Observing Emotions

How do we know that we are angry, or irritated, or sad, or frustrated, or scared, or anxious, or happy, or elated, or excited, or aroused, or horny, or bored, or anything else?

No, no.. let me put it another way. How exactly are anger, irritation, sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety, happiness, excitement, arousal and boredom manifested? How to they show up in experience? What are the basic building blocks of these experiences?

First, lets look at the obvious question, the elephant in the room: “Why should I bother about basic building blocks?” This question doesn’t occur to me, but I can understand why it would occur to some people – especially those who don’t appreciate this level of geekiness, for the lack of a better word.

In a previous blog post I wrote about how observing the sensations that make up thoughts actually dissolves them. Once we breakdown thoughts into their visual, auditory and feeling-sensation components, we get to clearly notice the individual components arise and pass away, as in vanish completely along with the abstract-sensation of the thought they seemingly created. If we don’t break them down into their fundamental sensation components, they seem to “make babies” and multiply, and pretty soon gang up and sort of overwhelm.

That is kind of how emotion works too, isnt it? It is for this reason I feel drawn towards breaking down emotions and see if the same theory holds good with emotions too.

During my time on the cushion, especially during the dark-night stages (which I am a consistent visitor of right now), I can clearly notice the non-visual and non-auditory sensations in the body that make up the overwhelming “feeling” of the emotion. For example:

  • When there is a feeling of fear, there is a feeling of shiver in the spine
  • When there is sadness, there is a sense of super-slow breathing — but a rather distinct vibration in the gut.
  • When there is happiness, there is a rhythmic and pleasant vibration around the heart and face

I think you get the picture.

Initially, I thought those vibrations were the fool-proof evidence of the existence of emotions. But then, I started to notice that sometimes

  • there is a shiver in the spine, but the associated feeling was that of anticipation or excitement.
  • there is slow breathing and distinct vibration in the gut, but the associated feeling was that of peace and calm
  • there is a rhythmic and plesant vibration around the heart and face, but the associated feeling was that of anxiety

For a while it seemed confusing as to why a single vibration signature, has different “feelings” association. (It turns out there is a whole book about this called “How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman“, and is in fact a scientifically verified phenomenon. I first heard about this book when Dr. Nikhil Mahindroo mentioned it in his talk during the Nov 2023 VRI Symposium. The book says that a single combination of body sensations can give rise to totally distinct emotional experiences depending on the context in which the person is.)

At any rate, for me this confusion led me further “down the rabbit hole” in my dark-night phases. Until, I added “visual-sensations” and “auditory-sensations” back to the mix. Suddenly, it became clear that it is the “whole package of five-senses” that has distinct signature for every kind of emotion. For instance,

  • when the overall feeling is “fear”, there is shiver in the spine but in the mind-space there are images of fearful things (like war, or IT raid, or accident of a loved one) and also sounds of fearful things (like a loved one screaming).
  • when the overall feeling is “anger”, there is tightness in the jaw, a slight increase in breathing speed, hard vibrations in the chest area along with images of me-arguing with someone, or me physically punching someone and sounds of my shouting and so on. (Even off cushion I have observed this. For instance, when someone cuts me off on the road – in my mind’s screen I am a hybrid of Jackie Chan and Rajnikanth, unleashing all sorts of physical pain and terror on the person who cut me off, and that person is desperately begging for my mercy, sometimes along with gods appeasing me to stop. I seem to enjoy that grandiose and visual spectacle in my mind, while my body fuels it with physical sensations of anger. Ofcourse, you know how it ends — it ends in misery!)

Once again, watching each sensation arise and pass away dissolves much of the emotion, but still some of it remains. As long as I continue to watch the fundamental sense components of those, they also dissolve soon.

Initially it made sense to dissolve anger, hatred and all that “negative” stuff. But I felt drawn to dissolve happiness, excitement, arousal and all the “positive” stuff too. I was soon left with an insight:

all the emotions and feelings seem to happen all on their own, irrespective of whether I watch them or not.

There truly isnt a happy-Prashanth, or a sad-Prashanth, or a scared-Prashanth, or an excited-Prashanth or any other kind of Prashanth as a separate, stable or permanent entity. When sad-Prashanth shows up, it isn’t the case that a stable-or-permanent-happy-Prashanth suddenly got sad. Happy sensations, sad sensations, scared sensations, excited sensations and every other kind of sensation-package arises and passes away, in some causal manner. It’s not like the happy-one got sad, or the sad-one got angry, or the angry-one got happy. Every emotion is a bundle of sensations that show up, do their thing and disappear. When they are left unobserved, the sensations “make babies” and multiply, and overwhelm. When their “true nature” (impermanence, dissatisfaction and no-self) is observed, even for just a bit, much of it gets dissolved — almost immediately.

During intense meditation sittings, even though I am in a really good high-concentration zone and am able to observe all the 20-30 sensations at the tip-of-my-nostrils that make up the breath, I suddenly start noticing emotionally charged sensations (mental-talk, mental-images, body-sensations). Upon calm investigation I can sometimes trace back to the triggering real-world-sensation for this. For instance, to the sound of the gate opening at a distance, or the sound of my son climbing up or down the stairs, or my wife answering a phone call she got, or neighbours speaking outside the window. Something happens and it would automatically set off a chain reaction that conjures the experience of an emotion. However, there are also times when I cannot trace back to the triggering-real-world-sensation. In any case, the specific flavour of emotion that shows up seems to be a function of a hedonic-tone that I seem to be pre-disposed towards at that moment. The tone that I am predisposed to is also seemingly random. Sometimes, it would be residue of the emotion that would have passed away a little while ago, but sometimes there is no explanation for it. It’s like: in the sensation-universe-around-here, there seems to be a hedonic-tone-weather, and any sensation that shows up in that weather will get drenched in the rain of that tone. I am not very clear what’s going on here, but maybe I will get clear about it in due course.

So, back to the basics!

Firstly, sensations arise and pass away, nothing is permanent.

Secondly, engaging with them will make them stick around and that causes dissatisfaction. By engaging, I mean pulling them (with the vedana of craving) or pushing them (with the vedana of aversion) or turning a blind eye on them (with the vedana of ignorance). Any form of engagement leads to dissatisfaction. Pulling (craving) a sensation means having to keep pulling it in order to make them solid and sustain, that’s a lot of work given that no sensation can be permanent. Pushing (aversion) a sensation means having to exert force to make it go away sooner than its natural pace, which is also tiring. Ignorance means having to abstain from even acknowledging their existence, which means we are kidding our selves and will eventually feel tired of doing that too. All that tiredness leads to an overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction. Instead of engaging with them, if we can manage to simply watch them and not freak out, they will arise, do their thing and pass away — vanish, fully vanish.

This aspect of “fully vanishing” takes the rug off from underneath our feet when we see it first hand for the first time. Imagine ANGER fully disappearing in an instant. Typically I would work with my anger in postmortem with some sort of remorse, like there is something wrong with me and that I would need to fix my “angry-self”. But now, I know that I am angry when I am angry and not-angry when I am not-angry. Either end of the spectrum has the same charactistic: arise-and-pass-away. When I am angry, there isn’t a non-angry-Prashanth who “got angry”. When I am not angry, there isn’t a angry-Prashanth who has calmed down. Anger is a bundle of sensations that arises and passes away just like everything else.

It might seem like I am rationalising my anger. No, much to the contrary I am no longer stuck being angry or having to not-be-angry. Said in other words, I don’t have to pull not-being-angry or push being angry or turn a blind eye and be ignorant about anger. Much of the misery associated with anger is now gone knowing that there isn’t a permanent-and-separate-angry-Prashanth, and that there isn’t a permanent-and-separate-calm-Prashanth or for that matter a permanent-and-separate-Prashanth. Moment by moment, there are sensations that make up whoever I show up as.

This is the third aspect, the no-self that we are asked to observe in Vipassana. On the cushion, it is clear that there is no separate-and-permanent-observer and no separate-observed. They are one and the same. The sensations don’t need to be observed, they will arise and pass away whether or not anybody is observing. Besides, it appears that all that observing is not done by a permanent-and-separate-self. When left alone, the sensations seem perfectly capable of being self-aware.

Ofcourse, that leads to the question: “why on earth am I spending god-awful number of hours observing the sensations?”

One answer to this would be: all this clarity of impermance, dissatisfaction and no-self is clear when I am on the cushion. Off cushion, however, the clarity is not there yet, although I am increasingly noticing moments of spontaneous clarity off the cushion also. I am hoping that all the meditation-practice will eventually lock this clarity in.

But the more authentic answer would be: I don’t know. It is very confusing. Maybe all this meditation will get “me” out of the way and let the sensations be self-aware all the time. I don’t know. I trust that these things will resolve themselves in due course, as long as I keep up with the practice.

In the meantime, my sense of reality is shifting towards sensations-are-discovering-themselves and there is likely no “me” that’s doing all the discovery. Many of these insights come up as whispers in my mental space. The voice of these whispers are not of anybody I know. Maybe it’s a simulated voice in the head, or a combination of phrases I have read in one or more books narrated in the assumed voice of its authors, or maybe these insight-voices are sensations that are floating around and every once in a while I seem to be able to watch them.