Pinch yourself. Go ahead and give yourself a good hard pinch on the arm or the back of the hand. Now, according to Buddhist psychology, you should be able to distinguish at least three different components to the experience: the touch, the pain of the touch, and the aversion to the pain of the touch. Our mind is very good at merging these all together, but there are actually three different processes—synthesized by three different brain systems—that are then synchronized with one another and interpreted as a unified experience. The Foundations of Mindfulness Discourse (Satipatthana Sutta) trains us how to see this for ourselves.

The first foundation, mindfulness of the body, directs us to notice in great detail all our bodily sensations. Consciousness arises in six different modes (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking), which correspond to the six sense organs of our bodies and the six kinds of objects to which each is sensitive. Mindfulness of the body is like tuning in a radio station: we are instructed to tune in to only channel 5 and regard the other sense inputs as distractions. If, while noticing all the nuanced sensations of the breath, for example, one hears a sound or thinks a thought, we are invited to gently but firmly let it go and return attention to the “touches” of physical sensations alone. (You all know the drill.) A gentle pinch of the arm is registered as one such touch, a mere instance of discernible physical sensation.

Mindfulness of feeling is the second foundation upon which mindfulness is established, and here we shift attention to the feeling tone that accompanies every moment’s experience. Feeling tone is measured on a sliding scale between strong pleasure and strong pain, with subtler hedonic shades in between and a neutral feeling tone at the center point of the scale. A feeling tone arises every moment, in all six sensory modes, and is not limited to physical sensations. Some smells are pleasant, others are so horrible it is painful to smell them. Some thoughts feel good to think, such as pleasant memories or hopeful fantasies, while others are so unpleasant we try hard to avoid or suppress them. A gentle pinch on the arm can feel neutral or even pleasant, but if you pinch hard enough you will surely experience pain. The challenge here, and it is a considerable one, is to distinguish between the touch and its corresponding feeling tone. Can you feel the pain as something over and above the touch? The touch is there, and then as you gradually pinch harder, you can feel the pain jump out almost as if it were something else entirely—which it is.

The third and fourth foundations of mindfulness redirect awareness again, this time to our emotional life. Awareness of an object is always influenced by some sort of attitude or emotional response, and we learn to pay careful attention to these. The third foundation, mindfulness of mind, points to the general fact that when you are experiencing the intense pain of the pinch, an emotional response of aversion is evoked (we hate the way it feels), while before and after this event there is no aversion. The aversion is also a mere episode, arising and passing away interdependently with the pain of the experience. The fourth foundation, mindfulness of mental states, explores this phenomenon in greater detail. We can explore the pinch directly as the second of the five hindrances, by using the five-aggregate or the six-sense-sphere schemas, or as a direct experiential manifestation of the Four Noble Truths.

We can hardly help but object to the pain of the pinch. The touch and the pain are registering information, and we are reacting to this information in a very visceral and immediate way. We don’t like it, we don’t want it, and we experience an intense desire for the pain to go away. Unlike a machine, we engage with our experience at all times, we respond to what is happening in a wide range of both innate and culturally learned ways. One of these ways is to take it personally. If someone else pinches us, we feel anger and resentment toward them, and if we pinch ourselves, we may feel sorry for or chastise ourselves. Whatever can be blamed for the discomfort is an easy target for our hatred.

Here is where all the trouble occurs, according to the Buddha. All six sense objects and all three feeling tones are a natural part of experience, and we depend upon these to navigate our world. The Buddha himself experienced these normally even after his awakening. But how we respond emotionally to these sensations is another matter entirely, and it is in this arena that the aspiration to be a better person is played out. Some responses are primitive, unhealthy, and toxic, causing great harm to oneself and others and obstructing moral development, while others have the opposite effect.

The Buddha demonstrated how it is possible for a human being to experience the full range of sense objects and feeling tones, yet to respond only with benevolent rather than harmful emotions. Can we feel pain without getting angry, violent, or hateful? Can we feel pleasure without getting attached, enchanted, or addicted? To do so is to live as a noble human being, as one who feels deeply the joy (mental pleasure) of another’s well-being or the poignant sorrow (mental pain) of the loss of a loved one, but with an attitude of calm equanimity rather than tumultuous and self-inflated emotional reactivity.

By extinguishing the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, we are transforming our emotional range. Emotions such as kindness, generosity, compassion, confidence, and gladness for the good fortune of others continue to function and are even enhanced by being uncovered, while the afflicted emotions that cause so much harm in our lives and our world are allowed to atrophy. When a pinch on the arm becomes an experience to be explored and unpacked with growing interest and understanding, rather than remaining a reflexive call to arms, we are well on the way to healing all that is flawed in ourselves and the world we create.

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