Emotions as seen in Buddhism and modern science
EMOTIONS: Western science teaches that genetic makeup, environment, and external experiences influences the brain, which in turn creates emotions and leads to thoughts.
From the Buddhist view, thoughts influence emotions, which in turn affect behaviour and brain functions. Most rational thinkers today believe that the scientific view is disempowering because by emphasizing external factors, there seemed little the individual could do to influence his emotions and thoughts.
They find the Buddhist view more acceptable because it seemed that we could do something to help ourselves.
From a scientific viewpoint, an emotion has three aspects: physiological, feeling, and behavioural. Brain activity and hormonal changes are physiological, and aggressive or passive actions are behavioural.
In Buddhism, emotions refer to the mental state. Little is said of the physiological changes, probably because the scientific instruments for measuring them were not available in ancient India.
Buddhism also distinguishes between the emotion of anger and the physical or verbal action of being assertive, which may or may not be motivated by anger. Similarly, someone may be patient inside, but have either assertive or passive behaviour, depending on the situation.
Buddhists and scientists also differ on what is considered a destructive emotion. For example, scientists say that sadness, disgust, and fear are negative emotions in the sense that they are unpleasant to experience.
However, from a Buddhism viewpoint, two types of sadness, disgust, and fear are discussed. One is based on distortion, interferes with liberation, and is to be abandoned, for example, sadness at the break-up of a romantic relationship and fear of losing our job.
Another type of sadness helps us on the path. For example, when the prospect of having one rebirth after another in samsara makes us sad and even fills us with disgust and fear, they are positive because they prompt us to generate the determination to be free from cyclic existence and attain liberation.
Such sadness, disgust, and fear are positive because they are based on wisdom and stimulate us to practice and gain realizations of the path.
Science says all emotions are natural and that emotions become destructive only when they are expressed in an inappropriate way or time or to an inappropriate person or degree.
For example, it is normal to experience sadness when someone dies, but a depressed person is sad in an inappropriate situation or to an inappropriate degree. Inappropriate physical and verbal displays of emotions need to be changed, but emotional reactions, such as anger, are not bad in themselves.
Therapy is aimed more at changing the external expression of the emotions than the internal experience of them. Buddhism, on the other hand, believes that destructive emotions themselves are obstacles and need to be eliminated to have happiness.
Many scientists believe that from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, anger enables human beings to destroy their foes, and thus stay alive and reproduce.
Another type is associated with a constructive impulse to remove an obstacle.
For example, if one faces a situation where he cannot get what he wants, his anger makes him think how to get it. It is being called "positive" on basis of its effect - the person getting what he wants - not its being virtuous.
In addition, such anger does not always lead to a solution of the problem. For example, frustration and anger due to our inability to concentrate when meditating rather than help us attain calm abiding, block our practice.
Buddhism does not agree that there is a positive form of anger. Although in a secular way, anger at someone who is harming himself or others could be called "positive," arahats are free of this.
Thus, righteous anger is a defilement to be eliminated to attain nirvana. We can have compassion for the person and still try to stop his harmful behaviour. Thus, while the West values moral outrage as an emotion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, it is skilful means, a behaviour motivated by compassion.
Most of us when things are going well would much rather focus on happiness than dwell on the sufferings of the world.
But reality has a nasty habit of intruding. Love turns to heartbreak, wealth to poverty, health to sickness, peace to war, life to death. We are shocked and hurt to discover that things that once seemed so real and solid turn out to have been mere illusions.
It may be a personal tragedy that brings us to this realisation, or a national or global disaster. We feel helpless and confused, at a loss as to how to deal with our own and others' suffering. It is then that we seek answers.
Why did this happen? Was it my fault? Can I prevent it happening again? By addressing such questions, Buddhism offers an explanation for how our sufferings arise and a path by which we may transcend them.
Buddhists view the world we perceive as an illusion, in which everything is subject to change, growth and decay in accordance with the law of cause and effect, or karma.
Buddhists depict the workings of this cyclical existence as a wheel showing the chain of events leading from thought to action and its consequences.
At the hub, three "creatures" represent greed, anger and ignorance, the driving forces that keep the wheel in motion, condemning us to an endless cycle of suffering.
If we can eliminate these forces by applying the antidotes of compassion and wisdom, the cycle is broken.
Theory is all very well, but can this model help us come to terms with the sufferings we encounter individually or as a society? It can certainly serve as a tool to remind us that since we are the creators of our own suffering, we also hold the potential for our deliverance.