Deepen Your Practice: Mindfulness of Feelings

The 2nd Establishment of Mindfulness teaches us how to have mindfulness of feelings – pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.

Our feelings—pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral—can have a physical, physiological, or psychological root. When we mindfully observe our feelings, we discover their roots. For example, if you have an unpleasant feeling because you stayed up late the night before, your unpleasant feeling has a physiological root. Nevertheless, to be able to identify the roots of your feelings is not enough. We have to look more deeply in order to see how these feelings manifest and to understand their true substance. To know a feeling is not just to see its roots but also to see its flowering and its fruits.

When some people take a sip of whiskey or inhale from a cigarette, for example, they may have a pleasant feeling. If they observe this feeling mindfully, they can see its physiological and psychological roots. We know that not everyone shares the same pleasant feeling when they drink whiskey or smoke cigarettes. If some other people were to do either of these two things, they may cough or choke, and the feeling would be unpleasant. Thus the roots of that feeling are not as simple as they might appear at first. The elements of habit, time, and our own psychology and physiology are all present in the roots of any feeling. Looking into our feelings, we can see physiological, physical, and psychological habits; not only our own habits, but also those of the society whose products we are consuming.

Looking into our feeling, we see the nature of whiskey and the nature of tobacco. Looking into the glass of whiskey, we can see the grains that are needed for its production. We can see the effect that the alcohol will have on our body now and in the near future. We can see the connection between the consumption of alcohol and car accidents. We can see the link between the consumption of alcohol and the severe lack of food in the world.

We have squandered a large amount of grains in producing alcohol and meat, while in many places in the world, children and adults are dying for want of grain to eat. An economist at the University of Paris once said: “If the western world were to consume fifty percent less alcohol and meat, the problem of starvation in the world could be solved.” If we look into any one thing with the eyes of mindful observation, we can see the roots and the results of it. If we mindfully observe a feeling, we can see the roots of that feeling and the results it is likely to produce. The mindful observation of a feeling can lead to a deep insight into the nature of life.

When we hear someone praise us, we may have a pleasant feeling. That pleasant feeling also needs to be examined. Obviously we have the right to accept a pleasant feeling, but we know that in our meditation practice we need to observe mindfully in order to have clear insight into the nature of our feeling. If in our mindful observation, we see that those words of praise were based in flattery rather than reality, then we discover that our pleasant feeling arose out of ignorance and self-love. 

Such a pleasant feeling can take us farther along the path of illusion. When we see that, the pleasant feeling disappears, and we come back to the ground of reality with both feet planted firmly. The danger of being deluded no longer exists, and we become healthy again. The pleasant feeling we have when we drink alcohol will also disappear when we see its roots and its effects. When pleasant feelings like this disappear, they can give rise to pleasant feelings of another kind, such as the awareness that we are now living in a way that leads to health and awakened understanding. Pleasant feelings of the second kind are healthy because they nourish us and others and cause no harm.

Even though we feel that the words of praise are in harmony with the truth, we should continue to observe the pleasant feeling brought about by those words of praise. The work of mindful observation helps us avoid pride or arrogance—the two things which above all obstruct our progress on the path. We see that if we keep on with what we have started, we will make additional progress, and the words of praise, instead of making us proud or arrogant, become elements of encouragement for us. If we observe mindfully like that, the pleasant feeling on hearing words of praise becomes a healthy feeling and has a nourishing effect.

When we observe our feelings, we can see their relative nature. It is our way of seeing the world that determines the nature of our feelings. One person while working might feel that work is nothing but agony, and he will only feel happy when he is not working. There are other people, however, who feel uneasy when they have nothing to do and would be happy with any work rather than doing nothing. In the latter case, work brings joy, a pleasant feeling, while in the former case, work gives rise to unpleasant feelings, such as boredom or drudgery. Often we do not see that we have all the conditions necessary for happiness, and we go looking for happiness in another place or in the future. To be able to breathe can be a great source of real happiness, but often, unless we have a congested nose or asthma, we are not able to realize that.

To be able to see beautiful colors and forms is happiness, but often only after we have lost our sight do we become aware of this. Having sound and healthy limbs to be able to run and jump, living in an atmosphere of freedom, not being separated from our family—all these things and thousands more can be elements of happiness. But we rarely remember, and happiness slips from our grasp as we chase other things which we believe to be necessary for our happiness. Generally, only after we lose an element of happiness do we appreciate it. Awareness of these precious elements of happiness is itself the practice of Right Mindfulness. We can use conscious breathing to shine light on their presence:

  Breathing in,

  I know that I have two good eyes. 

Breathing out,

  I know that I have two able hands.

  Breathing in,

  I know that I am holding my child in my arms.

Breathing out,

  I know that I am sitting with my family at the table.

Exercises such as these nourish Right Mindfulness and bring much happiness into our daily lives.

Peace, joy, and happiness are above all the awareness that we have the conditions for happiness. Thus mindfulness is the basic and essential ingredient for happiness. If you do not know that you are happy, it means that you are not happy. Most of us only remember that not having a toothache is happiness at the time when we have a toothache. We are not aware of the joy of our non-toothache, because we do not practice mindfulness.

When a feeling is born in us, we know that it is born. As long as that feeling continues to be present, we know that it continues to be present. We look into it mindfully in order to be able to recognize its nature—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral; its roots—physical, physiological, or psychological; and its fruits—physiological, psychological, or social. We can use conscious breathing to assist us in carrying out this work of mindful observation:

  Breathing in,

  I know that a pleasant feeling has just arisen in me. 

Breathing out,

  I know that this pleasant feeling is still there.

Breathing in,

  I know that this feeling has a psychological basis.

  Breathing out,

  I can see the roots of this pleasant feeling.

Breathing in,

  I can see the influence of this feeling on my health.

Breathing out,

  I can see the influence of this feeling on my mind. 

When roots of affliction such as anger, confusion, jealousy, and anxiety manifest in us, our body and mind are generally disturbed by them. These psychological feelings are unpleasant, and they agitate the functioning of our body and mind. We lose our peace, joy, and calm. In the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Buddha teaches us to take hold of our breathing in order to produce awareness of the unpleasant feeling and gradually to master it: 

“Breathing in, I know that I have an unpleasant feeling. Breathing out, I am clearly aware of this unpleasant feeling.” 

If our breathing is light and calm (a natural result of practice), then our mind and body will slowly become light, calm, and clear again:

“Breathing in, I calm the feelings in me. Breathing out, I calm the feelings in me.” 

In this way, the practitioner continues to use conscious breathing to mindfully observe and calm his feelings. Every time she sees the substance, roots, and effects of her feelings, she is no longer under the control of those feelings. The whole character of our feelings can change just by the presence of mindful observation.

Fear and anger are fields of energy that arise from a physiological or psychological base. The unpleasant feelings that arise within us are also fields of energy. The Buddha teaches us not to repress fear or anger, or the unpleasant feelings brought about by them, but to use our breathing to be in contact with and accept these feelings, knowing that they are energies that originate in our psychological or physiological make-up. To repress our feelings is to repress ourselves. Mindful observation is based on the principle of nonduality. Our unpleasant feelings and ourselves are one. We have to be in contact with and accept the unpleasant feelings before we can transform them into the kinds of energy that are healthy and have the capacity to nourish us. We have to face our unpleasant feelings with care, affection, and nonviolence. Our unpleasant feelings can illuminate so much for us. By our work of mindful observation, we see that experiencing certain unpleasant feelings allows us insight and understanding.

“To repress our feelings is to repress ourselves.”

Thich nhat hanh

Both in the sutras and the sastras (the commentaries on the sutras), the ancestral teachers say the painful, unpleasant feelings are easier to recognize than the neutral feelings. But in fact, neutral feelings are also easy to recognize. They are not suffering feelings and they are not happy feelings. In us there is a river of feelings, and every drop of water in that river is either a suffering feeling, a happy feeling, or a neutral feeling. Sometimes we have a neutral feeling and we think we don’t have a feeling at all. But a neutral feeling is a feeling; it doesn’t mean the nonexistence of feeling.

When we have a toothache, we have a feeling of pain, and when the toothache is no longer there, we think we don’t have a feeling anymore. But in fact, we have a neutral feeling. It’s not a painful feeling, so it must be either neutral or pleasant. Actually, it can be a pleasant feeling. When we have a very bad toothache, we just wish it would stop. We know if it were to stop, we would have a very pleasant feeling. Therefore, a non-toothache is a pleasant feeling. But once the toothache has been gone for some time, we no longer appreciate our non-toothache. We could call it a neutral feeling, but with awareness it can become a pleasant feeling. In Plum Village, we usually say someone who practices mindfulness can change all neutral feelings into pleasant feelings. In fact, neutral feelings are the majority of our feelings.

For example, a father and son are sitting on the lawn in springtime. The father is practicing mindful breathing and he sees how wonderful it is to sit on the grass, feeling fresh and happy, with the yellow flowers coming up and the birds singing; so he has pleasant feelings. But the child is bored, he doesn’t want to sit with his father. He’s in exactly the same environment as his father. To begin with his feeling is neutral, and at some point the neutral feeling becomes an unpleasant feeling, because he doesn’t know how to deal with this neutral feeling. So, wanting to run away from his unpleasant feeling, he stands up and goes into the house and turns on the television. But his father is feeling very content sitting in that same environment that was not able to bring happiness to the son.

We’re the same. When we don’t have a pleasant or unpleasant feeling, naturally we have a neutral feeling. If we don’t know how to deal with or manage our neutral feeling, it will turn into an unpleasant feeling. However, if we know how to manage it, it will become a pleasant feeling, a feeling of well-being. Every neutral feeling, when held in mindfulness, will become a pleasant feeling.


When he experiences a pleasant feeling based in the body, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a pleasant feeling based in the body.’ 

When he experiences a pleasant feeling based in the mind, he is aware, ’I am experiencing a pleasant feeling based in the mind.’ 

When he experiences a painful feeling based in the body, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a painful feeling based in the body.’ 

When he experiences a painful feeling based in the mind, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a painful feeling based in the mind.’ 

When he experiences a neutral feeling based in the body, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a neutral feeling based in the body.’ 

When he experiences a neutral feeling based in the mind, he is aware, ‘I am experiencing a neutral feeling based in the mind.’


This article has been copied (and slightly modified for easy reading) from the book Transformation and Healing by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

Transformation and Healing contains the teachings from The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. These teachings are fundamental to the practice of meditation, and constitute the foundation of all mindfulness practice.

The Sutra has been studied, practiced and handed down with special care from generation to generation for 2,500 years. In his commentaries, Thich Nhat Hanh guides the reader to an understanding of the fundamental basis of the Buddhist practice and encourages application in daily life.

You can purchase a paperback copy or ebook here.


2 responses to “Deepen Your Practice: Mindfulness of Feelings”

  1. Thank you for this article. It is very helpful to put the complexity of our experiences as humans into this kind of a simple framework so that we can manage them and yet go deeper , to root, to source and , in doing this, discover/find the richness therein.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.