An Exercise in Exploring Unpleasant

Running Time: 4:05

This video will explore our habitual aversion reactions to unpleasant sensations. The last video was kind of easy and fun, because we were dealing with pleasant sensations. You may find the exercise in this video a little more challenging. My advice to you is to take it slow and take it easy. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the unpleasant sensations. Whenever you need to, take a break, perhaps focusing on your breath for a bit or doing some stretching or other physical movement to help you regain your composure, before continuing.

Begin by stretching out your arm in front of you like this. Go ahead and do it now.

Pay attention to any physical mental sensations that arise that tell you that you want to do something else other than keep your arm in this position. Look for any physical or mental resistance to just being here like this. Look for any thoughts about wanting to do something else that would be more pleasant.

If you’ve done yoga before, you may be familiar with this sort of exploration.

After some time, your arm will start feeling heavy and uncomfortable in this position. When that happens I want you to do three things. First, I want you to see if you can notice the hedonic-tone, or vedana in the physical sensations in your arm. Second, I want you to see if you can notice any resistance, either physical or mental, that tells you that you want these uncomfortable feelings to stop. Third, I want you to notice any thoughts you may have, and especially intentions, to move your arm. Just watch these things as best as you can. Keep your arm where it is and observe these three things.

What I notice is a tension in my shoulder and forearm that is intensifying and changing into a burning sensation that is definitely unpleasant. I notice a tightening in my diaphragm as these sensations build and intensify, as well as a tightness forming in my jaw muscles. This is the resistance. My breathing is changing now. Now there are thoughts about wanting to lower my arm. The longer you keep your arm where it is, without moving it, the more obvious these three things will become, and the more insistent they will become. If you keep your arm up long enough, you may eventually begin to encounter mental states, such as irritation, anxiety or even fear.

Ok, lower your arm now. If you didn’t find this exercise uncomfortable, try holding a small weight in your hand and then do it again. The point of this exercise isn’t to grit your teeth and see how long you can keep your arm up, but to explore sensations that have a hedonic-tone of unpleasant, and the habitual reactions to those sensations.

Remember, these are just sensations. From an objective point of view, there’s no particular reason that you need to act on any of these fleeting, impermanent physical and mental sensations.

In your daily meditation and informal practice this week, see if you can identify the hedonic tone of the sensations you observe while meditating. Are they pleasant, unpleasant, or neither? You may find it helpful to mentally label them as “pleasant”, “unpleasant” or “neutral”. Have fun!