Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Can Mindfulness of "Feeling Tones" Help You Rediscover Calm?

Neuroscience has discovered the cause of mental distress and how to heal it.

Key points

  • What we regard as the present moment is actually a stunningly realistic 'illusion' created by the mind.
  • Mental distress can arise from an inaccurate simulation of the world and we can become stuck inside of it.
  • The ancient practice of Feeling Tone mindfulness can help this simulation regain its accuracy.
  • According to the latest research, meditating on ‘Feeling Tones’ can relieve anxiety, stress, and depression.
Dr Danny Penman
Feeling Tones guide all of our thoughts feelings and emotions.
Dr Danny Penman

Every morning, a man walked his four dogs in the park. Three of them always darted about, barking happily, tails wagging with delight. The fourth seemed happy enough but would only ever run around in tight little circles (albeit covering quite a distance), staying close to the man as he walked. Day after day, the park keeper watched the dog’s strange behaviour. After a while, the keeper plucked up the courage to ask the man why his dog was behaving so oddly.

‘Ah,’ the man replied. ‘She’s a rescue dog. She was locked up for most of her life. That was the size of her cage.’

How often have you behaved like that dog? Free, but constantly running around in little mental circles. Free to be happy, yet caged by the same dark, repetitive thoughts. Free to be at peace with yourself and the world, while remaining trapped and entangled by anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion.

Free as a dog in a cage.

So much of life is marred by little tragedies such as these. Deep down, we all know that we are capable of living happy and fulfilling lives, and yet something always stops us from doing so. Just as life seems to be within our grasp, it slips through our fingers. Although such periods of distress seem to appear from nowhere, they actually arise from deeply buried psychological forces. Neuroscientists have begun to understand how these processes guide our thoughts, feelings, and emotions; but more importantly, they have discovered why they occasionally go wrong. These new discoveries also show why mindfulness is so effective at relieving distress, but crucially, they also open the door to subtly different methods that can be even more effective. There is a way of taking mindfulness to the next level and of unleashing more of your potential by exploring another frontier of mindfulness known as vedana, or "feeling tone."

Our new book Deeper Mindfulness: The New Way to Rediscover Calm in a Chaotic World harnesses these new developments to help you learn to step aside from your worries and deal with anxiety, stress, unhappiness, exhaustion and even depression. We, and our colleagues at Oxford University and other institutions, have spent years developing treatments for anxiety, stress, depression and exhaustion. We co-developed Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has been clinically proven to be one of the most effective treatments for depression. Out of this work arose our previous book, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Although effective, the practices revealed in Mindfulness, and similar skills taught in courses such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), are only the first steps on a longer and more fruitful road. There is a way of taking mindfulness to the next level, of going deeper and unleashing more of your potential, by exploring another frontier of mindfulness known as vedana or feeling tone.

Feeling Tones

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 ‘colour’, that tinges our experience of the world. For this reason, vedana is often translated as "feeling tone".

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 than 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 crystallises into the conscious one. Such moments are often the most important 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. If a feeling tone is ‘pleasant’, you will tend to feel positive, dynamic, and in control of your life. 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.

Vedana is the 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 – it’s called the ‘reactivity pulse’. It works like this: if a pleasant feeling tone arises, then it is entirely natural to want to grasp it and be a little fearful that it will fade away. If the tone is unpleasant, then it is natural to push it away, fearing that it will stick around 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.

Emotional Difficulties

Virtually all of the emotional difficulties that many of us experience begin with the mind’s reaction to our feeling tones – our reactivity pulse. But it’s not the pulse itself that is the problem, but our ignorance of its existence and underlying nature. All we are aware of is the cascade of thoughts, feelings and emotions that follow in its wake.

Learning to sense the feeling tone teaches you to recognise your underlying state of mind. It gives you the space to respond rather than react. It helps you to compassionately accept that although you might be anxious, stressed, angry, or depressed in this moment, this is not the totality of your life with only one depressing future ahead of you. Alternative futures are available.

And tapping into an alternative future is as simple as sensing the underlying flow of feeling tones. Noticing the reactivity pulses. Realising that the craving for things to be different is the problem. Craving an end to unpleasantness. Craving for pleasantness to remain. Craving an end to boredom. This idea is common to many ancient traditions. And now, neuroscience agrees.

You can stream or download a ten-minute feeling tone meditation from here.


Williams, J.M.G., Baer, R., Batchelor, M. et al. What Next After MBSR/MBCT? An Open Trial of an 8-Week Follow-on Program Exploring Mindfulness of Feeling Tone (vedanā). Mindfulness 13, 1931–1944 (2022).

Deeper Mindfulness: The New Way to Rediscover Calm in a Chaotic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman; Published by Balance 2023 ISBN 978-1538726938. Published in UK by Piatkus ISBN 978-0349433202

More from Danny Penman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today