Understanding Hedonic Tone

Running Time: 12:56

I introduced you to vedana, or hedonic-tone, in the video about categorizing the objects of consciousness back in week 1. If you recall from that video, vedana, or pleasant, unpleasant and neutral hedonic tones, are present with every sensation: both bodily and mental.

These hedonic-tones are the focus of our practice in week 2 because understanding how they work and what arises from them is critical if you want to effectively apply mindfulness to daily life situations. It’s also the leverage point for using mindfulness for spiritual development.

The reason for this is because we have very deeply ingrained habitual reactions to hedonic tone. And it’s these habits that result in our suffering.

Consistent,mindful observation of hedonic tone and our reactions to it is what eventually changes these habits and transforms our relationship to stress, anxiety, anger and other intense emotions.

In this video, I’m going to explain how all this stuff works, but before you watch the rest of it, make sure you’ve done the two video exercises with pleasant and unpleasant. It’ll make the concepts I talk about in this video much more tangible for you.

According to Buddhist psychology, there’s a chain of events that occurs when a stimulus is received by a sense organ or a mental sensation is created in the mind.

Concurrent with the perception of the sensation, whether bodily or mental, is the arising of a hedonic-tone, or vedana of either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Every sensation has associated with it a hedonic-tone. And here’s the “Why din’t they tell me this in kindergarten” secret… there’s no way to stop the arising of these hedonic-tones. It’s natural for them to arise when sensation is perceived.

Another way of putting this is that you aren’t doing anything wrong when you experience something as unpleasant or neutral. All the meditating in the world will not stop the arising of unpleasant sensations. What that means is that experiencing sensations as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is completely beyond your control. You can think of it as “baked-in” to the process of perception itself. You can’t change it.

Hold onto this fact… we’ll be coming back to it!

The next thing that usually happens in this chain of events in the mind is the habitual reaction of craving.

If the hedonic tone is pleasant, you like it and crave more of it, if it’s unpleasant, you dislike it and crave for it to go away, if it’s neutral, you space out and get bored and crave for something more interesting. This habitual arising of craving is the precursor to a cornucopia of thoughts, mental states, actions, opinions and even views about the world. And it plays a large role in creating your sense of identity. In fact, it’s not too strong a statement to say that vedana, or hedonic-tone is the driving force behind pretty much everything in your life.

Here’s a quick example of how this works: — Imagine you’ve being driving around the block for the last few minutes looking for parking on a crowded street, — when a spot finally opens up. As you see the parking spot open up for you, — you probably experience it as pleasant because you’ve been looking for a place to park, possibly feeling a bit anxious about not having found one yet and now you’ve spotted one. There’s probably also a bunch of mental activity that arises in association with this, such as imagining yourself parking your car in that spot, that you also experience as pleasant.

That pleasant hedonic-tone is not, in and of itself a problem. It’s just vedana. What usually happens next, and very quickly, is that the mind automatically turns towards that pleasant sensation and craves more like it, craves more pleasant sensations. Even that’s not necessarily a big deal, if you can be mindful of it. After all, craving is just craving, as long as you don’t act on it. The next stage in the process, which also happens very quickly, is where that craving causes the arising of identification, intention and action.

The mind has very quickly gone from “Oh, pleasant” to “I like pleasant” to “I want pleasant” to “I must have pleasant”. At this point, the mind becomes fixated by the craving for more of the pleasant sensation. This is the point at which the empty parking spot in front of you changes from just being a conveniently empty parking spot to being YOUR parking spot. The parking spot that you must have. The parking spot that you are destined to occupy. You haven’t even parked your car in it, yet it now seems to belong to you. Not only are you attached to the parking spot, you now identify with it as MINE.

Then, just as you’re about to drive into the parking spot, another car cuts in front of you and takes it. Hey! That was MY parking spot, and now someone else has STOLEN it from ME. And now mental states such as irritation, frustration, maybe even anger arise. Thoughts proliferate in the mind and spin stories about how unfair it is that someone stole MY parking spot, right in front of ME, the NERVE! How dare they… and so on. And now you’re suffering. Big Time.

This is what suffering is – the resistance to, the mental railing against what is. It’s the mental anguish you experience when you can’t have something you want, something you’ve attached to, or when something you dislike, find unpleasant, is forced upon you and you can’t avoid it.

Suffering is that mental squirming and anguish that arises when you feel that this isn’t the experience you’re supposed to be having.

And the key understanding here is that suffering is purely mental. Pain is unavoidable, it’s part of having a body with a nervous system. Can’t do anything about that. Suffering, on the other hand, is optional.

Why optional?

Well, If you think about it objectively, all that happened in our little parking thought experiment was that you saw a parking spot free up in front of you, had some thoughts about driving your car into it and then saw another car park in that spot before you were able to. That’s all. The attachment that made the parking spot suddenly be MY parking spot, the mental states of anger and irritation, the proliferation of thoughts and stories about the event were all just the result of a habitual reaction to the initial pleasant sensations of finding a place to park, and then being denied.

It’s these habitual reactions, the push and pull of attachment and aversion that create the suffering.

Suffering is a central topic in Buddhism and, in fact, the Buddha identified 8 categories of suffering, some of which are quite subtle, so there’s a lot more to say about this topic than I’m going to cover in this video. But, this is plenty to get started with.

So how can we shift this pattern? How do the meditation practices that you’re doing during the 30 Days of Mindfulness help you to break this chain of events?

Remember, we can’t change vedana. Every sensation is experienced as either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It’s the part that happens next, the change from “pleasant” to “I like that” to attachment, or the change from “unpleasant” to “I don’t like that” to aversion that’s the weak link in the chain. This is where we can influence the course of events.

There are two approaches to doing this:

  1. The first approach is to mindfully observe this process. Be mindfully aware of the grasping after and attaching to pleasant, and the pushing away and resisting of unpleasant. This is what you were doing in the previous videos during the exercises with pleasant and unpleasant sensations. The key is to non-reactively observe the process by which you form your likes and dislikes, and act on them, a process which normally occurs under the radar of your awareness. See if you can observe this process during your meditation practice. See if you can observe it during your daily life practice. As is always the case with this kind of stuff, it’s the experiential understanding, your first hand observation of this process at work, that leads to change, rather than a cognitive understanding. So, don’t be content with just an intellectual understanding of vedana and suffering. Try to see it in action in your own mind. The benefit of this approach is it’s accessibility. It’s something you can start to do right now. All you need to do is remember to do it and make it a habit and it will have a tremendous, transformative impact on your life. The downside to this approach is that you need to remember to do it and make it a habit, but hey, that’s what this program is all about, so I’ve got you covered!
  2. The second approach is what I call the back door approach. Attachment to pleasant and Aversion to unpleasant is one of the key ways that a sense of a self is constructed. But, in a kind of circular way, attachment and aversion also require there be a ‘self’ that can get attached to pleasant or resist unpleasant. This is the domain of insight practice, where this sense of being a separate, abiding self is deconstructed. As you chip away at the self, it impedes the habitual craving reaction to hedonic tone. Chip away enough and eventually, there’s no longer a self that can crave. The benefit of this approach is that, once you’ve done it, you don’t need to be constantly hyper vigilant for it to work. There’s no sense of self, so there’s no attachment and aversion, and so there’s no suffering. The downside to this approach is that it takes a lot of work to get there, and even just talking about deconstructing the self can freak some people out! Despite the significant work and commitment required, it’s not as difficult or out of reach as the popular mythology about this stuff would lead you to believe. And it’s much easier when you’re also using approach number 1. I’ll talk more about the back door approach in week 4 of the 30 Days of Mindfulness program.

So, in week 2, I want you to practice the first approach. During both your sitting practice and your daily life practice, see if you can notice the hedonic-tone of the sensations you’re observing. Are they pleasant, unpleasant or neither? Mentally label them as “pleasant”, “unpleasant” or “neutral” if you like. See if you can be aware of the process by which you attach to pleasant sensations and resist unpleasant sensations. And if it helps, label the sensations associated with attachment as “attachment”. When you observe a series of sensations associated with aversion, you can label them as “aversion”. Try to remember that sensations are just sensations. You may prefer the pleasant ones, but try to accept whatever sensations arise, pleasant or not.

Oh, and another tip for you: don’t resist attachment and aversion. Don’t push them away. That’s just more aversion and will only keep that habitual cycle going. Instead, use this practice as an opportunity to further develop your receptivity and equanimity. Remember, you are a safe container for whatever arises in your conscious experience. If attachment arises, see it as attachment, know it for what it really is, and carefully watch what happens in the mind as you don’t do anything to act out that attachment. It’s a very interesting process.

And take your time with this stuff, be patient with yourself.

These are deep, fundamental habits of mind you’re exploring. They won’t be changed in a day! It takes consistent, compassionate, mindful observation of this process for change to occur. So watch it during your meditation practice and watch it during your daily life, whenever you remember. In fact, there’s probably nothing that will pay greater dividends than a consistent, systematic exploration of vedana and our habitual reactions to it.