Emotions are a necessary aid to survival and well being, in keeping with the Healing
Principle. They motivate us in that we prefer to move towards “opportunities” and
away from “threats”. Opportunities bring us closer to our goals, while threats get
in the way of our achieving our goals. Ultimately, all emotions fall into one of
two categories: positive or negative; liking or disliking; wanting or not wanting;
desire or aversion. Nature designed us to survive, rather than to be happy, and
surprisingly, the two don’t always quite match up.
Identify your emotions
It is important to try and identify your emotions so that you know what is eating
you. When you know that, you can decide that either it is or is not worthy of consideration
after all — it’s something real, or just a scary phantom. Many of our emotions come
from unconscious sources, such as the distant past, and so may not be so easy to
Emotions are signals, messages, alerting us to some real or perceived thing. In
order to make an emotion pass, you can listen to the message, saying to yourself,
“I feel —”. Then the emotion can pass because it has done its job of alerting you
to a particular threat or opportunity. (Of course, it might come straight back.)
This is an idea from mindfulness. To observe our emotions is to gain perspective
on them, to step outside them and place them within a greater context.
Fast and slow thinking
When we feel an emotion, the ancient reflexive parts of the brain are engaged, such
as the amygdala (“quick thinking”, “hot cognition”). When we step outside and observe
the emotion, we engage the higher executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex (“slow
thinking”, “cool cognition”). This naturally gives us more self-control and self-awareness.
Emotions are one of the four influences that the ego has to balance in order to navigate
you successfully through life. The mind will pay attention to whatever object is
relevant to our goals; the emotions do the same; this attention is not always fully
conscious. After applying awareness and reason, the object and its context may be
seen to be different from the way they first appeared, and so the emotions about
them may change.
If the ego is tamed, along with its self-cherishing; its tendency to judge the perceived
worth for you of things; its tendency to think the world should be a certain way;
its tendency to cling to phenomena; and its tendency to want to control everything,
the emotions can become quieter too because they are less provoked by your separation
from your goals, since the goals have been made less important. There is just less
to get worked up about, and as a result, more clarity, self-control and peace of
mind. As the ego is tamed, the brain’s “default state”, the constant, alarming mind-chatter,
becomes less dominant. If the mind and attention are habituated to awareness of
the present moment (reality), then gradually the fear response is reduced, and therefore,
in turn, the use of unconscious ego defenses is reduced. Awareness and acceptance
breed peace of mind and non-discrimination. Non-discrimination reduces the difference
(strength of value judgements) between reality and the way we perceive it; and so
we feel less separate from the world. In observing and describing an emotion, we
gain perspective on it, and stepping outside it and seeing it, we become larger than
it and it loses its power over us. We have listened to its message and its job is
done. Practicing compassion makes us feel sunny. Having a less rigid and less separate
ego and quieter emotions may result in us feeling even more peaceful in the long
term because we are less influenced to perform karmic actions and so will have fewer
From the primal capacity of one-celled organisms to move away from excess heat, dryness,
acidity or salinity, natural selection has gradually differentiated a host of responses
to cope with different kinds of threats.
Anxiety motivates escape and future avoidance, and it can serve as a warning to others.
Disgust also motivates escape, prepares the body to make escape more likely, and
motivates future avoidance.
... the threat that involves the possible loss of a mate’s fidelity arouses emotions
that are aspects of jealousy... . If the threat involves a risk of loss of social
position, the specific emotions are humiliation, pride, etc.
Our brains could have been wired so that good food, sex, being the object of admiration,
and observing the success of one’s children were all aversive experiences. However,
any ancestor whose brain was so wired would probably not have contributed much to
the gene pool that makes human nature what it is now. Similarly, if there were someone
who experienced no upset at failure, no anxiety in the face of danger and no grief
at the death of a child, his or her life might be free of suffering but also would
probably be without much accomplishment, including having offspring. These evolved
preferences for pursuing certain resources and avoiding their loss are at the very
centre of human experience. It is not surprising that bad feelings are reliably
aroused by losses, threats of losses, and inability to reach important goals ...
Randolph M Nesse – “Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness”
The Smoke Detector Principle – false alarms
Because many defences are inexpensive compared with the harm they protect against,
false alarms are both normal and common for many defences. For instance, if successful
panic flight costs 200 calories but being clawed by a tiger costs the equivalent
of, say, 20000 calories, then it will be worthwhile to flee in panic whenever the
probability of a tiger being present is greater than 1%. This means that the normal
system will express 99 false alarms for every time a tiger is actually present; the
associated distress is unnecessary in almost all individual instances. Blocking
the tendency to panic would be an unalloyed good. Except, that is, for that 1 time
in 100. This has been called the ‘smoke detector principle’ after our willingness
to accept false alarms from making toast because we want a smoke detector that will
give early warning about any and every actual fire ... .
Randolph M Nesse – “Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness”
The brain detects negative information faster than it does positive. We are drawn
to bad news.
[This makes sense from the point of view of the survival of our ancestors on the
savannah of Africa.]
... but when you direct it at yourself, it can bring you to your knees with depression.
– Ruby Wax, “Sane New World – taming the mind”
A phylogeny of emotions
Resources [loss/gain] are in upright font, emotions in italic font and situations
The emotions and right and wrong
... it is impossible to actually separate “rational thought” from emotion. Even
the most sophisticated decisions and analyses require positive or negative emotion;
otherwise, it is impossible to determine which choice or idea is “better” and which
isn't. Valuing anything – even an idea – as “good” or “bad” requires feeling.
Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D Perry MD, PhD – “Born for Love”
Right and wrong relates to the Definition of Goodness, while personal emotions relate
to what you like or don’t like, want or don’t want. Very often, the two coincide,
but not always.
Often, we are pulled in two separate directions: our emotions, and our conscience.
Our emotions tell us how things are affecting us personally, while the conscience
considers long term consequences and the needs of others. From a moral point of
view, it is important to know how things are affecting us, since each person in the
situation matters, including ourselves. Perhaps we are feeling bad because someone
is hurting us, or feeling good because we are being helped. Or we may decide, if
we look into our heart, that our emotions are selfish and should not be acted upon:
perhaps we feel jealousy, envy, stinginess or malice.
... the perception of truth is possible only for a mind free from prejudice and passion.
P. Lakshmi Narasu – “The Essence of Buddhism”
If we are vulnerable to cravings, attachments, confusion, or hatred, it is better
to think about “what is right for me to do” rather than “what I want to do”.
Tulku Thondup – The Healing Power of Mind
Identify your motivations
It is important to identify your motivations so that you can see the directions in
which you are pushing yourself. Similarly, it can be helpful to know the motivations