Investigating Feelings: Good, Bad, or Indifferent

Investigating Feelings: Good, Bad, and Indifferent

Recognizing the reality of suffering is not normally our first response when we experience suffering. We don’t want to understand it or even look at it — we just want to get rid of it.

The Buddha gave us a counter-intuitive instruction. His teaching went against the grain in classical India 2,500 years ago, and even more so in our modern, materialistic world. When suffering arises, he said to attend to it, investigate it, and understand it. From this careful inspection, we can begin to identify the actual cause of our suffering.

We often consider feelings as existing with only positive or negative values. We might say that we can feel either happy or sad; otherwise, we aren’t feeling anything. In other words, the zero point is to have no feeling at all. Buddhists say that besides positive and negative feelings, there are neutral feelings. We want pleasure, we don’t want pain, and we relax when we feel indifferent.

Craving Good Feelings or Pleasure

When a pleasurable feeling arises or is anticipated, the response of most sentient beings is one of craving. Whether from food, music, personal interaction, tactile sensation, or mental stimulation, we hope for pleasure even before it arises. Once pleasure arises, our natural tendency is to respond with attachment. “Don’t change this!” We act as though the pleasure we experience actually comes from the appearance: “I’m getting pleasure from this, so keep it coming — I like it!”

Craving can also arise when we anticipate pleasure. My car radio has a scan feature, and when I’m out of the range of my favorite stations, the ones that provide me with pleasure, I hit the scan button. It keeps scanning through talk shows, commercials, rap, and country, all unpleasant or neutral at best. “Give me some pleasure!” Suddenly, out goes my finger, “Ahhhh, the Beatles. Stay there!” Then the song’s over, and scanning for pleasure resumes.

Where Do Pleasure & Happiness Come From?

Investigating Feelings: Good, Bad, and IndifferentWe make a fundamental error in thinking that our pleasure comes from the radio, anticipating that a particular station will be pleasurable. We scan through all the stations repeatedly without finding one we like.

This eventually becomes unpleasant, so we play a CD that we have specifically chosen to give us pleasure. Even if the CD has no unpleasant tracks, we skip certain ones we’re indifferent toward. We crave pleasure, reach out for sources of anticipated pleasure, attach to our experiences of pleasure, and hold on.

Always on the Go: The Pursuit of Happiness

One synonym for a sentient being in Tibetan means one who is on the go (Tib. ’gro ba). Why are we always going somewhere? There is usually something we want, and we are on the go either due to the anticipation of pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfillment or else to avoid pain and discomfort. For example, if mundane pursuits are not delivering the goods, we might hope that pleasant feelings will come from participating in a meditation retreat.

The pursuit of happiness is very central in our lives, and it normally gives rise to craving. Of course it is always possible, or perhaps inevitable, that something will interfere with our aspirations. We anticipate that something will deliver happiness, but there’s an impediment. Perhaps someone doesn’t behave as we want, or something thwarts our desire for food, a job, or personal recognition. When this happens, anger and hostility may arise. If we can identify the culprit that has blocked our desires, we may express our hostility and perhaps violently dislodge the obstruction. When we get what we want, we expect the goods to be delivered. “Happiness at last! Thank you so much. Don’t ever change.”

Now the clinging takes over. “I’ll love you forever, if you keep on delivering the goods for me.” We solidify our attachment to the perceived source of our happiness. Then things change, someone starts behaving differently, or we simply get bored, and our source no longer delivers the goods. Once again dissatisfaction and anger arise.

"You Are Supposed to Make Me Happy"

As a young monk in Switzerland in the late seventies, I had one friend who was an older monk, in his early thirties; he had been married, unlike the rest of us. He told us very candidly about the demise of his marriage, which became apparent at breakfast one morning. He was sitting across from his wife with his newspaper up; hers was up, too. As he glared angrily at his wife, behind his newspaper, the thought emerged vividly in his mind, “You are supposed to provide me with happiness, and you’re not doing it.” I can imagine that his wife was glaring, behind her newspaper, and thinking exactly the same thing. Of course they divorced.

When we grasp on to something, craving and attachment arise. Then something changes, and without warning, a person, possession, activity, or situation seems to become a source of displeasure. Sadness, anger, harsh words, and conflict can easily arise. Furthermore, we might receive a big load of unhappiness. Without justification, someone treats us harshly, rudely, or maliciously, selfishly manipulating and deceiving us, and thereby makes us miserable. Such feelings can dominate our lives.

Feelings of pleasure give rise to craving and attachment, and feelings of displeasure give rise to hatred and malice. But when we’re indifferent, we don’t feel much at all. We simply cruise along with nothing happening — no pleasure arising, no displeasure arising — and slowly we slip into a stupor. The mind becomes bored, dull, and indifferent to everything.

Three Poisons & Three Virtues

The natural responses to pleasure, displeasure, and indifference are known in Buddhism as the three poisons of craving, hostility, and delusion. These three varieties of feelings are enormously important prime movers, manifesting in the body via the five senses, and also manifesting wholly within the mind. The simple arising of an unpleasant memory can make us extremely unhappy, just as the anticipation of some future pleasantness can make us happy. We can generate these feelings independently of physical sensory input.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Snow Lion Publications.

This article was excerpted with permission from the book:

Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness
by B. Alan Wallace.

Excerpt from the book,  Minding Closely: The Four Applications of Mindfulness by B. Alan Wallace.Bringing his experience as a monk, scientist, and contemplative, Alan Wallace offers a rich synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions along with a comprehensive range of meditation practices interwoven throughout the text. The guided meditations are systematically presented, beginning with very basic instructions, which are then gradually built upon as one gains increasing familiarity with the practice.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

About the Author

This article was written by B. Allan Wallace, author of the article: Investigating Feelings--Good, Bad, or Indifferent

Trained for ten years in Buddhist monasteries in India and Switzerland, Alan Wallace has taught Buddhist theory and practice in Europe and America since 1976. After graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College, where he studied physics and the philosophy of science, he earned a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford University. He has edited, translated, authored, or contributed to more than thirty books on Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, language, and culture, as well as the interface between religion and science. He teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is launching one program in Tibetan Buddhist studies and another in science and religion. Alan is the president of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness ( For information about Alan Wallace, visit his website at

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