Do we really experience only one kind of feeling at a time?

Whether or not only one kind of feeling (such as bodily feeling) at a time we experience is not essential, according to SN 36.6 = SA 470. The key issue is how to overcome mental feeling, which is negative emotion (i.e. repulsion, desire, and ignorance in response to the three bodily feelings):

Pages 109-111 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (231.4 KB)

However, I do consider it is likely more than one kind of bodily and mental feelings at a time we experience.

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Or perhaps the Upanishads or other Vedic texts have shared the idea of exclusivity of feeling too, Bhante @sujato :thinking:

Greetings Bhante,

This clip you posted as evidence didn’t really gel for me and has been percolating in the background…

I don’t think it is evidence for 2 simultaneous feelings. I think it shows the conflict of 2 desires, with one desire winning out and the result being incongruent/dissonant because, where one would have expected pleasure to arise, unpleasant feeling arises while indulging - because the other desire is thwarted at the same time. This is pretty common I think… Desire to eat ice-cream (in this case probably as a mental soothing/distraction in relation to some dukkha as I can’t see any indication of relishing the taste). Simultaneously is the desire to not eat it (probably in order to be thin/attractive). The desire to eat ice-cream wins out and that volition takes over… but the feeling generated is not pleasure at fulfilling that desire, but rather unpleasant in response to going directly against the other desire of not eating ice-cream in order to be thin/attractive.

I don’t see any pleasure in the eating in that clip. Just the action/volition of eating (based on one craving) and suffering feeling (based on another craving) at the same time… LOL quite like wanting your cake and eating it too… impossible so the issue here is in being led by the nose by craving and you eat your cake while crying because then you can’t have it too.
Least skillful and least satisfactory outcome… It’s just all tangled up and results in lose/lose for the person.

This is quite a clear example, but there would be many where the conflicts in desire and the resultant dissonance in feelings would be harder to see. Being aware of the desire is an important step.

To be a bit more explicit, in this case if we want to use a DA sequence to analyse, then there is the initial contact with a mental object that generates a feeling of dukkha, the volition is to move away from that by engaging in a distraction/soothing activity (eating ice cream). This however, immediately triggers a feeling of dukkha since it is contrary to the desire of wanting to be thin. However, that desire isn’t as strong as the initial one and therefore one continues in the volition of eating, while attention is on the second craving and therefore witnessing ones own out of control volition results in more dukkha and unpleasant feeling.

If one had more insight, then there would be the ability to either shift attention from the second craving that is being thwarted and back onto the first and enjoying the activity, or one would over-ride the first volition with the second, would stop eating and would feel pleasant feeling as a result because that would satisfy the second craving.

For me this just reinforces the pivotal role of attention in perception.

So this is probably over-kill for most people :smile: but for me it is an important step in being able to see things according to DA, the conditional nature of how the khandas operate. And yes I do love satipatthana

:pray: :slight_smile: :sunflower:


I am really glad that you brought this up. It’s something that’s been bugging me for years.

I’ve been thinking about this the last few weeks and was listening to a book on the experiences of neurodivergent folks, including synesthetes. The topic of mirror neurons came up; where some people will actually feel physical pain when seeing it happen to another person. Maybe not an everyday experience for most but an example, which has been measured scientifically, which shows that we don’t experience sense in isolation.

I was listening to Ajahn Brahm teach on a similar topic the other night and it occurned to me that this teaching can be understood; that each sense experience doesn’t persist.

Re-reading the passage in MN74 this afternoon I read the passage within this context, rather than the abhidhamma mindset I’d been unconvincingly brainwashed into. If each of our 6 sense has an experiences which is pleasant, painful or neutral and that particular sense ie. touch, is only of one kind, such as pleasant, but other senes could be experiencing other experiences, then that is more inline with our common everyday experience. We can have a pleasant tactile sensation but an unpleasant odour. They may arise at the same or different times and cease at the same or different times. This following paragraph seems to be clarification that the Buddha wasn’t talking about seperate mind-moments, but instead the changeable nature of sense experiences.

Pleasant, painful, and neutral feelings are impermanent, conditioned, dependently originated, liable to end, vanish, fade away, and cease.

I feel like this fits the criteria. Am I missing something Bhante?


The fact that we only have one thought moment at a time not only has empirical evidence but can be realized through contemplation.
Regarding empirical evidence, see the following references:

Regarding contemplation, think of the following: Think of how the last year was in the past, the next year is in the future and the current year is the present year. We can narrow this analysis gradually and talk in terms of past, present or future months, weeks, days, hours, seconds, milliseconds, and can even continue this division infinitely to smaller units. This contemplation enables us to see that our experiences change every micro-moment - it is NOT that two things occur together. We think everything happens at the same time because we haven’t developed sharp mindfulness.
(By the way, I deleted my earlier reply as I realized that you do not like the abhidhamma!)


@Daya These articles are about the ability to pay attention, which because of signal transmission speeds, integrating inputs from neurons and glial cells and establishing equilibrium, have a built-in minimum time for switching attention effectively. This is related to what @Viveka was talking about. Conscious attention is a different issue than different little parts of the brain doing their own thing in parallel, which goes on constantly.

It seems that implicit in the idea of momentariness is that all of these thoughts and feelings are being deposited in and recognized by some central vault or processing unit - like a Self.
Why is momentariness necessary? Feelings are just felt and when their magnitude is above some threshold, they are consciously recognized as felt. Momentariness is a hypothesis, so it requires a justification for its introduction. What exactly will go wrong if two feelings or thoughts arise in the mind at exactly the same moment? Especially if there isn’t a single fixed experiencer?
I am really not understanding the basis for this theory. Seems like I am missing something.

Hi trusolo: You are talking about concepts from the third-person perspective analyses (e.g. ‘glial cells,’ ‘signal transmission speeds,’ ‘ability to pay attention,’ ‘parts of the brain’). In Buddhism, we are talking about moment by moment changes in experience of oneself. Perhaps read the Chachakka Sutta (MN 148), which clearly explains moment by moment manifestation of experience (e.g. attention happens when three things come together). These issues are things that need to be understood within our experience and through meditation - not by looking at brain research (which is about third-person analyses). Through mindfulness, it is also possible to see that we cannot know two things at the same time - in normal living, experience happens so fast that we think that everything happens together. Also check the contemplation method I mentioned towards the end of my earlier post (i.e., past, present and the future, gradually reducing the time length). You might also find the following article useful to understand the difference between first-person and third-person experiences:

The point I was making was that the three papers you cited as evidence are not at all about having one thought or feeling at a time. Nowhere in any of the three papers it is claimed that we can experience only one thought at a time. The claims are about minimum time of forward sweep and perceptual recognition, which is precisely about neurons, glial cells, and their time scales. Also, in the third paper, participants are hooked up to EEG machines, along with answering Yes or No questions by clicking a button after seeing a picture for up to 500 ms. How is that a “first person perspective”? It is not even a singular event — a whole bunch of things happen between seeing something for a few milliseconds and pressing a button to answer a question about what you just saw.

Also, it still does not answer my query: why is it imperative to have one thought at a time?

Regarding your question: ‘why is it imperative to have one thought at a time?’ - we are not talking about what is imperative or not - we are talking about what HAPPENS in experience - the Buddha’s teachings are about that. The papers I posted indirectly suggest what I am saying - you need to contemplate them as well as their findings and methods deeply. But if you don’t agree regarding the papers, you can have a look at the other parts I wrote in my above post, including the sutta, as well as the contemplation regarding what we refer to as the past, present and the future. Please also read the article in the link I posted. Best wishes.

Ah! I wasn’t clear in my comments. I am not disagreeing that experientially it may feel like we are able to or are attending to one thing at a time. I can also also see that as the mind gets more quiet, this perception of arising of individual discrete thoughts and feelings will be more apparent. I was questioning the Theory of Momentariness. Why is it important to posit that first person experience is how things really are. It seems a superfluous theory; I don’t see how it matters whether it is posited or not (forget about verifying it).

I am also proposing that this first person experience leading to momentariness hypothesis is tied to a deep seated feeling of an unchanging receiver receiving and experiencing things one at a time.

Regarding feeling, one is normally, for example, able to see and hear things at the same time. In seeing and hearing the sense organs are naturally to experience both visible forms and sounds of feeling at a time. If a person is unable to see and hear things at the same time, it seems something wrong of the body, or physically unhealthy.

This is because each and every one of us (even scientists) experience the world from the first person perspective, and the third-person perspective is derived from this. The verification of first person experiences are done through careful mindful observations along with contemplation.

If one views through mindfulness, they would understand that any feelings of an ‘unchanging receiver’ is also a perception that arises and ceases. In fact everything (including the ‘observer’) is continuously arising and ceasing.

By the way, I liked the comment of @Viveka although I do not have the time to go through all the comments above. Finally regarding @sujato 's original question, momentariness is hinted at in the following suttas:
Assutavā Sutta: Uninstructed (SN 12.61):
This body is seen to continue for a year, for two years, five years, ten years, twenty years, fifty years, a hundred years, and even more. But of that which is called mind, is called thought, is called consciousness, one moment arises and ceases as another continually both day and night.

Indriya-bhavana Sutta (MN 152) - This sutta talks about how quickly different feelings arise and cease (=momentariness).

Sanditthika Sutta (AN 6.47) - It talks about what the present moment (‘here and now’) represents.

In summary, as I stated in my reply to @thomaslaw - third-person analysis regarding the brain, etc., is irrelevant when talking about Buddhist analysis of experience.

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Thanks, but your arguments are about scientific findings, which represent third-person analysis. Buddhist analyses of the mind is about the first-person perspective where moment by moment changes happen in the present moment (the ‘here and now’). Therefore, when talking about Buddhist teachings, any talk of the brain or neurons or how they are connected in the body is unnecessary - this is because the brain is part of the body, and thinking about how the brain works, etc. represents a thought. When considering our first-person experiences, there is nothing outside of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touch sensations and mental phenomena, as explained in the article I posted above as a reply to @trusolo (here is the link again:


Thanks @Daya for the explanation. I am reading the last paper you linked. I am just not sold on the one moment-one thought idea. I am also not too sure if “scientific” evidence should be sought or provided for anything related to the path — occasionally it might make some things clear but on the whole because as you said the entire endeavor is “first person”, one can truly verify it only by consulting someone you trust and comparing your experiences with theirs. At least that is what I feel currently. Thanks again for the links.

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Thanks. I agree that there is no need to link scientific evidence for things related to the path, but sometimes it can be useful for some people to reflect and consider the ‘plausibility’ of the teachings.
Best wishes & Metta!


Perhaps it depends on the particular sense faculty and/or part of the body.

If I smell something foul in the presence of something pleasant, I’m usually disturbed by the foul. In order to focus only on the pleasant, the foul must be gone.

Or, I have a pain in my big toe joint. I have a pleasant feeling in my lower back as the pain there has subsided (the nerve is not pinched at the moment).

I cannot have pleasure in my toe when there is pain. I cannot have pain in my back when there is pleasure. But I can have pain in my toe and pleasure in my back simultaneously.

I think it boils down to “what causes pain”? And the answer is contact. Or what causes pleasure. Ultimately it is freedom from contact.

So, my joints are rubbing against each other in my toe which allows pain to be there and that will not subside for a while (as is my experience).

Alternatively, my lower sciatic is not pinched. There is a lack of contact there. But this will not persist (as is my experience). So long as I feel contact, I will experience pain. So long as I am free of contact, I will feel pleasure.

Adukkhaasukha is another can of worms. I don’t believe that means “neutral”. I believe it transcends pain and pleasure and means “freedom”.

I disagree with this statement.

What we are talking about is the arising and passing away of moments of consciousness. If one’s samadhi is strong enough, these moments can be seen in meditation. The point when these moments appear is after the Citta emerges from Appana Samadhi into Upacara Samdhi. This is not apparent for everyone, but for the few that achieve Appana by investigating impermanence, this experience is possible.

These moments of consciousness arise so fast, blindingly fast, that they create the illusion of being able to experience more than one object of consciousness simultaneously. This is an illusion.

The fact that seeing these moments of consciousness is difficult and not universal does not mean that there is no empirical case for experiencing single object/consciousness moments.

So, the issue is not whether or not there is an emphirical case, the issue is whether or not one is proficient enough to have the experience. After all, someone blind from birth could argue that colour does not exist, but a normal sighted person would argue that it did.


Your link to the Attentional Blink was interesting. I YouTubed an Attentional Blink test and I didn’t see the “C”. After multiple passes, I was able to notice both the “R” and the “C” which, curiously, felt like dispassion. Give it a try, it’s quick and simple and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. :grinning:

This makes me think about the OP here and how attention may get held briefly on the “R” so that the “C” is missed. Perhaps attention is held on a particular feeling and we simply don’t realize the other feelings that are occurring. So, rather than momentariness, it’s that our attention is focused on one feeling and the others are ignored.

It seems that this passage is the Buddha pointing to the progression of untangling the tangle with regards to feelings, cultivating dispassion and becoming freed from desire.

Then the Buddha goes on to say:

Pleasant, painful, and neutral feelings are impermanent, conditioned, dependently originated, liable to end, vanish, fade away, and cease.

Seeing this, a learned noble disciple grows disillusioned with pleasant, painful, and neutral feelings. Being disillusioned, desire fades away. When desire fades away they’re freed. When they’re freed, they know they’re freed.


Thanks @Adutiya! - I agree with what you say! The interesting thing is that scientific studies indicate that the attentional blink improves with mindfulness training (which makes total sense) - see the references below:

Buddha’s teachings also explain that ‘contact’ precedes feeling (see for example: SN 12.43), and in the initial example that @sujato gave, the taste contact [i.e., coming together of the sense organ (tongue), the object (ice cream) and councious engagement (attention)] results in a pleasant feeling, and then a micro moment after that, mental contact [i.e., the coming together of the mind, the mind object (i.e., the thought ‘ice cream is not good for health’) and conscious engagement (attention)] comes together and this results in an unpleasant feeling. So, in that video (of the woman eating an ice cream), the pleasant and unpleasant feelings are constantly changing micro-moment by micro-moment based on contact. As you say, attaching to the taste or the health concern can interfere with seeing both conditions as arising and ceasing, but developing sharp mindfulness can help see this constantly changing process!


Exactly, and as mentioned by @HinMarkPeng , samadhi is also a vital ingredient. Everyday consciousness is poor in these qualities, and it takes special consciousness as generated by satipatthana to determine the truth. Otherwise there would be no need to develop any quality in particular. The Buddha would have pointed to the obvious, and it wouldn’t be ‘subtle, hard to penetrate’ etc. There would have been no need to talk about aggregates, elements and sense bases.

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