The word emotion comes from the Latin term emovere that means to shake, to move. This word derives from movi, also from Latin, which literally means: set in motion, to move. Therefore, emotion, first and foremost, signifies movement, or, energy in motion. Accordingly, we must not lose sight of the fact that, without emotion, nothing advances. In Western psychology, the term emotion is still under discussion: while in everyday language the concepts are understandable, in the scientific language there is confusion.
Since there is no specific term in Tibetan for translating the word emotion, we can now find books in which the Dalai Lama discusses with Western psychologists the use of the word. There are interesting discussions on the subject in the books Healing Emotions and Destructive Emotions, narrated by Daniel Goleman. In this last book, scientists and psychologists come to a functional definition: emotion is a mental state that has a strong sensitive component. But then again, Dalai Lama clarifies: “The fact that there is a specific term for defining emotion in Western thought, does not imply that a special emphasis was placed on understanding the nature of emotion. Perhaps, initially, the motivation to label something as emotion, has been to value reason in identifying something that is not rational.”
The Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, further clarifies in another quotation from the same book: “The English word emotion comes from the Latin root emovere—something that sets the mind in motion for both harmful and neutral or positive activities. In Buddhism, on the other hand, we would call emotion something that conditions the mind and makes it adopt a certain perspective or vision of things.”
When I started to be fond of Buddhism, one of my first questions to a teacher was about emotions. In my mistaken view, Buddhists were people who had subjugated all their conflicts, and so they lived continually in a state of equilibrium, which, for me, made them unshakable, but also somewhat insensitive. If I practiced Buddhism, would I become a person in total self-control, cold and without emotions? Would emotions prevent my spiritual development? If that were so, I thought it would be totally impossible to follow this path, for I recognize that I am a highly emotional person and vulnerable to the external influences of time, people, the environment and especially sounds. On the other hand, I have always known that it is precisely my sensitivity that makes my spiritual development possible. My teacher kindly replied, “There is nothing wrong with being emotional. Through Buddhism, you will learn to follow positive emotions and leave negative ones.”
Positive emotions give us a broader perspective of situations, that is, they give us clarity and confidence in our purposes: where we are and where we want to go. They bring us the sense of happiness, for the meaning of life becomes energetically present. Negative emotions leave us disbelieving and confused about our goals. When we lose the meaning of life, we feel deep sadness. Like faith and compassion, positive emotions are mental virtues: accumulated positive energy. They revitalize us, arouse determination and interest in gaining new knowledge and renewing our attitudes: a sincere desire to change for the better.
Once positive emotions make us available to the new, it will also make us flexible and open, interested in learning, feeling alive and awake. Therefore, positive emotions are healing. They provoke well-being and help us overcome negative emotions that, in turn, consume our vital energy, leaving us exhausted and depressed. “Essentially, destructive emotion—which is also called the obscuring or distressing mental factor—is something that prevents the mind from testing reality for what it is. In destructive emotion, there will always be a gap between what appears and what is. “For when our opinions are contaminated by a negative emotion, we have a distorted image of things and people, and we are prevented from balancing their positive and negative qualities.”
When we are moved by excessive attachment, aversion or resentment, for example, we become rigid. Tied to our fixed ideas, we become intolerant and without perspective. We are therefore not available to change: locked into our negative habits, we lose the ability to move toward new possibilities. Negative emotions inflame the ego and create exaggerations that end up triggering separations, jealousy, envy, low self-esteem, and physical illnesses. Positive emotions generate constructive mental states like self-love, good self-esteem, feelings of integrity, solidarity, generosity and compassion, and so make us empathic with wisdom: we are able to perceive ourselves and others at the same time and thus acting according to the real needs of the situation. The practice of Buddhist philosophy helps us to develop emotional intelligence: the “ability to create motivations for oneself and to persist in an objective despite the mishaps; to control impulses and to wait for the satisfaction of their desires; to keep in good state of mind and to prevent anxiety from interfering with the ability to reason; empathic and self-reliant.”
So, Buddhism helps us to develop self-awareness, that is, the ability to identify a feeling when it arises, and the ability to discern constructive emotions from destructive ones.
“Is anger part of you or something separate? You have to make a greater connection with the anger and yourself. Even just sitting with it is not enough. It could still be like a bad marriage where there is no relationship. Emotions are part of you, your limbs. If you don’t have energy or emotion, there is no movement, no way to put things into effect. You have to regard emotions as part of you.”
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche from the book The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology.
Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions, and Health, by Daniel Goleman.
Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman.
The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychology, by Chogyam Trungpa.
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