Mindfulness is a term used by the Buddha, and he said that it is the first of seven factors of enlightenment. We have already examined our state of mind and watched our breath; we are now to mindfully note our sensations and feelings (not our emotions). This, of course, can be done at any hour of the day in any situation. However, here we will be sitting quietly and noting what we feel from physical contact, such as the pressure of the seat on our backside, the weight of our glasses on the nose, the touch of a breeze from the open window on our cheek, the slight contact of our fingers on our leg and other such sensations. In addition, we will note the feeling of gas in the stomach, a slight headache above the eyes, the anticipation of having to go to the bathroom, a twitching under the eye and other observances like this. We are determining our feelings and sensations, which we might not normally register. Remember, the mind is the judge and jury. Whatever we might experience or feel, if the mind doesn’t take it in but ignores it and refuses to register it, we really have no sensation or feeling. This is saying the same thing as the psychological observation that if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, there is no sound.

Mindfully we watch our sensations and our feelings, and as we do so, we classify them as pleasing, displeasing or neutral. We normally do this anyhow, but we are not aware of it. Most of us live in a pleasure-pain continuum, avoiding what is unpleasant, seeking to hang on to and repeat the pleasant, and remaining completely unaware of the neutral. Now, in this practice, we want to be aware of all these reactions.

Although we are tossed around like tumbling tumbleweeds (the Chinese would say “like straw men”) by our feelings, and our lives are shaped by the direction of our state of mind, we do not generally ascribe any significance to what happens to us or the sensations and feelings we have. We rationalize them but do not really cognize them. He who is mindfully aware of the tactile stimuli and of the mental reaction to a given stimulus has taken a big step forward in understanding life. If he can also determine the stimuli – and mental reactions – of others, he is a budding sage. What do I mean by the latter statement?

The Zen master Tokusan was walking through the meditation hall one day when he spotted two monks having a disagreement. Patiently folding his arms, he waited for an explanation.

“When you spoke yesterday, I heard you say so-and-so and took it to mean so-and-so,” stated the first monk. “Am I wrong?”

“No,” replied the master, “you are right.”

The second monk was distraught. “But I understood you to say so-and-so and mean just the opposite,” he protested.

“You are right,” agreed the master.

Tokusan’s attendant was astonished. “They can’t both be right,” he blurted out.

Tokusan smiled. “And I see that you, too, are right,” he concluded. Here is a master teacher.

Paul Reps once wrote a treatise on the “pillow wisdom” of Japan. One child realized that a pillow has four corners. At this corner you may be right, but at the far corner the other person may be right, and so for all four corners in the eyes of the wise. At the level of the ordinary man the judgment must be either-or. To a skeptic it might be neither-nor. But to the sage all answers would be possible. It is not a matter of who is right or wrong.

It is just so with our recognition of various feelings and sensations. A short period of time should suffice to recognize pleasant, unpleasant and neutral reactions. We may be surprised at the number when we really focus on them.

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Now we will skip from sensations and feelings to “objects of mind.” Actually, these two – sensations and objects of mind – overlap somewhat, but our sensations and feelings do not include what we see and what we hear. The senses of sight and of hearing go out to their individual fields, and we now become mindfully aware of what we see and hear – even peripheral sights and sounds. In the chapter, “Sound,” we get used to recognizing even seemingly inconsequential sounds. Now we are also going to register sights. If there is a reaction to the sight, we will note it, but in no way adjust to it. If there is feedback from a sound, we want to know about it. We don’t want any of our reactions to go unnoticed.

The Zen teaching that when we eat, we only eat, and when we see something, we just see that thing, is great as an ideal. But it is not the way we live. Seeing burning leaves, various associations may arouse nostalgia, and we may think of an autumn day in childhood, perhaps one on which we played football. A stream of consciousness chain is unleashed. Eating a dessert, we may remember eating a similar piece of pie with a departed loved one. (Taste is great for evoking memory.) Pretty soon we drift down the path of recollection and then into daydreams. This is not mindfulness, which says “now.”

By registering all objects of mind and noting our reactions to them, we take away the tendency to drift. Daydreaming may be pleasant, as many songs imply, but it does not help us toward a heightened awareness. Be strict with yourself and continually bring your mind back to the observations counseled here.

When we have dealt with sensation feeling and with objects of mind, as well as our reactions to them, we are ready to put the pieces together and begin to practice the great Satipatthana meditation, as we shall do in the next chapter.

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A summary of this practice includes:

Sensations and feelings:
We note the sensations (touch, etc.) and our reactions to them.

Objects of Mind:
We note what we see and hear (even peripherally), and we are also aware of our reactions to these sounds and sights.

This article is published in Heightened Awareness.