Drawing upon the seminal philosophical text of contemporary Indian philosopher A. Parthasarathy, Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities, (Ch. VI), this essay will illustrate the nature of emotion; its cause and manifestation; its beneficial and harmful effects; how emotions can be managed; and finally the role of emotion in the spiritual path.
Have you ever felt yourself a slave to a particular feeling, unable to get beyond a negative emotional state, even when you try to? Why does this happen? How can we gain control over our emotions so as to lead happier and more productive lives? In this blog post, we will explore and answer these questions.
The inner personality of a human is divided into two facets: the mind and the intellect. The mind is the seat of affectation, impulse, feeling, emotion, and indiscrimination. The intellect is the faculty of reason, judgment, cognition, discrimination, decision-making, and abstraction. It is the uncontrolled mind that victimizes us. When the mind is left on its own without intellectual supervision, a host of negative emotions can take over our personality. We then become emotional, mentally agitated and our actions suffer. When the discerning intellect governs and guides the emotions, we become masters rather than slaves of our emotion. We are then calm, clear, loving and our life is peaceful, prosperous and harmonious.
Emotion, passion, and sentiment are indeed virtuous. However without intellectual governance over the mind, we passively indulge in the emotion and become emotional, passionate, and sentimental. This emotional indulgence destroys our intellectual composure and balance, wreaking havoc on our inner peace and productivity. When our emotions are uncontrolled, we yield to impulsive behavior and perform actions that we ourselves regret later. Vedanta teaches us how to gain control over our life by gaining control over our emotions. This is achieved through intellectual development and application.
When the clarity of the intellect oversees the activities of the mind, we develop pure and chaste emotion. We are then able to love our fellow beings in the true sense. As Rainer Marie Rilke writes:
It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. (Rilke, 1934, p. 52)
Intellectual development is the work required to learn to love. It is easy to fall in love, to become controlled by our emotional impulse and attraction. However, it is extremely difficult – but vitally important – to learn how to rise in love, how to use our heads to rule our hearts, how to keep uncontrolled emotions from defeating our inner poise. Through the philosophy of Vedanta we learn how to transcend weak emotion and fulfill our essential obligations.
When our actions are governed by our emotions, we merely do what we like and avoid what we dislike. From early childhood we develop a wide array of likes and dislikes. Our parents, friends, spouses and children continuously cater to these personalized demands. The problem is that our likes and dislikes, arising from the mind, entrap us rather than liberate us. We like what caters to our egocentric interest, and dislike that which does not. What caters to our ego is not necessarily beneficial to our overall well being. When we only follow what we like, that which serves our self-interest, we fail to perform our obligations to others and to our own personal development. When a like or a dislike gains strength we develop forceful emotions which further prevent us from thinking and acting in our best interest and in the interest of others.
What is an emotion?
An emotion is defined as an indiscriminate flow of thought emanating from the mind. The mind expresses as the affective personality, the feeler, which experiences the entire host of human emotions including joy, sorrow, love, hatred, passion, affection, anger, jealousy. Emotions are essentially mental projections that manifest in the personality as feelings, impulses, preferences, aversions, likes and dislikes.
The human mind can flood into a wide range of emotions. It is the direction of the emotion that determines the quality. An emotion is impure and destructive when it is directed toward one's egocentric interests. An emotion is noble, pure when it is directed toward the well being of others. And emotions that flow towards an all-pervading unity are divine.
In Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities, Swami Parthasarathy writes:
Emotions become detrimental when they are concentrated in your selfish interest. Emotion acts like medicine. Medicine cures a disease when administered in proper dosage. The same medicine turns harmful, even fatal when consumed in a concentrated form. (Parthasarathy, 2004, p. 89)
Vedanta does not advocate the suppression of emotion, it merely warns against the individual and social calamity that can follow in the wake of egocentric emotion. When emotion is polluted by selfishness, we fall into attachment as opposed to love, and our life becomes stricken with mental agitation and sorrow.
The grandeur of love resides in its universality. True love arises when emotions flow equitably toward one and all. Thus emerges a harmony, a oneness, a sense of identity with all beings. When the feeling of affection, of love is polluted by the thought “What can I get” the emotion degrades into personal, preferential attachment. A simple equation can explain attachment and its relation to love:
Attachment = Love + Selfishness
Love = Attachment – Selfishness
Attachment is the opposite of love. Preferential attachment is mental bondage, a clinging, self-centered dependency upon the object of emotion. When we are attached to one person, we are separated from the rest. Further, our emotional balance becomes dependent upon receiving the attention and affection from that person. We are happy when the person is present and giving us the flattery we desire, and frustrated when they are not. While the selfless, inclusive nature of love breeds peace and happiness, the needy exclusivity of attachment creates misery and ultimately destroys the relationship.
When the mind is ungoverned by the intellect, a mere liking for someone or something will develop into an indiscriminate craving for possession and enjoyment. Once the object or being of desire is acquired, possessiveness emerges. With possessiveness emerge worry, anxiety, and fear. The ungoverned mind, ridden with attachment and possessiveness, is thus constantly fluctuating between highs and lows, afflicted with mental agitation and suffering. Further, attachment and possessiveness restrict our freedom; for, inasmuch as we possess another, we are ourselves possessed. If you tie a rope around a horse, hold the other end and say ‘This is my horse, I possess and control this horse,’ it is true, by virtue of you holding one end of the rope, that you possess power over the horse. However, the horse possesses equal power over you. Every movement the horse makes affects you. If the horse moves, you must also move. Thus the master is just as bound by the slave as the slave is by the master. Similarly, if we are attached and possessive toward objects and beings in the world, we give away our freedom to that which we claim attachment and possession over.
Attachment arises when the mind's thoughts flow uncontrollably toward objects and beings in the world. The root of all attachment and emotion is therefore thought flow. Arising out of a sense of imperfection felt within, our thoughts are constantly rushing toward the world in an attempt to gain satisfaction. This rush of thoughts flowing from the individual to the objects and beings in the world is called desire. Emotions are modifications of desire. When a desire is fed, the thought flow thickens, and the emotion of greed arises. Desire fulfilled leads to fear of loss. When a desire is interrupted by another object or being, one develops anger. Further modifications of desire are envy, jealously, arrogance, and the list goes on.
To exercise healthy governance any emotion, the underlying desire must be discovered, examined and properly directed. Since desires are nothing but thought, desires are reduced and emotions are managed through the careful intellectual governance of thought-flow. Only the intellect can examine and discriminate a thought from its inception. If the intellect observes, analyzes, assesses, and discretely accepts or rejects a thought as soon as it arises, a desire cannot be formed. This process is defined as discrimination. Only a well-developed intellect can prevent the formation of indiscriminate flow. In the absence of indiscriminate thought flow, there are no negative emotions. To control our emotions, we must redirect our desires toward a higher ideal. An ideal is a noble purpose that lies beyond the periphery of ones own personal likes and dislikes.
Emotion, when directed properly to a higher cause is a pillar of strength. Such emotion is impersonal, unselfish, and universal; it uplifts yourself and others. Imbued with such noble emotion, we are able to feel for others, without becoming emotionally disturbed ourselves. Thus, through the development of clear thinking, one learns how to transform emotional weakness into a bastion of power.
Desires not only modify into a variety of detrimental emotional states, they also proliferate in the mind. From childhood until old age, we are consistently moving from desire to desire, constantly seeking happiness. The problem lies in the fact that as soon as one desire is fulfilled, our mind rushes to the next one. We fail to appreciate that true happiness lies within.
We are able to discover the inherent happiness within only by reducing our egocentric thought flow. This is done by pitching up a higher ideal. The quantity of desires breeding in our personality is dependent upon the quality of the goal we uphold. When our goal is self-centered, our desires are maximum. When our life is directed towards an unselfish goal, the egocentric desires reduce. The spiritual path is one in which we gradually raise our ideal from our self to the family, to the community, to humanity, to all beings, and finally to the world and beyond. As the ideal is raised, the quality of desire increases in subtlety while the quantity of desires reduces.
The ability to feel an emotion without affectation defines the emotional resilience that is attained through intellectual clarity. Only a human being is capable of feeling emotion without being affected by emotion. True love is not possible without intellectual governance. If we ourselves are affected by the emotional state of another, we cannot think clearly to analyze the other person's needs. Rather, our emotional affectation turns the minds attention toward feeling for ourselves rather than feeling for the other. Therefore, compassion for others arises through intellect controlling the self-centered thought flow of mind.
Therefore, if we value noble emotions, if we seek love and compassion, connection with others, we must first look within. The only way to develop positive emotions that strengthen ourselves and our relationships is by developing the intellect.