Meditation on Feelings & the 4 Aspects of True Causes

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We have done the meditation on the close placement of mindfulness on the body and it might also be helpful to try the meditation of the close placement of mindfulness on the feelings in terms of the noble truth of the true origins of suffering.

General View of Feelings as Suffering

We saw that the general way of focusing on the feelings is to understand that they are all forms of suffering. Unhappiness is clearly the suffering of suffering. The happiness that we feel is the suffering of change. It doesn’t last and never satisfies and turns into unhappiness when we get bored with it or have too much, like eating too much good food. The neutral feelings that we have in these higher planes of existence in deep meditation are examples of all-pervasive suffering. This is because we have to leave them; even though we might want them not to degenerate, they are going to degenerate anyway. This is the case whether we speak of the neutral feelings we experience as a human absorbed in one of these deep meditative trances or when we’re reborn as a god in one of the higher planes of existence.

Identifying Feelings

We focus in general on whatever feelings we might have – feelings of happiness, unhappiness or neutral – as forms of suffering or, in other words, as problems. It might be a little bit confusing to call happiness suffering. I think it’s easier to relate to it in terms of it being problematic. What is particularly difficult to identify is what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about feeling. Many people say that they feel nothing. But that’s just not being sensitive enough. We always feel something, even if it is very faint.

Again, we’re not talking about feeling a sensation. We’re not talking about feeling an emotion. We’re not talking about feeling hot or cold. We’re not talking about feeling anger or feeling hungry. We’re not talking about any of those types of feelings. We’re not talking about intuition as in having a feeling that it’s going to rain.

Our Western word “feeling” is very imprecise in that way. What we are referring to here is just to feel happy or unhappy or neutral. It’s how we experience things. How do we experience things? Happiness is defined in Buddhism as that feeling which, when we have it, we would like it to continue. When the feeling is unhappy, we would like it to go away. With a neutral feeling, we have neither happiness nor unhappiness, so we don’t want some feeling either to go away or to remain; we are in a state of feeling total equanimity. This is only something that occurs in extremely advanced meditative states of total absorption. This neutral feeling is not point zero on the axis of happiness/unhappiness.

So, how do we recognize these feelings? We recognize that perhaps when we are looking at something, if our focus is staying there, we are happy with looking at it. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic experience. We don’t want to be parted from it, so we remain looking at it. If we get tired of it and look at something else, then that’s unhappiness. We wanted to be parted from looking at that object. So, it’s not that we don’t feel anything. Even if while looking at something, we think, “I don’t care what I’m looking at,” still either we stay looking at it or we move our gaze. When we say that we don’t feel anything, it’s that we’re not correctly identifying what we mean by feeling. We think that a feeling has to be extreme and dramatic in order for it to count as a feeling: “Whoopee, I’m so happy” or “Poor me, I’m so depressed.” But usually we’re not paying attention to that variable, that parameter of feeling within our experience.

So, it’s very important, if we are going to have an object to focus on with understanding and correct consideration in these meditations, that we have a correct object. Those feelings, of course, of happy or unhappy or neutral are constantly changing. They are changing in intensity and in how long they last. From moment to moment, how we feel is changing.

I think that we need to spend a great deal of time trying to actually identify what we’re talking about when we talk about the aggregate of feelings in Buddhism. We need to recognize when we’re happy or unhappy, and then recognize that whatever point on that spectrum that we experience in any particular moment – from super happy to super unhappy – it’s problematic. Sure, we want more happiness than unhappiness; but, even happiness is problematic, because it doesn’t last.

So, that’s the initial focus that we have ­– we focus on all feelings as problematic – and it’s not that we want to go to a state of not feeling anything, since that’s not possible, or to a neutral state, because even a neutral feeling of total equanimity is an example of the all-pervasive suffering and it also is not going to last. That’s part of rebirth, that even going to some type of higher plane of existence in which we feel neither happy nor unhappy, that’s not the solution. It’s still a problem.

We need to avoid that misconception, that the way to get rid of happiness and unhappiness is to go into a deep meditative absorption where we feel totally neutral or, on a more mundane level, drug ourselves into feeling nothing. So, we need to recognize that when we’re not feeling some dramatic level of happy or unhappy, it doesn’t mean that we are feeling nothing. What we’re feeling can be very subtle.

The Definition of Feeling

Feeling is defined as how we experience the ripening of our karma. That’s the definition, how we experience the ripening of our karma. We want to stop experiencing things with tainted feelings. “Tainted” means they come from our confusion about reality and about how we exist, which has led to our compulsive karmic behavior. How this works is explained in the twelve links of dependent arising. So, the body, encountering something, doing something, is the ripening of karma. How do we experience that? It’s with some happiness or some unhappiness, and obviously it’s not with some separate “me” that’s experiencing it. So, it’s rather subtle.

Recognizing Feelings

Let’s first try to recognize what are feelings and what it is that we are feeling. For some people that’s very emotional, actually. Am I happy or am I unhappy? Of course, to generalize and say if we are happy or unhappy is just a generalization, because obviously it changes from moment to moment. Just remember those characteristics of true suffering with a body are also applicable to feelings and mind and the mental factors – the other objects of close placement of mindfulness. So, what we feel is changing from moment to moment, is problematic, there’s no separate “me” that is experiencing it, and I can’t be known separately from my feelings and so I have to deal with them.

We have to deal with these feelings. Again, they are limitations, aren’t they? I think that is also important to understand. It’s the second characteristic of the four noble truths in general; that they are suffering. So, it’s suffering not only because it’s unhappiness and that it changes and that it repeats over and again as the all-pervasive type of suffering without any control; but, it’s a limitation. When we are unhappy, we’re dissatisfied. When we’re happy, it can be a distraction.

So, feelings themselves are unspecified. It’s the same thing with the body. These are things that ripen from karmic aftermath. The Buddha did not specify ripened effects as being either constructive or destructive. They are constructive or destructive dependent on what mental factors are occurring at the same time. Therefore, if there’s anger and we’re feeling unhappy, the unhappiness is destructive. If we’re helping others and we’re feeling unhappy, well, again that feeling is not necessarily destructive. It’s constructive because it’s in this cluster of wanting to help others and doing something to help others. There are so many different things that we can think about in terms of the feelings.

Analysis of Rejoicing

What about rejoicing? Is that the same as feeling happy? You can rejoice and feel happy that you helped someone, but you can also rejoice and feel happy that you’re hurt someone.

“Rejoicing” is an interesting word. The English word for it has this aspect of being happy about something. But, is rejoicing the same thing as feeling happy? If it were the same thing as happiness, there wouldn’t be a different word for it.

So, what is rejoicing? Rejoicing is certainly with a feeling of happiness. But I would say that happiness is a mental factor that accompanies rejoicing, and rejoicing itself is explained as a separate mental factor. It’s defined as the metal factor that acts as an opponent for jealousy. Rather than being jealous that somebody did something, you rejoice in that, which means, basically, to think that it’s wonderful. So, happiness is how you experience rejoicing, but is not the same as rejoicing.

Is the happiness that accompanies rejoicing something that lasts? No. Does it change into no longer being happy about it, or to being unhappy about it? What happens is that it changes it into ignoring, basically, that somebody did something. One needs to analyze.

This is the whole point, we need to think about it and not just wait for some teacher to give you all the answers or a book to give you all the answers. These are interesting issues to analyze and to investigate. That’s what you try to do with the Dharma. You have all sorts of different teachings and you try to put them together.

So, is there anything wrong about rejoicing? No. Can rejoicing be done with strong grasping for “me, me, me?” Yes. Can it be done in a pure way or an impure way? Yes, but even if we think it’s pure, it could be mixed with a little bit of jealousy. And the happiness that accompanies it could be tainted or untainted, depending on whether or not it was samsaric happiness as a ripening of karma or the pure happiness of a Buddha.

What about when you rejoice that your enemy failed or that somebody you didn’t like lost the election and you rejoice that they lost the election? What is that? Then you analyze. Maybe it’s good for the country that they lost, at least in my opinion. It’s not good for this particular person who lost. So, is it constructive? Is it destructive? You need to analyze what aspect of it is destructive? Am I jealous that this person lost and I wish I had lost? No; it’s not jealousy in the sense of envy. How is rejoicing here the opponent of jealousy? So, what’s wrong with it? It’s actually rejoicing in another person’s suffering. I don’t know the answer. I think you have to analyze it more and more deeply, and that’s very good to analyze. Then you understand.

To think meditation is just performing a ritual or just calming down or just doing some concentration practice – to think like that is a very limited way of viewing meditation. It’s much more. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes so-called analytical meditation in which you try to understand some point in the teachings and digest it. It’s only with understanding that we will overcome our problems. Sure, you need concentration and sure you need to calm down in order to analyze. But, those are just the basis, the tools. It’s only through understanding that we will achieve a true stopping. These are the third and fourth noble truths.

Feeling Some Level of Happiness Is Not a Physical Sensations, Nor Is It a Feeling of Some Level of Satisfaction

By the way, a feeling of happiness or unhappiness is a mental factor that can accompany either sensory cognition or mental cognition. It’s not the same as pleasure and pain, which are physical sensations. We need to differentiate them quite clearly. The way that we usually use the terms “pleasure” and “pain” is as physical sensations. But happy and unhappy are mental states that can accompany the physical sensation, or seeing something, or hearing something, or thinking something, or dreaming something.

Also, I think that to consider feeling happy or unhappy as being exactly equivalent to feeling satisfied and dissatisfied is not so accurate. “Satisfied” can be more like equanimity, nothing special. These parameters of satisfied or dissatisfied are related, perhaps but I don’t think they are the same as happy or unhappy. Again, we have to analyze from our experience and from the definitions.

Why Feelings Are a Problem or Suffering

Try to recognize and focus, then, on feelings and obviously on what we are feeling now. Any feeling that we could have is represented by what we are feeling now. Try to see these feelings as problematic.


So, our ordinary feelings, whether unhappy, happy, or neutral are all a problem. Then with the four aspects we understand what kind of problem they are and why they are a problem.

In general, they are a problem because they change, they are not stable. They limit me. I can develop the attitude of nothing special about them, so I try not to let them limit me. Still, they are a bit of a limitation. I try not to let them limit me by saying nothing special. For instance, I’m not happy about going to work today, but I go to work anyway because I have to go.

Analysis of Enjoyment

This brings up another topic for analysis. What about enjoying things? What’s the relationship between enjoying something and being happy? Nobody is saying that we can’t enjoy anything. We are not saying that. It all depends on how we conceive of ourselves having this enjoyment and how much attachment is involved.

Feelings are really a very complex issue. If we enjoy helping others, it’s much easier to help them. If we resent helping others, can our help still benefit them? If I’m not very happy, what is the difference between being not very happy and being unhappy? I’m not very happy about doing this work, but am I really unhappy, or am I just feeling a very low level of happiness, and does it matter that I’m not terribly happy? If I enjoy my work, does that mean I’m always happy while working? Can I feel sad or unhappy about something, like my friend is sick, and yet still enjoy my work? What about when I feel not very happy for no apparent reason – can I still enjoy my work, or enjoy a good meal? We need to analyze all these issues. But still, our feelings are all examples of suffering in one way or another.

Feelings as the Source of the True Problem of Uncontrollably Recurring Rebirth

Then we look a little bit more deeply into our relation to these feelings. How do we respond to what we are feeling? That’s where the topic of feelings as the source of problems comes in. We are talking specifically about feelings as the source of the true problem of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

We thirst not to be parted from ordinary happiness, even though it’s futile. We are inevitably going to be parted because it changes from moment to moment and it doesn’t last. We thirst to be parted from unhappiness. But unhappiness is inevitably going to come back if we have this thirsting. Our thirst exaggerates the positive qualities of a temporary parting. And if we are in a neutral state, we thirst for that not to degenerate. We don’t think in terms of a true stopping. Usually we don’t even think a true stopping that lasts forever is possible. This is why we have to think about the third noble truth. Our attitude is that this is just the way it is – sometimes we’re happy and sometimes we’re unhappy – so live with it.

When we thirst in response to our feelings, that leads to a strong desire for the object that we’re experiencing with happiness, or a strong desire for something other than the object that we’re experiencing with unhappiness. Then we throw the net of “me” and “mine” onto all of this. Me ­– I want to be happy and I want to be parted from unhappiness, etc. We make a big deal out of the happiness or the unhappiness, all based, of course, on our unawareness or confusion about how we exist.

In short, we could be feeling happy or unhappy while looking at something, watching a movie, but these feelings could also accompany thinking of something. So, whether we are thinking, or seeing, or listening to music, or listening to somebody talking, happy or unhappy accompanies every moment. Then, we need to address our attitude toward that happy or unhappy feeling when we experience it.

There’s the general problem that these feelings change all the time and we can’t rely on them and all of that. We can say that it’s an advantage that unhappiness doesn’t last and will go away. But still it will come back, if we don’t do something about it. Our thirsting and one of these obtainer attitudes are going to activate throwing karma. That throwing karma is going to ripen into further rebirth with a body that is going to be the basis for experiencing more of these feelings. The ups and downs of feeling happy or unhappy are just going to go on and on and on. That’s really boring.

The Four Aspects of the Noble Truth of the True Origin of Suffering

We then look at how we respond to our feelings in terms of the four aspects of the true cause of that continuing rebirth.

  • Thirsting in response to my feelings is the cause for the true suffering of my uncontrollably recurring rebirth; it doesn’t come from something physical, like an imbalance in my body.
  • This thirsting in response to my feelings, networking with the other links of the twelve links of dependent arising, is the origin of that true suffering of rebirth continuing to recur again and again. It doesn’t keep recurring because of some single cause, because it all works together and is a network of things.
  • It’s a very strong producer of that true suffering. It’s not that somebody else, some creator, is in control of my happiness and unhappiness and this is what is responsible for this up and down feeling of happy and unhappy. It is how I respond to these feelings and how I deal with them that perpetuates them.
  • This thirsting is a condition for my true suffering, in the sense that all these recurring rebirths are coming from my unawareness. That unawareness brings disturbing emotions which cause me to act in a compulsive way, karma, and that leaves aftermath. The feelings ripen from this aftermath and act as a condition for the further ripening of karmic aftermath into a further rebirth.

So, we need to understand the mechanism not just in general of why feelings are problematic; but also in what way feelings are the source or origin of our suffering, the source of these uncontrollably recurring aggregates, the body and the feelings and all of that. The source is how we respond to feelings, how we deal with them, because how we deal with them is what perpetuates samsara.

It is very profound that our feelings are really the troublemakers and what we really need to focus on is how we deal with these feelings of happy and unhappy. How do we deal with them? The attitude of nothing special is a temporary solution. It helps. Then we get into the discussion of true stoppings. Do we want just a temporary way of dealing with them or do we want a true stopping and is a true stopping possible? That is the big issue regarding the third noble truth.


When we meditate on the feelings, we try to recognize first of all what we are feeling in each moment and then focus on these feelings while understanding all of them as being problematic and then examining how we respond to these feelings. Then, there is my whole attitude toward “me” in relation to how we respond to these feelings as the one who is experiencing all of this.

These are the things that we need to watch out for in relation to the feelings. If we have digested the whole mechanism of the twelve links, then we can focus on the feelings with that understanding of all those details. But we need to have really digested and understood the twelve links in order to do the meditation successfully. It is not a very easy meditation.

Remember the motivation with which we are doing the meditations on the body and the feelings, is that we want to attain a true stopping of them. If we are doing the meditations in a Mahayana way, we aren’t just doing it for “me,” but for everybody. It’s not just for interesting information about them. We’re really interested in how we get rid of all this forever. That gives the whole flavor to the meditation, doesn’t it?