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About Wanting the Experience of Particular Emotions, Part 1

April 13, 2018



This post is offered in response to a dedicated and patient reader who asked for some words on "wanting the experience of particular emotions", and how to work with that (thank you kindly for the question, friend). Here are some thoughts:


The previous two blogs examined the nature of wanting/desire, where it comes from, and how it causes us to suffer. Both of these blogs, however, focused on desire for outer things. What if the thing desired is not a material object, but an inner experience, a particular emotion we are attached to or addicted to? What then?


The first thing to look into here, I would say, is the nature of this thing we call "emotion". What do we mean by that?


We are taught to believe that an emotion is something real in and of itself; that emotion can be relied upon as a source of information and an arbiter of our behavior. This is not at all the case, however, at least so far as I can see. Most fundamentally "emotion" is simply this: a set of sensations in the body with a collection of thoughts (a story) attached to it. That's it.


To believe in the reality of emotion as a thing in itself is to make oneself vulnerable to suffering. One of the primary operations of conditioned mind is to create stories and then attach them to groups of sensations. The function of this is to add to the believability of the stories (if they are backed by "feelings" then they will seem "real"), to pull our attention away from the sensations, and to fixate our attention upon thought--to get us into our heads, in other words. Someone who is in their head is unconscious (i.e., identified with conditioned mind); this person will be out of touch with the sensations in the body and will assume the reality of the story operating within conditioned mind. S/he will be driven to a set of pre-determined behaviors that will inevitably support the illusion that s/he is an autonomous entity, separate from Life and without the clarity and compassion that we all need in order to enjoy deep, fulfilling lives. That, in a nutshell, is how we are made to suffer.


Now, the sensations themselves, without the story, are "real" in a certain sense, I think we can say, and are in fact designed to influence behavior. We humans are intricately connected with everything that exists. Our bodies are constructed in order to intimately interface with the material world; we are subject to everything that occurs within the reach of our senses (and, some would argue, everything beyond that sphere as well), and we experience the impact of our connection with the world around us in the form of perception and sensation. Said simply, when something happens within our environment we feel it, and the function of those feelings/sensations is to direct us towards a skilful relationship with our circumstances. Pain is the best example of this. Obviously, the purpose of pain is to inform us that the body is subject to damage in some way, so that we may avoid the danger. Other sorts of sensation function similarly. Take the complex set of sensations we call "grief", for example--say someone close has died, or there has been the loss of an important relationship. The function of grief, I would say, is to alert us to the fact that there has been a change in our energy system. When we are closely connected with another person we share an energy system with them--in some ways it is like we are one thing together--and if that person disappears then there is a rupture that needs repair. The painful sensations of "grief" are designed to show us the way to the tear that we may heal it. This is all natural and good.


In itself, sensation is not particularly to be dreaded or avoided. It's just sensation, after all. Attach a story to sensation, however, and suddenly there is suffering. For example, the sensations of "grief" are painful, but we are well equipped to handle pain such as this, and if left alone we will be perfectly adequate to the experience. Add a story to the grief ("I'm all alone now...", "I'll never see him/her again....", "Why me....?") and the pain is magnified by a hundred. Suddenly our attention is absorbed in the story and is no longer available to nurture the repair that is needed in our energy system--we are no longer able to support ourselves through the experience. In order to thrive in this world we all need our own compassionate attention, and without that attention--if our attention is entangled in thought and all the irrelevant meaning that thought invents--then we will suffer in a world without love.


Consider how it is that most of what is going on in the world and most of what people do is the result of an inability to be present with a set of sensations in the body. That's why we have wars; that's the reason why there is prejudice, and why people use one another; that's the reason why we are able to perpetually ignore the environmental disaster that looms over us all; that's why people tend to dissipate their lives in distraction and pleasure--because we, in our addiction to the stories operating with conditioned mind, have lost both our access to compassionate awareness and our ability to focus awareness on the sensations in the body and thereby heal ourselves from the trauma that is an inevitable aspect of life.


Nearly all of our decisions are based upon our "emotions", when in fact there is no such thing. We tend to spend our precious energy attempting to relieve ourselves of the "emotions" (i.e., the stories) we don't like, and to produce the "emotions" we do like by re-arranging our circumstances. That's why distractions such as movies, shopping, drinking, and so on are so popular--they are emotion managing techniques. The trouble is that our "emotions" are being caused by unconscious processes and if we just try to care for ourselves by managing our "feelings" then we never address the cause. We need to look beneath the "feelings" to the processes that are producing them.


More about this in the next post.

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