness). Therefore when we pay attention we implicitly also welcome in the conscious elements of experience. This is why mindful attention is called loving awareness by Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, and others. Which is quite a bit more accesible and warm than mindfulness can feel.

The way we look is a factor in any experience we have. That is why moods shape the world we experience. Metta was suggested by the Buddha as the wise treatment for moments of fear. You can't be fearful and welcoming at the same time, metta transforms fear. So with mindful attention having a base flavour of metta it cuts through the subtle aversions implicit with boredom and ignoring. This changes the relationship, which means it also changes the vedana. Vedana responds to the metta entwined in mindful attending, and experience changes to more pleasant.

What we are seeing is that the relationship changes, it is not fixed. The classification of vedana is not inherent to the object. And any and all suffering that ensues is also not inherent in the object, but comes from the relationship and way of looking.

A Brief Review

All phenomena that arise, and are known, have a vedana, a hedonic classification. Immediately sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and thoughts get categorised as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither…nor… This may, and often does, develop into some degree of greed, aversion, or boredom (respectively).
If it’s pleasant we want more; we grasp, cling.
If it’s unpleasant we try to get rid of it; we reject, push away, blame.
If it’s neither / in between, it often doesn’t have enough to be of interest to the self and we ignore, zone out, or get bored.

All these responses are 'tanha' (craving or demanding) which bring contraction, all contraction is dukkha. Hopefully it's clear that the dukkha is in the reaction to something, it is not in the object itself. The object is empty of inherently being a problem.


A Guided Practice

If you’re guiding yourself through this meditation you can have your eyes closed or open. If you enjoy the extra quiet of having them closed, then obviously you’ll need to open your eyes sometimes to read. Either way my suggestion is read a whole paragraph then practice that for some minutes. Then read the next paragraph, I’ve divided the meditation into sections in this way. Try to enact the suggestions as you read them, then keep applying them in the time until you read the next paragraph.

Noticing the Vedana

Spend a few minutes just noticing the vedana of the contact of this breath in the heart area.

Spend a few minutes just noticing the vedana of any specific point in your body. Try to find a pleasant, an unpleasant, and a neither-nor experience in the body before moving on.

Close out the body focussed part of this meditation by also noticing that the body in general can have a vedana. This general sense can be attuned to while also acknowledging that the body is made up of various contradictory vedana in the specific parts of the body. What is the general vedana of having, or being in this body?

Spend the next few minutes just noticing the vedana of your mind state, not the thoughts themselves but the mood they are in, reflective of, and contributing towards.

Spend a few minutes just noticing the vedana of your heart space, not so much any particular emotions, but the space or contractedness of the heart space itself.

Changes Happen All the Time

Notice what happens when you ‘station’ attention on or at the vedana, or are attuned to the vedana flavour of experience. How does that affect the experience?

Notice the inclination towards greed, aversion, boredom.
If its pleasant can you allow it to flow away also?
If unpleasant can you allow it to just be?
If neutral can you be with it without losing interest?

Equanimity

Life arises and passes and we regard the vedana with a spacious sense of knowing.

If there is a noticeable lessening of contraction, enjoy it without placing any demands on this too to stay. Some of the time notice the vedana of less contraction. See how noticing the vedana affects the experience again. It may allow a little more lessening of contraction. Insight practices can go beyond what we directly experience as problematic, releasing both seen and unseen greed and aversion.

After the meditation

Through the day try to notice and really meet all three types of vedana. Particularly notice the impact of this way of looking.


Written by Nathan Glyde

Footnotes:

  • 1. NOTE: Some would justifiably reduce ‘neither pleasant nor unpleasant’ down to ‘neutral’. But in a fuller exploration we do not tend to find the flavour of neutral there. Neutral feels to me like it has an implicit stability and okayness. So to my sense 'neither-nor' is a more effective shortening, which, unlike neutral, retains its full literal meaning, without being too long to be an effective note. What it is saying is "this phenomena is not significantly pleasant, yet it also is not registering as unpleasant". Some would wisely point out that we can't find neither-nor experiences either. That is true, but think in terms of phenomena rather than experiences. Neither-nor categorised phenomena tend not to be noticed, and therefore don't lead to conscious experience. Experience is dependent on phenomena, perception, and knowing. As we will explore later on if we pay attention to a neither-nor phenomena it changes the experience as it changes the vedana. The phenomena is not neither-nor anymore.