Wednesday, 17 August 2016

What is an emotion?

I've recently finished reading a book by Peter Levine called "In An Unspoken Voice". It's a pretty amazing book – the result of a career of over 40 years in the field of stress and trauma, detailing his pioneering work into how trauma happens and the methods he's found to work with it. Coming out of these methods is the therapeutic body-awareness approach to healing trauma called Somatic Experiencing that's now available across the Western world. (If you're interested in this area, Bessel van der Kolk's "The Body Keeps The Score" is also well-worth a read.)

Towards the end of "In An Unspoken Voice", Levine touches on the subject of emotions and embodiment, and that's what I wanted to pick out to talk about in this and the next blog post.

What is an emotion?

It's simple to ask, but very tricky to answer!
If your everyday practice is open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that - then that will take you are far as you can go.  And then you'll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.
– Pema Chödrön
As Levine points out, Descartes claimed "I think therefore I am" and it seems many people might agree with him. With this in mind, when something provocative happens you might think that your brain recognises this provocation and produces an emotional response. Then the brain tells your body how to react in accordance with this emotion: maybe increase heart rate, breathing, tense muscles, etc. What do you think? Does this seem like the way it works in your experience?

At the turn of 19th century, experimental psychologist William James took a different approach and arrived at a different conclusion. Through introspection, he would attempt to infer the chain of events that led to an emotion being generated. Most of us might think that when we see something scary we get frightened, and then motivated by fear, we run. Through his studies, James concluded the opposite – that rather than running because we are afraid, we are afraid because we are running. We feel sad because we're crying, feel happy because we're smiling, etc. The emotion comes as a result of the (re)action.

James was remarkably ahead of his time, and the importance of his work is only just being appreciated now.

Emotion is an afterthought

Emotion doesn't originate in the brain – it's the brain's perception of the body's reaction that generates the emotion. As Levine puts it "it's almost as if the brain canvases the body to see how it's reacting in the moment" (or in reality, assesses all the information it's receiving about the sensations and state of the body) and calls that collection of sensations and actions an emotional state.

Emotions happen in the body – they are 'embodied' processes. Levine has a lot to say about embodiment – he defines it as "gaining, through the vehicle of awareness, the capacity to feel the ambient physical sensations of unfettered energy and aliveness as they pulse through our bodies." Gut feeling, precognition, and what we call intuition, then "emerges from the seamless joining of instinctual bodily reactions with thoughts, inner pictures and perceptions."

"Mu shin" calligraphy

No-mind, no emotions

This sounds remarkably Zen! In fact it sounds like the Zen idea of "no-mind" (mu-shin), which means being directly in touch with the experience of now (and acting from that place), without concepts, ideas or mental commentary getting in the way.

And as my teacher Daizan Roshi says, "when you're on the cutting edge of reality, there are no storylines or thoughts" – or indeed emotions. Emotions are simply our labels for patterns of specific thoughts, sensations, reflexes and actions. "Its only when we look back with hindsight," Daizan continues, "that we try to make sense of things and the story-lines come."

Or as Charlotte Joko Beck puts it in her book, "Behaviour is what we observe. We cannot observe experience. By the time we have an observation about an event it's past – and experience is never in the past. That's why the sutras say we can't touch it, see it, hear it, think about it – because the minute we attempt to do that, time and separation have been created. ... Who I am is simply experiencing itself, forever unknown. The moment I name it, is it gone."

When you're truly, directly experiencing that moment of feeling happy (i.e. on the cutting edge, as Daizan puts it), there are no thoughts about it. There's just... it.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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