The Emotional Models

The Specific Perception Models   |  The Theravada Four Path Model

The first edition of this work is known for various things, including and perhaps particularly this section. Its revision will probably cause some consternation among some readers, perhaps praise from others, and very likely other reactions I haven’t anticipated. My apologies if anything here seems contradictory to what came before, but this is my best attempt based on my current available data to make sense of what has been a hotly debated topic in my circles. It probably will produce more questions than answers, and those looking for something more definitive will have to look elsewhere. It will hopefully frame the complexities and controversies in some way that will at least allow you to understand some of the basics of the discussion.

Since I wrote the first edition of MCTB, I have had the privilege of meeting and conversing with many other dedicated explorers with much talent, long practice histories using a wide range of techniques, high standards, as well as high ideals about what practice might lead to. I got to be part of their adventures in some ways, sharing techniques and tricks with them as well as learning from them, and thus they became part of my adventures and explorations. Central to all of this is what to do with the emotional models, which promise some sort of emotional transformation, some elimination of certain emotions, or the elimination of all emotions entirely. Thus, before the main party begins, I add the following practical points:

1) Adopting a limited emotional range model may tempt us to imitate a limited emotional state. Thus, rather than investigating the sensations that made up that emotion or understanding the causes and conditions that led to that emotion arising, we are repressing that emotion. We may get farther and farther from ourselves instead of more in touch with ourselves. Real-world experiences with my own practice and those of my valiant and remarkable co-adventurers confirms this again and again.

2) Investigating emotions themselves can be both rewarding and difficult. Most people on meditation retreat who attempt this come away with mixed results. Many get overwhelmed for various periods of time by their issues, delving into circular thought patterns that often don’t end up leading anywhere except to reinforcing and repeating those thought patterns through strong concentration. Some do occasionally arrive at helpful resolutions of those issues, as insights into various other ways of perceiving and then interpreting that situation arise, or in the process of finding those sensations in the body and noticing their true nature, or other variants on those themes. More attention to the sensations that make up emotions and to the sense of how they arise and function eventually brings more clarity to them and so is very worthwhile. That said, here goes the fun from MCTB1, modified in places to make it more to my tastes these days.

The limited emotional models are so fundamental to the standard ideals of awakening as to be nearly universal in their tyranny. You can’t swing a dead cat in the great spiritual marketplace without hitting them. Almost every tradition seems to have gone out of its way to promote them in the most absurd and life-denying terms possible, though there have also on occasion been attempts at reform. I must acknowledge and express thanks for the attempts, however ineffective, bizarre, mythologized, cryptic, vague, and culturally naive, which the Tibetan and Zen traditions have occasionally made in this regard, and mourn their nearly perpetual failure to make these issues clear. At least they tried, whereas the Theravadins have barely tried in 2,500 years, as far as I can tell, except for the vagueness you sometimes find in the Thai Forest tradition on the subject. If I am wrong, please do let me know, and please provide specifics. 

These emotional models basically claim that awakening involves some sort of emotional perfection, either gradually or suddenly, and usually make these ideals the primary criteria for their models of awakening, while often ignoring or sidelining issues related to clear perception of the true nature of phenomena. Usually these fantasies involve elimination of the “negative” emotions, particularly fear, greed, hatred, anger, frustration, lust, jealousy, restlessness, and sadness, but some claim to eliminate all emotions, period. At a more fundamental level, they promise the elimination of all emotional forms of attraction and aversion.

As I am sure you can already tell, I am no fan of most of these models of awakening. In fact, I consider their creation and perpetuation to be basically evil in the good old “you should burn in hell for perpetuating them” kind of way. (Did I mention I was raised in the South, y’all?) However, as guidelines for trying to be kind and behave well (training in morality), I find them of real, but limited, inspirational value. I acknowledge the hints of truth they contain and also what a marketing ploy they are, and will attempt to make both aspects clear. This is not easy to do, and the dogma of the emotional models is so deeply ingrained in us all that shaking it can be the work of a lifetime even in awakened beings.

In fact, the cognitive biases that cause people to interpret basically anything you say against the emotional models back through some sort of emotional-model-in-disguise filter is amazing to witness. It is like we just can’t imagine awakening without them getting in there somewhere. I find even those who have bought into the general operating concept that there is something wrong with the emotional models falling back into their clutches again in their own practice.

The practical application of being explicit about our specific emotional ideals is that it is nearly guaranteed that we will try to become like the model we consciously or unconsciously adopt. While even very early insights, such as Mind and Body, can definitely help us handle our emotions with more balance and spaciousness, it is easy for us to buy into the limited emotional range models to go around imitating an emotionally limited or limiting state by repressing, denying, or ignoring what’s actually arising in our experience (because we’re not supposed to have x or y emotion) or our basic human nature, as I know all too well from my own practice and that of my colleagues. Bill Hamilton often warned to avoid some form of ideal-driven self-hypnosis that would cause me to unconsciously imitate spiritual ideals without real understanding. He made an excellent point. It is also worth mentioning that a relentless emphasis on not indulging in the content of experience but noticing the three characteristics of the sensations that make up emotions can easily become a form of emotional repression and/or dissociation, so be careful to try to avoid that. Noting is not supposed to turn us into robots, it’s supposed to sharpen our wisdom and to help us realize the intrinsic alignment of heart, mind, and body.

I personally benefited from going back and giving the emotions much more attention after my more technical phase in which I gained some fundamental insights. It helped to round out the picture and to take those insights and integrate them into various aspects of how the emotions can manifest. Once we gain transformative insights, it is helpful then, in that new mode of perception, to revisit previous issues, hangups, neuroses, tensions, and conflicts—bringing them into awareness to see what is different and what is the same about them. This revisiting often leads to a changed perspective on them, and this often provides at least partial resolution of some aspect of them that was caught up in some previous way of being. Doing this consciously, intentionally, as a systematic practice often provides some additional looseness, openness, clarity, perspective, humor, and balance.

By this point, we are likely to be very, very familiar with our issues list. We might even write them down, sit down after deep insights, and bring them to mind in this new space one by one to see how they feel, how they perform, what is still sticky, what is less so, and so performance-test whatever it is we have learned on the cushion. I realize that, by writing a paragraph like this one, I risk undoing the necessary counterbalancing of the emotional models. However, if our fundamental insights don’t change something essential about the way we perceive and relate to what dwells in our human hearts, particularly the tricky bits, then more insights are called for and likely available with good insight practice. As one of my favorite meditation teachers, Sharda Rogell, once said, “Meditation is not about turning a human being into a stone. It is about turning a stone into a human being.” (Is this an original saying of hers? I don’t know, but she is the one who shared it with me.) 

There are some benefits to identifying and then skillfully moderating the inner processes and external manifestations of negative emotions while simultaneously being conscious and accepting of the fact that difficult emotions occur. Morality training is vast and contains many foundational practices, forming a skillful, albeit incomplete, solution to how to deal optimally with our unskillful emotional aspects. For example, in my work as a physician, I do my best to maintain professionalism and kindness in the face of various suffering patients and their myriad reactions (such as kicking, hitting, screaming at, and spitting on their care providers) to help defuse situations and maintain an atmosphere that is more conducive to good patient care and healing for all involved. However, if we repress our various emotional reactions to suffering while simultaneously pretending that they can’t or don’t occur within us (usually based on some “spiritual” model that tells us they’re verboten), this sort of cultivated denial can also produce huge shadow sides and a lot of unconscious, more extremely reactive, neurotic, and even violent behavior. A tour of basically any spiritual community on the planet (or hospital for that matter) will reveal this in staggering abundance. Dissociation and passive aggression are classic manifestations of this sort of denial and refusal to see our emotions for what they are.

A far more practical approach is to accept that we are human, try to be decent in a normal, down-to-earth sort of way rather than in a grandiose, (non-)self-conscious, spiritual way, and assume that reducing and eliminating the illusion of the dualistic split is possible through doing basic insight practices. Reducing the sense of a split can provide more clarity, allowing us to be the human beings we are with more balance and less reactivity in the face of that humanity. In fact, it is by being clearer and more aware of exactly what our emotions are, and how and when they arise, that makes it easier to come up with wiser responses to them. As we habitually bring attention to the whole range of human experience, that attention can transform aspects of what happens in our experience and in our interactions with others.

That said, all living examples whom I have encountered fail to live up to the highest ideals of the standard emotional models that promise the elimination of either all negative or destructive emotions, or all emotions entirely, in some way. I know a few people who claimed to have eliminated all emotions only to realize later that they were totally wrong, sometimes with extremely unfortunate consequences. I know a few people who claim to have eliminated all emotions and yet externally seem to be totally emotional, including demonstrating what looks exactly like emotions that would often be considered bad by the standard ideals. That they claim to be unable to perceive this seems more like denial than realization to me. Is it possible, as is sometimes argued, that people will for all the world appear to have emotions externally and yet not have any internally? While there is an outside chance that this may have occurred in someone, I truly believe it is just another form of hyper-sophisticated spiritually-induced blindness and rationalization, common things being common as they are, and there is no reason this couldn’t be blended with genuine insights, as most of the people I know who claim this sort of thing have spent a lot of time practicing.

The Specific Perception Models   |  The Theravada Four Path Model