My first silent meditation retreat. I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was a blustery and bitter long weekend in the depth of a cold February at IMS. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I certainly did not expect that particular retreat experience to be both physically uncomfortable and also life transforming. It was during the first full day of the retreat when one of the teachers said, somewhat casually and in passing , that there are only six things that are ever happening. You are either seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching or thinking. That’s it. (The Buddha identified the mind as the sixth sense, and therefore thinking is the sixth sense activity.)
Boom–something went off in my mind. If that’s all that’s happening, why does life seem so complicated, stressful, challenging and confusing most of the time?! What about all of our plans and ideas for our life? What about our work experiences? the projects? the profits and losses? the conflicts over resources? the happy and unhappy customers? That day, I started on a journey to try to see what is happening in each moment in my work as simply being an experience of one of those sensations. I quickly discovered that it is not so easy.
It turns out that humans add a whole set of fabricated stories on top of these experiences and in fact, that is where the complexity and the frustration comes in. As I explored in Part 1, Yuval Harari wrote about our ability to create collective fictions. These fictions, or stories, are both our strength and our weakness. Why?
Since that bitter cold winter day at IMS, I have since learned about another aspect of our mind; one that contributes to a lot of frustration. It turns out that the description of what is happening in each moment, just those six things, is slightly more nuanced and complex. Yes, what is happening in our body is quite straight forward, if we just pay attention. I am in a meeting. I am seated at my desk in my home office and I can feel the body in the seat. I see my colleagues on the display. Someone is talking and I both see and hear that. I feel the breeze coming in the window, cooling my skin on my left arm. My wife is making lunch, I smell the vegetables she is cooking. The Buddha refers to this type of awareness as “bare attention”.
“In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard…”from the Bāhiya Sutta (full translation)
Enter the sixth sense, our mind. Here in the mind, however, there are actually four levels of things that could be happening. One of those is called feeling tone. For each sense experience (a sight, a sound, etc.) , there is also a feeling tone–not an emotion, but a simpler sense of something being pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. These feeling tones can be subtle or strong, but unless we pay attention, they are often invisible to us–and that is where the trouble starts. (The Buddha called this feeling tone, vedana, modern neuroscience researchers refers to it as affect and have identified a second dimension related to its energy level: activated or idle. )
So, let’s go back to the work scene I described above. That scene is a few short moments for me in a long work day. So, if each of those experiences generates a feeling tone–there are literally thousands of these feelings occurring in a workday–what I call micro-moments.
So in this moment of participating in this meeting, when I tune in, I discover, a subtle positive feeling because the breeze is comfortably cool. I like the smell of the vegetables–another subtle positive feeling. I can feel the seat, not much happening, neutral feeling. I just heard someone disagree with my proposal–negative feeling tone arises.
Now–here is the moment that has all the power–what does my mind do next. Most of the time, for most of us, we miss the arising of that feeling tone, and we start building a story. “He always puts down my ideas; What? Was she even listening? Never mind, I’ll do it my way anyway; Who else thinks that? Maybe I will just get a new job.”
First, I feel the negative ping of the comment. Then I feed my mind a set of negative thoughts, and experience another negative feeling tone as a response to those thoughts.
Or maybe, I just zone out for the rest of the meeting, check email, or Slack, or Amazon.com to distract myself from those feelings.
Suddenly, I am having a bad day. Or am I?
This response is often referred to as the second arrow. The Buddha described quite vividly how this happens.
“It’s like a person who is struck with an arrow, only to be struck with a second arrow. That person experiences the feeling of two arrows.Full Translation
In the same way, when a person experiences painful physical feelings they sorrow and pine and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion. They experience two feelings: physical and mental. When they’re touched by painful feeling, they resist it. The underlying tendency for repulsion towards painful feeling underlies that.”
That tendency for repulsion or aversion–that’s the second arrow.
And this is happening not only with my thoughts, but my physical sensations. My neck starts to hurt from looking at the screen too long. It is no longer a gentle cool breeze, but a cold wind on my arm. After six hours of online Zoom meetings, my mind is fatigued and I get a low grade headache.
What I have learned to see on silent meditation retreats, and in my daily meditation practice, is how quickly these experiences happen, and how quickly the feeling tone can change. When I am not paying attention, I can see how a series of unexamined feeling tones starts to become a pervasive attitude or mood that persists. When not paying attention, I can see how quickly I can say or do something unhelpful in response to that fleeting feeling tone.
And this is why working with others can be so challenging. In a team of any size, everyone is experiencing these feeling tones in response to their physical and mental stimuli. So, the number of feeling tones and reactions in any given moment in our team are multiplied by the number of people involved. In addition, there is an element of chaos and randomness because we are all usually responding and reacting mindlessly in response to each others reactions in each micro-moment. Suddenly, the entire meeting has become a litany of minor or major complaints or has veered well off course from the primary agenda. It is amazing that we can anything done at all.
The tricky thing about the feeling tones are that they are (1) fleeting–they are a very brief response to sense experiences, (2) relative–they are not absolute and fixed based on the sense experience (i.e., the cool breeze could be pleasant or unpleasant), and (3) unreliable–they can change quickly and they can inaccurately “describe” a sense experience. So, unless we are paying close attention, we may miss their arising, and our mind may be begin to form new mental stories based on these fleeting, relative and unreliable “realities.”
So what can we do? Basically, slow everything down; create a gap between the feeling tone and any new thoughts, speech or action.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”– Victor Frankl
This “minding the gap” is hard enough in a meditation setting, but in the context of work, when there is urgency and a sense of momentum, it is even more difficult. Yet paying closer attention to a series of mental and physical cues can point to the influence of these feeling tones on the mind.
(1) Investigate the unpleasant feeling tone. With practice and attention, it is possible to become more aware of the changing feeling tones throughout the day; moment to moment. This presents an opportunity to question what is being experienced and trace back the feeling tone to what may have been going on in the body. Was it something you just heard someone say? Did you see a piece of data that looks wrong? Did your mind drift back to a prior failed project with similar characteristics? Are you hungry and ready for lunch? This investigation helps to reveal the feeling tone as the fleeting, relative and unreliable “blip” of energy that it is. It can diffuse the immediate desire to respond–if indeed the response will likely create more anxiety, stress, or frustration for you and/or for others.
(2) Reign in the inner drive to say or do something. With practice and attention, it is possible to become more aware of the surging internal energy toward saying or doing something before you act upon it. This surge means you have probably missed the original feeling tone, but it is not too late. This build up of energy is the inevitable mental drive to relieve the stress and tension created by the feeling tone. Unexamined, we take it as a cue to speak or act. Examined, we can see it as just another type of passing energy in the mind and with the proper gap, can decide whether saying or doing something in that moment would be beneficial for everyone involved. By choosing to pause, there is also an opportunity to trace back and see where a feeling tone cue may have been missed, or what feeling tones are arising in response to the energy to act. Note also that a positive feeling tone that may arise from a “good idea”, or an opportunity for praise and recognition, etc. Positive feeling tones are not immune from leading us into saying or doing something that will prove to be unhelpful later.
(3) Notice when you have lost your focus. Checking your text messages or browsing the web? This distraction is likely a response to either a series of neutral feeling tones; the sense that “nothing is happening” or numbing out in response to an unpleasant feeling tone. Finding yourself well down the rabbit hole of one of these activities can be a useful mindfulness bell at work to bring attention back to the present moment. What’s happening right now? What am I feeling? What was happening the last time I was present with the work or discussion at-hand? The mind is attracted to the “hit” from pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones, so when our sense experience is not generating them, the mind gets busy finding experiences that will. Instead of following those impulses for distraction, they can be used as a cue to examine what is happening in the present moment and explore how to bring more interest and more attention to the current task or discussion. There are many “neutral” feeling tones in the work day and learning to be with them without seeking distraction is a powerful key to increased focus. One trick to stay focused in those moments is also to look more closely for other feeling tones, specifically, positive ones that may be subtly lurking in the background and use those to ground your energy instead of seeking distraction.
Now, you can’t control the reactions and responses of your colleagues. However, a workplace culture can make intentional use of deep listening, value the quiet space that sometimes emerges in conversation, encourage team members to assume positive intent, and demonstrate compassion when people react unskillfully. By doing so, an organization and its leaders are creating a space that can lead to productive discussion, planning and engagement.
Note: this post is the second in a series that will focus on honing the quality of attention we bring to our work. It is based loosely on a set of teachings from the Buddhist meditation tradition that I have been practicing this summer as part of an online course with Ven. Dhammadipa. Any gaps in understanding of the Dhamma are all mine.