Becoming Free: Pleasant and Painful Feelings – 2006

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

When I was living in Bend around 2009, I read a quote in the Satipatthana Sutta, The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, Section Three. In the Sutra the Buddha taught, “Whenever the practitioner has a pleasant feeling, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a pleasant feeling.’ Whenever he has a painful feeling, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a painful feeling.’ Whenever he experiences a feeling that is neither pleasant nor painful, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a neutral feeling.’” This may at first seem like expressing the obvious, but if we think about doing only that, or if we try it out, it turns out to be a very difficult thing to do! We want pleasant feelings to last. We don’t want to feel painful feelings. We want to change them, take a pill for them, eat something, drink something, buy something, or have someone help us make them go away!

A large amount of the field of psychology deals with the problem of managing feelings. There are endless books and workshops on anxiety, depression, and anger. Psychology provides numerous ways to work on feelings: sharing feelings with a therapist, writing feelings out in journal form, work on thought patterns and cognitive restructuring, and so on. This work can be, and is, very helpful. We can become aware of and learn about our feelings. We can come to understand why we are having them. We can learn about the function of feelings, and have our feelings understood and validated. And we can make changes in our lives which affect our feelings. But – the field of psychology is not so helpful when it comes to learning how to contain and tolerate feelings and how to be accepting of them. For that, we can remember the teachings from 2500 years ago. By practicing what the Buddha taught, we can learn how to set ourselves free.

FEELINGS: Feelings are powerful and affect our lives each day. Learning to be more aware of our feelings, to observe how they come and go and change throughout each day, is the beginning of working with feelings. Our feelings give us extremely important information about how our environment is affecting us, which enables us to know how to respond to events in our lives, and how to deal with our relationships.

NAMING FEELINGS: It is essential to name our feelings. We can’t really work with a feeling if it is a vague physical or emotional sensation. Naming the feeling is the beginning of working with it. Once it is named, we can discern where it is coming from, and how we can work with the feeling within ourselves. We can decide what actions we might need to take. Usually if we focus internally for a period of time and reflect on our physical and emotional responses, it is possible to come to clarify and name a feeling. Sometimes there is so much confusion or so many feelings mixed together, that it takes a great deal of time, and maybe even help from a psychotherapist, to be able to clarify and name feelings.

THOUGHTS: In the field of psychology there is a tremendous amount of writing and emphasis on working with our thoughts and patterns of thinking. This is extremely important. Psychologists have emphasized being aware of negative thought patterns and restructuring actual sentences so that they will be more accurate and balanced. If you try to reframe negative sentences that you are saying to yourself, you will see what a powerful tool this is. It is true that if you change how you think, you will also inevitably change how you feel.

EXPRESSING FEELING; In addition to naming feelings and working with our thought patterns, we all have a need to express our feelings and to be understood. When we are understood and validated, there is often a very specific and intense sense of relief, comfort, and change in our feeling state. Unfortunately, understanding and validation don’t necessarily, or even very often, follow the expression of our feelings! Expressing our feelings, being understood, and also being validated – all three are necessary in order to feel relief. When a significant person provides this for you, he or she is providing – l.u.v.: listening, understanding, and validation. He or she —is providing love.

CHANGE: Sometimes change in our work life, relationships, lifestyle, or values is needed to change and resolve our feeling state. Often we put put off grappling with the reality of the need for major changes because they entail and require so much upheaval, cost, and effort. Often we postpone implementing major changes until they become absolutely necessary. But it is our feelings that are our first and last indicator of the necessity of change. These are all areas of dealing with feelings that are everyday topics in the world of psychotherapy.

TOLERATING AND ACCEPTING FEELINGS: However — it is definitely much less common, if not neglected entirely, to focus in therapy on the need or the ability to tolerate or accept our feelings. In fact, this is rarely the focus in psychotherapy. You mean I have to keep feeling this frustration? I have to continue to feel disappointed? I have to continue to feel deprived, or rejected, or hurt? What this means is that all of the efforts described above can be helpful. It is important to be aware of, understand, reflect on, work on, and express, and even make major changes based on our feelings. But in addition to that, the reality, or the hard truth, is that to a large extent it is extremely helpful – and even freeing – to be able to have the discipline, and patience, and strength to just observe, tolerate and accept our feelings.

BREATHING AND ACCEPTING FEELINGS: The instruction of the Buddha twenty five hundred years ago is simple. If you are feeling a pleasant feeling, breathe in and say, “I am feeling a pleasant feeling”. Breathe out and say, “I am feeling a pleasant feeling.” When you are feeling a painful feeling, breathe in and say, “I am feeling a painful feeling.” Breathe out and say, “I am feeling a painful feeling.” When you are feeling neither a pleasant nor a painful feeling, breathe in and say, “I am feeling neither a pleasant nor a painful feeling.” Breathe out and say, “I am feeling neither a pleasant nor a painful feeling.” 

It is interesting to note that what Buddha is recommending is the actual instruction for beginning to learn formal sitting meditation. When you are beginning a meditation practice it is helpful to think of a specific inspirational phrase or to repeat a word or phrase as a mantra as you are breathing in and out. Perhaps the next level of practice is what we now call the method of mindfulness meditation. The instruction is: while sitting in a meditation posture, focus on your breath and just let your thoughts come and go. This is done without any particular instruction for thinking specific words. Shunryo Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, said to let your thoughts come and go and just become like a swinging door. In the book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, he says, “So when you practice zazen (meditatation), your mind should be concentrated on your breathing. This kind of activity is the fundamental activity of the universal being.” As we gain experience in meditation, we naturally become more and more accepting of what is going on in our minds, our bodies, and in our lives in general. 

To begin to learn how to tolerate and accept feelings doesn’t mean that you can’t also work on feelings as described above, read books on managing feelings, have a therapist, or take part in therapy. One of the things that you will learn with this practice recommended 2500 years ago is that feelings rise up and they also fall away. Other emotions rise up and then they also fall away. Life is a continuous process of thoughts and feelings occupying our attention and then dissipating and falling away. In addition to the psychological help described above, you can learn to observe and tolerate your feelings. Try it! What a challenging way to be present each day! Shunryo Suzuki said, “Without this experience, this practice, it is impossible to attain absolute freedom.” Accepting and tolerating pleasant and painful feelings is a surprising practice that sets you free.