On mindfulness of feelings: a practical guide

During a Dharma talk in December 2020, Brother Phap Linh answered practitioners’ questions regarding a guided meditation on the Plum Village App about embracing our feelings (‘Breathing in, I feel alive; breathing out, I feel joy to be alive. Feeling alive. Feeling joy’). While this guided meditation promises joy, it can sometimes lead to feelings of sadness, fear, or pain. 

Brother Phap Linh used practical examples from his own experience as a long-term meditator to answer these questions. While not presuming to give a definitive answer, offering his own practice as an example deepens our understanding of mindfulness, from seconds-long body scanning to the thoughts and sensations we may experience when meditating. 

What follows is the ongoing exploration of an experienced practitioner. It represents one perspective from a broader, collective reflection on mindfulness in the Plum Village tradition. 

[This is an edited transcript.] 


“How can monastics offer an effective practice to lay people when they seem to be disconnected from the realities of the world?”

There is a misconception that monastics live in a bubble, protected from what is going on in the world. While it may be irresponsible to claim that the monastics know and understand all the problems of lay people, it would be unfair to assume that they are not faced with problems themselves.

When I woke up in the morning the other day, I felt completely and utterly overwhelmed, practically panicking. My mind was racing. I was in the midst of trying to co-ordinate a complicated recording session of a new song, which had a deadline. And I had made it much more complicated than it needed to be, because that’s just what I do. Even as I was planning that day, I could still hear the song and was writing new parts to layer onto the already-complex music. 

This was causing some stress, and wasn’t the only thing I had to do that day. I had three different meetings, in a few days I had to give a Dharma talk (this one), and the deadline for the song was the day before the talk. And that morning I had also arranged a Zoom conversation with somebody who was experiencing a lot of distress. 

There was a whole laundry list of things I had to take care of, things I had to do, people I had to meet, and I was exhausted. I hadn’t had enough sleep, plus I was a little bit sick, and felt totally overwhelmed. 

Recognising when to apply your practice 

But I have a practice, and I have confidence in it – so I know that there is something I can do in this type of situation.  And based on experience, I have faith that it works. So I recognised very quickly that this was a moment when I needed to apply the practice. 

I cannot solve a situation like this at the level of my conscious mind. The conscious mind believes that if I make a good plan, a good to-do list, I can figure out my priorities and what I need to do. But I don’t have faith in that approach, because I have experience of it not working. When I approach problems in that way, my mind spins out even more; I get stressed and become irritable with the people around me. 

Awareness of recurring patterns 

What I do have faith in is that, if I can quiet the constant chattering of my mind, completely stilling it, I can get in touch with what is really going on, at a deeper level. 

This reaction of feeling overwhelmed is a pattern that I’ve recognised in my life, which, to some extent, occurs independently to the situation and immediate causes. Therefore, I know what this suffering is being triggered by, and that it’s not only to do with immediate events in my life. 

But, figuring out what to do about these problems doesn’t address the underlying suffering, which derives from a pattern, which is in my body, my emotions, and my mind. I know this because I’ve reacted the same way to very different situations. So, if the situation’s different, but the reaction is the same, then that reaction is originating somewhere else. 

If I can ‘steal’ my mind, I can get in touch more deeply with what is really going on – which feels like a mystery. But there’s something in my whole being which is reacting, and I have the confidence to embrace it, to calm it. When I do that, what arises is peace and joy, clarity, and – with a bit of luck – insight and freedom. And that doesn’t mean not doing all the things I need to – it means that I can do those things from a place of freedom

In the past, when I’m able to calm myself and still my mind, all of the things I have to do become easy. The problem is my reaction to the problem, so if I can take care of my reaction, life becomes manageable.

How this calming process works in practice

I start with a body scan. There’s tension in my body, and my mind is racing, so if I immediately attempt a full, in-depth body scan it might take 15 minutes – or half an hour, or 45 minutes. But if I try to do that, I will fail because my mind is too busy. It’s dispersed. So, recognise the state of dispersion and be honest about it.

I’ve been meditating for years. I might prefer to deny the reality, telling myself ‘But I’m a meditator! I can’t possibly be dispersed.’ In that moment, I have to be honest about being a mess, with my mind all over the place. 

So, I have to find the appropriate medicine for the situation. In this state of dispersion, my capacity to concentrate is very limited – but maybe I can do a 10-second body scan. I have to choose to do something which I know I can accomplish.

I make this choice because, in order to continue, I need to experience a success. If I attempt something too difficult, it may take a long time, and I’m likely to fail. I would be practicing failure, and be likely to give up. 

A body scan this brief is very rough: I have a face, I have hands, arms, shoulders, chest, stomach, pelvis, legs, feet, genitals. Doing this without losing concentration, means that I have succeeded. 

Repeating this body scan more slowly

Now, I do it again. This time, slightly more slowly, because I’ve slightly changed my state of mind: still dispersed, but a little less than before. Now I can do perhaps a 30-second body scan: 

This is my mouth, this is my nose, these are my eyes… A bit tense and a bit tired, but these are my hands, thumbs, fingers. These are my arms. I feel the weight of my arms. Right arm, left arm. These are my shoulders. I feel the breath entering my chest. I feel my belly moving with the breath, I feel my pelvis. I feel my thighs, my calves, my shins, my ankles, feet, toes, soles of the feet, genitals, the digestive tract. Then, from the intestines all the way up, through the stomach, oesophagus, throat, tongue. And I’m back. 

I did it again, without losing my concentration. My mind’s starting to become interested in the process; it’s starting to calm down. If I’m honest, I didn’t succeed completely the first time. I had to use a little bit of determination. I still got dispersed with my worries and my distractions and projects. 

I do the scan again, but taking more time again, so now I can feel my tongue. Maybe I’m aware of my palette, of my mouth, the teeth. Maybe I notice there’s some tension in my jaw, around my mouth, and I just leave it there. I don’t try to relax, just allow whatever sensation is there to be there. It’s a little uncomfortable to notice that I’m holding some tension, but I say to myself: there’s something in me that needs to hold this tension.

Allowing the sensations that arise to be there 

I habitually hold my face in a particular way. I recognise an echo of my grandmother’s attitude to life in it: a little bit pinched, a little bit negative. But I give myself permission to hold it like that. 

Then I start to feel: ‘What is this need to hold my face like that?’ Maybe it’s not physical tension now, but I feel the aura of an emotional attitude to life. I’m getting in touch with my suffering. It may not be pleasant, I may not like what I find, but it’s okay. I’m not afraid of my suffering, because I have the experience to know that when I am authentically in touch with it, what arises is an immediate flood of compassion. It’s a natural response, so I allow those sensations to be there – whatever they are. I notice the intensity held in my forehead and eyes, an intensity of thinking or focusing or intent or volition. Let it be there. 

Staying with actual sensations, not the expectation 

I try not to paint over an actual sensation with my expectation of what the sensation ‘should’ be. I must allow the reality to manifest. I can feel both of my hands. There’s some holding; maybe one is slightly clenched – but I don’t release it; I just let it be like that. 

There’s something in this holding that is meeting some need. Let it be there; let me encounter what is behind it. Let me feel the weight of the whole of my right arm, how it connects to the shoulder, and through the shoulder to the spine, the neck, how it hangs from the scapula, the weight and the shape of my right arm, my left arm. 

What is the sensation that is present? Not what I expect or what I’d like my shoulder to feel like – what it actually feels like right now. 

Then, feeling both arms together. Sometimes it feels like my shoulders are asymmetrical. And the internal sensation is not what we necessarily expect; it may differ in reality. The difference feels huge: it feels like I’m a monster, weird and asymmetrical. So it’s interesting to discover what actual sensation is present, compared to my expectation of that sensation.  

Coming back to our body

We talk a lot about coming back to the body, coming back to the sensations in the body. We have to ask ourselves, Why is that so important in our practice?

I’ll come back to the body scan, but it’s important to understand why we do this. For me, this is at the core of my meditation practice. 

Some people ask me:What about deep meditation? What do you do next? How do you go deeper?’ 

This goes pretty deep for me. I’m still doing it, and am not bored yet. If it’s boring or doesn’t take you into concentration, maybe you haven’t really done it yet.

So what’s happening when we say that we come back to our body? How can we know? How can we be sure? 

The brain is very complex and so is its relationship with the body. Within the brain are many different mental maps of the body. We also have stories, ideas, and maybe also self-hatred or self-loathing about our body. Maybe we’ve experienced abuse or trauma; these things can exist in the body. Maybe we’ve been educated in a way that cut us off from our body. Maybe we’re completely alienated from the sensations in our body. 

Coming back to the body can be a very new experience

The way I was educated, nobody ever taught me to pay attention to the sensations in my body. Everything was about developing mental capacity, my ability to solve difficult problems in mathematics or similar. Nobody taught me how to pay attention to bodily sensations, or to take care of them, or to pay attention to or take care of my feelings.

So this may be something very new. This may mean that we feel alienated, so getting used to the process may take time. We must be patient, but also understand a little of how it works and what the architecture is. 

From modern neuroscience, we know that our experience is a kind of prediction. There’s a current theory with many versions – the predictive coding model of consciousness – which is very popular and is getting a lot of traction. It may or may not be completely right.

There are two main types of processes within our awareness. One is top down, meaning from the cognitive level predicting downwards. For example: ‘What is the sensation that is going to occur?’ 

The other type is a bottom-up process, deriving from our senses of touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight. There are masses of sensory stimuli – an enormous flood of information coming into our nervous system at every moment, into our brain, and which tries to filter up into our awareness. 

But we know, sitting here right now, that we’re ignoring almost all of these sensations. What we’re actually aware of in our conscious mind is a tiny fraction of what’s happening in the present moment. We may believe that what we are aware of now, what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, is what is actually there. 

According to the bottom-up theory, because this flood of information is so overwhelming, the brain conserves energy by predicting what information is going to be received, but only checks it if there’s an error in the prediction. If the brain can predict what’s going to happen in the next moment, we don’t need to experience that information directly.

Only when reality differs from what’s predicted is it necessary for this information to filter up into my conscious awareness. There are many interlocking chains of prediction and filtration. As meditators, it is helpful to be aware that this prediction process is happening.

Ultimately, the predictive top-down process cancels out most of the bottom-up information. Take, for example, the sensation of sitting – which, until it was mentioned, you’re likely to have been completely unaware of it – the sensation of your butt on the chair or cushion. There’s no need for you to be consciously aware of it, because your brain can automatically predict the next moment. There’s a high probability that is going to feel pretty similar. There’s a fairly reliable prediction, so your brain says: ‘I know what sitting on a cushion feels like. I’ve done that before lots of times so I don’t let the information register’. The same is true of breathing.

Breath

You may already have been paying attention to your breath, but unless you do so deliberately, this incredibly complex process constantly occurs in your body without our conscious awareness. The brain can predict the sensation, so there’s no need to pay attention to it, except in cases of, say, surprise or hyperventilation. 

As meditators, why do we go on and on about paying attention to sensations in the body? What’s the point? I ask myself this all the time, because we’re supposed to teach it correctly, and share it with people: going back to your body, mindfulness of the body. 

My current hypothesis is that we want to be in touch with reality; we want to find out what’s really going on. We have an intuition that we might not really be in touch with reality – that maybe we’re fooling ourselves quite a lot. Maybe we’re living partial truths, in a world of stories that we tell about ourselves. 

If you tell your story – ‘I was born here and grew up there; I went to school, to university, and then got a job’ – it’s a nice story, but is it the whole truth of what we are? And the story continues: ‘I want to go there, and I want to find true love, and I want to have a family’. There’s nothing wrong with this, but its applicability to reality may be limited. 

For example, that narrative depends on the existence of a convenient, fictive version of ourselves. When we think more deeply, we discover a complex web of interconnections with everything from the air that surrounds us, to the food we eat, our ancestors, our friends, our loved ones, to the world and the stars. So, that narrative – ‘I went to school, I’m doing this and that’ – is only partly accurate, because it ignores so much interconnectivity. 

As meditators, we have an intuition that more’s going on than just these stories; that the path to freedom operates on a different level to these narratives. 

So what’s happening when we say that we come back to our body?

So, by getting directly in touch with the sensations in our body, we override this mechanism of predicting, cancelling out the actual sensation. 

So there I am, still lying on my bed, a little overwhelmed. If I’m not careful when doing a body scan, I might only be accessing the expectation of a particular sensation, not the actual sensation itself. So, are you sure that you’ve really done this, that you’re really in touch with your sensations? I ask myself that all the time. 

We need to keep that question mark alive, because the habit of prediction is millions of years old. It’s part of our biology and it’s going to kick back in at any moment – so we have to keep checking whether we’re really in touch with what is actually happening right in the present moment. 

Developing ways to keep checking in with what is happening now

Each of us needs to develop ways to keep checking in. One thing I use is the question of symmetry; I check because I know that my mental image of my body is of rough symmetricality – but that this may not be true in reality. 

If I think that my sensations are symmetrical, then I’m probably just in touch with the representation, not the actual sensation. For instance, what are my legs currently experiencing? I become aware of the weight of my right leg and how it connects up into the abdomen and spine. Then I move to the left: what is the pattern here? How does it feel to be a left leg right here and now? How does it feel to have two legs not necessarily held symmetrically?

Whatever it is, I just try to allow it to be there, allow myself to discover it. I have to also allow for the possibility of something unexpected, that there may be an emotional aura in the pattern of holding. There might be a lot of suffering. There might be a lot of pain, a lot of emotional trauma stored up, waiting for me to have the time, the patience, the gentleness, the confidence, the non-fear to embrace it, to recognize it, to accept it. And some of those emotions are strong. My reaction might be not wanting to experience any unpleasant emotions. (‘They told me it would feel good, that I would be relaxed, that everything would be nice, that I’d become more effective in my job. They didn’t tell me I would get in touch with existential dread, self-loathing, panic, fear, pain, sorrow, and despair.’) I want something else. 

It’s good for those feelings to arise, because our aspiration is to engage with reality; we want to find out what’s really going on and we know that it’s complicated. It’s a mixture: there’s wonder, there’s joy, there’s life, and the celebration of the beauty of life that we can discover in every moment. But there’s also profound suffering. And it’s not a bad thing to be in touch with it. We have to find the courage within us to address that suffering. 

But, we also need to know our limit; there may be times that are too much, when we need the help of a trusted friend we can confide in, because this kind of suffering can be a lot to deal with alone. So please, if you’re using an app alone, try to find a friend, a community of practice, or other people you trust who can hold this experience with you. We each have moments in the valley of the shadow of death; we go through the cloud of unknowing, through dark nights of the soul. In these moments, the sensations may be overwhelming, but though it’s not what you expected, it is what you want

I want to be in touch with reality, to find out what’s really going on in and around me. I want to be in touch with the suffering which is in me passed down to me by my ancestors, by my society. I have the opportunity to encounter it honestly, without fear. I don’t expect it to be easy, or always be pleasant, but when I do have an authentic encounter, a wave of compassion can arise. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. It’s too much and I just want to read a book, or to go and talk to someone. But that has started to happen less frequently.

If I do want to engage with the suffering within myself, I know that, as an indivisible part of the whole, I’m connected with everything that exists. So, if I get in touch with myself, I’m also going to get in touch with the world. There’s no escape, no panic room. Even though I live in a monastery, I still know what’s happening in the world – because I’m part of it. There’s no force field that protects us. We all have families and friends; we know people who have died, who are in hospital right now, who are sick. 

Beyond our direct, personal connections with people, there’s our interbeing. What we experience in our body already contains the whole cosmos, so if I feel sorrow, despair, or dread, is it mine, or is it also the world’s pain? The world is not something outside of us: it’s us. So whatever we feel that it’s only partly ours, in fact, it’s partly individual, partly collective – and the more honestly we can encounter that, the more honestly we are meeting the current situation of suffering in the world. 

You don’t have to go anywhere, you don’t have to watch the news. It’s already here. It’s happening in every cell of our body. And sometimes it’s hard, but the wonderful thing is that when we fearlessly allow ourselves to be in touch, there is a natural response: we may need to work a little to discover it, to find the route to the arising of compassion, but there is a deep desire to hold, to embrace, to soothe.

We often offer a compassion chant at the beginning of our retreats – the Avalokiteshvara chant. In the introduction to this chant, our teacher Thay would give us this formula: How do we get in touch with compassion? 

We can’t just say, ‘I’m going to feel very compassionate suddenly’. It doesn’t work. Instead, Thay said that, first of all, get in touch with your own suffering. We’ve all suffered. We all suffer still. To get in touch with it doesn’t mean listing the terrible things that have happened to us, how we have suffered or been a victim. It took a number of times to first get in touch with my own suffering, then with the suffering of the people  in front of me, the people around me, the people behind me – and then with the suffering of the world. 

I’m sitting there with my cello, and then we chant, and sometimes I feel nothing – no compassion, just tension, pain, some anxiety. This is really stressful. The microphone’s in the wrong place, the sound system’s all wrong, the sisters have gone flat. This is a disaster.  What are we doing here? There’s 10 000 people here. How come we didn’t have time to rehearse? Oh my goodness, what a mess! That’s what I’m feeling. Not compassion. It took me a long time, but I kept trying. 

What does it mean to get in touch with your suffering? I would visualise that these things happened and I suffered. If I feel what is present in my body, right now, in my feelings, in my mind, there’s already some sorrow, some feeling of a burden, the pain that I habitually carry. I can feel it now. It’s right there. I don’t need to go into the past. And when I touch it authentically, at the level of sensation – not at the level of thought or story; this isn’t a narrative – it’s not something that happened in the past, it’s not something that I can even express in words. Instead, it’s a sensation in the present moment. It’s like a well that is dry, but the moment I get in touch it fills with the fresh, clear, cool water of compassion. It’s an immediate and natural response. This pain just wants to be held. It’s as if compassion is part of the pain, not something separate; it’s a natural expression of this sensation. And it’s vast; it’s bigger than me, it’s an ocean of compassion, and it goes way beyond me. Rather than my limited capacity, it’s something immense. 

So I’m still lying there on my bed. I’ve got in touch with my sensations, there’s maybe some sorrow, dread, fear, self-loathing, a mix of everything – but now it’s being held, it’s being met. Now, I’m a little bit more in touch with the truth, not just with, ‘I’ve got things to do and I don’t have time to do them… And it’s unfair and why did I agree to this and I should have said no…’ That’s all narrative, it’s all nonsense. I don’t trust it, I don’t buy it.

These feelings are here now and they need to be held and I can be present. My mind starts to settle; it’s no longer panicking. It knows that I’m now doing what needs to be done. This is the true task, this is my real responsibility – and yes, there’s still some pain, but there’s an immense space around it. It’s being held in a monumental embrace, and within the heart of the pain there is a bright star of joy, of life and freedom. Freedom from chasing my future projects, and tasks, and to-do lists, and things to be done. 

Suddenly I’m free, I’m really alive, I’m doing what needs to be done. I’m with this ocean of sensation. It’s not even suffering anymore – it’s changed because the label has gone, it’s just a scintillation of life, of sensation arising from happening. I’m freed from my reaction of thinking that this is overwhelming. I’m freed from all of that. It’s just ideas. I’m observing the impermanence, the constant flux. It’s thrilling, alive, amazing – not necessarily completely pleasant, but there’s freedom and I can touch non-grasping. I’m letting go even of the idea that there is a me, and these are my sensations, and that I am embracing these sensations. No, these are just ideas; they’re just something arising. I don’t even know what or who or whose. It’s all just flux. 

I can touch my sensation of ‘nothing to do’ at any time. If the thought of something to do in the future comes up, I instantly let it go. I recognise it, and know that it isn’t of the present moment. I return to the ‘nothing to do’ sensation. Let me be in touch with life, not the idea of something that may happen in the future. What is going on right now: let me touch it directly, let me become it, become one with it. This is amazing. 

And then I get up, I smile, and I go about my day. I do all the things I have to do and it’s fine. I feel light, I feel ease. So I know I can touch joy – but there are many ways to do so, and achieving it does take some training. 

Touching the seed of joy

At other times, if I want to touch the seed of joy, I simply visualise the faces of my niece and nephew. It’s so easy. It’s not necessarily my joy – in that moment, maybe I don’t have any joy, but I borrow some. They’ve got plenty. It takes a millisecond: just imagine them. Sometimes I need to build that resource, that reserve, to store it up for the hard times. That’s just one way, but there are so many. 

So, if you can’t find joy, if you can’t feel joy, don’t worry. Don’t give up. As meditators, we require some courage to allow ourselves to experience suffering. It’s the first noble truth. It’s the door to our joy, to our peace, to our freedom. The problem is that when we touch it, it’s like a hot stove – you don’t want to touch it.

Meditation is an encounter with reality, and if you want that encounter, you must be ready and courageous; you must allow yourself to feel what is really happening. It may not be pleasant – not right away – but that’s where the freedom is. Freedom is in honesty, in a fearless encounter with reality, because we don’t want fake, plastic meditation, we don’t want a picture of meditation – we want the real thing. And if you do want only pleasant sensations, then I don’t recommend meditation for you. It’s not going to work in the long term. 

If you’re practicing correctly, I guarantee you’ll encounter suffering – but that’s not a bad thing; it means we’re getting in touch with life, with things as they really are. But don’t stop there, don’t run away; if it’s too much, find friends to help you. We do it together. When I don’t have courage, I borrow my brother’s courage. When I don’t have concentration, I borrow my community’s concentration. If I can’t handle it, my community’s got my back. They’ll lift me up when I’m down, and I help to lift others up when they’re down.

Maybe that sounds hard if you’re on your own or under lockdown, but there are ways to connect, even online. We can find very meaningful, powerful ways to connect, to create communities of practice, to find support and true spiritual friends. This is possible.


Find out more about the purpose of mindfulness and the importance of a shared practice here.

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