Emotional life can sometimes hit us like a tsunami, with all its destructive power, in particular in those moments of rage, reactivity, depression which can lead to violence and harm. But even positive emotions like falling in love can take us over and play havoc with our lives and those of others. Or emotions can be more subtle but equally disturbing, such as the poisons of chronic anxiety and worry, of criticism of self or others, of irritation, or gloom, which can contaminate the bright flowing waters of life and steal joy and ease.
Emotions always start with the first immediate seeds of responsiveness to what’s coming in through the senses: this experience is pleasant or unpleasant, a little ‘Like’ or ‘Dislike’ thumb that appears at the gate of our perception. It’s fast and mostly unconscious, we might only realize it when we have a concept of what is perceived, colored with those likes and dislikes, which arises in the mind a moment later. Something pulls us away from the computer and only then we know it as the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
The first animal level responses on which emotions are built are called in Pali Vedana, which comes from Veda in Sanskrit or yeda in Hebrew. It is a kind of knowing, knowing based on feelings or knowing based on the heart. Indeed science has shown that every moment of brain activity, every thought and perception is coloured by what are called ‘affect’, fundamental emotional responsiveness, which is part of consciousness itself. We are not a computer. We are oriented towards survival, and just like the amoeba will move towards what is sweet and away from what is salty, so a person will express preferences and a push-pull responsiveness at every moment. We may not notice it – we may think that we go through our day without much feeling, but consider what makes us attend to this sensory stimulation and not another? What is important to look at when we cross the road? The mind is always saying ‘this is relevant, pay attention.’ Our life depends on it. Consider the tragic disease of Leprosy, in which the nerves don’t work properly to deliver messages of pain. Though pain is unpleasant, it is vital to know if the body is damaged so we can take action.