“Emotion” and the Path

The way we use the word “emotion” in modern English refers to a whole range of cognitive-affective-somatic experiences like love, anger, hatred, joy, grief, compassion, jealousy, delight, longing, etc. In the Pāli texts, there’s no single word covering all these things, and that’s true for many other world cultures. English makes a primary distinction between “heart” experiences like these and “mind” experiences like thoughts and concepts. English is a Christian language, and so reflects Christian dualism between matter and spirit: emotion-body-feminine-matter is contrasted to thought-mind-masculine-spirit (this is the “Cartesian dualism”). Pāli doesn’t make that distinction. Instead, it reflects the Early Buddhist dualism between wholesome and unwholesome: ignorance-defilement-hindrance is contrasted to wisdom-cessation [of defilements]-serenity. Where Christian dualism is theological, Buddhist dualism is soteriological: a pragmatic conceptual structure for discerning what’s helpful on the path to liberation. So Buddhism differentiates types of inner experience by their ethical valence. The various lists are sorted not by experience type—sensation, emotion, thought—but by their function on the path.

So we have the hindrances, which obstruct serenity. They’re a mix of somatic, emotional, and cognitive experiences. Likewise the awakening factors, which support insight. The defilements, which reflect unresolved negative kamma, include greed and hatred (emotions) but also delusion, which is ambiguously emotional and mental. In fact, most of the things we call “emotions” in English are ambiguous (in a classic Cartesian sense), which we see if we bring mindfulness and investigation to the experience. There’s always a bodily sensation. There’s a feeling tone, which is the affective part of emotion. And there’s an interpretive cognitive layer of recognition, narrative, and concept. And you’re conscious. So all 5 aspects of experience (khandha) are present: form, feeling, perception, formations, consciousness.

What’s helpful in practice about differentiating energy, emotion, and thought by their function on the path rather than their form is that it teaches us how to make choices moment to moment about what to uplift and what to diminish in our inner world. The danger in using a broad category like “emotion” is that we might believe that all our emotions are equally valid, natural, divine, or authentic expressions of our identity (that’s a popular view for many folks now), OR all sinful and dangerous (that’s the old Christian patriarchal view). Again, the word we use for an inner experience teaches us what to do in relation to it. So if we have “righteous anger at injustice,” that’s a culturally-conditioned emotional narrative that will inspire certain actions. If we have “the defilement of hatred and ill-will toward difficult people,” very different actions may be inspired. The Buddhists seem to have decided that the most useful way to talk about inner experience is around whether or not an experience supports progress toward serenity and insight. And so that’s the framework used to order the lists, rather than our categories of sensation, emotion, and thought.

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