Emotions and Dharma

“Nothing is miserable unless you think it is so.”

By Joshua Sumitta Hudson

When we read the sentence, “Susan left home” we probably have little response to the action at all. Change the sentence to “Susan left her husband and newborn baby never to return” and anyone can reasonably infer that the response will be different. If the person reading that sentence waste husband and there certainly would be some strong feelings on the matter.
What is important is the “context” of the action. Our relationship and how we relate to the situations before us trigger the responses we have to any situation. In this case, depending on the context of the Susan leaving a building can go from indifferent to outraged depending how that action relates to our lives. In this way we can see how events in the world affect us only through our interpretations of them.

There is no reality: only perception.

The Buddha stated that he only taught the understanding and ending of suffering. In other words, he understood how to be happy. Happiness is a choice, a point of view, a lifestyle. When we put the world in the right context, we remove the defilements that detract from understanding (and being in a state of) happiness.
The poisons of hate, greed and delusion are developed— and reinforce— by ignorance. On a very simple level we know that we have conditioned our mind and our habits to trigger emotional responses that are not always wise or wholesome. When we develop mindfulness, we create an awareness of the world as it really is instead of our skewed perceptions.

In this way we can engage in the world more fully without clinging or aversion: without hate, fear, greed, lust, and delusion. But it always that simple.

Emotional responses are necessary.

There is always the risk of misconception that emotions are the problem. However, we can never live without emotions. The Buddha said that we are like an elephant and rider, where our animal aspect of our being is willful and headstrong requiring a skilled rider to direct the team along the Eightfold Path. While we may develop mindfulness to help steer our elephant more skillfully, I always question if enlightenment should unemotional as well as dispassionate.
Emotions certainly can be the basis of delusion. Our decisions are biased by our feelings. A monkey tastes a banana and finds it pleasurable, it continues to eat. A monkey eats mud and dislikes it; it doesn’t take a second bite. In THIS way our animal body uses our emotional cravings and aversions to help us in our decision making.
Do you want to read a book or go see a movie? These are not decisions that are rationally based. In fact, almost all decisions we make are primarily emotionally based. This is why it is so easy for the three poisons to defile our minds. It is a great elephant and little rider, but there is a good evolutionary reason it is that way.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied the effects of brain injuries that only affect the areas of the brain where emotions are generated. Losing their emotional ability resulted in their inability to make decisions. With no “preference” towards reading and movies, how many more choices are there? How do you logically choose between just the two choices? On the subconscious level there are millions of decisions and processes that are being decided on by emotional habit.

Emotional Dharma

The stated of mindful awareness, we want someone else to make the decisions. Because the elephant is an essential part of who we are, we want the rider to be in control. If you want ride an elephant you must guide and work them to their destination: just as we must develop our minds to recondition our habits, outlooks, and cravings. At the moment of decision the elephant (and our emotions) will be favorably disposed to make the appropriate choices.
When we develop our Buddhist practice, we develop the habits of loving kindness to replace greed, we develop compassion to replace hatred, and we develop equanimity to replace delusion. We embrace the emotional aspects of who we are, but recognize that emotions are conditioned responses are what we must focus on for change. Nothing is miserable unless we think it is so.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Divorce, Ethics, Four Noble Truths, Kharma, Lifestyle, Mahayana, Meditation, New Age, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Relationships, Theravada, Tibet, Uncategorized, Virajana


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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One Comment on “Emotions and Dharma”

  1. November 21, 2009 at 5:26 am #

    Don’t go away!

    I’ll be right back.

    Michael J

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