Not So Neutral

So this week I want to write about neutral feelings, and I don’t blame you if you aren’t set on fire by this idea, I wasn’t terribly taken by neutral feelings either until recently. While working with pleasant and unpleasant feelings is a routine  task for a Buddhist practitioner, I have to say that neutral feelings have never really featured in my practice much. But this was  certainly something of an oversight on my part because neutral feelings have a lot of potential, not only in our meditation practice but to make our passing moments feel more pleasant, and even to unlock some of the deepest elements of the teachings. They are a lot more interesting and useful than I had ever thought.

The meaning of the word feelings in Buddhism, just to make it clear from the outset, isn’t the same as the way we use the term ‘feelings’ in English. While ‘feelings’ relate to emotions, the Buddhist version of feelings, vedana in Pali, points only to the ‘tonality’ [1]of an experience: either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. I’ve mentioned in the past that Buddhism doesn’t look at emotions because these are largely treated as being the consequence of how we mistakenly react to vedana; the focus of the practice is to change that reaction not to change the emotions.

The Pali word for neutral feeling is adukkhamasukha, which translates literally as not-painful-not-pleasant which neatly captures the sense of it being the “fuzzy” [2] bit in the middle between the opposite ends of the spectrum of pleasant and unpleasant feeling. Fuzzy or otherwise, some famous teachers see it as a desirable state because it is a calmer, cooler place than the other ends of that feeling spectrum and suggest using it as the anchor point for our meditation.

But a quick scan of the internet shows that, from a worldly perspective, neutral feelings are seen rather negatively. Look at the article photo I have chosen this week, a common set of symbols we encounter – happy face, sad face, meh face. Despite representing neutrality, that straight mouthed face in the middle clearly  carries some negative baggage. When we consider why that would be it uncovers an underlying expectation that everything we experience should be good, we should like it, it should make us smile. If it doesn’t then there must be something wrong with it. If you ticked the meh face box on a feedback form it means that you weren’t impressed.

Neutral feelings also seem to be connected in many people’s minds with emotional numbness, again tapping into a sense that we should feel happy about things and if we don’t, if we are just somewhere in the middle, then there is something wrong with us or with our life. Now this attitude to neutral feelings isn’t replicated in Buddhism, but it might be important for us to recognise the strong cultural influence of these attitudes on us when we get to work on neutral feelings ourselves. We may well find that while our intention is to engage with neutral feelings on a Buddhist level, our actual actions betray that we are still holding to our worldly opinions about them. Similarly some people mistake emotional numbness and apathy for spiritual progress, believing that they have tapped into the neutral, equanimous feeling that is the goal of practice, when really it is more likely that they have just shut themselves off from their feelings – spiritual bypassing is the name given to this.

So despite being ‘neutral’, neutral feelings come with their own pitfalls if we misunderstand them, and interestingly this is something the teachings also say specifically about neutral feelings – that misunderstanding them leads to ignorance.

But one very practical reason why we can struggle to understand them is because they can be so hard to spot, in fact without careful investigation or the suggestion that you should look for them, it is very easy to assume that they don’t even happen at all. Perhaps this is where some of the worldly negativity towards neutral feelings comes from, the perception that we are feeling ‘nothing’ when what we are actually feeling is just neutral.  Neutral feeling isn’t the same as the non-existence of a feeling, neutral feeling is a feeling all of its own.[3]

In support of this viewpoint, Nyanaponika Thera says that “every conscious experience has a feeling tone, even if only that of a neutral or indifferent feeling, which also has a distinct quality of its own.” [4] Neutral feelings do happen,  and the challenge is for us to learn to identify these feelings and their distinctive – yet hard to spot- qualities.

It takes a bit of determination, and steadiness of mind, to uncover neutral feelings, and scholar monk Bhikkhu Analayo says that the commentaries to the Pali texts suggest the easiest way to do this work is by paying attention to moments where there is an absence of pleasant or unpleasant feelings. [5] This might seem a little counter intuitive if you have the worldly view that there is nothing in-between the end of one pleasant or unpleasant feeling and the next, but even if you feel that way  doing this will at least guide your attention to the right place to find out if this is true or not.

I mostly fell into  the camp of people who consider the bit when the pain ends, or when the thoughts stop,  as just being a state of nothing; the sense of it being a different feeling only came from the relief that the pain had ended or that the mind was quiet. I saw neutral feeling as being like being put on hold by a call centre operator, I didn’t pay attention to the feeling because I was always just sitting waiting for something to happen.

The texts tell us that each of the three types of feeling, in the absence of wise consideration, will lead to a negative outcome.[6]  and with an attitude as mine was, a meditation with lots of neutral feeling in it was painfully dull. The teachings say that because of ignorance of how feelings work a pleasant feeling is good while it lasts, but when it ends it will lead to an unpleasant feeling, because of our disappointment at the end of the pleasure. An unpleasant feeling, if seen incorrectly, when it finishes will lead us to think that the end of unpleasant feelings is pleasure, but this is a mistake, all that has happened is the pain has stopped. A neutral feeling seen incorrectly develops into ignorance, but why would that be the case?

From the suttas we get this somewhat cryptic statement:

“Friend Visakha, with pleasant feeling persistence is pleasant and change is painful. With painful feeling persistence is painful and change is pleasant. With neutral feeling knowing is pleasant and not knowing is painful.”  [1]

Not knowing what we are supposed to know about neutral feelings is painful, and perhaps on a simple level we can read this as: if you know neutral feelings exist then when they are present that is pleasant, because you know what they are and that they are supposed to be there, but if you don’t know neutral feelings exist then the experience is painful because you think ‘gah, nothing is happening! When will something happen?’

 This is one way to understand it, but there is another deeper answer to this question. But let’s take a little side road into another aspect of neutral feeling first that might give us some information to help us answer this conundrum.

The Abhidhamma suggests that while physical sensation is experienced with either a pleasant or unpleasant feeling, the other four senses of sight, sound, smell, and taste are received as neutral feeling. This is a fascinating suggestion because it implies that any pleasure or displeasure we feel from the other senses is the outcome of the intervention of our mental evaluation. [5] I’ve certainly had this experience myself, as you might have read about in my post last year The Taste of Liberation where I challenged myself to test my mettle by eating some of my least favourite foods, and I found there was a clear gap between the experience of taste and what my mind was saying about it.

But what can blue cheese tell us about why not knowing about neutral feeling leads to pain, but knowing leads to pleasure? It could perhaps be something to do with the action of the mind to change what starts as a neutral feeling into something else.

The thing I have seen the most clearly in my own meditation is that neutral feeling is something that I rarely want to stay that way, my mind is always itching to get onto something a bit more exciting. As Bhikkhu Analayo succinctly points out:

“Without the presence of mindfulness, the blandness of neutral feeling tends to impel a search for something else that is more stimulating. The mind becomes bored and wants something more exciting. [1]

This is exactly what happens in my own mind, I find the neutral feeling, I observe it, and then… now what? Is this all there is to look at now? Sigh. But after I started focussing more on neutral feelings, I managed to get myself to keep returning my attention to the neutral feelings and  I noticed that if I do let the mind slide away from that neutral state then the outcome usually isn’t a good one. The mind starts churning up all kinds of ideas and thoughts, and thinking is rarely ever pleasant or comfortable. This is the kind of experience that Thich Nhat Hanh is talking about here:

“When we don’t have a pleasant feeling and don’t have an unpleasant feeling, naturally we have a neutral feeling. But if we don’t know how to deal with or manage our neutral feeling, it will turn into an unpleasant feeling.” [3]

Neutral feeling seems to have a special quality of being able to go in either direction based on how well we understand it, and to me this makes it a feeling worth finding. If the goal of our practice is to avoid suffering, then knowing when we are in the middle gives us an opportunity to stop ourselves from being drawn off in that direction. This is certainly something I have noticed during my own meditations; focussing on neutral feelings makes it much clearer to me when the mind is starting to edge off in one direction or another, and that gives me much more opportunity to intervene and change that movement.

Thich Nhat Hanh goes a step further than just using this quality of neutral feelings to keep away from the unpleasant side of things, he seems to suggest that we deliberately harness the ability of neutral feelings to move with his well known practice around neutral feelings that involves transforming them into pleasant feelings:

“In the process of practicing we discover that the neutral feelings are very interesting. As when we sit, there is a sensation that is neutral. When we bring mindfulness to the neutral feeling, you find that it is quite nice. You see that you already have enough conditions for happiness with a neutral feeling. If you look deeply at the neutral feeling you see that it is wonderful. When you see your feelings passing by like a river, you see that 80% of your neutral feelings are quite pleasant. With mindfulness, our neutral feeling is transformed into happiness.” [7]

He feels that everything we need to be happy is fundamentally already present within us and our neutral feelings if we can only look at them mindfully. He talks about this neutral state as being like our home:

“Do not be disinherited and always going looking, searching for things. Come home and receive your heritage. To come home and receive your heritage means to light up the lamp of mindfulness so that the happiness and joy around you can nourish you.” [3]

The key to unlocking this ability to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones lies in the ‘knowing’ that was mentioned before. But while Thich Naht Hanh feels that the transformation happens to the feelings themselves, Bhikkhu Analayo instead feels that:

“ the teaching … points to the need to know neutral feelings as they truly are, and it is that knowledge which is pleasant.” [1]

He sees it more that it is the knowing and understanding of neutral feeling that creates the pleasant experience than it is the feeling itself that changes. Perhaps Analayo’s view points more to  the process we go through as we develop in our practice when we develop a preference for the calm and peaceful over the highs and lows of pleasure and pain. When we know that pleasure isn’t worth pursuing then the coolness of neutral feeling becomes especially pleasant because we know it is better than being on the usual emotional rollercoaster.

But  there are other ways we can understand what is meant by knowledge and understanding. The suttas say this knowledge specifically encompasses knowing the arising and ceasing of neutral feeling, the gratification and drawback of it, and the escape from it. [1]

Neutral feeling arises and ceases just the same as the other two feelings, showing us that there are no permanent states of feeling; feeling is subject to constant change and is the result of sense contact. Neutral feeling can be gratifying when it takes us away from unsettled states, but it can be a drawback when we don’t understand it and we want it to be replaced by pleasant feeling. And for the last of the things to know, we can escape from neutral feeling by gaining enlightenment. When we know all of this directly, then neutral feeling won’t cause us pain.

Neutral feeling when misunderstood leads to ignorance, and if you know your dependent origination chain, ignorance is the start of the whole process that leads to suffering. Neutral feeling, being so neutral, hides from us the reality that all feeling is impermanent and subject to change. Being so neutral and boring it obscures the fact that it is our restless mind that has projected that lack of feature onto it, and it is our tendency to want and crave pleasant feeling that has made it appear to be ‘neutral’. It is in reality anything but neutral, there is plenty going on there, but our view is tainted with craving and we cannot see the real picture.

This seems to be  what Thich Nhat Hanh is inviting us to do, to look more closely and see that there is a lot to be happy with in neutral feeling, that it is only our misunderstanding that makes it seem as if there is nothing there and that something else would be better.  

When we only experience the world in terms of the highs of pleasure and the lows of pain, we are missing a big piece of the picture which is the bit in the middle. We assume that all we have to do to be happy is to not deal with anything unpleasant, but this isn’t the case at all. What we really need to do to be happy is to fully understand what feelings we experience and why they lead us to either pain, pleasure, or neither, because it isn’t the actual feelings that are making us happy or unhappy, it is what our mind is doing with them.

So despite being somewhat featureless, neutral feelings are actually one of the most interesting areas to investigate because it will encourage us to learn to watch our experience in much more detail, and take less for granted. Bhikkhu Analayo even sees neutral feeling as having special potential for practice:

“Ignorance is the starting point for the dependent arising of dukkha. This invests any practice that counters the underlying tendency to ignorance with an eminent potential. It follows that, far from being a somewhat irrelevant category of feelings that could be ignored, neutral feelings turn out to deserve meditative attention as a fertile ground for the cultivation of liberating insight.” [1]

What gives neutral feeling the potential to be a very practical tool in our meditation practice  is when we fully understand what  makes the difference between which side our mind ends up going towards. The interesting thing about feelings in Buddhist practice is that the focus isn’t really on the feelings themselves but more about the factors in our mind that influence how we feel about them, namely greed, hatred, and delusion. While modern uses of Buddhist practices are often aimed at achieving feelings of wellbeing through peacefulness, calm, and reductions in stress, for the Buddha the feelings of wellbeing came not from the reduction of stressors but from the cultivation of wholesome mind states and the eradication of unwholesome ones:

“Early Buddhist practice is often summarised as cleansing the mind from greed, aversion, and delusion. One is not instructed to extirpate pleasure and pain from the mind. …feelings like happiness or emotional pain are not in themselves wholesome or unwholesome: specific instances of it can be, but this is determined by whether they are accompanied by the three unwholesome roots or not”. [2]

It isn’t just mindfulness or willpower that determines where the mind will move to, the presence or absence of unwholesome mind states is what dictates the direction that our neutral feeling will go in. If our mind state is influenced by greed – ie we want something – then the neutral state will become uncomfortable because we haven’t got what we want. If our mind state is coloured by hatred or aversion, the neutral state will be unpleasant because we will reject it as boring. And if our mind state is coloured with delusion, in the sense that we don’t understand what we are experiencing, then because you don’t know how anything works you will go grasping for pleasant feeling and feel pain at not having any.

It isn’t the case therefore that some kinds of feelings are inherently  good, and some kinds of feelings are inherently bad. For example, not all pleasant feelings foster our tendency for greed. While the teachings warn us about the dangers of pursuing pleasant feelings, there is an exception to that rule, which is the pleasant feeling that arises in concentration meditation. As Bhikkhu Analayo says:

“What really matters throughout is the distinction between what is wholesome and what is unwholesome…What matters is not the affective tone of feelings, but rather their ethical repercussions.” [1]

It is a feature of Buddhist practice that some people are drawn to it because they want to get to a point where they don’t have any feelings and they think that the teachings seem to suggest this. But this is anything but the case, the practice doesn’t bring us peace by bypassing or burying our feelings, on the contrary it is only by fully accepting and understanding them that we are released from their burden. There is no way to stop feeling from happening, it is triggered by sense contact and the practice doesn’t extinguish our senses. Neutral feeling can feel like no feeling in the beginning, and we can mistakenly assume that when we feel it, we have reached the goal, but when we understand it better as another type of feeling then we realise that there are always feelings and trying to stop them isn’t possible. The practice instead is to learn how to not suffer regardless of whatever feeling we are experiencing.

So for me neutral feelings are a really interesting area of investigation because behind their bland façade we can find something we can use practically in our meditation, make ourselves happier, uncover some of our most deeply hidden tendencies, and we can unlock some of the most profoundly transformative elements of the teachings too.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

References

1.      Bhikkhu Anālayo. What About Neutral Feelings? 29/06/2021. https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/what-about-neutral-feelings/. Accessed 29 Jun 2021.

2.     Bernat Font-Clos. Do Buddhists have emotions. 2020. https://www.academia.edu/49261225/Do_Buddhists_have_emotions.

3.     Thich Nhat Hanh. Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on February 19. 21/06/2005. http://www.abuddhistlibrary.com/Buddhism/G%20-%20TNH/TNH/The%20Four%20Establishments%20of%20Mindfulness%20I%20-%20III/I/Dharma%20Talk%20given%20by%20Thich%20Nhat%20Hanh%20on%20February%2019.htm. Accessed 29 Jun 2021.

4.     Nyanaponika Thera. Contemplation of Feeling: The Discourse-Grouping on the Feelings. 1995. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel303.html. Accessed 29 Jun 2021.

5.     Anālayo. Satipaṭṭhāna: The direct path to realization /  Anālayo. Birmingham: Windhorse; 2003.

6.     N.K.G. Mendis. The Abhidhamma in Practice. 2006. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/mendis/wheel322.html. Accessed 29 Jun 2021.

7.     Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talks. The Happiness of Neutral Feelings. 2011. https://tnhaudio.org/2011/01/19/the-happiness-of-neutral-feelings/. Accessed 29 Jun 2021.

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