Buddhist Notebook: Feeling

For quite some time I’ve been investigating the role of feeling, strictly speaking the second of the five aggregates, but in common usage far more broad. The whole thing began with a question in a Buddhist discussion group where someone asked how Buddhist psychology views emotions. The context was one in which we were talking about thoughts, and it was a very good question because people generally consider “thoughts” to be mental phenomena that we can sort of take or leave. They’re “lightweight,” or in any case, much less powerful than emotions and moods, which appear so real, solid, and demanding. People can kill even those they love when in the grip of an emotion, but if they do it on the basis of mere thought they are “cold blooded.” This emphasizes the common idea that emotions are things that happen to us, therefore we are somehow not so responsible for them, which is actually rather absurd. Eventually I came to the conclusion that emotions are part of a process that begins with thoughts, but what then makes them seem so real and demanding is really just our habitual physical reaction to those thoughts. Simple.

If I watch my mind and body when an emotion starts to build up, there is a sequence of events, but what makes the emotion “come alive” is tension somewhere in my body. That is why an expression like being “in the grip” of an emotion seems to make so much sense. But we have a lot of different muscles that can be tensed in all sorts of combinations. Dr. Paul Ekman has analysed these muscular tensions, particularly those of the face, and developed a catalogue that relates muscle groups to emotions in a way that appears to be valid across cultures. They are, it seems, part of being human.

More interesting for me, though, was when, in his book Emotions Revealed, he gave exercises for generating emotions within ourselves as a way to demonstrate how our expressions change and reflect our emotional state, and one of those methods came down to this: If you tense the correct muscle groups in your body, you will feel the emotion.

For him this seemed almost like an aside, and he didn’t go into it because, I think, he had certain preconceived ideas, and his model prevented him from seeing the information in a different light. That may have changed since his encounters with the Dalai Lama, but I’m not sure. In any case, for me it was like being struck by lightning because there is a corollary: if you relax the tensed muscles, the emotion, or at least the bulk of it — the real, solid, demanding part — ceases, and all you are left with is one of those lightweight thoughts. The effectiveness of this method thus supports the idea that what we experience as “emotions” are really just the sensations of habitual physical responses to certain types of thoughts.

If you are aware/mindful of what’s going on in your mind and body, you can see this happen, and use this knowledge to short-circuit, or at least take the wind out of, emotional responses simply by making an effort to relax the affected muscles. Sometimes this leads to situations that are almost comical. I’ll feel myself getting irritated or angry, but then relax the muscles, and then there is a kind of bewildered dialogue that goes on in my mind. I think, “This is something I should be angry about, er… shouldn’t I? Don’t I deserve to be angry about this? If I don’t show anger, will the other person think that what they’ve done is OK? Maybe I should show anger…” It’s really strange.

But then recently in the comments to one of Peter‘s blog entries, we were talking about this a bit, and someone referred to the Sallatha Sutta, in which the Buddha distinguishes between physical feelings and our mental responses to them, and things really started to fall into place. Although the process he describes starts with a physical sensation and then considers the mental response, I think it amounts to the same thing. It’s just a question of where you begin looking, because if the process isn’t short-circuited, you quickly end up in a feedback loop: maybe there is some physical sensation, then you have a mental response, then that response generates physical tensions that we experience as emotions, then the physical sensations of those very tensions becomes objects that generate more mental responses, and on and on, round and round. What seems to make physical/mental/emotional process like this take on a life of their own is when the experience is mentally connected to the conception of a self. This is because the self has all these attributes, like the expectation of respect, notions about rights, ideas about what “I” deserve or do not deserve, the need to be protected, etc. In fact, now that I think about it, the false notion of self itself may be fundamentally emotional since it is often accompanied by various muscular tensions, especially in the chest. Hmmm…

Anyway, the idea is a work in progress, but I just wanted to put it down and get it out there. Meanwhile, here are links to some related documents at the wonderful Access to Insight site that I am going to be printing and reading over the next few days:

I’ve been very happy to find these texts because for an even longer time I’ve thought that it was very important to understand feeling. This is because, of the Three Principal Paths, feeling seems to be one of the keys to renunciation, something I definitely need to achieve.

This entry was posted in buddhism, buddhist notebook, buddhist practice. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Buddhist Notebook: Feeling

  1. Pingback: Kyudo: Mind and Body and Arrow | Mu

  2. Pingback: Buddhist Notebook: Thomas Merton | Mu

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