Inseperable Thought-Emotion

“The problem here is a fundamental one in the Dali Lama’s dialogue with psychology:  In the Buddhist view, thoughts are considered to be normally laden with emotions, and emotions are invariably laden with thoughts, so the Tibetan term for thought includes its affective tone.  The Tibetan system does not hold a sharp distinction between thought and emotion made in the West, but rather understands them to be intertwined — a view closer to the reality of modern neuroscience is discovering in the brain. [footnote: The most generic Tibetan terms for thought also embrace emotions: tokpa and namtok.]” (pg 134)

This quote and its footnote are from the excellent book “Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama”, narrated by Daniel Goleman.

“Hyper-rationalists” think that thoughts can be removed from emotions and they idealize such a state.  But over the decades, agreeing with this quote, cognitive science has clearly shown that thought is always linked with emotion.

However, emotions can be cultured and I do value the effort to nurture thought-emotions which are not laden with destructive emotions.

Buddhism, being an oral tradition for centuries, used numbered lists as a primary mnemonic device.  One needs to understand these lists not as essentially exhaustive or systematic numbering but as tool to remember the teachings.

Here then are some lists of destructive emotions in Buddhism.  Buddhist psychology speaks of the “Three Poisons” as the primary afflictions or primary destructive emotions of the mind:  Anger, Attachment and Ignorance/Delusion.  Adding three more emotions to these poisons, with get another famous list called the “Six Main Mental Afflictions“.  Those three are:  Pridefulness, Afflictive doubt and Afflictive views.

Finally another expanded list, “Twenty Derivative Mental Afflictions“, is grouped by association with the Three Poisons:


  • Wrath
  • Resentment
  • Spite
  • Envy/jealousy
  • Cruelty


  • Avarice
  • Inflated self-esteem
  • Excitation
  • Concealment of one’s own vices
  • Dullness

Ignorance / Delusion

  • Blind faith
  • Spiritual sloth
  • Forgetfulness / Lack of mindfulness
  • Lack of Introspective attentiveness

Ignorance + Attachment

  • Pretension
  • Deception
  • Shamelessness
  • Inconsideration of others
  • Unconscientiousness
  • Distraction

There are other lists, of course, and different Buddhist traditions debate the details, but you get the point. The Buddha’s core teaching was how to tame these destructive emotions and nurture healthy emotions.

Using a generous translation, perhaps when “hyper-rationalists” are insisting that thought can be had without emotion, they are observing that healthy thought are those not laden with these negative emotions — a noble goal.

Questions to Readers:  How do you nurture or cultivate healthy emotions?  Do you think such a venture is possible or worthwhile?  Have you noticed the inseparability of thought and emotion?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “Inseperable Thought-Emotion

  1. DaCheese

    Might as well get the obligatory book reference out of the way: Damasio’s “Descartes’ Error” describes how modern neuroscience has shown that effective rational thought is impossible without emotional input. It’s a bit old now, bu it’s still a good read.

    (Unfortunately one of the examples he relies on is the Phineas Gage story, which has since been called into question in terms of the reports of the after-effects. But there are plenty of other, better documented examples.)

  2. NFQ

    “Have you noticed the inseparability of thought and emotion?” I’m not sure I would have phrased it this way, but in some sense, yes I have. I don’t think they are completely inseparable, but they are often tangled up. We are humans, and we have emotions, and we also have thoughts — we can’t stop having emotions for a while so we can be alone with our thoughts. We only have our own minds to use in the process, so our mental state (emotions included) is necessarily the medium in which our thoughts are experienced. Of course, we can be conscious of this as well — and I do think it is worth attempting to have logical, not fallacious thoughts. The fact that our emotions and thoughts are tangled up doesn’t mean that we should shrug and resign ourselves to “reasoning” out things that make us happy even if they are nonsensical. The same way that I try to stay conscious of the influence of advertising when I am making my purchasing decisions, and catch the effects of branding before they guide me to make irrational choices, I try to stay conscious of my emotions and weigh the potential impact those are having on my capacity to reason.

    “How do you nurture or cultivate healthy emotions?” Very carefully. Mostly it is this process of constantly reflecting, trying to stay conscious of my mental state. Almost like how starting to keep a journal of the foods you eat makes you eat healthier even if you are not “dieting” as such … just staying conscious of what’s going on is a zeroth-order step. In extreme cases, writing down unhealthy emotional reactions, writing down why they’re unhealthy and irrational, and writing down healthier responses I would like to replace them with is a productive strategy.

  3. @ DaChesese :
    Damasio along with Gazzaniga were two of my favorites in the neuroscience field to confirm many of my subjective insights.

    @ NFQ :
    You said, “I am not sure I would have phrased it this way, …”
    I think it is cool to notice when someone is saying something practically similar although ideologically or linguistically different than one’s self. Good job.
    Your method for cultivating healthy emotions sounds very systematic and productive. That was fun.

  4. How do you nurture or cultivate healthy emotion? Is it possible? Is it worthwhile?

    I would answer these last two questions: Yes. and Yes.

    What exactly to cultivate? It’s helped me to identify and understand which healthy thought/emotions to cultivate: namely, the Brahmaviharas, Metta, Karuna, Mudita, and Upekkha (in English Loving kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity). Also, the Six Perfections.

    How? Through meditation, contemplation, and persistent effort. Lots of long, hard work mixed with occasional blessed (sorry!) moments of clarity and insight. Decades worth.

  5. Ian

    My first thought when I read your post was “what is a thought, what is an emotion?” Both, to me, are labels we attach to psychological processes, based on certain features in those processes. Neither are platonic ideals – neither correspond to reality, either psychological or neurological. So there’s basically stuff that our brain is doing all the time. Some of it we label ‘thinking’, others ‘inuiting’, others ’emoting’ and so on. But that isn’t reality, that’s just linguistics. There is no distinct dividing line.

    So yes, at any one time you can have a total set of mental processes that is more ‘thinking’ (I used to do this as a grad student, just spend an hour or two really wrestling with a purely abstract issue, in which my brain was primarily ‘thinking’). At other times I might be primarily ’emoting’ and only secondarily thinking (watching my son’s sports day, for example). And so on. But they are only convenience labels for a really really complex interconnected web of mental and hormonal changes.

    So to say that ‘there is no thought without emotion’ seems pretty certain to me. Put another way “there is no mental process without some other mental process”.

  6. @ Dan :
    Culturing emotions are important. Don’t you feel there are many, many ways to do it besides meditation?

    @ Ian : Indeed, they are inseparable. But many hyper-rationalists feel they can isolate their limbic system and stay completely cerebral — this is false.

    @ NFQ :
    I agree that logic and avoiding fallacies is a very useful method. But we must be clear that objectivity is very difficult, if not impossible. We need humility. Especially in personal encounters.

  7. Once I started meditating on a regular basis, I really mellowed out emotionally. Another factor could be that I threw away my TV, ridding myself of the constant ads/violence. (I do watch old sitcoms and such on line.) Another factor is that I started taking to heart the ‘Verses for training the mind’ from the Tibetan tradition (other than this, I am not especially familiar with Tibetan stuff). One of the verses is something like this: ‘If someone challenges me, I will accept defeat.’ This has saved me a lot of argumentation! Also, the one that says ‘In any group of people I will consider myself the lowest.’ This is an attitude admired in Japan (where I live), where social rank is taken very seriously, and humility is as well.

  8. NFQ

    @Sabio: “But we must be clear that objectivity is very difficult, if not impossible. We need humility. Especially in personal encounters.” For sure! I definitely agree on this, didn’t mean to sound like I was saying it was easy or necessarily doable. I do think more objectivity is the right goal to be striving for, though. All I meant to say was that I don’t think we should give in and say, “My emotions are influencing my capacity for reason. Guess I’ll just give up on trying to be logical, because I will sometimes make logical errors thanks to my emotions.”

  9. “But that isn’t reality, that’s just linguistics.” (Ian)

    Almost lost control of the chuckle on reading this. Thanks, Ian. I want to use this line with two friends for sure, just to see how huffy they might get.

    “How do you nurture or cultivate healthy emotions?” (S)

    As has been brought up already, awareness or consciousness are good places to start. For me at least. Reflecting on time is sometimes my step 2. I ask myself if I always acted/reacted this way with such emotions, or what causes certain emotions to fire up in this moment instead of others. Have my reactions changed? Past-child-me vs present-super-mature-me, and even how will I emotionally react when I’m senile-old-me? etc.

    The phrase “expansion of the self” has got me thinking about emotions a bit too. Collective emotions. Harmonies and negotiations between expected feelings and individual feelings.

    “Have you noticed the inseparability of thought and emotion?” (S)

    How about like on every blog and comment on the interwebs???🙂

  10. CRL

    I have noticed the inseparability of thought and emotion, and it drives me insane. Objectivity is impossible for humans, and this is the source of many of our mistaken beliefs and actions. I don’t suggest that human life would be better without emotion…it wouldn’t. It would be dull and pointless. But it seems like much of the selfishness, and the resulting pain and unhappiness in the world today, is a result of people looking out for their own emotions, rather than the greater good.

    Personally, I don’t try to cultivate emotions, healthy or otherwise. What I feel generally has some basis in reality, and I have enough difficulty finding the right words and actions w/o trying to control my thoughts and emotions. Since I am generally a happy person, I see no need for it.

  11. I have noticed I suffer from afflicted emotions when I believe thoughts. I feel good when I notice that ‘I’ am not my thoughts, the world is not what I think it is, other people are much more than what I think of them, etc…

  12. “Unhealthy” emotions? How do we rationally delineate these from “healthy”? Seems to me that anger and attachment can be quite healthy in specific contexts in given degrees and expressed in a given manner.
    That’s a lot of givens. Complicated issue.
    For me, I prefer to focus on “inappropriate” (or perhaps out-of-context/proportion) emotions. By meditating I feel we can lessen hyper-reactivity as well as be more context-relevant and helpful vs. the opposite.
    Or something.

  13. As strange as it seems, I once found Scientology’s “tone scale” in a library when I was a teenager, and found it useful in thinking about emotions and thoughts. Although I always considered Scientology to be a fraud, and think that the exact emotional states on the tone scale are not right, I liked the insight that one can’t just jump 5 levels; that people need to be moved along from wherever they are, in a positive direction.

  14. @ johnl :
    I lived in Japan for 7 years. My first 3 at a Zen temple doing a martial art. I learned much the hard way about Japanese humility.

    @ NFQ :
    I would error on less destructive emotions over more objectivity, if I had to choose. But they are intimate and the choice is not what we imagine.

    @ CRL :
    Interest, if you are content enough, I can see why no need would be felt.

    @ alywaibel :
    Not being our thoughts is tough – but a worthy goal

    @ Andrew @360 :
    The problem with anger is that it can be self-destructive. As a moments reaction I understand its usefulness. But as a habit, it seems crippling.

    @ JS Allen :
    I never saw those pics. Must say, I don’t like the linear element, the ordering or other aspects. The Buddhist layout seems to make so much more sense to me — but perhaps I am biased. That was interesting, though, thanx.

  15. Culturing emotions are important. Don’t you feel there are many, many ways to do it besides meditation?

    Oh, yes. Many, many ways. Actually what I call “meditation” is nothing special: just various forms of mental grunt work, really, you know, going back time and time again to the object of meditation, say a Metta phrase like, “May you be safe, happy, and healthy.”

    But dream work, singing, direct action to help others, teaching kindergarten, etc. etc. A million zillion ways.

  16. Belinda

    I find it interesting that anger is considered a destructive emotion. I have experienced anger toward others and realized that by examination of anger one learns more about what one values. Anger towards me may be frightening at times but if reflected back can lead to a deeper understanding of ones ignorance and lead to empathy. Why are we so afraid of anger. I believe denial or failure to have such an emotion is to disallow and not accept reality. Acceptance of the emotion anger leads to maturation. Perhaps there should be more words in the language to describe types of anger. There needs to be a distinction between thinking feeling and behavioral choices when it comes to anger.

  17. @ Belinda
    Well stated. I think I have more thinking to do in this realm. Thank you.

  18. I distinguish three aspects of emotions. The three are not separable, they are intertwined, but still I can discern these three aspects: a mental ‘aspect’, a somatic ‘aspect’, and an emotional ‘aspect’.

    For example, if I get stuck in a traffic jam and get angry I can discern these three aspects. The mental aspect is the thoughts such as, “Why don’t they FIX this mess!” Somatically I feel a tightness in my chest and my jaw clenches. The emotional aspect might be feelings of rage in my chest and guts, or there might be fear of being trapped buried inside.

    Again, these three are not separate, they don’t exist independent of the others, but I find it useful to differentiate along these lines, which gives me more tools to work with emotional states.

  19. @ Craig
    Thanks. I agree. Those are three I use too.

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