Second Look at the Second Foundation of Mindfulness

Before the holidays, when our minds were distracted with so much else, we began to explore of the Second Foundation of Mindfulness. Now with fresh minds and a New Year we begin again.

To review, the Second Foundation of Mindfulness is noting whether something in our present experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This kind of noting gives us another way to anchor into present experience. But there are other benefits as well.

The basic experience of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is something we share with all species. A cat purrs at a pleasant experience or hisses at an unpleasant one. A lizard basks in the sun or darts under a rock. A bird chooses one tree limb, then changes its mind and flies to another.

As we spend time noting feeling tones, we become aware of their impermanence. Just as the wind might be pleasantly balmy one moment, then neutral or unpleasantly harsh and cold, these feelings arise and fall away, arise and fall away. Becoming aware of their nature, we are better able to let go of any sense of attachment to them, or any sense that we must act upon them.

Imagine: There is a fly in the room, but you don’t know it. Out of sight, out of mind. You are having a pleasant time, reading perhaps. But then the fly buzzes into your awareness. Suddenly your experience changes to unpleasant. Perhaps an opinion arises: Flies are filthy and don’t belong in the house. Maybe a grievance arises: I was having such a nice time and now I have to deal with this damn fly. Then maybe planning arises: How will I get this fly out of the room so I can return to having a pleasant experience? Perhaps a belief arises: This fly is ruining my good time. And then it’s likely an emotion arises: I hate flies, this one in particular.

As all this busy mind activity goes on, the fly settles down somewhere out of sight. So now, in relationship to the fly, you might have a neutral experience, because without the stimulus of the fly flying around, your mind fills with other things. But perhaps your mind had become so agitated that you are still thinking about the fly. Does any of this sound familiar? For most of us it certainly will. If not about a fly, then about some other minor annoyance.

The fly is not the cause of our jumble of complex reactions. The fly is just living its life as best it can. It is our mind’s habituated patterns of reactivity that make our experience infinitely more unpleasant.

In this scenario, we see how we run through a range of feelings. We can see how a feeling can lead to thoughts and emotions. We see that these feelings are impermanent. They travel through our field of awareness as the wind travels through a field of wheat. Can we be resilient like the wheat? Can we develop both awareness of and detachment to these feeling tones.


(Detachment is a tricky word. In the Buddhist sense it does not mean not caring or feeling separate from. It is an expanded view in which the experience can happen without setting in motion a chain reaction. We can hold all experience in an open loving embrace.)

Through noticing these simple preferences, we see the very beginning of our reactivity to an experience, before emotions and thoughts, fueled by memory, get us all entangled in complex patterns and beliefs we have created over the years.

We will delve more deeply into that very complexity in the Third Foundation of Mindfulness. But for now, it is enough to notice that we can fine tune our attention to that simple noticing. Pleasant. Unpleasant. Neutral. In this way we further anchor into this moment. We begin to see the seeds of grasping, aversion and delusion.

Hmmm, grasping, aversion and delusion. Where have we heard that before? In the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth: That there is suffering in the world. The Second Noble Truth: That the cause of that suffering is our tendency toward grasping, aversion and delusion. If these are not familiar to you, look on the index on the lower right side of the page. There are a number of dharma talks on the subject.

The Second Foundation of Mindfulness offers us an exercise that effectively allows us to see the beginnings of that manifestation of our suffering. In his teachings the Buddha identified the cause of suffering and then set about to develop techniques to end suffering.

Mindfulness is a core technique for the end of suffering. And this simple practice of noticing pleasant, unpleasant and neutral has real value. It builds upon the First Foundation — sensing into physical sensation to anchor our awareness in the present moment — and sets the stage for the Third Foundation.

So please take time as part of your meditation practice, and any time throughout the day, to notice whether something in your current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. If you find yourself thinking, ‘Well this sucks!’ you can add, ‘Oh, unpleasant!’ This addition might remind you that life is one big opportunity for dharma practice — an expanded view that can poke holes in the solidity of our experience of suffering.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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