Emotions are thoughts tied to feelings
Let’s begin this article by clarifying what is meant here by use of the term ‘emotion’, and what the experience of being emotional actually is. An emotion has two components – a thought and a feeling. Usually, in experiencing an emotion, the thought component can be said to be a memory. It’s often a recollection that’s triggered by contact with a particular person or situation. It could though, be a novel thought that we’ve not had before, but which itself is powerfully evocative. And what is evoked either by any such novel thought or by a memory, is a feeling.
Feelings are either pleasant or unpleasant
This feeling component of any emotion is never neutral; it’s always charged with positivity or negativity. We can of course experience most memories and thoughts without any emotionally charged feeling; there’s simply a neutral response made by the nervous system. So the feeling aspect of any emotion is always some deviation from this neutrality; there’s always some positive or negative charging that runs along the nerve conduits. Such felt responses are either pleasant or unpleasant, and together with the thought, comprise an emotion.
The self and awareness become enveloped
What tends to happen when we experience an emotion is that our awareness clings to it tenaciously. This means it can feel as if we become immersed in it, as if we’re engulfed in an entirely self-contained psychological ‘sea’ such that with a deeply negative emotion, even breathing can feel as if drowning us further in the feeling. The immersive quality hijacks our sense of self as it becomes entirely enveloped from the commencement of the emotion to its passing. So within all strongly felt emotions, the self is absorbed uninterruptedly.
Feelings cling to selfhood and the two perpetuate
This last point is important so let’s expand on it a little. Whether we’re experiencing a strongly positive or strongly negative emotion, our sense of self takes on a constancy, so co-presenting with an apparently continuous stream of feeling into which it absorbs. This is caused by the mind identifying the feelings as ‘mine’ and as happening to an enduring self-entity. In this way, the feelings integrate into a personal narrative of selfhood – a fictionalised experiencer of these feelings. This narration cleaves to the feelings it arises with and so together they perpetuate.
Emotions are sustained by our sense of self
It should be stressed that selfhood isn’t the cause of our emotions, but is rather the perpetuator of them. It’s vital for our survival, and indeed our well-being too, that our body and mind together produce emotional responses. So there’s a very strong correlation between selfhood and emotionality, but there’s not a fundamental causal link. Emotions are still experienced within any selfless state, and may even be more keenly felt as the self-censoring mechanisms run idle. However, in this absence of selfhood, the emotions arise and pass through without perpetuating.
We need to stay mindful of our intentions
What’s key to our emotional well-being is that we understand this perpetuating effect that selfhood exerts. The process of coming to any such understanding involves mindfully observing our intentions as emotions arise. We’ll cover the details in part 2, for now just saying this is a passive act of observation; it’s not a controlling one. The very idea of active control sustains our sense of selfhood and so with it any negative emotion too. So what’s required is something quite challenging, which is passively allowing all feelings to exist – even deeply negative ones.
Avoiding conflict and escapism are key
The process is best understood in terms of what’s detrimental to us – these same negative emotions. What happens when they arise is that the mind, having noted and judged them, then immediately activates a controlling mentality. There’s the idea that we must overcome these feelings, and we immediately project ideas about how our imagined self will be released by means of conflict or escape. Our awareness clings tenaciously to this narrative, blinding us to what’s central to the matter, which is just the two components of emotion – thought(s) and feeling(s).
Emotions dissolve in contemplative awareness
We discussed this predicament in an article on how presence alleviates stress and anxiety. Here though, we’re exploring how emotionality initiates and perpetuates, and as it applies more generally. The answer requires on-going contemplative explorations of how our sense of self comprises only a fictitious narration with no counterpart in reality. That sounds a little fanciful, because our sense of self is so fundamental to us that we never question what it actually is. In fact, it’s nothing beyond a phenomenally convincing tale that we edit and modify as life unfolds.
We need not make an enemy of our emotions
And it’s this narration of selfhood which is clung to in awareness and is regarded as the sole means of overcoming unpleasant emotions. The self projection believes itself to be a controlling agent – the initiator of conflict or the seeker of escape. Paradoxically, it’s this same creation of selfhood which, in seeking escape or victory in battle, sustains and perpetuates the very thing it sets itself in opposition to. Logically, we can see that any enemy requires a counterpart to regard it as such. Without this, there can be no conflict; and the counterpart is the self.
Simply observe passively, not indulging the self
Whilst we can always adopt the real-time remedy of applying presence in the face of immediate adversity, the emotional conflict invariably returns when conditions are repeated. A twofold approach to unwelcome emotions is therefore useful. First, applying presence in the moment, and second, contemplatively observing the controlling intentions of selfhood. Conflict isn’t the solution, and neither is escape. Those methods of control have been used time and again, and yet the emotional imbalance keeps returning – proof that the self has no answer.