Our emotions can be triggered by something very small: a physical sensation, a passing thought, a sense contact, a feeling. In the context of Dhamma we begin to notice that in fact emotions are constructs: amalgams of thought, feeling, perceptions, past conditioning, trauma, family stories; all these things come together to generate emotions.
Sometimes we are in a situation where for no apparent reason we start crying, or we become angry or confused. When we search for a reason but can’t find one, we may think there is something wrong with us, that it’s our fault. We make ourselves miserable because we don’t understand that there is a bigger picture. Being human is like that.
Modern psychology has not been able to define emotion. Decades of brain research have failed to pin down what an emotion is. It fluctuates constantly; it is indefinable. So we may be sitting calmly in meditation, surrounded by a lot of other people, but when somebody else comes into the room our sense of calm changes. We are aware of a new feeling tone, perhaps an emotional charge in the body and we soon realize that letting go of it requires more than just awareness and willingness to let go. It also calls for wisdom, for understanding, so as to see deeply its true characteristics of anicca-dukkha- anattā – that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.
The terms ‘wisdom’ and ‘emotion’ seem to be foreign to each other. We don’t usually associate emotion with wisdom. Interestingly, emotions are closely connected to the water element. A well-known teacher in the Forest Tradition has pointed out that we are very concerned about ecology and the purity of the elements on the planet, but we rarely consider how polluted our inner water element can be. When we are not mindful of our emotions, they can become septic. Unfortunately, through that lack of awareness, they can also become extremely powerful and affect our whole inner environment, just as water can filter through and pollute its natural environment.
However, it can be difficult to look clearly at some emotions – anger, jealousy, envy, greed – because they are so painful. But the Buddha’s path begins with the recognition of suffering. It is only when we are able to see suffering that we can know there is an end to suffering.
Dukkha, suffering, is sometimes translated as ‘stress’. This is a good translation. When we look at our emotions we are looking at stress, at tension. But we may find that although we study our mind and our body, our inner stories or the way we relate to other people, we are not yet actually seeing the stress associated with them. We know there is something stressful in us, something miserable, something sad or sticky, but we can’t yet see it clearly. Very often that’s because it is too close to us. It’s like a second skin, there’s not enough space between us and that emotional resonance.
This reflection by Ajahn Sundara is an extract from the Dhamma talk, “The Wisdom of Emotions.” (Amavarati Dhamma Articles).