Cultivating Emotions

I found the above video a delightful illustration of how important it is to nourish our attitudes and emotions. This post exposes readers to some Tibetan Buddhist tools for cultivating positive emotions and discusses the value of religious tools.

Cultivating Positive Emotions

If we have been fortunate enough to enjoy a good upbringing, a safe environment, good peers and the fortune of a genetically healthy temperament, a healthy emotional life is almost natural. But a defect in any these or  by simple neglect of what we have been blessed with, and our emotional habits may take on a negativity that is extremely painful, destructive or certainly limiting.

Each culture, recognizing this obvious truth, has developed some of its own unique tools to cultivate positive emotions. Wisdom for such cultivation may come in many forms – whether through folk traditions, secular habits or religious traditions.  And though religious traditions are crowded with inaccurate beliefs, those very beliefs can often be used as tools to culture healthy emotions. It is for this reason that I often try to  remind anti-religious atheists that religion is often far bigger than just propositional beliefs and thus understanding how a person uses their beliefs.  To me, positive emotions are often more important than accurate beliefs.  Without a positive culture of emotions, both individuals and societies can wither into self-destruction.  But of course, inaccurate beliefs can do the same — ah the delicate balance of the human psyche.

Below I will discuss two very different religious traditions and how positive emotions can be nurtured in those religions.

Emotions in a Tibetan Buddhist Tradition

The Tibetan Buddhists Gelug sect (the sect of the Dalai Lama) has several meditative tools for culturing positive emotions. Addressing this issue is an enjoyable book called “Destructive Emotions: How can we Overcome Them” — A Scientific Dialogue the the Dalai Lama, narrated by Daniel Goleman”. Here the conference members explore psychology as understood in one of the Dalai Lama’s sect of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions.  In that tradition, all of the myriad of negative mental afflictions are felt to spring from three primal emotions: Anger, Attachment and Ignorance.

Below is the list of those 20 Derivative Mental Afflictions (pg 106):

  • Anger
    • Wrath
    • Resentment
    • Spite
    • Envy/Jealousy
    • Cruelty
  • Attachment
    • Avarice
    • Inflated self-esteem
    • Excitation
    • Concealment of one’s own vices
    • Dullness
  • Ignorance (Delusion)
    • Blind faith (vs. Intelligent Faith)
    • Spirtual slot
    • Forgetfulness
    • Lack of introspective attentiveness
  • Ignorance + Attachment
    • Pretension
    • Deception
    • Shamelessness
    • Inconsideration of others
    • Conscientiousness
    • Distraction

Bodhisattva_CompassionOne Buddhist method to cultivate healthy emotions is by trying to obey simple ethical imperatives in their daily lives — not killing, stealing and lying.  Another is ‘wisdom training’, a meditative technique used to see behind the illusion of a false-self which they feel feeds such emotions.  A third method is contemplation of positive emotions.  For example,  the meditator could imagine her love for her children, parents or favorite teacher and then generalizing that love to acquaintances, strangers and finally to enemies. Tibetan psychology’s main teaching is that best way to fight negative emotions is to cultivate the emotion’s “antidote”. For each of these negative emotions above is felt to have an opposite–an antidote.   Cultivating the antidote weakens the negative emotion.  “Thus love is a direct antidote of hatred.  In the case of jealousy, on can try to rejoice in others’ qualities.  For pride, we try to appreciate others’ achievements and open our eyes to our own defects to cultivate humility.  … [It is by such methods that] we are no longer enslaved by negative emotions, and we progress toward freedom.”

Tibetan Buddhists may also use imaginary deities in their meditative practice to cultivate positive emotions.  They have many mythical stories surrounding Bodhisattvas that they use to inform their visualizations and contemplations.  In the Hindu traditions, Vaishnivites do similar mental training with their stories of Krishna.

jesus_washing_peter_feetChristian Emotions

Many Christians use the myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a similar way to cultivate feelings of gratitude and love.  Like the Tibetan practice, the object used to nurture the feeling is imaginary, but powerful. I am in the atheist camp that sees the cultivation of emotions as being a positive role that religion can serve which is often missing in many secular cultures.  Likewise, stories of Jesus or his disciples can be used to cultivate patience, diligence, forgiveness, generosity and more.

Conclusion

In summary, positive emotions can be as valuable as, if not much more valuable than, correct ideas.  Hyper-rational people, be they theists or atheists, can forget the importance of the virtues of the emotional life while they try to emphasize correct belief.   For as illustrated above, freedom from negative emotions can be nurtured using imaginary stories.  The video, for example, is fiction — it never happened.  Though negative, divisive emotions and destructive ideas need to be diligently uprooted,  balancing the cultivation of positive emotions while nurturing correct belief can be complex and requires patience.

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12 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

12 responses to “Cultivating Emotions

  1. I’m glad that the video inspired such a wonderful post. 🙂

  2. Hey River — actually, I had already written the post in response to several discussions I had on Christian sites. But when I saw your post, I thought “Wow, that would be nice icing on the cake.” So, HT to you and you HT to “eternal awareness“. All to show, our thankfulness can be interconnected and broad !

    But now tell me, River. I think you hang in New Age and Wiccan circles. Could you tell the readers (and me) of examples of imaginary people, ideals or images you see used to cultivate positive emotions in your circle.

  3. Shawn Wamsley

    Sabio,

    A few comments in response to your post:

    /1/ you wrote:

    “Healthy emotions are certainly as valuable as, and at times more valuable than, accurate beliefs.”

    I agree. Do you also think, though, that having both healthy emotions and accurate beliefs (one derived from the other, obviously) is preferable to having only either healthy emotions or accurate beliefs?

    /2/ I have long been interested in this element of Buddhism, though, I am woefully ignorant of Buddhism generally.

    /3/ you wrote:

    “Many Christians use the myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a similar way to cultivate feelings of gratitude and love.”

    You are not alone in this assessment, even within Christian scholarship. Rudolph Bultmann, a Lutheran scholar, is quite respected (infamous in some circles as you can imagine) for his attempt to “de-mythologize” scripture. He did approach it from the opposite direction, though. He hypothesized that the only factual element necessary for modern Christianity was the death and resurrection of Christ. Subsequently, all the other content of the Bible constituted faith myths that engendered positive feelings, which consequently shaped the morals and behavior of the group, within the Christian community.

    Shawn

  4. @ Shawn:

    To answer your question in #1

    I believe that:
    — we all run around with multitude of beliefs.
    — it is impossible to rid ourselves totally of inaccurate beliefs
    — we all live compromised emotional lives as well
    — their are many possible good states that a given person could be in, but no ONE BEST state
    — beliefs are useful if they help us to accomplish what we desire, as for what we SHOULD desire and should desires take into account the long haul, I think this becomes a complicated community question. My community preference is that we not harm ourselves or others and if this is put more affirmatively, it is love or compassion I value. (even your god said it all boiled down to that, no?)

    So, sure, having both healthy emotions and accurate beliefs is better than missing either of these elements, but NO ONE has or ever will have that perfect combo. No one could have them for reasons I stated above. So it is always a balance between how inaccurate beliefs serve good emotions and accurate beliefs are used to hurt others. It is a difficult ship to sail. We must be cautious of pitfalls on all sides.

    There, I fumbled to verbalize my thoughts.
    I guess believers of religions say, “We need to learn our god’s truths and live them.” But such a statement amounts to being as complex that my fumblings when you see how it has its practical outworkings — I think.

  5. Sabio,

    I can’t really speak to the New Age or Pagan community. There are a few that I “knew” online in the past (that I mentioned in my ‘Online Friends’ post), but they really aren’t around anymore. And I don’t know any Pagans IRL. (I never really fit there, anymore than I fit within Christianity.) They seem to find much meaning within the idea of polytheism, but that was never my cup of tea.

    I know that’s not very helpful, but I don’t feel right speaking about that which I really have no clue. 😉

  6. @ River : nah, that is cool, I was mistaken and thought you were conversant in those communities.

  7. I’m with you regarding emotions being important. I agree. Some atheists do put way too much emphasis on rationalism, and that’s the reason why I took a long time to identify myself as one.

    But I don’t like the Buddhist or the Christian views as you’ve written them. I love psychology. Psychology is my religion.

    From psychology I learned that negative emotions come not from high self-esteem, like your Buddhist paragraph said, but from low self-esteem. I know that’s the case with me.

    Also, some psychologists believe that nurturing the negative emotion for a while is useful. I have found that to be true.

    For instance, if someone hurts me, I’ll be angry for as long as I delay feeling the anger. But if I let it be in full, with all its strength, it will soon disappear. It loses its grip on me.

    If I try to nurture love when my body is asking me to be angry, I just make myself ill.

    My two cents.

  8. @ Lorena
    Good points. Certainly there is a time to nurture positive emotions. Negative emotions evolved for a reason. Our long term goal is to not let our genes be our master, but we must respect them at times, eh?

  9. I may regret this, but I gotta say it.

    Look at the guy on the left (wearing bluish-grey) of the ‘foot washing’ painting. What is he stairing at?

    So, what happens after foot washing at Xian parties? Looks like it used to be ‘man on man’ if you know what I mean!

  10. Shawn Wamsley

    Sabio,

    you said:

    “their are many possible good states that a given person could be in, but no ONE BEST state”

    If you mean to say that there is no ideal “state” to strive after, this seems a little post-modern for what I know of you.

    you said:

    “beliefs are useful if they help us to accomplish what we desire, as for what we SHOULD desire and should desires take into account the long haul, I think this becomes a complicated community question.”

    I couldn’t agree more, and this is why I like to be conversant with atheists. Many may disagree, but I think Christians need to hear what atheists have to say. Obviously, I don’t think that those who are Christians should listen to atheists and quit believing any more than I think atheists should be coerced, but atheists are part of our broader community and they have many important things to say about morality, ethics, etc. I honestly don’t know why atheists should not have a voice in determining what we “should” desire as a community.

    Shawn

  11. @ Shawn
    you said, “this seems a little post-modern for what I know of you.”

    Not sure what you mean or what you know of me or if you were agreeing or disagreeing. ??

    We agree, it seems, on some levels. I’d say we all need to listen to each other and discern at a deep levels the implications of how we tie beliefs into our lives. Then as we dialogue, we can move to healthier combinations of beliefs and action. Perhaps where we disagree is on what I call “deep levels”.

  12. Shawn Wamsley

    Sabio,

    “Not sure what you mean or what you know of me or if you were agreeing or disagreeing. ??”

    I qualified the statement because I know very little about you – only what you have divulged on your site and in your posts. I mean to say that my interaction with you has left me with the impression that you have very clear standards of what is desirable, “good,” “bad,” et al

    “We agree, it seems, on some levels. I’d say we all need to listen to each other and discern at a deep levels the implications of how we tie beliefs into our lives. Then as we dialogue, we can move to healthier combinations of beliefs and action. Perhaps where we disagree is on what I call “deep levels”.”

    I would say that this is probably accurate.

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