Pleasant, Unpleasant, and Neutral*

In buddhist philosophy, the primary emotions can be broken down into 3 categories: emotions that are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.

Just as in the mind, movement can also be put into these 3 categories of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.

Regardless of emotion or sensation, the body brain is hardwired to grasp at the pleasant ones to keep and to avoid the unpleasant at all costs. The neutral is just that, neither “bad” nor “good”.

None of them are more important than each other as all of them have a gift that helps to make us who we are. Much of what feels unpleasant can evolve into something magical and beautiful: childbirth, a promotion, playing an instrument, even death. Death is the expiration of the inhalation of life: from death another form arises.

In movement, when we can become aware of the unpleasant, there is the opportunity to ask if we can be kind. Some of that kindness may look like needing MORE challenge for the body, maybe lifting the leg a little higher or holding a position for a little longer. Kindness while naming the unpleasant may also be doing a whole lot LESS. It may mean rather than trying to keep one leg up off the floor, a hand goes to the wall, and the movement is half as deep. And having said all that, when unpleasant, it is also okay to say, “I don’t know the next move” or “I don’t know how to move”, that is what the teacher is there for if you are in a class or ask a therapist or coach. This is very often the most disheartening space for many, as there is the internal sense that “they should know how to move”. Many have left yoga classes just based on the feelings of unpleasantness because they have not known how to adjust, move or be with the experience.

The same goes for emotions. With unpleasant emotions, do we relax around them or tense up? Sometimes we need to let them be. Very often just pausing and identifying them, just seeing them without judgement can give us the information we need on what to do next.

The sensations of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral are always changing. So is our perception of what they are.

That person we used to long for to call us, is now an unpleasant reminder for something else. That place of discord has become the basis of our new happy outlook. And in the body, you may notice that some days your balance is great, and some days not. Some days your left side is stronger or more able and then not. Humans are complex internally, and life is complex externally. By identifying pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral we take out the shoulds, judgements and unhappiness and just see things a little more easily for what they are, shifting sands on an ever shifting land mass called us.

So as you go about your day today, feel the sensations as they arise. Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? Allow for them to be there, be kind to the sensation and let the sensation guide you to the next step. You may be pleasantly surprised.

*Thank you to Jonathan Foust for the knowledge and transmission of this dharma teaching. You can find his teaching on this subject at or on his April 11, 2016 podcast. Also to Jack Kornfield who wrote of this topic in his book “The Wise Heart”.