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How to Feel Happy---Corliss

R. Corliss just filled in your comments form.
Question: I have taken a 10-day Vipassana course, and two one-day courses to buttress my meditation technique.
While observing bodily sensations, how can one call those pleasant or unpleasant (craving and suffering)? My most sensations are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

For example: while examining some part of my body, I feel something similar to what one feels when rubbing alcohol evaporates on one’s skin. It’s neither pleasant or unpleasant.

While feeling sensation, either their no thought in my mind, or very trivial thoughts. For example, feeling focusing on my forearm, I might think about a place where I have to go tomorrow. I bring back my attention to observing sensations, But the sensation is neutral.

Or, I think of George Bush whom I don’t like. I feel a little tingle on my back. Neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

Focusing on some part of the body generates sensations which are so overwhelming (without being unpleasant or pleasant) that I just think of the sensation without any emotions or thoughts (happy or sad or angry or painful).

Will appreciate advice how to feel happy so that I can observe it neutrally and tell myself that it is impermanent and will go away. Or feel sad.

(I am 65, middle class, have worked for newspapers and translated some books. Family life was not very happy, but now that children have grown up, easier to ignore. Still married but don’t live with wife (not estranged). Live in Canada.


Response.  One thing that Zen and Vipassana meditation have in common is that they are both embodiments of the Middle Way.  But they are subtly different and it appears to me that if you were to come to see the distinction between them that there would follow a more comprehensive understanding of the pleasant/unpleasant narrative of body sensations.  As I suppose you know, the Middle Way is the Buddhist name for the 'path', the optimal human life; the archetypal moral ideal.

Originally the MW was defined as the avoidance of extremes; specifically "Being/Non-being" but over time and via many cultural influences the notion of the MW came to include things like 'love/hate' or any diadic emotional form, actually; as well as encourage certain doctrinal developments such as "form and emptiness".  The meditating person is attempting to contrive a relationship between body and mind which satisfies the MW advice to "not fall into extremes".  Effectively this comprises a third option; the one you call 'neutral', and it is this notion that might help you in what you appear to desire.

In classic Buddhist thought there are only 3 'sensations'; 1. a sense of attraction of some nature  or pleased approval....2.  a sense of repulsion or rejection; sometimes called upleasant.....and, 3. a true palpable as the other two, but not either and not neither.  I know my brief paraphrase of this basic Buddhist stuff might seem like meaningless drivel; I would not blame you if you thought that.  But the purpose is to illustrate that the preferred sensational experience is #3; and it is not passive like 'neutral' tends to be.  'Neutral' is the  median between pleasant and unpleasant sensation; the MW is not the median.

It can get quite complex in reality.  One might, for example, experience substantial pleasure at how repulsive some thought or idea actually is.  One may, upon careful examination, discover that what is pleasant and attractive provokes deep disatisfaction.  From the Zen point of view, the only practical way to contain the complexity of even the simplest reality (such as a tingle on the back or forearm) is to cease all intellection about it and simply be receptive to whatever actually is.  Your dislike of GWBush, for example; do you approve or disapprove of your dislike?  How about negative opinions in general?  What sort of sensations follow these essential mental events?

I know this is getting rather long, so I will stop soon.  But I want to also mention that classic Buddhist meditation teaching treats all other mental phenomena as a separate category from sensations.  So emotions, for example, are not the same as 'sensations' even though they might arise together.  Arising together habitually it is easy to think they are a single thing.  One of the important things that meditation teaches is that this "invariable concomitance" is an illusion and a source of trouble in our lives.

Not experiencing any sensation at all either means that your meditation has matured to the point where you need to abandon the vipassana model and move on to a Zen model or that your meditation has not yet become sufficiently fearless to relinquish habitual suppression of what is actually happening in mind and body.  I'm going to assume the former; and the best Zen advice is that when you are happy, be completely happy but not heedlessly happy.  Rather than striving to be a neutral observer, strive to avoid being heedless.  This means an awareness that leaves nothing out, that is inclusive, receptive, alert, non-judgemental and without opinion regardless of what mind formations arise; even overwhelming ones, eventually.

There's lots more that could be said, I suppose.  I hope these comments are something of a beginning.  If any other questions arise I invite you to write again.  In general, too much of a goal oriented approach, although helpful in terms of initial access to meditation, does become an obstacle to generating a Beginner's Mind, what I call the non-comparative awareness.  The reduction of suffering in a human life is analogous to the harm reduction strategies currently employed in the body politic.

Thank you for your letter.

Wayne Codling