There is no satisfactory translation of the ancient Sanskrit word vedana. It is a quality of awareness that can only be experienced, not pinned down with precision. It is the feeling, almost a background "color," that tinges our experience of the world—of mindfulness itself. For this reason, vedana is often translated as "feeling tone." Although we will use the terms interchangeably, it will always pay to remember that we are referring to a flavor of awareness, and not a rigid concept that can be hedged in by words and definitions. Feeling tone is something that you feel in mind, body, and "spirit," but its true quality will always remain slightly ineffable. Sometimes annoyingly so.
A typical feeling-tone meditation consists of stilling the mind with a simple breath or body meditation and then paying attention to your experiences in a manner that is subtly different to what other meditations request. It asks you to focus in a very specific way on the feelings and sensations that arise in the moment when the unconscious mind crystallizes into the conscious one. Such moments, though fleeting, are often the most important ones in your life. This is because vedana is the balance point in your mind that sets the tone for the sequence of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that follow. It is often subtle, but if you pay attention to it, you can feel it in your mind, body, and spirit—right through to your bones. The feeling tone is of profound importance because it guides the trajectory of your subsequent thoughts, feelings, and emotions. If it is "pleasant," you will tend to feel positive, dynamic, and in control of your life (at least for a while). If it is "unpleasant," you will likely feel slightly gloomy, deflated, and powerless. Feeling-tone meditations teach you to see, or, more precisely, to feel the way that your life is pushed and pulled around by forces you are barely conscious of. Sometimes these forces act in your best interests, sometimes not—but the important thing is that they are not under your immediate control. Under their influence, your life is not your own.
To help these ideas settle into your mind, you might like to try this little practice to get a sense of your feeling tones: If it is convenient, take a few moments to look around you; the room, the window, the interior of your train or bus, or perhaps the street, field, or forest before you. As your eyes alight on different things, or different sounds come to your ears, see if you can register the subtle sense of whether each one feels pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If you are at home, your eye might alight on a card, gift, or memento from a much-loved friend. You might feel the instant warm glow of a pleasant feeling tone in response. Or you might see a dirty dish that you've been meaning to tidy away, or something you've borrowed from someone and had intended to return, and then you might notice an unpleasant feeling tone. If you are outside, you may notice the sun streaming through the leaves of a tree, or a piece of dirty plastic trash flapping around. If you can catch the moment, you might sense ripples of pleasant or unpleasant feeling tones. But it is not just the external world that has such an impact. You may also become aware of sensations inside your body, such as aches and pains, or perhaps a sense of relaxed calm. These, too, register on the same dimension of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And sooner or later, you may notice thoughts or emotions arising and passing away soon after the feeling tones.
You don't need to know how you know these feeling tones—you just know. Somehow there is a "readout" in body and mind on the dimension of pleasant to unpleasant. It's like a gut feeling. It's not a matter of thinking hard about it, or hunting for it, it's more like the taste of something; you just know it when you taste it. Like tasting milk that's gone sour, you know it's unpleasant without having to think about it.
Feeling tones can be hugely significant. Cast your mind back to the last time you were sitting in a café and suddenly felt unhappy for no apparent reason. If you could rewind the clock and observe what was happening "frame by frame" as your unhappiness arose, you would have noticed that the emotion was preceded by a momentary pause. It was as if your mind was poised on a knife edge, a moment when it was sensing whether the evolving situation was pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. A moment of vedana.
So vedana is often a tipping point in your mind that affects how you experience the world in the moments that follow. Good, bad, indifferent. But it is what happens next that is of paramount importance—we call it the "reactivity pulse." It works like this: If a pleasant feeling tone arises in the mind, then it is entirely natural to want to grasp it, keep hold of it, and be a little fearful that it will fade away or slip through your fingers. If the tone is unpleasant, then it is natural to want to get rid of it, to push it away, fearing that it will stick around forever and never leave. Neutral sensations often feel boring, so you feel like tuning out and finding something more interesting to do. These feeling tones are primal and can quickly trigger a cascade of reactions in the mind and body. These are felt as emotions and cravings that compel you to try to keep hold of pleasant feeling tones, push away unpleasant ones, and distract yourself from neutral ones. So the reactivity pulse is the mind's knee-jerk reaction to feeling tone. If a feeling tone sets the scene, then the reactivity pulse casts the actors, selects the costumes, and writes the script for what happens next. And it can write a script and direct a scene that can easily ruin your whole day and sometimes far, far longer.