Adult Consolations: Tolkien on Fantasy

Only in the English-speaking world are fairy stories relegated to the children’s section. In Germanic cultures, the Märchen is for everyone, and often too dark for children; in France, the Conte is a sophisticated, sometimes cynical genre. Tolkien is insistent that the best fairy stories are for adults. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” written in 1939, over a decade before The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:  If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. (p.15) What, then, will adults “get” from a serious reading of The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien offers three benefits of reading good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

   Great works of literature generally give us ways to experience our world afresh, to make the familiar unfamiliar. Our world is often lost to us through overfamiliarity, such that we no longer pay attention to the people and things around us; literature helps us to “recover” the world we have lost. Perhaps all art does this in some way. 

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (19)

Fantasy literature “recovers” by getting us to imagine alternative worlds composed of elements from our world, but reassembled into new combinations and reshaped. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series illuminates the world we think we know by making us live for a while in an alternate universe the features of which bear a distorted resemblance to elements of our own. The effect is to tickle and startle us into a new perception of our lives,  in much the same way as Chesterton’s word Mooreeffoc perplexes us:

Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. (19)

Tolkien then differentiates this valuable effect from the powerful thing that happens when “creative fantasy” unlocks what is inside you (your hoard) and liberates it to surprising transformations:

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you. (19)

What does he mean by this? In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s long education through Bilbo’s stories and songs frees him to imagine possibilities for himself that those around him would never consider; it opens up his ability to undertake the grinding trek to Mordor and gives him the faith that the often perilous struggle might be good for him. It also renders him incapable of simply living in the Shire any more. Creative fantasy has the power to dissolve ties that we thought were natural and unbreakable.

   From unleashing the imagination it is only a small step to Escape, the second great benefit of fantasy. Tolkien disagrees strongly with people who denigrate “the literature of escape”:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. (20)

There is nothing in itself wrong with the need to escape; in many situations, escape is understandable and justified. It might be argued that most forms of literature are “escapes” from our ordinary lives, in that through them we are taken to different times and places and meet different people. This can be a very good thing — again, loosening our chains to the world we take for granted by getting us to entertain other possibilities. The escape from ideas of natural Necessity also includes what Tolkien calls “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death,” with which fairy tales and religions share a preoccupation. This fictional freedom from necessity may be the virtue and the vice of fairy tales: on the one hand, why should there be only one necessary way for things to be? — and on the other, surely the habit of thinking in terms of Escape will trap the prospective escapee in a permanent misery of resisting what in fact cannot be resisted — such as sickness, old age, and death.

   Against the facts of the irresistible, the third benefit of fantasy literature is Consolation, which is the essence of the fairy tale and which is manifested as a “eucatastrophe”:

…Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. (22)

Kata-strophe itself literally means “downturn,” or “overturn.” The prefix eu (“good,” “well”) expresses a reversal of the downturn, a fixing of the upset. A good example would be the confused action leading to the destruction of the Ring: in spite of Sam’s incapacitation, Frodo’s sinister change of heart, and Gollum’s frenzied triumph — or because of them — the Ring is destroyed in a sequence of events that nobody would have imagined beforehand. 

   But is the Eucatastrophe a mere plot element, just another form of peripeteia? — or is it a an irruption of grace, even when the downward plunge of plot has not been reversed? Tolkien seems to mean both of these.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (22-23)

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. (23)

These “piercing glimpses of joy” arrive as revelations of a world behind or held within our world; they irradiate the surface world of the narrative, giving it a luminous transparency in  which the hidden dimension expressed through song and poetry suddenly becomes manifest. Such moments are “eucatastrophic” because they unexpectedly redeem or save the seemingly hopeless world. Of all the characters, Sam is the most receptive to the “turn,” as when he encounters the magic of Lothlorien:

He turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. “It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” (Fellowship, 341-2)

Even in the depths of hardship he has the intense sensitivity to beauty that we see in Japanese literature, where a hardened warrior can be brought to tears by a glimpse of the moon:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. (Return, 199)

There are several extraordinary moments like this throughout the book. Another memorable moment is the one at the end of the “Siege of Gondor” chapter in which Gandalf, about to be assailed by the Black Rider, hears a cock crow:

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
   And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last. (193)

Here, we have eucatastrophe on two levels: the horns of Rohan signal a happy turn of the plot, while the cock’s crow — which does nothing to further the plot — illuminates the darkness of the situation with a reminder of the beauty of the dawn.

   Without such moments, the story would be not much more than a chain of events, an action narrative, without “heart” or “soul.” Tolkien’s point is that the outer sequence of events is held together by an “inner consistency” that gives it solidity and depth. The sequence of events is not all there is, but issues from a meaning or logos that lights it up to one who is sensitive. The reader who is attuned to this inner consistency can feel how all the disparate elements of the story cohere into a meaningful pattern — just as Gandalf is able to sense at the outset that Gollum might have a function in the whole. 

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” (23)

   Tolkien compares the eucatastrophe to the evangelium (eu-angelium: good news), a kingdom of grace that permeates the world and redeems it all from its sins and stupidities. The novel, however, does not necessarily announce any such religion: there is no God, apparently also no gods, no afterlife, no linear plot of ascension and salvation, no theology of sacrifice. A Buddhist might well experience the eucatastrophe as nirvana in samsara; a Hindu might see a flash of the One Brahman in the multifarious universe. In Middle-earth there are beings like Tom Bombadil who have existed from the beginning of an uncreated universe, and there are many hints of long ages that succeed one another with cyclical logic. The world-weary Elrond speaks as one who has seen it all before and knows that we will see it again. The history of Middle-earth is not redeemed by any Deliverer from high, but from something that glows within it and transfigures it with unearthly beauty. Tolkien is adamant that any true Fantasy will be lit by this, and that it is something that adults will be moved by more than children. The Consolation consoles because it brings us back into contact with something that we tend to lose with age: an attunement with the magic of the world, the fairy improbability of everything.

“Venerable Gotama, Is There A Soul?”

This may be the most burning question for seekers who come to the Buddha from religions built on belief in imperishable individual souls or in one all-pervading Soul. One of the most memorable exchanges on this question is initiated by a Brahmin wanderer named Vacchagotta, who in various suttas is featured as an asker of big speculative questions. The conversation begins enigmatically:

“Venerable Gotama, is there a self?”
When this was said, the Blessed One was silent.
“Then is there no self?”
A second time, the Blessed One was silent.

The word “self” translates atta (in Sanskrit, atman), and is one of those immensely rich, resonant words that have provoked thousands of years of debate and discussion. For human beings and other sentient beings atta means “the innermost self” or “soul,” the livng core that is eternal, persisting through time and perhaps even residing outside of time. When we speak loosely of the “self” of a world, a culture, a landscape , a mountain, we also mean the underlying essence that unites the varying appearances into “one thing.” Today I saw a murmuration of starlings squabbling with a flock of robins, noticed that the red leaves on my flowering pear tree have started to turn brown, needed to wear my thickest wool coat, and found feathery frost on my car window: all these bespeak a “self” of winter, which had suddenly arrived, ousting autumn, and which cannot be experienced directly but through signs.

   When we point to ourselves to say “it’s me,” we know that the Me we are referring to cannot be pointed at, cannot be pulled out and displayed: my finger points physically to my jacket, or when that is removed to my shirt, or my t-shirt under it, or to my chest, but none of these observable things is what I mean by Me. My Self underlies all of the phenomena associated with me and cannot be pointed to. My clothes, my body, my actions, my CV, are all a metonymy for something that exists in supposition as their substratum. Vacchagotta is asking if this substratum exists — if there is an “I” or not, if there is a unifying Soul, or am I nothing but a temporary aggregation of parts that are themselves temporary aggregations of parts, all changing from moment to moment?  

   The Buddha’s silence might be taken as either a refusal to answer Vacchagotta’s questions, or as the only appropriate answer. To understand this, let’s look at how the Buddha talks about the self in the Anatta-Lakhana Sutta (SN 22:59), which was the Buddha’s second teaching, given to the five monks who were his best friends at the time. Coming just seven weeks after his enlightenment, the teaching is charged with the electricity of new discovery: 

Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers). There he addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five: “Bhikkhus.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this.
“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…
[formulaic phrasing above’repeated]

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…

“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to
be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”
“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’
“Any kind of feeling whatever…
“Any kind of perception whatever…
“Any kind of determination whatever…
“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’

Rather than just telling us how it is, the Buddha is giving us a framework of questions. If there is a “self,” where does it exist, and can we find it anywhere? Of the possible wheres, there are only five: the five skhandas, “heaps” or agglomerations, which constitute the entirety of our beings. These are 1) bodily “form”; 2) the “feelings” of pain, pleasure, or neither, which accompany every sensation; 3) “perception” or what we sense with our sense organs, including our organ of internal perception, the mind; 4) “determination,” which includes volition, predispositions, preferential tendencies, all the aspects connected with willing and choosing that have given our existences direction and that establish inertia for the future; and 5) “consciousness,” the dimension of thought, intellection, and awareness. There is no other skandha. All five have been compared to five heaps thrown together to make a single being, or the confluence of five rivers rushing together. If the self can be found anywhere, it must be in the skandhas.

   With characteristic methodical thoroughness, the Buddha then works through the skandhas one by one. Am I my body? If our selves were the same as our bodies, we would never be at odds with our bodies; instead, we struggle with our bodily limitations, with the frequency of disease and physical pain, with aging and with death. There is always tension between us and our bodies. But am I my feelings, am I my perceptions? Am I my desires? If not, then am I my thoughts, my consciousness? It turns out that the self cannot be found in the other four skandhas: we can struggle with our likes, dislikes, and neutralities, and are often surprised by our feelings; we can resist perceptions, and also be confused by our perceptions; we can suffer conflicting volitions and be paralyzed in dilemmas, and we are capable of not wanting what we want; we can make serious mistakes in our thoughts and judgments, and can repudiate states of mind and mental commitments that have until then dominated our sense of reality. Our inability to identify simply with any of the skandhas proves that the self is not to be found in them, and therefore not to be found in all of them taken together. 
   The Buddha then points out that in our experience, all five skandhas are subject to change and are constantly in motion. Every cell in our body changes moment by moment, the temperature and blood pressure vary, all the fluids are in motion, and the content of the blood changes in accordance with what we have eaten and with the capacity of the whole organism to digest. The body at least contrives to stay stable and recognizable from day to day, even though philosophers have been quick to dismiss the body for being mired in flux. The sensations, feelings, and volitions are much more volatile and harder to pin down than the body — and what can be less stable, more entirely in motion, than consciousness? It is barely possible to keep track, in the space of a day, of all our states of consciousness — not just the moods and emotions, but also the thoughts, the things that catch our attention, the preoccupations and vexations. Impermanence is what we experience in all the “heaps” of our being — but what we are looking for is that thing whereby we can be considered “ourselves,” something that continues selfsame from one moment to the next, unchangingly itself underneath the chaos.  We do not experience the self in any of the five skandhas, and there is no sixth skandha.

   There is a lot to unpack and chew over in the Buddha’s terse, repetitive formulations. The careful search for the self amidst the skandhas is itself a form of focused meditation, but in this search one of the things we notice is that in fact the self cannot be an object of the search. Instead, what we call “self” is a process of self-making, a continuous activity in which identification is constantly being attempted. With our bodies, for instance, think of all those times we reject photographs of ourselves that “don’t look like us” and settle on the one that is “us,” that is worthy of representing us; or, more interestingly, consider the person who cannot accept any photograph of themselves as a good likeness. The act of picking out a good picture of myself exists in the context of a lifelong and developing process of making an image of myself that I wish — for many complex reasons — to identify with. What goes on when we choose and reject an image of ourselves is worth investigating seriously. While we settle on an image, we can also at the same time rejoice in the lover who delights in our morning face and morning breath, and we can feel pleasure when a small nephew fondly plays with our grey hair or strokes our bald patch. We are caught here in a web of sometimes contradictory identifications; it can be consternating when our lover who adores our middle-aged frailty thinks that our favorite picture of ourselves is slightly silly and not like us at all. With feelings, volitions, and thoughts, the activity of seeking something to identify with goes on automatically  and at a much deeper level. When we are angry, in love, or feeling righteous, we identify so wholly with those states that it is impossible to see ourselves objectively, and when even close friends disagree with us then, we feel that it is our selves that are under attack. It is possible to feel anger, love, and righteousness in succession — and then the identification with three sets of thoughts and emotions can lead perplexingly in different directions.

   In an important conversation with the beloved disciple Ananda, the Buddha takes on again the identification with feeling:

“In what ways, Ānanda, does one considering (the idea of) self consider it? One considering (the idea of) self either considers feeling as self, saying: ‘Feeling is my self.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’ Or he considers: ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Therein, Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ should be asked: ‘Friend, there are these three kinds of feeling—pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling. Of these three kinds of feeling, which do you consider as self?’
“Ānanda, on the occasion when one experiences a pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a painful feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a pleasant feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a painful feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a painful feeling. On the occasion when one experiences a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one does not, on that same occasion, experience a pleasant feeling or a painful feeling; on that occasion one experiences only a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling.
“Ānanda, pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Painful feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing. Neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling is impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, subject to destruction, falling away, fading out, and ceasing.
“If, when experiencing a pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a painful feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that painful feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’ If, when experiencing a neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling, one thinks: ‘This is my self,’ then with the ceasing of that neither-painful-nor-pleasant feeling one thinks: ‘My self has disappeared.’
“Thus one who says ‘Feeling is my self’ considers as self something which, even here and now, is impermanent, a mixture of pleasure and pain, and subject to arising and falling away. Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is my self.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, where there is nothing at all that is felt, could the idea “I am” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is not my self; my self is without experience of feeling.’
“Ānanda, the one who says ‘Feeling is not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—he should be asked: ‘Friend, if feeling were to cease absolutely and utterly without remainder, then, in the complete absence of feeling, with the cessation of feeling, could (the idea) “I am this” occur there?’”
“Certainly not, venerable sir.”
“Therefore, Ānanda, because of this it is not acceptable to consider: ‘Feeling is
not my self, but my self is not without experience of feeling. My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling.’
“Ānanda, when a bhikkhu does not consider feeling as self, and does not consider self as without experience of feeling, and does not consider: ‘My self feels; for my self is subject to feeling’—then, being without such considerations, he does not cling to anything in the world. Not clinging, he is not agitated. Not being agitated, he personally attains nibbāna. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no returning to this state of being.’

In brief, if I seek to identify my self in my feelings, which feelings do I fix on for identification? If it is the happy me, am I not myself when miserable? If my self is to be found in my pain, then am I not myself when in pleasure? Furthermore, any feeling of pain or pleasure is changing all the time, so in what part of them can I find myself? If I reject this and say that the self exists beyond feeling, unfeeling and therefore unfelt, why would I have any cause to look for the self anywhere, since experientially it is nothing to me? Only when the seeker stops trying to locate and objectify the self — both in feelings and in non-feeling — will he attain freedom from agitation. The agitation itself is caused by the futile attempt to solidify the self, whether as individual ego or as world-soul, which is an amplification of ego; the way out of this agitation begins with being able to catch ourselves in the act of making identifications. 

   In all of this, the Buddha is making no assertions about the existence of the self; he wants us to essay, to make an empirical inquiry into our experience of selfing, and to understand for ourselves in what way there is or isn’t a self. What we see is a continual process of identifying, of making selves — never unitary even in a single person. If this is what the word “self” means, then there is a self; but if the object sought for in identification is an eternal selfsameness from moment to moment, then we do not find it anywhere in any experience we can point to. He does not say this version of self doesn’t exist, just that we don’t find it anywhere except in the imagination of faith, which is also not simple non-existence. The more pressing question is why we are looking for the self, what is at stake when we want it to exist or not exist.

   To return now to the Brahmin wanderer Vacchagotta, the Buddha denies him a straightforward yes or no, and also a complicated explanation: he answers with silence, partly to throw Vacchagotta back onto himself and provoke him to question his question, but partly to show to this clever quibbler that to such questions there really is no answer. Non-questions get non-answers. It is comparable to someone who watches Star Wars and asks afterwards if the experience of the film was real or not. This is a non-question, because clearly in some way there was the experience of the film: there are dreams, there are fantasies. The non-question is generated by attachment to the idea of a solid reality. A genuine question would be something like, In what way is Star Wars real or not real, true or not true? The answers to this will be more intelligent and nuanced.

Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.
Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “Why, lord, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?”
“Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?”
“No, lord.”
“And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”

Answering yes would corroborate Vacchagotta’s predisposition to hold to an eternal self, which we don’t find in experience of the skandhas; answering no would corroborate him in his deep-seated anxiety that then nothing really exists. These theoretical positions are solidifications, congealments, of the more dynamic ways for self to be or not be. The self happens like the forming of a bubble, like the making of a dream, real in a way, and not real in another waythe point is not to recite this as a strikingly paradoxical proposition, but to be able to see selfing as it happens and to live it in its real unreality, its unreal reality.
The three Suttas quoted here are:

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22:59)
translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera (1993)
Mahanidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse (DN 15)
translated from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Ananda Sutta: To Ananda (SN 44:10)
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2004)

The Buddha’s Core Curriculum for Graduating Life: Mindfulness (8)

[Head of a monk: 4-5th century CE, Gandhara]

If the Satipatthana Sutta were to conclude after describing the first three foundations of mindfulness, what would we lose? Mindfulness of breathing, bodily movements and positions, feelings, and states of mind will be more than enough for most people to work on over several decades and still feel they haven’t exhausted the practice. We would gain closeness to our own experience: a refined awareness of all that is going on in our bodies, an understanding of how feelings work and how craving arises, a developed intuition for states of mind in ourselves and in others, a diminishing of compulsions and attachments, and all round — just by becoming more aware and self-aware — greater effectiveness in all human activities. Becoming more open to experience and more calmly intelligent about what really goes on, we will naturally suffer less because our expectation and demands will be more realistic; we might even find ourselves happier, because we are struggling less with people and situations, and because in paying attention we will start to find our own lives more interesting, more abundant. It could well be that knowledge of what we have to do and how we have to live will emerge naturally from understanding ourselves better — just as children who read and who thus spend many hours a day getting nto the minds of literary characters will expand their powers of empathy without having to be taught. 

   The Buddha himself made his great spiritual discoveries wholly empirically, through observing and comprehending what is present in body, feelings, and mind; no one told him where the practice was going to lead him. It takes tremendous trust in the process to be able to give oneself up to the lessons of experience, without being guided by a framework reassuringly provided by a wise teacher. Similarly, it takes an unusually trusting teacher to let the student loose in the laboratory of life to figure out for himself what works and what doesn’t. What if the student accidentally blows himself up? On the other hand, a real teacher — knowing that he is not omniscient — is always delighted when a student surprises him with a question or discovery that he hasn’t yet thought of. Throughout the Discourses the Buddha has emphasized “knowing for yourselves”; we only know the things that we find with our own senses and intelligence, and this is why the Buddha’s teaching style — terse, dry, understated — tends to give us space to question and investigate. It is also why the Satipatthana starts with meditations in which we develop confidence in our own powers of insight. In the words of the refrain in this Sutta, the practitioner “lives independent and clings to naught in the world” — not even the words of his teacher. In the cultivation if mindfulness, the Buddha is scrupulous not to introduce the conceptual frame too early, for premature reliance on someone else’s interpretation of phenomena always undermines our own ability to experience honestly.

   Only as the fourth foundation of mindfulness do we get contemplating the dhammas — often confusingly translated “mental objects,” because it deals with ideas and enotions, and consists of a series of formulaic encapsulations of the Buddha’s system that need to be thought through and understood. To oversimplify, the first three foundations of mindfulness cultivate accurate but passive awareness, a kind of wise receptivity to what is; by themselves, they have little power of active transformation, little capacity to take us further along the path that leads to the final destruction of suffering. In the first three mindfulness practices, we ward nothing away, repress nothing, and entertain with open arms both positive and negative equally; in the fourth mindfulness practice, we must now work to nudge away the negative and develop the positive, since we now understand vividly what negative and positive are.

   The martial sport of fencing offers a useful analogy. A budding fencer might be fond of swords, and while using the finest sports blades he might be thinking all the time of his collection of replica rapiers at home: mindfulness of the blade, an intimate knowledge of everything about swords, motivates and excites his practice. Another fencer might be on fire from the historical romance of fencing, and in each practice session he remembers real duels and the accounts of ancient combats. A third fencer, perhaps coming from a background in dance or gymnastics, might enjoy the technical drills more, and appreciate the science of movement: here we see a certain kind of mindfulness of body. None of these interests is wrong, and each of them brings into the foreground one aspect of the sport. The aspect that is foregrounded may be in itself endlessly fascinating and rewarding, but the fencer who is “lost” in this aspect will not become a good fencer. What is required in he making of a real fencer is the harnessing of a host of subordinate aspects into the ability to win bouts agains skilled antagonists, and this involves learning progressions directed towards a specific end. The training is vigorous and prescriptive — do this, don’t do that — as the student is actively transformed into a real fencer who might survive in an actual swordfight.

   The contemplation of dhammas (“mental objects”) takes place in accordance with five numerical frames that are given more detailed treatment in other Suttas: the five hindrances, the five aggregrates of clinging, the six internal and external sense bases, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the four noble truths.  Each of these is a concise, standard schema of ethical, intellectual, and psychological soul-work; they are compressions of the Buddha’s experience that need to be carefully considered and unpacked for ourselves — like seeds of wisdom, which grow only if watered, by our own hands, with our blood. The first three foundations of mindfulness were necessary propaedeutics to this, for without developed attentiveness to our own experience the contemplation of dhammas would be entirely out of our reach. The Four Noble Truths make only superficial, hypothetical sense to one who does not know how to be mindful of body and feelings. Indeed, many people who are suffering believe that they are fine, and many who think they are suffering badly are in fact better off than most — how would we know how to recognize and gauge our own state, if our powers of awareness are nothing more than rudimentary and blunt, like sticks that small boys use for pretend-weapons?

   I am not going to explore the contemplations of dhammas here, because they require longer and more detailed exploration, and because I am unqualified. Whereas the first three foundations make a lot of sense to me, the fourth requires trust and commitment to the Buddha’s system — trust and commitment that is backed up by seeing, in the practice of the first three foundations, that the Buddha always has a reason for saying what he says in the way he says it. The contemplation of dhammas is for students who have already committed to the path, but here too the articulations make sense to an ordinary thoughtful human being who seeks to be wiser. 

   For example, one of the contemplations of dhammas takes on the “five hindrances” (nivarana), those complexes of thoughts and emotions that interrupt and obstruct our efforts at mental clarity and tranquillity in whatever work we may be doing. They are difficult to deal with, because by the time we become aware of the presence of one of them, our work has already been disturbed. Because our foundations in mindfulness are now strong, we can nonetheless pull back and look at the disturbance. 

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives contemplating the mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances.

“How, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating mental objects in the mental objects of the five hindrances?

“Here, O bhikkhus, when sensuality is present, a bhikkhu knows with understanding: ‘I have sensuality,’ or when sensuality is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sensuality.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen sensuality comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sensuality comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sensuality comes to be. When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. When sloth and torpor are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have sloth and torpor,’ or when sloth and torpor are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no sloth and torpor.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen sloth and torpor comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned sloth and torpor comes to be. When agitation and worry are present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have agitation and worry,’ or when agitation and worry are not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no agitation and worry.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the abandoning of the arisen agitation and worry comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned agitation and worry comes to be. When doubt is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have doubt,’ or when doubt is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no doubt.’ He understands how the arising of non-arisen doubt comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen doubt comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned doubt comes to be.”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Each of these hindrances hides a world of complex causation. “Sensuality” is not just sexual desire, but all those desires that come from an underlying belief that material pleasures can make us happy; “anger” expresses disappointment, dissatisfaction, and a sense of betrayal, stemming from some belief that people and the world “should” be other than they are, and from a concealed assumption that we are competent to judge their inadequacy; “sloth and torpor” encompass our various ways of resisting what we know we must do, ranging from not being to get up or to stay awake, to seeking distraction in trivial entertainments, to depressive paralysis; “agitation and worry,” which can creep in insidiously at any moment, can come from regret for things done, not done, or done poorly, as well as the anxiety that is generated by the knowledge of unfinished business, and general anxiety for loved ones and the world; and “doubt,” which is not just lack of faith in the Buddha’s path, includes philosophical disbelief as well as crippling lack of confidence in one’s own abilities and in the project as a whole. The Buddha has seen clearly — in himself and in his students — that whenever we find ourselves unsettled and derailed, it is usually because of one or more of these five hindrances. We also know from experience that the hindrances are addictive by nature: each time we indulge them, we make them stronger and more frequent in the future. Consequently, learning how to handle the hindrances is crucial to progress along the path, and mindfulness of the hindrances comes under the category of contemplating the dhammas in the dhammas.  While good, encouraging advice from a teacher and close friends is usually our best help in dealing with the hindrances once they have arisen and once we find ourselves wriggling in their clutches, we still have to learn to manage them ourselves by experiencing them directly and seeing what they are.

   Let’s look at just one of them: When anger is present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have anger,’ or when anger is not present, he knows with understanding: ‘I have no anger.’ The first step is to be able to recognize when it is there or not there. Often we can go for days in a bad mood without consciously realizing that we are angry; or we can find in the midst of our meditations that we are being swept along on a flash flood of grumbling, not having noticed when it started. This part of the contemplation requires skill in bare mindfulness. But what do we do, once we have noticed? He understands how the arising of the non-arisen anger comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen anger comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned anger comes to be. We have to study where the anger comes from, and be able to recognize it at its origination as it arises — and not only when it has already become full-fledged passion. Once we understand how it arises, we need to understand how it is abandoned. As in the other contemplations, we do not repress or force the hindrance out — because that will only give it more power. Sometimes seeing, hearing, and understanding are sufficient to calm an emotion, but most often we have to learn how to reroute or sublimate a thought that might grow into a hindrance. For example, when we are angry with a person, we might go straight to them and talk; or we might try putting ourselves in their shoes. When we have grasped this, we will be in a better position to understand how to live in such a way that anger never just arises. This work involves dedicated self-reflection, awaeness of our emotions, and creative intelligence with regard to our toughest, trickiest mental tendencies.

   Notice, too, how impersonal the Buddha’s phrasing is: when anger is present, not when he is angry. No one “owns” the anger or “is” the anger; rather, anger is carried by an inertia that we surely contributed to but that we are not agents of. For this reason, the hindrance can be calmly worked on, as a sculptor works on granite, and there is no extraneous emotion of blame or resistance that comes from disliking “being like this.” The first three foundations of mindfulness have trained us to find this work interesting and productive, and we can now approach the work like skilled craftsmen. One other benefit of this serene engagement is that we will find that other people no longer irk us much, and because we understand the hindrances in ourselves, we are likely to be more understanding and compassionate towards the hindrances as they appear in others. 

   The Satipatthana Sutta, in about 20 pages, gives us a complete curriculum for what can truly be called self-study, with the aim of understanding the origin of suffering and how to end it. Each of the four foundations of mindfulness requires dedicated, concentrated practice, and if we consider how difficult it is to be mindful of only breathing for a single hour, we will have a clear picture of how accomplished we would have to be to sustain mindfulness in all four dimensions for a whole week. But should any person maintain these Four Arousings of Mindfulness in this manner for a week, then by him one of two fruitions is proper to be expected: Knowledge here and now; or, if some form of clinging is yet present, the state of non-returning. In purely secular terms, it is possible to see how even a little time devoted every day to these meditative exercises will result in a happier, more effective human being, capable of helping himself and others, and more directly attuned to his own experience. The curriculum laid out in the Satipatthana may well be, as the Buddha claims, the only path to self-knowledge and happiness.  


For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

Learning from Feelings: Mindfulness (6)

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings…

Are you the same as your body? After a period of time cultivating focused awareness of breathing, postures, movements, and decay, it is tempting to conclude that we are not the same as our bodies — and that the witnessing consciousness stands above and outside of the ceaseless flux of embodied life. The contemplations of the body in the body are perfectly compatible with philosophies that view the essential self as bodiless — as the impersonal intellect, or as the individual soul, or as Spirit opposed to Matter, or as the universal Self or Atman that forms the eternal substratum to the changing world. For all such philosophies, the contemplation of the body in the body would be a highly effective way to wean us from identifying with the body and instead teach us to identify with the unchanging part of ourselves. But are we only twofold — an eternal something inhabiting a changing, material body? Certainly the eternal something cannot be found apart from body, but is the part of us that is not body simply an eternal soul, or are there aspects and gradations to it? In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha goes from body to feelings:

“And how, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating feeling in feelings? (Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

Before going on, I should point put that the English word feelings misses the mark. The word translated is vedana, which is not “feelings” as in “emotions.” The latter tends to come in a complex package that is made up of both affect and thought. In fact, all emotions come from thought on some level and cannot be separated from it — for instance, anger is usually an emotion that issues from some perception of injustice, and love is inextricably tied to the good and the beautiful. When we hate someone, it is because we think they are bad; and when we despise or admire someone, our feelings flow from conscious evaluation. With the emotions, we cannot contemplate feelings in feelings, stripped away from other aspects of mental life.

The Buddha — in his penetrating observation of everything that goes on inside a person — noticed that there is one level in our experience that usually goes unnoticed and undiscussed. We have six sense faculties that are made to sense six kinds of things. (For Buddhists as for Hindus, the sixth sense is the mind, which is both the internal sense organ and also the sense that brings together the perceptions of the other senses, as when we realize that the orange object sensed by our eyes, the sweet but tart object, sensed by our taste, and the spherical object sensed by our touch, are in fact aspects of one thing, namely an orange.) When we sense something, there is a perception, but there is always simultaneously a feeling tone to that perception. To take an analogy: a cook makes a dish for the king, gives it a taste-test, and finds it acceptable; the king tastes it and also enjoys it. Both cook and king might have the same taste-perception of the dish, but their reactions on tasting are what the Buddha is calling vedana or “feelings.” Clearly, the vedana and the taste-perception are not separable, but they are distinct. If the cook makes the identical dish every day, after a week the king might have the same taste-perception of this dish, but the feeling may have turned to dislike. Thus, while feeling and perception come together, the specific feeling is not intrinsic to the perception. Another strange fact regarding vedana is that with any given sense perception we usually cannot help feeling what we feel, and what we feel can often surprise us.

The observation that there is such a dimension to experience as vedana is both original and profoundly important in the Buddha’s path out of suffering. Feelings lead to craving, and craving leads to attachment — and once we are attached, we are committed to suffering. To reiterate an example from a previous essay: I am handed a bowl of ice-cream of a flavor new to me, I taste it (sense perception), I like it (feeling), I want more (craving), I want a second bowl (more craving), and I need to find out where I can buy it so that it is either always in my fridge or permanently available to me (attachment). In attachment we attempt to guarantee the object for ourselves, and the money we pay for the ice-cream goes towards securing the future production of it as well as the means of delivery — in other words, we make the world that guarantees us this ice-cream. Once we get to this point we are committed, shackled, and any disturbance of this security makes us unhappy. The same sequence of feeling-craving-attachment can be experienced in all our commitments: reading, career, friendship, romance, religions, philosophies. I experienced this, I liked it, I wanted more, I tried to secure it. In the suttas on craving, the Buddha asks us to notice that the chain starts with the link from feeling to craving, but that craving is not intrinsic to feeling: it is possible to be perfectly content with one taste of ice-cream, and indeed to enjoy it more that way. But the problem is that usually tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment all seem to happen simultaneously, “naturally,” in one thought. I can’t help liking this new ice-cream, but liking it then “naturally” seems to mean that I must have it always. In mindfulness meditation, we slow down the apparently natural process and notice that tasting, feeling, craving, and attachment are each discrete. We can’t stop ourselves from perceiving, and we can’t stop the immediate feeling-reaction to the perception, but we can see that there is a chasm between feeling and craving.

This is why the contemplation of feelings in feeling is so important: if we are to work on craving and attachment, we have to be attentive to the level of vedana all the time. The actual exercise of contemplating feelings in feeling in the Satipatthana is relatively short, less than a page, but it is an extremely rich and demanding exercise. The exercises on body are much more extensive and varied, because they are training-wheels, as it were. Mindfulness of breathing and movements, while good practices in themselves, also enable us to cultivate powers of observation, sensitivity, and stamina with relatively obvious objects — whereas feelings and thoughts are more volatile and elusive. If you can’t do the exercise on breathing, the one on feelings will be way out of your reach. In what follows, the Buddha works with only three categories of vedana — pleasant, unpleasant, and not-sure — and with two levels of them, to do with gross physical sensation and mental or imaginative sensation:

“Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu when experiencing a pleasant feeling, understands: ‘I experience a pleasant feeling’; when experiencing a painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant worldly feeling’; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a painful spiritual feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling’; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, he understands: ‘I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling.’

At first these categories seem too simple to be true, as if we were labeling each vedana with a crude emoticon. But the Buddha’s project here is to simplify, to pare the vedanas down to the barest and most undeniable characteristic of like, don’t like, and not sure. More sophisticated  emotional overtones, such as “fascinating” and “sad,” are harder to nail down because they have so many shadings and jagged edges, and because they change so quickly and, indeed, wobble. The category of neither-pleasant-nor-painful is particularly interesting, because often it exists because of the other two: if you tend to like and dislike passionately, the extremes will create a neutral middle-ground that we mostly experience as “uninteresting” or “boring.” The phenomenon of a “boring life” is the artifact of an excessive attachment to what we “like” and “dislike,” an attachment that somehow sprang from the initial feelings of liking and disliking. When we pay attention to those feelings as they arise, watch them in their courses, and notice that they do actually diminish, we will be much less prone to just letting them turn to cravings.

We all know that the more we observe, the more we find there is to observe. When we started on mindfulness of breathing, it didn’t seem that there would be much to it, but as we become more perceptive, we start to find the act of breathing, in the whole body, infinitely interesting. The objects of sense perception are overwhelming in their multitude. As I sit here, if I pause my writing, I can notice all six of my senses going at one moment or another, and each distinct sense perception is accompanied by a vedana. There are hundreds in a minute. It is an athletic feat to keep up with them all, and the effect of even short bursts of contemplating feelings can be like a deafening, blinding bombardment of stimuli both from inside and outside. In one of the Buddha’s similes, we are compared to a flayed cow standing in a field, exposed to millions of stinging insects and the assaults of weather. In this exercise, we realize vividly how much there is going on in our experience all the time, and how easily we latch onto things and feverishly shun other things. In this buzzing jungle of feelings, attachments — especially as attractions and aversions — form rapidly and then take on lives of their own that grow into monsters that consume us. But here we nip the attachments in the bud by just watching the feelings and letting them be: they arise, grow, dwindle, and vanish, equal in status, none of them getting preferential treatment, and none of them outcast. We do not know where they come from, why they came, or where they go to: we are not the authors of them.

The Buddha then gives the reflective refrain:

“Thus he lives contemplating feelings in feelings internally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings externally, or he lives contemplating feeling in feelings internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in feelings, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in feelings. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought: ‘Feeling exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

Having chewed on this paragraph after each of the exercises in contemplating body, we start to hear things more clearly. The bhikkhu lives contemplating in this way: it is not merely an exercise. And with feelings, we can become acutely aware of origination and dissolution, as well as both together. Nothing stays still. It is in the nature of feeling to be this way; indeed, there is no other way for feeling to be! When we want to secure unending access to the marvelous ice-cream, what we are trying to do is to repeat the pleasure of the first taste — to repeat it forever. But this is not in the nature of feelings, for no two spoonfuls of the ice-cream will result in the same feeling: if we attempt to repeat, we will be disappointed — and in our intense expectation of a repeat, we will block ourselves from experiencing something new. Yet “feeling exists”: there is no way, if we have sense perception, that it will not exist. We acknowledge it, and remember to heed the warning not to get carried away by our experience in meditation to make more of the ephemerality of feeling than it really is — for instance, not to elevate it into an aesthetic in which we strain to develop a sentimental, nostalgic relationship to the moment, as with much classical Japanese literature. We practice mindfulness “to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance,” and certainly not for the pleasant feelings it might cause in us.

If we want to believe that the experiencing consciousness is separate from and transcends the world of the body, we can — with the Cartesians — think of sense-perception and vedanas as being essentially of the body, because they are both in and of the kingdom of flux. But vedanas are interesting and problematic, because they shade into volitions and commitments; and, since there indubitably exist feelings of pleasure and pain towards mental objects of perception — ideas, thoughts, images, dreams — the vedanas have to be considered an aspect of the very consciousness that is experiencing the objects of the six senses. Even the least worldly person has vedana towards geometry, a Bach partita, the idea of God, the mystery of death. It is much harder, after undertaking the contemplation of feelings in feeling, to take refuge in the thought that “I” am the unchanging, untouched, witnessing consciousness standing aloof from the mutable world of matter.
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see: