Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Practicing mindfulness of feelings

Practicing mindfulness of feelings

A series of teachings on the four establishments of mindfulness given at Kunsanger North retreat center near Moscow, Russia, May 5-8, 2016. The teachings are in English with Russian translation.

  • Seeing the body as unattractive and the basis of a precious human life are not contradictory
  • Explanation of the recitations continued
    • The seven limb prayer and the meaning of prostrations
  • Meditation on feelings—pleasant, unpleasant and neutral
  • Looking at the external causes of feelings gives some choice and control

The four establishments of mindfulness retreat 04 (download)

Mindfulness of the body: Q&A

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Good morning. Everybody okay? How is your body filled with all sorts of stuff? What did it feel like to do the meditations?

Audience: It was good, sobering.

VTC: Yes, I find it very sobering. When my mind is like “shuuum!” with something exciting, then I just meditate on the nature of the body, and whew, the mind settles right down. So, very good to do if your mind is too excited about something. What else happened when you did the meditation?

Audience: I understood that I don’t know what some of the organs look like.

VTC: Yes, when we were doing this at the Abbey, where one of our nuns is a nurse practitioner and another one is a physiotherapist, we pulled out their anatomy books, and we started looking at all these things. They explained to us about all these organs, and it really helps you understand what’s going on inside. We could look at pictures of them and see what colors they were, some sort of red and brown, some sort of gushy looking, the texture…

Audience: When we were meditating, a thought occurred that we were not focusing our attention on the peripheral neural system and glands and the reproductive system. So, do we just omit those? Or should we include them into one of the groups?

VTC: That’s a good question. I never thought about that. I would say also include them in one way or another.

Audience: Why do they put it like that, on what principle?

VTC: It seems to me that the first one happens to be about the exterior of the body, and the last two have to do more with the fluids in the body. The middle ones… Well, the second group with muscles and tendons is about moving the body and things like that. It has kidneys at the end, and I don’t know how they got there. Then the third and fourth have more to do with the internal organs. The last one is more fluid, and it’s also kind of gooey, some of the stuff that comes out of the body.

Another way that they instruct us to meditate on the body is to look at the different orifices and what comes out of the body. Because we say, “Oh, the body is so clean.” And yet, what comes out of every orifice we want to get rid of and wash away because it’s rather disgusting. In none of the romantic poetry, with “Your eyes are like diamonds and your teeth are like pearls,” does it say, “The gunk that comes out of your eyes is like diamonds, your earwax is like emeralds, and your bad breath is like a burst of lavender wind.” So, this meditation is found quite often in the scriptures. It’s right there in the early sutras, like the sutra on the four establishments of mindfulness.

Shantideva takes it up in his book in Chapter 8, which is about meditation. Why does he take it up in that chapter? Because this kind of attachment is a major obstacle to developing meditation and developing the bodhicitta. For example, with bodhicitta you must have love and compassion for all others, so you must have equanimity in your mind. When you have a lot of sexual attachment towards somebody, do you have equanimity in your mind? No. The mind is definitely in attachment to one sentient being, so it is very difficult to bring about an equal state of mind. Plus, anyway, your mind is in la-la land.

I find this meditation quite helpful and really sobering. It helps to reduce attachment to the body, which I think is important. Because like I said, at the time of death, we must separate from this body. So, seeing this body as beautiful and a source of pleasure is going to be a big obstacle at the time of death.

Oh, I remembered what I wanted to tell you. When Shantideva talks about it, and he goes into a lot of detail, somewhere in it he says, “And what among all these organs do you want to hug and embrace?” He says if you want to hug something, then just hug a pillow. It’s cleaner than the body. Nagarjuna, in Precious Garland, speaks a lot about this. Have people been able to translate those teachings? Have people been watching them?

Translator: Not yet, but we’re moving there.

VTC: You’re moving there. Okay, you’ll get to it.

He goes into great depth about this, too. He makes a comment about why it’s important whether you’re a monastic or lay practitioner to do this meditation. He talks about the realization of emptiness, of selflessness, and how difficult that is to gain because it contradicts a very deeply rooted, innate grasping in us. He says we have all sorts of high expectations of realizing emptiness, but something that is easier to realize that is an object of our sense perception is the body and the unattractiveness of the body. Even though it’s an object of our sense perception, it’s much easier to understand that. Still, we can’t hold that in our minds. So, if that’s something easier to understand, but we can’t hold it in our mind, then to expect to gain quick realization of emptiness is putting the cart before the horse. He didn’t say this to discourage us about realizing emptiness, but out of compassion to make us understand the necessary prerequisites.

Something came up yesterday about if you’re a doctor or if you’re an artist and you’re taught to look at the body in a very different way. I responded that there’s many ways to look at the same thing. When you’re a Buddhist practitioner, you’re looking at the body as unattractive, and you’re doing that for a specific purpose. Similarly, if you’re an artist, you’re looking at the body with the curves and the shapes for a purpose. If you’re in medical school, you’re looking at the body as how the different things relate to each other, and you’re doing that for the purpose of curing people. These are all different perspectives on the same thing done for their own purposes. What we see here is the importance of having a very flexible outlook—being able to see one thing from many different perspectives, we see how important that is.

What often comes up when we talk about the unattractiveness of the body is somebody says, “But the body is the basis of our precious human rebirth. So, shouldn’t we take care of it and treasure it?” Yes, we should. Even within Buddhism there’s different ways of looking at the body. The way we just talked about, seeing its unattractiveness, is to help us cut attachment and develop renunciation of cyclic existence. When we speak about precious human life, then we’re looking at the body as the basis of our opportunity to practice the Dharma. We rejoice at having a human body with human intelligence and human abilities. We do that to encourage ourselves to really value our life and make it meaningful.

Seeing the unattractiveness of the body will have the effect of us not fussing so much about our body in a very self-centered way. That doesn’t contradict the meditation on our precious human life. We understand that we must take care of this body so that it lives long and is healthy, because a healthy body that lives long gives us more opportunity to learn and practice the Dharma. These two perspectives are not contradictory.

Is that making some sense to you? We keep our body clean; we keep our body healthy; we don’t do things that are really dangerous whereby we could suffer a very bad injury that would interfere with our ability to practice the Dharma. On the other hand, we don’t fuss about the body, like, “Well, my hair, oh, look how grey it’s getting, this is terrible, and so many wrinkles, maybe I need a facelift. I should get rid of all these wrinkles everywhere. I want to look young again.” I want to make sure that’s real clear for everybody.

Seven-limb prayer

Let’s do the prayers. Maybe I should explain a little bit about the seven limbs. Let’s look at the seven limbs. These seven lines are an abbreviated version, there’s many longer versions. If you do the King of Prayers, there are about two pages where it’s the seven-limb prayer. This is very good for purifying the mind and for accumulating merit. Purification and accumulation of merit are very essential practices to make our mind receptive to the Dharma so that we can understand the Dharma when we hear it and meditate on it. Like all of the prayers we’ve been doing at the beginning of the sessions, we’re going through them rather quickly, but you can also do them line by line and do a whole session just on the meaning of the various recitations we’re doing.

With the first of the seven lines, that’s making prostrations with our body, speech, and mind to all the buddhas and bodhisattvas imagined in front of us. Here, again, we imagine we’re leading all sentient beings in seeing the good qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and paying homage to those qualities. Physical prostration is with our body, verbal prostration is saying the lines, and mental prostration is imagining the buddhas and bodhisattvas and all sentient beings, including ourselves, bowing.

We aren’t bowing to the material of the statue. The statue is used as a representation of the qualities of an enlightened being, and we are showing respect and humbling ourselves in the presence of those qualities. Is that clear? I want to be very clear that we’re not idol-worshippers.

I do want to make that clear, because when I was in Israel some years back, I was teaching, and the Israeli Buddhists were fine about having a Buddha statue and our bowing. But the people at the kibbutz where we were having our retreat asked me to come and speak to them, and in the Q&A session one person said, “But you’re idol-worshippers. You’re bowing to that statue, and don’t you know that’s forbidden in the ten commandments?” Then I had to explain, “No, we’re not worshipping the material,” and da-da-da-da-da. I’m going to go off on a little tangent about this right now. I explained to the people about when there was a Jewish delegation that came to Dharmsala and invited some of the Tibetan lamas for Friday night meal. Friday night is when the Jews begin their sabbath. They begin their sabbath by facing towards Jerusalem, bowing, making prayers, chanting prayers, dancing, and swaying. From India, Jerusalem is west, and the prayers were done while the sun was going down. Well, the Tibetan lamas thought that the Jews were worshipping the sun! So, the point is that when we engage with people from other religions, we must be very careful that we understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and not superimpose meaning on their rituals or on their words that they do not have.

I think interfaith dialogue is quite important. Friendly contact with people and discussions with people of other religions is quite important for us. But we should really do it in a wise way and not, like I said, project false things on others. Also to realize that they may accidentally project false things on us, so we need to politely explain the meaning of what we do, which means we have to understand the meaning of what we do. If we don’t understand the meaning of some of the things we’re doing as Buddhists, we should ask. It’s important that we understand. We’re not just following with undiscriminating faith.

I was very surprised one time when I was visiting a western Zen monastery, and these people, they’re fantastic people, I really like them. They have a ritual before they eat where they take their plate and lift it up like that. I asked one of my friends, “Why do you do that? What is the meaning?” and they didn’t know. I thought, hmm, we should understand why we’re doing things and the effect they’re supposed to have on our mind. Otherwise, they become very robot-like things that have nothing to do with mental transformation. Mental transformation is the whole purpose of our spiritual practice.

The reason we do prostrations to the symbols of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is that it helps us to see their good qualities, to respect their good qualities. By respecting their good qualities we make ourselves open to develop those same good qualities. Prostration is a very humbling action, so it lessens our pride. Lessening our arrogance, conceit, and pride, again, makes us more receptive vessels for the teachings.

Thirty-five Buddha practice

Are you doing the 35 buddhas?

Translator: No, we’re just doing prostrations in the morning. In general we do, but not here. In general, yes.

VTC: People know the 35 buddha practice?

Translator: Yes, it’s on the website, we do explain it.

VTC: Okay, good. In the Tibetan tradition, we have the custom of doing 100,000 of certain things, and one of them is doing 100,000 prostrations.

We usually do those with the practice of the 35 buddhas and the confession prayer—the prayer of confession, rejoicing, and dedication that follows the names of the buddhas. It’s quite an important practice, and some of these purification practices are powerful to do, when you feel ready, of course, but especially when you’re young and healthy. Most of you are young, and you’re very fortunate to have met the Dharma when you’re young. Many times, people don’t meet the Dharma until they’re 50, 60, 70 years old. Then, when their bodies are that old, it’s more difficult for them to do 100,000 prostrations. I think this particular practice, the prostrations are very powerful for purifying and preventing hinderances. So I really highly recommend it, if you want to do it, to really do it. You do the practice every day, accumulate the prostrations, and you can see the effect it has on your mind as you’re doing it.

It’s not just exercise. If it were, you could go to the gym. While prostrating you’re reviewing your whole life and confessing all the things that you don’t feel good about having done. This has a very strong effect, psychologically, on your mind. When I first came to Buddhism, I saw people bowing and I was rather horrified. I didn’t grow up Catholic or anything where you go to church and you bow, so I was like, “Oh, they’re bowing to statues, they’re bowing to human beings, what’s going on here?”

In my country, our three jewels aren’t the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Our three jewels are the credit card, the smart phone, and the refrigerator. Those three things definitely we bow to, don’t we? “My precious computer, my precious credit card, may I never be separated from you in all my lives. Oh, precious refrigerator, come to the top of my head and dump all your contents into my stomach. And precious smart phone, enter my mind so I have all that knowledge, too.” We’re willing to bow to those things. But we must change our three objects of refuge.

It’s true, isn’t it? Our credit card, we see it as the source of all happiness, and you don’t leave it just laying around on the ground, do you? You put it back in your wallet, you put your wallet in your pocket or your purse, you close it, and nobody is going to get your credit card because it is too valuable. And your smartphone, you don’t just put a cup of tea on top of it, you don’t step on it, you keep it safe, sound, you clean it, you polish it, you show it off. But our Dharma materials, the papers and the books that teach us the path to liberation, we leave those on the floor, we put our teacup on top of them, we step over them, we sit on them, we don’t respect them at all, even though they’re explaining the path to liberation. So, again, we need to change here.

That was a long explanation about one line. Maybe we’d better do the prayers and the silent meditation before we run out of time.


Let’s recall our motivation. For a moment, really feel how dependent your life and your practice are on the kindness of other living beings who provide for you materially, who give you the Dharma. Feel their kindness and your appreciation for their kindness. With a sincere wish to contribute to their benefit and to benefit all of society, generate the determination to become a fully awakened buddha so that you can do that most effectively.

Meditations on feelings

I want to make sure we get through all the four establishments of mindfulness. So, rather than going on about the meditations on the body, in this session I want to go to the meditations on feelings.

In the text it says, “The feelings have the nature of experience,” experience being pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences. These relate to the three types of dukkha. Do you know the three types of dukkha? What’s the first one?

Audience: The suffering of suffering.

VTC: Yes, or suffering of pain is probably better.And second one?

Audience: Suffering of change.

VTC: Let’s use the word dukkha, because suffering usually means pain, and these things aren’t necessarily ouch kind of pain. Or use “the unsatisfactoriness of change.” And [the] third one?

Audience: All-pervasive.

VTC: Yes, pervasive conditioned dukkha. These three correspond to the three kinds of feelings. The dukkha of pain is unpleasant feeling or painful feeling, suffering. The changeable dukkha are pleasant feelings, happiness and so on. And the dukkha of pervasive conditioning refers to neutral feelings.

Investigating or having mindfulness on the three kinds of feelings means really understanding what they are, what their causes are, what their nature is, and what their results are. All day long we have feelings, one of these feelings or another, that come through our five senses and also our mental sense. If we don’t recognize those feelings and if we don’t understand those feelings, then they really control our lives.

We can see this quite easily when we look—when we have a pleasant feeling, how does the mind respond? It could be a pleasant mental feeling or physical feeling —how does your mind respond?

Audience: More.

VTC: More. You bet, yes. More and better, more and better. That’s our new mantra, “I want more and better, more and better, SO HA.” Then, when you have unpleasant feelings, you have a stomachache, your mind is unhappy about something, then how do you respond?

Audience: Go away.

VTC: Yes, go away, I don’t want this. Even to the point of getting angry: “I do not want this, get it away!” And neutral feelings, how do we respond?

Audience: [Inaudible.]

VTC: “Whatever”—it goes into ignorance there. So, we very quickly see the three poisonous attitudes, don’t we?—the attachment, the anger, the ignorance. What happens once we have one of those three poisons? What do they create?

Audience: Karma.

VTC: Karma, that’s right. And what does the karma create?

Audience: Dukkha.

VTC: Yes, more dukkha, more rebirth.

It’s very interesting to really focus on the different feelings that you’re having, being very observant of them while you’re having them, and then see what arises from them and observe this whole chain. From feeling, to craving, to karma, to dukkha. Those of you who have studied the twelve links of dependent origination that show how we take rebirth in samsara and how we can be freed of it, know that the seventh link is feelings. The eighth link is craving, ninth is clinging, those two are both forms of attachment. Then we get the karma ripening for the next life. That’s one way of explaining it.

Then we look and see what causes feeling. The link before feeling was contact – contact with different sense objects. So, it’s very interesting. Really slow down in your day and observe this. Eating is a very good time to do that, it’s one time to do it, not the only, but it’s a good time. Because when you’re hungry, before lunch, then you think of lunch. What kind of feeling comes in your mental consciousness? What’s the feeling? Is it a pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feeling?

Audience: Unpleasant.

VTC: Ah, the hunger is unpleasant. Right. The hunger is unpleasant, so you’re reacting to that. Then you start thinking, “Well, lunch is coming.” What’s that feeling?

Audience: [Inaudible.]

VTC: Pleasant. Then, what response do you have to the unpleasant feeling of the hunger?

Audience: We want to eliminate it.

VTC: Yes, we want to get away from it. What response do you have to the pleasant feeling of imagining, “Oh, what could they possibly be making for lunch today?”

Audience: More and more and more.

VTC: Yes, quite pleasant, a lot of craving, attachment. So, you’re sitting there doing your meditation before lunch, and look at what’s going on in your mind instead of following the meditation: unpleasant feeling, aversion; pleasant feeling, attachment. What happened to your object of meditation? “Gone beyond!”

It is very interesting to watch. Food, we can be aware of. When you start to eat, [watch] the different sensations. We’re looking at the cause, the nature, and the result of the feelings. It’s interesting when we have a mental feeling that is hoping for something good in the future, to be aware of what your image is of the feeling you’re going to have when you get that object. When you’re in your meditation and dreaming about lunch, think of the feeling, the degree of happiness you imagine you’re going to get from having lunch.

It’s interesting. You’ve observed the degree of happiness you’re imagining having, then when you get to lunch and you start eating, check to see if the happiness you’re getting from eating is the same degree of happiness that you expected to get when you were still meditating. See if it’s more happiness or less happiness than you expected. It’s very interesting to watch. Here we’re talking about hopes for the future.

We also have fears about the future. When you wake up in the morning, you might think of somebody that you’re going to need to talk to today about some subject that’s not particularly pleasant. Like maybe at work, you need to work something out. Even though that person isn’t there in front of you, you’re already feeling pain, mental pain, and unpleasant feeling at the idea of meeting with that person. But you’re still at home. That person isn’t anywhere around. But you’re feeling pain, you’re feeling aversion, and maybe even anger. Interesting, isn’t it? The person is nowhere there. Then to see when you actually meet the person, compare the degree of pain that you expected to get from it with what actually happened.

Not always, but many times, what we find out is that the pleasure and pain we expected to experience is much higher than the actual pleasure or pain that we did experience in the situation. In other words, our hopes and fears are very exaggerated.

They’ve done some studies on this with people, having them make different choices and then measuring their feedback about how much pleasure or displeasure they felt. Consistently they see that most people, not all people, not all the time, but very often exaggerate the degree of happiness they expect to get from something and exaggerate the degree of pain that they expect from the future thing. You really see how we get caught up in hopes and fears that have nothing to do with our actual future experience.

We begin to see what junkies we are for feelings. Like, “I want pleasure, I want pleasure, I want pleasure, all the time.” Or, “This is pleasurable, give me more and better. This is pleasurable, give me more and better.” Or, “Ew! I’m not going to like this, I don’t what to have anything to do with it.” Or, “Ew! This is very painful, get me out of here!” Our whole life is governed by our reactions to pleasure and pain. Then we begin to understand why we don’t have any mental peace. Because we’re completely reactive to the environment around us and to our thoughts – always pleasure/pain, pleasure/pain – and the emotions that they provoke—craving/repulsion, craving/repulsion. There’s no mental peace. We’re addicted to these feelings.

Then we make identities based on the feelings. “I experience so much happiness. That’s because I’m a good person. That’s because I’m privileged. That’s because I’m at the top of society and da-da-da-da-da.” Or, “Oh, I feel I have so much pain in my life, life is not fair. The social system is prejudiced. This society stinks.” We have victim mentality. Then the people who think that they’re so privileged because they have so much happiness, out of fear of losing their happiness, they suppress other people. They lie and cheat to keep their advantage. Then the people who have much displeasure, who are fed up with it, some of them just stay down and say, “My life is hopeless,” and others of them get angry and take it out on others. No peace in the mind, no peace in society. It’s because we’re all so addicted to these feelings. Especially the pleasant feelings. So, very interesting. Really take some time to observe this in yourself. This is not an intellectual exercise. It’s a thing of looking inside yourself, observing your own feelings.

We’ve been looking right now at the effects of the feelings. It’s also good to look at what causes the feelings. We begin to see the extent to which contact with external objects causes different feelings to arise. When we know the result of those feelings and the kind of craving that comes from them, then we think, “Gee, I’d better limit my contact with those objects that I associate with pleasure, because it sets forth this whole train of feelings, craving, action, dukkha.” We begin to think, “Oh, but I have some choice about what objects I expose myself to. So if I know that I’m super-sensitive to and easily invoke certain feelings – happy or unhappy feelings about different objects – and my mind goes out of control because of those feelings, then if I have a choice; I need to regulate my contact with those objects.”

Let’s say somebody weighs 150 kgs and they love ice cream. The pleasant feeling from ice cream arises very quickly for them and they crave more and better. Is it wise for this person, when they meet their friends, to meet them at the ice cream parlor? No, not too smart, huh? A smart person would realize, “Oh, I have too much attachment to the feeling of pleasure from the ice cream, so to prevent my mind from going out of control and overeating and da-da-da-da-da, I will not meet my friends at the ice cream parlor, I’ll meet them in the park or somewhere else.”

When you begin to investigate your pleasant feelings and see what causes them and see what the result is from them, then you also begin to understand why the Buddha made certain precepts. Especially the monastic precepts. But some of these are also precepts for lay people. There’s one precept that we have as monastics and that lay people also take when they take the eight precepts, and it’s to avoid singing, dancing, and playing music. These things are not naturally negative actions. In general, you don’t need an afflictive state of mind to do them. But when you look at your own experience, when you sing, dance, and play music, what kind of feelings do you have?

Audience: Delight.

VTC: Yes, we have a lot of delight. Then we start observing where we go from that delight and where we take it. For example, I love to dance, dancing is my thing. Right before I met the Dharma I got accepted into a semi-professional folk dancing group. I thought, “This is wonderful because I love it. I feel so happy when I’m dancing. I have so much pleasure from this. I like the pleasure, and I’m a fairly good dancer so that everybody notices me. Then they know who I am, they also praise me for being a good dancer, and I attract people.” So, not just the pleasant feeling and leaving it there, but adding this extra bonus I’m going to get and creating an identity out of it – “I’m this person who is a good dancer, blah, blah, blah.” So what?

But then the mind just takes it and runs with it. So, for me, taking the precept not to dance was a major thing. But it made me really look at my mind and this craving for pleasure, the attachment to pleasure, how that led to attachment to the pleasure of being noticed, of having a good reputation, and how all these things build on each other. When you’re really trying to practice in a serious way, like the person who weighs 150 kgs, you don’t put yourself in a situation where your uncontrolled mind of craving is going to take off like a rocket and carry you who knows where. I’m giving personal examples so that you know that this is something that we must apply to ourselves.

A little bit of time for a Q&A.

Audience: To continue with the topic of music, things such as art or pristine nature also bring aesthetic pleasure. Some of the Buddhist implements are also beautiful, so how to find the balance?

VTC: Remember the purpose of these things. The purpose isn’t just the aesthetic or physical pleasure. The purpose is to help elevate your mind so that you understand something deeper. Do you get a thangka of the Buddha or a thangka of Tara and hang it on the wall because you want to use it as an object to remind you of the Buddha’s qualities? Or is it because it’s aesthetically pleasing and you can brag to your friends about how you got this beautiful thangka?

Audience: In psychotherapy, sometimes the client would like strength to do something, and they would get that strength by, for example, dancing. Like in my case. Or painting or playing the guitar. Then they would have the energy to do the practice and to do all kinds of other things. Once again, where is the balance?

VTC: Yes, again, we’re coming back to the purpose of doing each action, aren’t we? In these actions that are not naturally negative, what happens from them depends on your motivation for doing them. So, it’s the same answer as for his question.

Audience: You mentioned prostrations in Christianity, and one of the interpretations of the meaning of those in the Orthodox tradition is that the person is not giving up but, having fallen, stands up again. Is there a similar interpretation in Buddhism?

VTC: Yes. There’s going down in a feeling of opening up your negativities, and then in the Tibetan tradition we don’t stay down for a long time, we come up quickly, and that represents coming out of samsara quickly. In Chinese bowing, often when you go down, you stay down for longer, and I think that is more for really imagining the light and the purifying effect.

Audience: When we’re communicating with people, a strong mental feeling of happiness can arise. Because of that, the emotional repercussions can be quite big, such as pain from separation with the person. Because we can’t also avoid communicating with people in general, how to go about this process?

VTC: That’s a good question. What we want to do is avoid attachment to the different feelings, because we can see how reactive we get to the painful feelings and the attachment to the positive feelings. What we want to do is train ourselves to just see it as a feeling. It’s just a feeling. We watch it in our mind. It’s temporary. It doesn’t last long. It’s just a mental event. We don’t need to react so strongly towards it. In the case of painful feelings, you just watch them come and you watch them go. It’s a very interesting mental training to do this with mental feelings, or physical feelings. Watch them come and watch them go, because we’re so used to reacting—“I don’t like this!”

It’s very interesting just to sit there, and you watch the happiness or the unhappiness arise, you watch how it changes, you watch how very naturally it goes, because it can’t stay there forever.

You were saying that we get a happy feeling from communicating with people, then we feel upset when we’re separated from them. From this we’re able to see, too, that because of having attachment to the happy feeling of communicating, the more attachment we have to something, the more pain we experience when we separate from it.

It’s not saying, “Oh, I get pain when I communicate with others, or when I have a very close relationship, so therefore I’m not going to talk to anybody; I’m going to be an emotional ice cube.” Does His Holiness the Dalai Lama look like an emotional icicle to you? No, he’s quite warm, he’s quite friendly. The thing is, he lets the good feeling come and he lets it go. He’s not attached to it. Our problem is the attachment and the aversion to the feelings.

Audience: My question is about limiting our contact with the objects of attachment. How do we differentiate between just avoiding contact with the objects of attachment and being too strict with ourselves and avoiding objects out of fear? Because we can really go quite far with that one as well.

VTC: Yes, this is something that we must find out for ourselves. Sometimes, at the beginning, I know for myself it was like, “I’m so afraid of getting attached that I’m like, ‘Arrrgh!’” I’m super stressed all the time. Then I realized that’s not going to work. So, you have to relax and just do your practice, gently, trial and error, and you figure it out over time.

Sometimes you do go too far the other way, you have too much contact with things, then you watch the result. It’s like, “Oh, I did it again. I’m in a mess of my own making once more.”

Audience: Is there any threat or danger in neutral feelings, and could that threat be indifference?

VTC: Yes, exactly, the threat is indifference. We get spaced-out, apathetic, and complacent.

This will be the last question.

Audience: What’s the difference between pain and suffering?

VTC: I would talk about pain as something very acute, like an acute unpleasant feeling. Suffering is more like something that drags on for a long time but also where our thoughts are involved and create some of the suffering. So, let’s say I broke a bone, then I have the physical pain from the broken bone, and I suffer from the physical pain. But then my mind reacts, like, “Oh, I broke a bone, this is terrible, I’m never going to be able to walk again.” Of course, this is something that heals, but our mind exaggerates—“I’m never going to be able to walk again. This is horrible. It’s going to be dreadful my whole life, and I won’t be able to do all these things I enjoy.” Then we have not only mental pain but also a lot of mental suffering because of what our mind is doing in reaction to the actual pain of the broken bone. It relates to your question about the actual pain of the situation, of the actual physical feeling or mental feeling, and then there’s the whole story we make about it that causes so much suffering.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.