Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

3.8. Well Being. Integrating Eastern Knowledge in Western Culture and Western Knowledge in Eastern Culture
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Maurits G.T Kwee (Buenos Aires/Tokorozawa)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

The observation of bodily feelings in early buddhism and in experiential psychotherapy

Michael Drummond (M.A., University of Utrecht, the Netherlands)



The origin and function of feelings on the body was one of the critical issues that the Buddha of the early Buddhist texts was interested in. Indeed we may still ask today the same question: What are the origins and functions of feelings on the body? If one did not have the heat and shaking, pulsating of the body in a fit of anger, what would remain of the anger? If one did not have the lightness of body and the sensation of tenderness, what would remain of love? The Buddha, in the early Buddhist texts, asserted that he answered these questions. Of considerable importance, study of the feelings on the body, their origin and function, are today also of significant importance to the fields of Psychotherapy and Cognitive Science. In this paper I will look at the early Buddhist view of the origin and function of feelings on the body, and enter into the process of comparing these views with how they are seen in the historically important field of Experiential Psychotherapy. There is a need to investigate the neuropsychological basis for subjective observations and for a holistic theoretical framework to understand the findings in the early Buddhist texts how feelings on the body impact our cognitive life.



Today, in international Buddhist meditation practice, one of the most widely practiced of all Buddhist meditation techniques, is the technique of the observation of bodily feelings as taught primarily by S.N. Goenka of Maharashtra India,(1) in his 10-day residential courses. These courses which very closely follow the Buddha's teachings as seen in the Pali language suttas (texts or gospels) of S.E. Asia and are also conducted world-wide, have made Goenka perhaps the premier teacher of Buddhist meditation in the 20th century. One of the basic teachings in this course is that of the impermanent nature of the feelings on the body and that they are arising and passing away at great speed.

How then can we understand these ancient Indian texts and their meditation technique of the observation of feelings in a modern context? To do so, I will compare them with a historically influential(2) (3) (4) psychotherapeutic technique known as Focusing(5) that was developed by Eugene Gendlin in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and which has become a central technique in Experiential Psychotherapy.(6)


Bodily Feelings in Early Buddhism

Considering the early Buddhist understanding of how the mind functions, we can deduce a teaching in the Pali texts on what Damasio (1994) has termed the 'Cognitive Unconscious'. In the Honeyball Sutta,(7) of the Majjhima Nikaya(8) we see a passage beginning with the 5th factor of the 12 factor model of Dependent Origination(9), this 5th factor is the six sense base, the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. DEPENDENT ORIGINATION is actually the Buddha's central model of consciousness. This passage states that: "Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises, the meeting of the three is contact (phassa)", 'Contact' is the 6th factor of Dependent Origination. Indeed 'contact' is the basic unit of cognitive experience in early Buddhist Psychology. The passage then says that "conditioned by contact, feeling, arises." Feeling then is the 7th factor of Dependent Origination. Next the passage explains that "what one feels (vedeti), one perceives (sanjanati)" Importantly, this all happening in a sequential order. Lastly, the passage explains that "what one perceives, one then thinks (vitakketi) about."

The whole passage reads as follows:

Dependent on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises. The meeting of the three is Contact. With Contact as a condition there is Feeling. What one feels, (vedeti), that one perceives (sanjanati). What one perceives, that one thinks (vitakketi) about. What one thinks about, that one mentally proliferates (papancha).(10)

Considering this passage we may see that the Buddha understood the arising of thought to be directly equated with the activation of the conscious level of the mind. Why? Because, thought only arises after the 3 factors of: contact, feeling, and perception. Therefore, these 3 factors of contact, feeling, and perception, must be doing their respective functions at the unconscious level. Concerning the above mentioned factor of feeling, a close reading of the Pali Suttas leaves one with no doubt but that the Buddha penetrated the secrets of the feelings on the body and how they function in either defiling or purifying the mind. A very interesting and explicit passage in the suttas states that:

Just as winds blow in the too, various feelings arise in this body: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral...having fully understood feelings, the practitioner is awakened(11) in this very life.(12)

SN Goenka in his 10-day meditation course, fills in the details of this observation of the Buddha:

The deepest level of the mind, what is called the 'unconscious mind,' actually is not unconscious. Every moment, day and night, it is feeling, it is experiencing the sensations on the body and it keeps reacting to them. If the sensation is pleasant, it will react with craving, clinging. If the sensation is unpleasant, it will react with aversion, hatred. This is the habit pattern of the deep, unconscious mindall the time craving [disliking], craving [disliking]. In order to change this habit pattern, you have to reach the stage [in the mind] where this habit pattern is prevailing. This means the deepest level of the mind where you feel sensations. You just observe these sensations, whether pleasant or unpleasant, without reacting. And you understand: 'Look, these sensations, they are changing'.(13)

So if they are changing, there is no need to react to them. This is how these negative habit patterns are deconstructed.


Bodily Feelings in Experiential Therapy

Now considering Gendlin's theoretical and explanatory writings on how the Focusing technique works, he explains that if an emotionally distressed person directs her awareness inward "perhaps in your stomach or chest [and ask] 'how is my life going? What is the main thing for me right now?'" she or he will experience "what all of the problem feels like". Gendlin calls this feeling the "felt meaning" of this emotional distress. Now if the individual further focuses on this feeling, the otherwise unconscious aspects of the emotional distress that are interwoven with this feeling will often manifest at the conceptual level. The person will then be able to linguistically process these otherwise unconscious aspects of this emotional distress which are actually aspects of the root cause of the currently arising emotional problem. This manifestation at the conceptual level then brings an immediate release as well as opportunity for deeper processing.

Based on this affective-cognitive process Gendlin concludes that the body knows more about what is happening to us at the emotional level than 'we' do at the level of the conscious mind.(14) This means that the body is functioning at the level of the unconscious while the personality is only operating at the conscious level of the mind. Therefore this "bodily awareness" is a foundational counterpart to cognition.(15) This bodily awareness communicates to us, past and present cognitive stimuli via the body en mass rather than in a 'itemized linear account' of the cognitive commentary. Specifically he uses the phrases "felt sense" or "felt meaning" to describe these physical sensations and says that "a felt sense doesn't come in the form of thoughts or words, but as a single bodily feeling".

In detail Gendlin says:

Those thousands of bits of data that you have seen, felt, lived and stored over the years comes to you all at once, as a single aura, sensed in your body. Where are all those thousands of items of information stored? Not in your mind, but in your body. The body is a biological computer.(16)

What we are looking at here gives solid credence to the view that the Buddha had himself discovered a thoroughly relevant 'embodied mind' therapeutic truth. Furthermore, this meditation practice of the observation of feelings on the body appears to be equally consistent today in its therapeutic power, as it was 2500 years ago.


Observing Bodily Feelings

So in contemplating this I would like now to consider in what way the early texts explain how bodily feelings 'know' what they 'show': How do they take their three affective tones of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? In the Pali Suttas, we can read as follows:

Depending on a contact to be felt as pleasant, there arises a pleasant feeling. (17) (18)

Clearly, this contact is having a subjective force behind it, therefore it cannot be a blank sheet, a tabula rasa, in that it is a cognitive event effected at the unconscious level by the energies of similar past habitual tendencies (sankhara),(19) which is the 2nd factor of Dependent Origination. This indicates that this subjectivity of the contact is then transmuted into the bodily feelings: this is mind becoming body, mentality transmuting into physicality. The Buddha called this Nama-rupa, or mind-body. It is the 4th factor of Dependent Origination.

I have here below illustrated how I understand Pali textual explanation of the body circulating, or body looping of unconscious and conscious feeling.

At Stage 1, we have eye contact: the object is established at the unconscious level. At Stage 2, the feeling is conditioned by contact to arise and flow through the body with its affective tone. At Stage 3, perception, re-cognizes the affective tone of the feeling. In effect, this magnifies the strength of the feeling, causing the conscious arising of desire or aversion, or perhaps neutrality, towards the object. This arises in the form of a feeling based thought. This is also the level at which Gendlin's Focusing technique begins working, wherein an unpleasant feeling is consciously felt on the body, is focused on and questioned about its origin. Critically, the Vipassana practice of the observation of feelings on the body begins the process of 'defusing' or deconstructing the negative psychological energies at the unconscious level before they begin manifesting at the conscious level. At Stage 4, the complete arising in the conscious mind of the habitual responses (sankhara) has taken place. This results in a fully developed 'sense of self' appropriating all aspects of its perceived relation to the object, he or she will tend to think that the attraction or aversion to the object is a direct consequence of seeing the object.

The Buddha in fact taught that contact and feelings are observable: they need not be unconscious.(20) Regardless, the contact and feeling are but the tip of the cognitively unconscious iceberg. Furthermore, the Buddha saw the human body as the receptacle of a person's past deposits of volitions and intentions, he called this 'old kamma' and it means that the Buddha taught that the unconscious deposits of past habitual reactions are integrated into the body. In this particular sutta, the Buddha, not only postulates about the origin of the body, but he then instructs the practitioner that the body is something to be felt.(21) This means to observe, or experience the feelings on or in the body for the purpose of purifying the Mind-Body of currently manifesting negative emotions and unconscious but similar habitual tendencies.

He dwells contemplating impermanence in contact and in pleasant and unpleasant sensations...and [therefore] the underlying tendency to desire and aversion is abandoned [or deconstructed] in him.(22) (23)

Now in consideration of how the meditation technique of the observation of feelings on the body is taught today, it seems imperative that to correctly learn the complexities of this meditation technique there is a critical need to participate in Goenka's 10-day residential course. One of the many important aspects of this course is that the individual develops the ability to continually refocus the awareness on the bodily feelings rather than repeatedly absorbing into the currently manifesting, cyclical internal dialogues and internal commentaries at the conscious level of the mind.



This paper has brought into partial focus the modern practice of this early Buddhist meditation technique of the observation of feelings. This ancient technique of meditation is supported by a holistic doctrinal structure which includes the teachings of the impermanency of the psychosomatic structure and the absence of any permanently functioning self behind the personality. This presentation also highlighted the pertinent similarities between this Buddhist meditation technique and the development of Experiential Psychotherapy as represented by Gendlin's Focusing technique. Interestingly, there are experimental studies, such as the study of the somatic markers in the field of cognitive science, which appear to have the ability to corroborate the early Buddhist understanding of feelings on the body (Damasio, 1994). All things considered, it seems that there are adequate reasons to pursue further research into these fields for the purpose of formulating a theoretical framework that explains the efficacy of this early Buddhist meditation technique of the observation of feelings on the body.

© Michael Drummond (M.A., University of Utrecht, the Netherlands)



(2) Cain and Seeman 2002: 39, note that "Eugene Gendlin made a major contribution to humanistic therapies by developing the process of experiential focusing."

(3) Greenberg 2002: 117-134.

(4) Greenberg and Safran 1987: 215-280.


(6) Cain and Seeman 2002: 38-39, define Experiential Psychotherapy as a Humanistic therapy. This is then defined by explaining that "humanistic therapists focus intently on the emotional experiencing of their clients." Here we need to understand that the use of the phrase 'emotional experiencing' is synonymous with being aware of the feelings on the body. Cain continues: "Most humanistic therapists believe that although cognitive insight may illuminate experience and its meaning, it is not likely to have much effect on the change process unless the emotional aspects of problematic experiences are felt, explored and integrated." He then states that in Humanistic therapy Experiential Psychotherapy are those therapies which "have developed increasingly refined methods for enabling clients to process their experiences." Three renowned therapists/researchers to have done this are L. S. Greenberg, L. N. Rice and A. R. Mahrer.

(7) MN.1.111-112.

(8) The canonical texts of Pali Buddhism, are contained in the 'Tipitaka' (Ti = three, Pitaka = basket or collection) and hence consist of three collections, the collection of suttas or gospels, (the Sutta Pitaka), the collection of training rules for monks, (the Vinaya Pitaka) and the systematic exposition of the doctrines found in the suttas, (the Abhidhamma Pitaka).

The Sutta Pitaka consists of five collections or nikayas, they are: the first collection, the Digha Nikaya = DN, the second collection, the Majjhima Nikaya = MN, the third collection, the Samyutta Nikaya = SN, the fourth collection, the Anguttara Nikaya = AN, and the fifth collection, the Khudaka Nikaya = KN.

(9) Dependent Origination, being the Buddha's other central model of consciousness, is seen most often in the suttas as a 12-factored model consisting of: 1. Ignorance (avijja), 2. Volitional Formations (sankhara), 3. Consciousness (vinyana), 4. Mind-Body (nama-rupa), 5. The six sense bases (salayatana), 6. Contact (phassa), 7. Feeling (vedana), 8. Craving (tanha), 9. Grasping, Clinging (upadana), 10. Becoming, Existence (bhava), 11. Birth (jati), 12. Old age and death (jaramarana).

(10) All translations of sutta passages are taken from Bhikkhu Nyanamoli and Bodhi's translations of the Majjhima Nikaya and Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation of the Samyutta Nikaya.

(11) I take the term 'awakened' to be synonymous with the reality of a perfected mental health, which in short, is the equivalent of transcending desire and its opposite, aversion. This in turn needs in-depth explaining, which is beyond the scope of this paper.

(12) SN.4.218. A very interesting support for this canonical statement is seen at DN.1.39 wherein the Buddha notes that there are 62 'grounds' for formulating the 62 wrong views enumerated in the discourse. Just what these grounds are can be inferred in the line after in which the Buddha says: "This monks [I] understand: these views thus grasped...lead to destinations in another world...but he is not attached to that knowledge...and having fully understood the arising and ceasing of feelings, experienced their danger and freedom there from, [I have attained] full liberation." Translated by Walsh 1995.

In other words, the Buddha sees that the holding of this or that view is based not on the philosophical correctness of the view but rather, it is an attachment to the feeling that arises, with the mind sense door's Contact with its respective object, thought, which in this case is a philosophical view. The holder of the view is, at the level of the cognizing unconscious, more interested in holding onto, or maintaining, the pleasant feeling that is associated with his view than with the view itself. Interestingly, the sutta continues to explain that the Buddha sees that his own understanding of the reason why people hold philosophical views could also be considered as a view, except for the fact that he [the Buddha] is not attached to his knowledge of why other people hold various views. This non-attachment to his own knowledge of the reasons why other people hold views is then implicitly connected to the role of feeling in causing attachment, [he has, in the past, "experienced their danger", which means they cause 'Dukkha', which is commonly translated as 'suffering' in European languages, but which is probably more appropriately translated as 'neurotic tendencies'] and contrarily, their role [gaining "freedom there from"] in attaining awakening.

(13) Goenka 2000: p. 8, day four dhamma discourse.

(14) Gendlin 1982: ix.

(15) Ibid. 32.

(16) Ibid. 33-34.

(17) MN.3.242.

(18) Kalupahana 1987: p. 32, considers that the consciousness arising from Contact is a cognitive event affected by the Volitional Formations (sankhara). He is obviously referring to Volitional Formations as the second factor of Dependent Origination.

(19) The term 'Sankhara' plays a major role in the Buddha's teaching as found in the Pali texts. This is ironic as it is a term that is difficult to translate into a single term in the European languages. It is in fact a term that was used in the pre-Buddhist Vedic literature and which the Buddha seems to have further developed in meaning. Certainly, the suttas see that it is almost synonymous with two other key terms, Kamma (action) and Cetana (volition). First, the Buddha in AN.3.415, equates Kamma with volition. Thus we can say that in Buddhist psychology, the internal structure of an action is the volition or intention and that this volition ultimately bears its fruit. Next in SN.3.60, the Buddha equates cetana, volition, with sankhara. Concerning this, Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000: 1065 n. 85, notes that sankhara in the 5 Khandhas is seen by the Abhidhamma Pitaka as an "umbrella category for classifying all mental factors other than Feeling and Perception. Volition is mentioned only as the most important factor in this aggregate, not as its exclusive constituent." So we can see a bit of the difficulty in obtaining a direct translation of this term. Consequently certain scholars would prefer to leave it un-translated.

However, this does not offer the Western practitioner much help, unless he or she would undertake in-depth study of the suttas to develop a 'feeling' or a 'nuance' of the term 'sankhara'. In this paper, I have settled on using the phrase 'Volitional Formations' used by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi in his translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, as I feel this is the best choice in reflecting the various nuances which the term sankhara is capable of reflecting. I will now list several previous translations to give an idea of how other noted scholars of Pali texts have dealt with sankhara: 1. The power of making concepts, P. Dahlke, 2. Potentialities, or tendencies, T.W. Rhys Davids, 3. Formations or kamma (the Pali form of karma) Frauwallner, E., 4. Kamma forming forces, von Glasenapp, H. 5. Volitions, Hardy, E. 6. Predispositions or latent tendencies, Keith, A.B. 7. Forms of Kamma, Nyanaponika Bhikkhu, 8. Mental formation of consciousness, Nyanatiloka Bhikkhu, 9. Inherent habitual tendencies or purposeful intellection, Horner, I.B. 10. Force or energy, Warder, A.K. This has been taken from Mandanayake 1987: 286-291..

(20) The fact that the Buddha is seen as expounding Dependent Origination directly implies that he could see the arising of each of the 12 factors. However in suttas similar to SN.2.38-41, the Buddha states directly that Contact is the cause of emotion and philosophical views. This again is a powerful inference that the Buddha was observing his cognitive continuum at the level of Contact and so also Feeling. It is also clear that he was able to see the conditioned arising of the four psychological khandhas: SN.3.60-62.

(21) SN.2.65. Often, statements in a particular sutta appear to be metaphorical and in need of interpretation. One technique that can be used is comparing a passage with a clear message such as the above quoted "Just as winds blow in the too, various feelings arise in this body: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral...having fully understood feelings, the practitioner is awakened in this very life", and compare it with a passage that seems to be related but at the same time more metaphorical, such as "this old kamma, to be seen as generated and fashioned by volition, as something to be felt" (SN.2.64-65). By reflecting on the first passage, one can then infer that the second passage is a metaphor for deconstructing mental negativities (asava) through observation of the bodily feelings.

(22) SN.4.214.

(23) "The clear understanding (sampajanna) of the impermanence of feelings is essential." SN.5.181.


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