“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
What is “self?” What is “emotion?” What are “feelings?” What are wholesome emotions and feelings? When human emotions seem to arise so inevitably and automatically and when they appear to be so crucial to the development of a mature and well integrated personal self, how can our spiritual practice invite us to relate to only some emotions as “wholesome” while others are seen as “destructive?” How, really, are we to consider ordinary boundaries, healthy responses to danger and general self-esteem when the Buddha invites us to contemplate “non-self” and to cultivate “a boundless heart?” Is it even possible to be without “destructive emotions”? Are we invited to learn how to be rid of them? Does “abandon” them mean to ignore them, or tame them, or to rise above them, somehow? Does “cessation” mean they should simply stop? Especially as psychotherapists, our reflections on non-self and emotion can easily become mired in puzzlement as we attempt to respond to these questions for ourselves and our clients.
As always in our inquiries, here we can start where we are and bring diligence and patience to our investigations, remembering that the journey taught by the Buddha has many layers and that it only barely begins with concepts. We can then move ever more deeply into reflective and experiential investigation of how and where emotion fits into our lives from the perspectives of, as appropriate, both western science and the Buddha’s teaching on suffering and its end. In the process, we can look to reconcile – or at least bring awareness to – conflicting views arising from different cultures and paradigms.
There is an old and familiar sutta in which the Buddha tells his monks the story of a king who entertained himself by watching blind men suffer in their quarrels with each other about the true nature of an elephant. There is even a subtle reference in the story to different “levels” of observation: the blind men themselves, the king observing the whole quarrel and the Buddha himself (and us) observing the observing. There is a similarly layered parable in the powerful modern movie, Babel. In the movie, the audience watches as Moroccan, Japanese, American and Mexican citizens living worlds apart become entwined with one another and, together, are caught in profoundly painful nets of suffering arising from their innocent but differing perspectives of language, tradition, and personal history. Dukkha. Suffering.
With respect to the word and concept of “emotion,” the suffering of confusion can easily arise unless there is understanding of these sorts of differences across both levels of observation and differing concepts and words. So before we begin to explore ways in which emotions are considered to be wholesome or not, we need to notice that the word “emotion” is like many words that arise in both Buddhist and western psychology (“feeling”, “self”, “attachment”, “mind,” “stress”) which have multiple, often subtle, different meanings. Such linguistic and perspective challenges with respect to emotion become further amplified across historical and cultural traditions, as evidenced by the cross-cultural confusions in many of the discussions between western scientists and teachers and the Dalai Lama and other eastern-educated monastics. Further, even among modern scientists in the west, the word, “emotion” has no deep universal definition, as scholars from different disciplines often use the concept and word somewhat differently. If we look to the Oxford Dictionary for help, even there, in English, we find rather circular definitions instead of clarity; there “emotion” means “a strong feeling” while “feeling” means “an emotional state or reaction.” As we come to inquire into wholesome and unwholesome “emotion,” then, and its role in relation to a “self,” it is helpful to first establish a bit of common ground, or at least to have a basic understanding of where we do not share common ground with one another.
In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha, we find that, unlike in English, “feeling” is not synonymous with “emotion,” but rather that it has the particular meaning of the pleasant, unpleasant or neutral qualities of a sensory experience. We also find that there is not, in either Pali or Tibetan, a separate word for “emotion” as we understand it in the modern west, as “emotions” there are linked closely to what we would refer to as thought. Nevertheless, monastic Matthieu Ricard offers a definition of “emotion/thought” as one of the “mental formations which condition (or obscures) the mind and makes it adopt a certain perspective or vision of things…With a destructive emotion, there will always be a gap between the way things appear and the way things are, thus, they impair one’s judgment…”While in some ways, this may be similar to some western concepts of emotion, this definition also points to an understanding of emotion that is well beyond what is understood or investigated in western science. Matthieu continues: “Eventually it also obscures a deeper assessment of the nature of things as being permanent or impermanent, as having intrinsic properties or not…” In this latter sense, then, from a Buddhist perspective, destructive emotions are obscurations, filters through which reality is (mis)perceived in ways that distort the fundamentally impermanent, self-less and totally conditioned nature of all experience.
Western science explores emotion from more mundane perspectives, almost always connected to an understanding of a “self” that is thought of as more or less stable and unique as well as more or less independent from other “selves.” Even in the west, though, approaches to emotion can vary considerably by discipline. Dan Siegel notes that an anthropologist might explore the resonant meanings of the stories that individuals within cultures share; similarly, a social psychologist would investigate the ways that emotion binds families and groups. A neuroscientist might examine neural pathways and links to particular activations in the brain. A developmental psychologist might investigate the ways that emotion helps children’s brains develop and become integrated and cohesive in intimate relationship. Psychiatry might study emotion in terms of helpful ways to manipulate errant brain chemistry.
From these western perspectives, emotion tends to be thought of as an event, occurring in a particular mind, that gives meaning to or signals, to oneself or others: a felt sense of biological arousal. From these western positions, it is not the emotion itself that is considered to be wholesome or not. Rather, an emotion is considered to be “destructive” if it harmful to oneself or others: that is, if it impedes reason and what is culturally considered to be skillful behavior by and from a specific “self” toward other “selves.” Richard Davidson, a prominent western scientist, notes that “The goal in any psychologically informed (western) attempt to improve one’s emotional life is not to rid oneself of or transcend an emotion…but to regulate experience and action once an emotion is felt.”
Despite these differences, we can see similarities in both Buddhist and western definitions in that they relate to the way the mind first of all orients to an inside “me” in relation to an outside “other,” then selects from billions of data points what is important to attend to, and then assigns a pleasant or unpleasant flavor to it and then forms a narrative about its experience. For western scientists, however, studies tend to focus on how to make this process rational, efficient and skillful for individuals and their internal and external systems. In Buddhist teaching, this level of efficiency is just the beginning. There the inquiry extends to a whole new paradigm: learning to open awareness beyond the self and the conceptual “I.” The Buddha gives a bit of a hint in the blind men story about different perspectives, similar, perhaps to our own view as we sit in a theater, watching the Babel movie. In both, as we watch from a wider awareness, we can see emotion not as a “thing” but as arising and passing away, from infinite and complex causes and conditions. When we learn to see emotion from this level of awareness, we are able to open further, the Buddha teaches, to a universal and natural love and compassion for all beings and for the suffering of ignorance when we can see only from a narrow and self- centered perspective.
All of this leads to yet another important question: if we, as psychotherapists are engaged with our clients in helping them to identify emotional experience, put words to it, share it with others, cultivate self esteem and behave well, are we working against their – and our own – spiritual practices which invite us to “release,” to “abandon clinging,” and to treat all phenomena as “impermanent and not-self?” And so I’ll end this essay where I began, with this question, inviting you to join with me in further essays on a patient and non-greedy journey of inquiry into wholesome and unwholesome emotional states. As with any travel, we will always need to keep (re)orienting ourselves first to the goal and then to where we and our clients actually are at any given moment with respect to that goal. As we investigate together any particular dilemma, then, we will have a practice that allows us to move fluidly both within and across different layers and views. As in the Buddha’s story, this can take us ultimately to different levels of awareness altogether. Such a committed practice will help to clarify what’s needed in any particular moment of suffering and in every arising-and-passing-away now.