Although since after the dawn of civilization humankind has valued certain qualities of the mind, as compassion, well-being, charity, altruism, kindness, love, and other noble aspects of the human condition, even nowadays scientists disagree on the exact nature of these and emotions in general. Throughout history several theories were proposed, aiming to properly answer this tricky question. And two of them are the most prominent. The first one, dominating psychological discussions since Plato up until XIX century, is often called the cultural theory of emotions. According to this view, emotions are learned ways of behavior, knowledge transmitted culturally, similarly like languages. Just like one first needs to hear English to be able to speak it, in the same way one needs to see other people reacting emotionally to be able to imitate these reactions.
The second school of thought, pointing to a biological causes of emotions, started with Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) and James-Lange theory that the experience of emotion is created by certain physiological arousal. Further research in this direction promoted a claim that there is a certain set of so-called basic emotions, universal and innate to all humans. There is, expectedly, certain disagreement in this camp about how many of these basic emotions there are, but most of the proponents would include the following into their list: joy/happiness, distress/sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. Thus, according to contemporary theories, emotions are hardwired into our brain. They are something like breathing, simply a part of human nature.
Brain and emotions
Wherever the truth might lay, further research in neuroscience showed there are certain, specialized parts of our brain dealing with each of these emotions. This map of our emotional landscape consists of three main areas:
1. Threat system: processes information coming through our senses and evaluates if they represent a threat for our existence of not. During the evolution, it played an important part of our survival success, protecting us against various predators. Nowadays we do not meet with many of them. However, the system also processes information coming from the mind and doesn’t know the difference between signals produced by our mind and those supplied by the five senses. It simply asks: “Is this a threat?” That means it is being triggered by many things we only perceive as harmful: painful memories, self-criticism (“I’m not good enough!”) or anticipation of some unpleasant events (“Oh, how I’m going to perform at that job interview next week!?”) Many of these mental constructs are social threats: fear to be judged negatively by others, disgust provoked by racial prejudices or anger during discussion with political opponents.
Therefore, it is extremely helpful to better know what exactly triggers our threat system and how we can cope with his alarms and subsequent mental reactions. One of the prominent features we should be aware of is called “negativity bias”, which means that our brains are prone to overestimate a threat. Evolutionary psychology explains this trait as a part of our survival mechanism. Our ancestors were faced with two basic challenges: “sticks” and “carrots”. The first one represents predators and a conflict among opposed communities or inside one of them. The “carrots” were mainly food and sex. But among these two, “sticks” were far more important, since if we miss the opportunity to register the predator, no more chances for any “carrot” – ever! Thus, naturally our brains much more thoroughly keep scanning for bad signs around, but also inside us. Focusing tightly on them, it’s easy to lose a big picture and overreact. Practical outcome is that if, let say, out of ten interactions with other people during the day nine are pleasant and only one unpleasant, we will end up obsessively thinking about this one! Reinforcing thus another common tendency of our mind, that to rumination and worry!
2. Drive and resource acquisition system: Both men and animals need to provide food and shelter for their survival, as well as mate for procreation. If we are successful in achieving these and some other essential goals, we feel excited and happy. At the same time, it is a source of great frustration, stress and sadness if for various reasons we are not capable of achieving that. These reasons might be stronger competition, aging, but also setting unrealistic goals. We can also become addicted to the surge of dopamine when getting something for ourselves or receiving approval from the others for what we’ve achieved. But this may cause a problem if we come across indifference or negative criticism, amplifying our sense of inadequacy and vulnerability.
In our highly competitive societies we can fall prey to inordinate goal-oriented mode of thinking, failing to see the importance and value of other human capabilities and interpersonal relationships. If we lack emotional intelligence, this may create a feeling of emptiness and disorientation, forcing us to compensate with various compulsive behavior like shopping, fast driving, gambling or alcohol abuse. All this is exacerbated by strong social influences like advertising or peer pressure, resulting in our drive system over-stimulation.
3. Contentment and soothing system: When we feel secure and our needs are satisfied, those first two systems switch off and the soothing system continues to regulate our behavior. Stability of this system is based on our relationship with others, early in our life, as a bond between parents and an infant. This pattern continues also during our adult life, when feeling of being cared and connected enormously contribute to our better coping with stress and other life challenges. Fortunately, we can regulate the work of this and other emotional regulation systems by applying various exercises, similarly we exercise our body. Our brains are adaptable and that is what is called neuroplasticity.
Our experiences play a great role in the development of these systems, depending on which one of them is being frequently activated and which one rarely. As with many other things, all this lead us to two fundamental options: we can be dominated by them, or we can prevent them to dictate our actions and mindfully take over at least partial control over them.
The first two of these systems resemble Abhidhamma description of the three roots of moral evil: hatred (dosa), greed (lobha) and delusion (moha). Treat system obviously could be related to dosa and two types of unwholesome consciousness rooted in it. This class of consciousness is always accompanied with another emotion, which is displeasure (domanassa). Dosa is destructive and is compared to a jungle-fire burning that which it depends on. The second, acquisition system corresponds to lobha, attachment to what is agreeable, and the types of consciousness rooted in greed. Abhidhamma lists four of these, accompanied by the emotion of joy, and the same number of them accompanied by equanimity. Finally, the soothing system could be just conditionally related to moha, because unknowing could feel soothing and produce a feeling of contentment, but as moha according to Abhidhamma is the root of all unwholesome, for more sound basis of mental health obviously it should be replaced by contentment based on knowing and insight.
The outcome of all our efforts considerably depends on our emotional intelligence (EI), set of character traits and skills that contribute to the understanding of our own and the emotional life and reactions of other people. Although present in a scientific psychological discourse from mid-1970s, the notion of emotional intelligence was greatly popularized some twenty years later, by psychologist Daniel Goleman, after he published his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ in 1995.
To grasp the nature of emotional intelligence, it’s important to make distinction between it and specific personality traits and idiosyncrasies. More than just having a cheerful disposition or “being nice”, emotional intelligence is about being capable to accurately identify our own and emotions of others. Also, to be able to harness the power of emotions for taking positive actions and coming up with solutions. Finally, since emotions contain important information and strongly influence our thinking, EI also encompass understanding the need to incorporate them intelligently into our process of reasoning and managing various social interactions. This means having the ability to clearly discern and make sense of our internal turmoil, sadness or anxiety, but also to be able to approach others with empathy, an understanding of their emotional state, at any given time.
Of course, emotion management is not a simple task. As Aristotle famously put it: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” All this requires a considerable degree of emotional quotient, category which just recently started to catch up with its much more renowned relative IQ.
But what is really encouraging in all this consideration is the fact that our level of emotional intelligence is not something fixed genetically, nor it does develop only in childhood. Unlike our intellectual capacities, which mostly stay the same after our teen years, EI seems to be continuously learned, improved and capable of developing as we go through various life experiences.
EI from an Abhidhammic perspective
When we finally turn to the Abhidhamma, curious to see how ancient Buddhist thinkers analyzed and explained emotions, we might be puzzled by the fact that this type of psychology simply does not have a separate term for emotions in its extremely rich vocabulary, nor does it have among its innumerable lists the one with the full range of various emotions. Reason for that seems to be the fact that an emotion is a complex phenomenon and the Abhidhamma program was strictly to deconstruct physical and mental reality up to its basic constituents, which are not possible further to segregate. But this first impression is just an initial blindness, as when we enter into a dark room from the full daylight outside. Soon, things start to differentiate and become more visible:
Once I started looking, I saw that “feeling” was showing up all over. The first noble truth of Buddhism refers to a feeling: suffering. The second khandha is feeling. Feeling is the seventh link on the Wheel of Life and Death and is critical in categorizing all acts of consciousness and their attending mental factors. Contemplation of feeling is the second foundation of mindfulness, after contemplation of the body. This says that feeling is the most important mental factor to understand on the path toward enlightenment.1
To understand how Abhidhamma treats emotions, we can first turn to the Buddha’s succinct statement: “All things converge on feelings”. This reminds us to the distinction between a feeling and an emotion and helps to refocus by searching for the analysis of an emotion mostly in the Abhidhamma sections on the mental factors (cetasikas) and the processes of perception. There, among mental factors, we come across a feeling (vedanā), distinguished into pleasant (sukha), painful (dukkha) and neither painful not pleasant (adukkhāsukha). Growing out of this basic feeling tone of any experience, variety of emotions are developed by adding likes and dislikes of various intensity, as well as other thought processes like memories and preferences. Important as they are, emotions were not isolated, but were not neglected either. Instead, they were described as a major force of a human nature.
Integrative nature of this process reminds us of one of the most complex Buddhist terms, which is saṇkhāra. Apart from its role in the Buddha’s analysis of the components of which consists a being, where it figures as saṇkhāra khandha or the aggregate of volitional constructions, in the Abhidhamma context it denotes similar, constructive aspect of a cognition act and semantically overlaps with the one among universal mind factors, namely cetanā or volition. Thus, propelled by a pleasant or painful feeling, the mental factor of cetanā plays a decisive role also in mobilizing other cetasikas and forming such a complex mental events as emotions and providing along the process a unique stamp of personal reaction to various external or internal stimulus. These reactions are, on their own, one of the main factors coloring one’s viññāṇa (consciousness). This is possible reason why in the paṭiccasamuppāda formula saṇkhāra immediately precedes viññāṇa or in the Abhidhammic terminology rather citta.
Further on, the fact that a feeling belongs to the group of cetasikas which accompany all mind states can be taken as a testimony to the importance of emotions for the Buddhist exegetes. Interestingly, this view seems to correspond to the central place our limbic system, called “brain’s emotional center” because it is responsible for regulating emotions, occupy in the architecture of our brain. It is situated deeply withing the brain, joining both hemispheres, with connections to all outer layers of the brain. The same centrality is reflected in the fact that at the middle of a cognitive process occurs the turning point at which its receptive part turns into an active, emotionally and volitionally charged sequence:
An important shift occurs at about the halfway point of the full seventeen-step process, between Determining and the Javanas. It has been called the Gateway to Karma, because, at this exact point, perception switches from being essentially affected by the past to having an effect on the future… At the Gateway to Karma, the midpoint of the perceptual process, real emotion can kick in and related past mental objects arise. We can be influenced by our old associations, reactive and emotionally bound by the past. This is the point where emotions can get stuck, running over and over history and perpetuating its influence… This might be expressed in the Abhidharma description of the javanas, the seven steps of perception that run over and over the object.2
Evidently, Abhidhamma presents a model of consciousness that is open to growth and improvements and that is the main rationale of the Buddha’s teachings as a practically oriented endeavor. The Dhamma starts with one emotion, dukkha, but it doesn’t stop there. Supported by the insights into human psyche elaborated in the Abhidhamma, one is better equipped to respond to suffering. The second factor in this process of transformation is the insight that all our mental experiences are not some static, unchanging phenomena, but a rather dynamic, conditioned and conditioning constituents of our psyche.
Inspired by the Abhidhamma breath of view and various forms of Buddhist mental training, contemporary Western psychology developed a whole range of mindfulness based interventions aimed at emotional regulations. One of them is a compassion meditation training, aimed at cultivating compassion as a response to various forms of suffering and results in external behavioral change. This method is based on the latest research done by leading Western scientists in the field, together with the long-time practitioners.3 The research has shown that compassionate states during meditation practice induce also compassionate responses to suffering outside the meditation context and thus enhance prosocial behavior to relieve suffering.
Compassion meditation training
During practice, a meditator first develops compassion towards oneself and the persons closest to him/her, like parents, spouse, children etc. Later, that “circle of compassion” widens, to encompass various groups of people differentiated by the degree of emotional closeness: friends, acquaintances, unknown people to whom we are indifferent, then “difficult people”, the ones we had some misunderstanding in the past. Finally, a meditator tries to develop compassion towards all living beings. Each of these steps builds on the previous one. It is relatively easy to develop compassion towards loved ones and then this initial emotion is ground for its development towards less emotionally charged groups of people.
Along this process, three steps are practiced for each of the target groups:
1. Visualization of a situation, witnessed of supposed, when each person has suffered from physical or emotional pain.
2. Being aware of own reactions to that suffering and bringing acceptance and nonjudgmental attention, especially to challenging sensations, thoughts, and feelings that arise.
3. Cultivating compassion by evoking feelings of care and concern for that person, paired with desire to relieve his/her suffering.
As a part of the last step, meditators are instructed to silently repeat phrases that support compassion awakening: “May you have happiness. May you be free from suffering; May you experience joy and ease.” Tripartite structure of the meditation is designed in such a way to lead to three clearly recognizable mental processes: 1. Increasing emphatic responses, 2. Decreasing avoidance responses, and 3. Increasing compassionate responses to suffering.
As mentioned earlier, emotional intelligence includes not only recognizing emotions when they appear, but also cognitive reappraisal, being able to re-interpret the meaning of situations and to decrease stress. Thus, a number of research-projects was conducted4 including compassion training, which is other-focused and aimed to increase emphatic concern and prosocial motivation. This method was combined with the reappraisal training, which is self-focused and designed to reduce personal negative emotions. The results of those studies gave encouraging results, showing that it is possible to change neural functions and behavioral patterns in situations of emphatic distress and compassion:
These studies revealed that compassion is associated with an increase in positive feelings and with neural activations in a network associated with care and social connection… Importantly, the degree of compassionate experiences is not set in stone, but can be trained even in adults. Training compassion leads to an increase in positive affect associated with functional plasticity in brain networks related to care and compassion.5
The last chapter of the Abhidhammata Sangaha on meditation subjects anticipates and dovetails with the types of training described above, as it gives recommendation for how to cure distortions of our mind. This process naturally starts already with the study of the Abhidhamma, by gradually dispersing ignorance about the workings of our mind. But here more concrete instructions are found, following the well known division of the Buddhist meditative practice into calm and insight oriented efforts. The first path of training is close to modern cognitive therapies, while the insight comes closer to a more psychoanalytic therapeutic approach. But, ultimately, the goal is to link Abhidhamma theory and a practice, first by pairing the six distinct temperaments with the most appropriate among forty different meditation objects (kammathana). Creating stable and more attentive mind further on serves as a foundation for deep insight into the significance of every experience in a wider context of the human life and the network of interpersonal relationships.
From all we’ve discussed so far, it is obvious that Abhidhamma is not some abstract, scholastic project, created as a mere intellectual entertainment, but was designed with very practical goals in mind.
At the same time, better knowledge of our psychological mechanisms described in details by this ancient Buddhist psychology clearly supports better recognizing of emotions and their management. Thus, directly contributing to our emotional intelligence.
1 Jacobs (2017), p. 64.
2 Jacobs (2017), pp. 25, 67.
3 Davidson, R. J., & Harrington, A. (2001), Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature. New York: Oxford University Press; Lama, D., & Cutler, H. C. (1998), The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Riverhead Books; Salzberg, S. (1997). Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
4 Seppalla (2017), pp. 109-202.
5 Seppalla (2017), p. 166.
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Jacobs, Beth (2017), The Original Buddhist Psychology: What the Abhidhamma Tells Us about How We Think, Feel, and Experience Life, California, North Atlantic Books.
Janakabhivamsa, Ashin (1999), Abhidhamma in Daily Life, (trans. U Ko Lay). Mandalay, Mahagandayone
Nyanaponika Thera (1976), Abhidhamma Studies: Researches in Buddhist Psychology. Kandy, BPS
Seppala, Emma M. et. eds. (2017), The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Oxford, OUP.
Van Gorkom, Nina (2018), Abhidhamma in Daily Life, Bangkok
Welford, Mary (2016), Compassion Focused Therapy for dummies. Chichester: John Wiley & Son.