Human beings are deeply conditioned to push away what we find uncomfortable, painful, or unattractive, and to grasp at whatever is pleasant, beautiful, and satisfying. This conditioning is unconscious and usually unrecognized. Which means that most human beings are at the mercy of their likes and dislikes. This unconscious pattern makes it more likely that we will react to events rather than respond to them.
One of the most simple yet profound frames of reference for mindfulness practice is the frame of awareness of feelings, often called “feeling tone.” The basic idea is that every event, or even every moment, has a basic tone which we experience as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Mindfulness practice helps us pay attention to our experience of feeling tone. When we experience something unpleasant, if we notice and acknowledge it, we are more likely to respond to it rather than react to it. As an example, if someone says something unkind to you, by noticing the unpleasant emotions that are likely to arise, and where you feel them in the body, you are taking a pause and letting yourself digest the pain, thus interrupting the fight or flight reactivity that might have lead to a bitter argument. Once I was screamed at by my boss – not a fun experience. But instead of reacting from the pain of his words, I let myself experience the pain just as it was. That allowed me to steady myself and respond in a way that transformed the interaction in the moment.
One way of practicing mindfulness of feeling tone is during our mindfulness practice sessions. We can play with letting ourselves be with unpleasant sensations instead of getting rid of them. For example, if you have an itch, notice what it’s like not to scratch it. If you practice not scratching the itch you are developing patience and self-control, which conditions your mind to be patient and tolerant with “itchy” people or situations. When things feel neutral during practice – neither pleasant nor unpleasant – focus on the neutrality. Get interested in it. This conditions your mind to notice being alive in those moments of down time when we might normally space out and lose interest. Noticing the tendency of the mind to grasp when things feel pleasurable is a way of training ourselves to live life with more balance and contentment. Through the high definition lens of mindfulness practice, we see that pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences aren’t fixed but come and go, are always changing, and are not the source of permanent happiness or a permanent identity.
Being aware of our feeling tone helps us become aware of our reactive tendencies and begins to unravel them as we experience more clarity and balance in life, and more freedom of response.