A short topic written for reading at a weekly Recovery Dharma meeting.
Mindfulness of feeling tones is the practice of bringing attention to the way that sensations are met in our experience. At the most basic level, each sensation that enters awareness is noted as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. To be mindful of feeling tones is as simple as gently noting a pleasant sensation as pleasant, an unpleasant sensation as unpleasant, or a neutral sensation as neutral. It is similar to mindfulness of the body in that our attention can be directed at sensations in the body; the difference is that the focus is not on the sensation itself, but on the tone it carries with it. Another difference is that mindfulness of feeling tones also happens in relation to thoughts.
Even though mindfulness of feeling tones may sound more complicated than other types of meditation, it may actually be the most straightforward of them all. Have you ever been in meditation and felt something good? We would just note that as “pleasant”. Have you ever felt discomfort or pain during meditation? We would just note that as “unpleasant”. Have you ever had sensations arise that you didn’t really care one way or the other about? We would note those as “neutral”.
“Here, when feeling a pleasant feeling, he knows ‘I feel a pleasant feeling’; when feeling an unpleasant feeling, he knows ‘I feel an unpleasant feeling’; when feeling a neutral feeling, he knows ‘I feel a neutral feeling’.”Satipatthāna sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 10
The arising of sensation and feeling tone happens almost simultaneously. For example, the stinging sensation of pain is nearly indistinguishable from its unpleasantness. Our task during this type of meditation is not to see the sensation and the feeling tone arise in succession; instead, it is to become familiar with the simple arising and passing of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings.
Why is it important to become familiar with the arising and passing of feeling tones? Put simply, feeling tone is what the mind reacts or responds to. Pleasantness often leads to a desire for something to continue. Unpleasantness often leads to a desire for something to go away. These two desires, grasping and aversion, are the source of craving. Neutrality often leads to apathy or ignorance. If we can become familiar with feeling tones and the way that they fluctuate in any given moment, we are better able to intervene in our own mind process. In other words, mindfulness of feeling tones can help bring about an end to craving.