Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Emotions and Meditation

In my last post I tried to explain my understanding of meditation and how the idea came about that one develops miraculous powers by regular practise. This post will be about the relationship between emotions and meditation.

I think that this is worth its own post because I regularly meet people who seem to think that all "meditation" is, is a method for channelling very strong, "positive" emotions. There are a lot of sources for this belief, but the two most common ones seem to be from the Christian and Buddhist religions.

The New Testament has some pretty strong passages that teach the important of "love". A very beautiful translation of a letter from St. Paul is often quoted to emphasize this point.

The Way of Love

13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

And it is true that love is very important to being a realized human being. But there is a very important point that I would like to make about it.


I often meet believers that act as if "love" is some sort of "thing" or "essence" that a human being hold in their hands like a talisman. Sometime I even meet people who seem to be "love intoxicated" and who walk around with a weird smile on their faces and who's answer to almost every intractable human problem is "love". In fact, the Beatles even wrote a song that just about sums up this world-view.

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love. There's nothing you can do that can't be done. Nothing you can sing that can't be sung. Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game It's easy. There's nothing you can make that can't be made. No one you can save that can't be saved. Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time - It's easy.

All you need is love, all you need is love, All you need is love, love, love is all you need. Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love. All you need is love, all you need is love, All you need is love, love, love is all you need. There's nothing you can know that isn't known. Nothing you can see that isn't shown. Nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be. It's easy.

All you need is love, all you need is love, All you need is love, love, love is all you need. All you need is love (all together now) All you need is love (everybody) All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

Now consider, if you will, the subtle difference between these two passages. St. Paul talks about a person's abilities distinct from their love: "if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing". He is not saying, like Lennon and McCartney, that "all you need is love". It is faith that moves mountains for Paul, not love.

Philosophers make the distinction between what they call "necessary" and "sufficient" qualities. The former is what popular parlance would call a "deal breaker", but it doesn't necessarily mean that it is "the whole deal". For example, Air is necessary for human life, but it isn't sufficient---we also need things like food and water. People suffocate without oxygen, but they can also starve, die of thirst, freeze, etc. St. Paul is saying that love is necessary, whereas the Beatles are saying that love is sufficient. This is not an exercise in hair-splitting, but rather something with very important consequences.

Love is demonstrably not all we need. We also need wisdom, equanimity, creativity, and a whole suite of other important qualities in order to live a full life. Moreover, love can be a tremendous source of dysfunction in people's lives. Having quoted St. Paul and the Beatles, now lets look at the lyrics of a song by Bessie Smith:

Careless Love :

Love, oh love, oh careless love,
You've fly though my head like wine

You've wrecked the life

Of many a poor girl
And you nearly spoiled this life of mine

Love, oh love, oh careless love

In your clutches of desire
You've made me break a many true vow
Then you set my very soul on fire

Love, oh love, oh careless love,
All my happiness bereft
Cause you've filled my heart with weary old blues

Now I'm walkin' talkin' to myself

Love, oh love, oh careless love,
Trusted you now it's too late
You've made me throw my old friend down
That's why I sing this song of hate


Love, oh love, oh careless love,

Night and day I weep and moan
You brought the wrong man into this life of mine

For my sins till judgement I'll atone

People routinely talk about "falling in love" or being "full of love". But what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that what people do when they are "in love" is better than when they are not? No, it doesn't because we are all aware of the situation where someone is quite selfishly in love. Infatuation---which is what being "in love" means---leads to all the sorts of crazy self-destructive behaviour that Bessie Smith is referring to.

It might be argued that this problem is just a result of the English language's use of just one word, "love", to describe a wide variety of emotions. In Greek, for example, there are a wide variety of words that describe a complex pallet of the emotion: "eros", "agape", "philia", etc. So the crazed stalker who will not leave a person alone because of their infatuation is simply someone who is in the grip of one particular type of love, probably eros. And, if we accept this line of argument, "eros" isn't really the sort of "love" that the Beatles are talking about.

I'm not sure if this distinction holds, though, as there are also equally unbalanced manifestations of other types of love. For example, it is possible to be so in the grips of religious love, agape, that a man is willing to do terrible crimes. For example, what were the hijackers of 9/11 but people who were in love with their understanding of God? Even if someone has not allowed their ideal of "love" to convince them to commit mass murder, it can get them to do some pretty crazy things that they would never do if they thought about it coolly and rationally.

Another distinction that philosophers would make is that between a substance and a quality. The former is a "thing" whereas the latter is something that we would say about it. An apple is a substance, whereas "red" is a quality that an apple may manifest. I would argue that "love" is a quality of human intention, not a substance. A person may bake bread with "love", but the love in this case has no existence without the actual bread.

This too might seem like hair-splitting, but it isn't. If "love" is something in and of itself, then it is possible to be "filled with love" without any reference to a specific activity. But if it is instead a quality, then our love only becomes manifest in how we are relating to a specific thing. And this, I believe, is an absolutely essential difference when it comes to meditation.

It is because people who walk around "intoxicated by love" are truly intoxicated---but not by love. That is, they are "emotion junkies" who have become intoxicated with the feeling they get when they are "in love". People who have fallen "in love" will know what I mean when I talk about the physical feelings that one gets from the experience. They are very similar to those of being intoxicated with a mild narcotic, like marihuana.  And the emotion junkies are not really experiencing "love" at all, unless it is "love" of being "high" on love. 

And this is where I get back to meditation.

When we meditate we can learn to manifest a great many different emotions and feelings. It is possible to learn how to turn on and off emotional feelings pretty much at will. If anyone doubts this, consider a scene from an episode of "The Simpsons" I once saw. In it, Bart needed to manifest tears in order to convince his mother that he was indeed sorry for a deed he had done. Just before he met her, he said to himself "OK, think about the day your cat died!" And indeed the tears did well up in his eyes. After his mother backed down and he was left to himself, he kept crying and said "Too effective! Oh poor snowball!" In the same way, it is possible to learn how to crank up one's positive emotions and waft through a large part of one's life in a emotional "high".

But is it "love"? It certainly isn't if it is an act designed to manipulate your mother. Nor is it if it is a life strategy that allows you to keep from confronting the difficult complexities that face you here and now. In fact, in some ways it is the exact opposite of real love because the real focus is not the "other", but rather the self. Bart Simpson triggered his emotions by thinking of his dead cat, but the situation was really all about weaselling out of the punishment he deserved.  In the same way, someone who is high on the concept of "love in general" is not connecting with the person or situation in front of them here-and-now, but instead is trying to avoid the reality that confronts them.   They are exactly like Bart Simpson, cranking up their emotions in order to avoid punishment.  

In contrast, real love is a subtle quality of our lives that exists pretty much outside of strong emotions.  It is not a strong feeling of the self, but instead a total "giving up" of the self in favour of the other.     


I remember the first time I recognized what real love is---and it too involved a cat. I got up in the middle of the night for some reason and was walking around my home in my bare feet. I stepped in a puddle of vomit and the absolute first thought that came into my head was "My cat's sick". Not a personally-directed feeling of "Yuck!", but an outwardly directed concern for another being. Totally spontaneous without a single moment or iota of self-examination according to some sort of external criteria. At that one spontaneous moment I was living wholly as someone who was concerned about the other as a subject in and of herself instead of as a secondary character in my own personal drama.

Now as I mentioned in the introduction to this essay, a great deal of the misinformation about emotion and meditation seems to flow from Christianity. When I wrote that, I wasn't referring to the quote from Saint Paul----which is not only great literature, but not substantially in disagreement with what I have written above. But there are forms of popular religious practices that are designed to be not much more than an attempt to ramp-up the emotional feelings of individual believers and put them into the habit of getting regular emotion "fixes".

Consider, if you will, the Christian tradition of "passion plays". These are dramatic performances that are specifically designed to get people emotionally cranked on the violence and pathos of the crucifixion of Christ. This dramatic tradition stretches back hundreds of years in Christianity and have recently undergone a tremendous rebirth, including the extremely popular movie by Mel Gibson, "The Passion of the Christ". It is very hard to understand exactly what role these dramatic performances could have other than to inflame the emotions of those who view them.

Another form of emotionalism is the "visualizations" that many Christians are taught to manifest when they meditate. Often this involves some sort of gruesome picture of an actual, physical human heart surrounded by thorns and pierced by a spear wound. Sometimes the heart is presented by itself, but often it is part of a full picture of an especially sentimental representation of Jesus. While contemplating this representation, it is often suggested that some sort of prayer be offered that is also extremely sentimental and emotional in nature. For example, I pulled the following off the internet pretty much at random:

You, O Lord, I see in life. In everything surrounding me that is of You, I see beauty, wholeness, peace, joy and most especially love. Yours is a love that transforms, that reaches into the inner landscape of my soul. There is no mountain high enough or valley low enough that can keep Your Love from reaching me. No matter what I do or where I go, You will always be there, loving me, leading me home. You lead me to the desire of Your Heart, an inner Communion with You in Your Heart. Your desire is for an intimate, profound relationship with me and with each of the hearts and souls, which You created for the purpose of Love. As I sense Your Loving Presence in Life as a child, I awaken to Your Heart and am moved.

Buddhism also has a tradition that involves the artificial creation of strong emotions.  This is called the "Metta", which is usually translated as "loving kindness towards all beings". Like the sacred heart practise of Christianity, it is aimed at creating a strong emotional experience that is aimed at no one in particular.  It does this through the practice of trying to progressively create warm feelings towards oneself, one's friends, and eventually one's enemies.

There is significant differences from Christian practice, though, in that the Metta practice is focused upon the individual instead of an external God, and, that it exists in a wider Buddhist context that is very strongly oriented towards promotting self-awareness. As such, it should be viewed more as a temporary expedient---like a seditive for someone suffering from a psychotic episode---rather than a completely sufficient meditative practice. People who have a hard time controlling their anger will be told to follow the Metta practice until such time as they are ready for a less emotional meditation technique.

The problem for Westerners is that when they go to a introductory workshop on Buddhist meditation they usually do not tend to get much beyond the first level of practice. Moreover, the Christian context they come from prepares them to think that this sort of emotional "first-aid" is the total treatment. This means that they are ready to walk away from their limited experience with the belief that, like Lennon and McCartney would say, "All you need is love---".

In actual fact, meditation is something completely different. But that is the topic for another post.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Good to see you writing again!