Universal Emotion

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Universal and cultural

Gripped by emotion

What happens during the moment we experience an emotion?

In the West, one of the things we say that distinguishes emotion from other mental phenomena is that an emotion can occur very quickly. It can begin in a fraction of a second (even though in some people it often takes much longer).

A second distinguishing aspect is automatic appraising. The evaluation that turns on an emotion happens so quickly that we are not aware it is occurring. We are not a witness to the process of evaluation that generates the emotion. We typically become aware that we are afraid, or angry, or sad, after the emotion begins, not before.


 Have you ever been in the grip of an emotion before you noticed it starting?

Do you feel as if emotions happen to you?

Do you feel that you do not choose to have an emotion, to become afraid, or to become angry — you are suddenly angry.

While you can usually figure out what someone did that caused the emotion, are you unaware of the process that evaluates, for example, what Judy did that made you angry?

This is a core understanding of emotion that Buddhism and the western sciences see differently. In the West we think of the first moment of a process that leads to an emotion as something unknowable — we can only wonder about it. Our awarenss begins with the emotion itself. In other words, we are not the master at the incception.


Here's an example we used earlier. You are driving a car, and suddenly another car moves as if it is going to hit you. Without thought, before you know what's happened, you twist the wheel, you hit the brake.

The emotion has saved your life. If you had to think in order to recognize the danger, and think about what to do, you would not survive.

This example demonstrates our evolutionary emotions. Something is moving fast toward our visual field, we respond. It doesn't matter what it is.