Feelings vs. Reactions: A Key Mindfulness Teaching


The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on October 6th, 2022.

Feel free to read just the bold words and skip the rest, maybe even only reading the sections that interest you. 



On an intellectual level, what I’m about to say might sound rather simple and obvious. However, on a meditative level, it’s actually a pretty momentous realization.  Here goes:

There is a difference between an unpleasant experience and the mind’s reaction to it.

For example, let’s imagine you have some lower back pain.  The sensations in your lumbar area are definitely unpleasant.  There’s no way around it.  However, when you direct your attention to it, all you notice is tightness, tension, pulsing, piercing, dull aching, and similar things.

In other words, when you directly feel an unpleasant feeling, in all its rawness and immediacy, there’s no reaction there.  It’s just a sensation.  Just something to feel, allow, be-with, and, perhaps, compassionately respond to.

However, what usually happens is that the mind immediately adds all sorts of reactions onto that basic feeling, such as:

  • Disliking it
  • Subtly wishing it weren’t here
  • Urges or impulses to adjust your posture or otherwise make it go away
  • Becoming agitated or irritable about it being here
  • Clinging onto it tightly and getting sucked into a world of discomfort and pain
  • Feeling a desire to feel good
  • Distracting yourself via entertainment, substances, relentless activity, thoughts, etc.
  • Engaging in all sorts of mental chatter about how this is so awful, it should be gone by now, you’re going to be stuck with this forever, you’ll never be able to play tennis again, you’re a hopeless meditator, you need a more ergonomic desk chair, nothing works, and on and on.

In Insight Meditation, we hone in on this simple distinction between the feeling & the reaction.  We put our attention on the basic felt experience, in all its rawness and immediacy.  Not thinking about it or analyzing it — just directing our attention right toward it.

The more we do this, we see the reaction is entirely optional.  It may still arise, like having a surge of disliking, but then we notice that too, and soften, relax, and let it go.

When I was a monk living at the monastery, our last meal of the day was at 10:30 am.  Inevitably, everyone starts to get hungry at some point in the day.  In turn, my teacher would often ask meditators, “do you understand the difference between being hungry and wanting to eat?” 

I found that inquiry incredibly illuminating, as day after day, I had the chance to learn to befriend those basic unpleasant sensations of tightness and hunger in my tummy.  It took a while, but I eventually didn’t have any of those previously listed reactions.  I could be-with the sensations just as they were, in all their rawness and immediacy, with nothing extra added in.

Ultimately, when you go deep into the difference between unpleasant sensations and the mind’s reaction to them, it leads to this sort of inner freedom & peace, where we can be with life’s difficulties and mindfully respond to them, as opposed to slipping into overwhelm, escape or some other form of reactivity.


A Practice

The next time you notice yourself feeling resistance, disliking, aversion, pain, or discomfort, direct your attention to the actual sensory experience, in all its rawness and immediacy.  Let your attention linger with it, feeling it directly.  Take a deep breath and remind yourself — this feeling isn’t inherently good or bad.  It’s just what it is.  I don’t need to make it go away.  I can be with this too.  Another deep breath.  And from here, if compassionate action feels appropriate, do it; if not, enjoy your newfound contentment.

Here is a guided meditation I recorded that will help with this.


Other Applications

This teaching doesn’t just apply to bodily feelings and sensations.  We likewise learn to be-with the whole array of sounds (barking dogs), smells (an outhouse), tastes (yucky medicines), sights (lighting too bright), mental-emotional states (a grumpy mood), or any other situation we could imagine (getting a flat tire).  When any of these arise, we simply be-with them beneath all the reactions, in all their rawness and immediacy, just as they are.

Similarly, while I’ve focused on unpleasant sensations, as that’s usually the easiest to observe, everything I’ve said here also applies to pleasant sensations/feelings.  When we greet those unmindfully, like being at a delicious Thanksgiving feast, we tend to get sucked into “wanting mind,” and feed our drive for more, rather than being contented with “just enough.”  Magnifying this to our whole life, it’s difficult to find true peace when we’re in the trance of always chasing feel-goods rather than settling more deeply into where we are.

Even subtler still, neutral feelings and sensations tend to lead to the reactions of boredom, apathy, or covertly to the craving for something interesting or pleasurable to happen.  In turn, if you notice something feels “blah,” like waiting in a line, can you turn that into an opportunity for relaxed, engaged presence?

Basically, all possible experiences create in us either a pleasant, unpleasant or neutral feeling, which in turn leads to reactions, and from there, to behaviors and habits.

We come down to a basic choice: to live mindfully and intentionally, or to blindly follow the whims of my unconscious habits and reactions.



If you’d like to live a life of greater intentionality & inner peace, as opposed to reactivity and inner tension, a shortcut is to carefully observe the difference between unpleasant feelings and your reactions to them.  When you see that difference, you have the opportunity to bring in a little mindful space, which carries with it a world of possibility.

In other words, through mindfulness, you have the power to change your mind and, in turn, to change your world!


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