Emptiness and the Education of the Emotions

Jeffrey Morgan. Educational Philosophy and Theory. Volume 47, Issue 3, 2015.

In a supermarket parking lot not far from my home I witnessed a terrible row between a man and a woman. The man, whose face I could not see, was in an expensive sport utility vehicle, and the woman was walking back and forth not far from the car. The man was shouting loudly, hysterically hitting the steering wheel with his hands. I could not determine what caused his rage, but I feared for the woman’s safety so I watched at a safe distance. Thankfully, he calmed down and the two drove away. However, the event made me wonder about how important it is for people to develop more refined emotional lives; surely this man would have been ashamed of his behavior had he been in my position, watching it from 50 metres’ distance. I wondered too how education might have helped his situation; did his schooling or upbringing somehow fail him?

The education of the emotions is possible only if two conditions are met. First, there is a normative condition education necessarily results in a change for the better. (I understand this as a purely formal criterion at this point; the substantive criteria will be elucidated below.) Now, since we educate persons, not emotions per se, it is the emotional life of a person that is evaluated. In other words, while there is a sense in which particular emotions can be evaluated, as I did regarding the enraged man above, we are really evaluating the person experiencing or expressing the emotion—the man is somehow at fault for his experience or expression of the rage. The normative condition is necessary because the concept of education is itself normative; to say that one is educated with respect to her emotional life implies that she has achieved a worthwhile emotional life. Second, it must be possible to acquire or develop this worthwhile emotional life at least in part through learning and teaching. I call this the pedagogical condition. If the achievement of a worthy emotional life were brought about through chance or entirely through a process of natural development, then we could not talk of educating the emotions. Further, because we think of education as a matter of transforming the person, the learning must contribute to an enduring and deep change in the person, rather than a superficial skill.

Therefore, any theory of the education of the emotions must include both a normative component stating and justifying the norms of emotional education, and a pedagogical component that describes how those norms are to be met. This satisfies the two conditions noted above. There is a logical priority to the first component. Diverse conceptions of a worthwhile emotional life necessarily require distinctive approaches to emotional learning and teaching. I hope that this is obvious: we cannot determine the methods or content before determining the goals. That said, it is important to note the caveat that were a proposed educational goal impossible to achieve through learning and teaching, then that goal must necessarily be excluded from our educational ideal. This follows from the Kantian principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ (Kant, 1931). The purpose of this article is to show that central Buddhist teachings suggest a rich and promising theory of the education of the emotions, in both the normative and the pedagogical dimensions. Fleshing this picture out, I draw on the teaching of conditioned arising along with the Madhyamaka teaching of emptiness, and the connected idea of anattā. My point in this article is to defend a model of emotional education that takes emptiness seriously.

I will not attempt to defend Buddhism as a religion. While it clearly is a religion—or family of religions—with distinctive sects, rites and hierarchies, my interests are more in Buddhism as practice, along the lines of Stephen Batchelor’s (1997) approach to the tradition. I hold that Buddhism can be practiced regardless of an individual’s religious creed, or even with no creed at all. However, the normative vision for the emotions to be outlined in this article does stand in need of some defense and I will discuss briefly the oft-heard charge of nihilism below. A full treatment of the charge of nihilism, however, requires a distinct article.

One further point is worth making at the outset: Buddhist ideas have been applied by a number of thinkers in therapeutic domains as part of a range of counseling programs. The practice of mindfulness, in particular, has been appropriated by a number of therapeutic or self-help protocols to treat various conditions, including stress, depression and anxiety. Some of these applications are discussed in Blackledge, Ciarrochi, and Deane (2009). I say that these protocols are ‘appropriated’ because in the Blackledge volume there is no implicit demand to subscribe to deeper Buddhist philosophical views. Indeed, the approach is that we identify problems—stress, depression, anxiety, for example—independently of the Buddhist model, and then draw on Buddhist practices in order to resolve those problems. It is likely that the Buddha would approve; the Buddha was ultimately concerned with the cessation of suffering, and not with metaphysical truths. I therefore have no principled objection to these applications of Buddhist practice to contemporary therapeutic modalities. However, part of the value of looking at the emotions through Buddhist eyes, I argue, is that it offers a deeper perspective on the nature of emotional suffering than that offered by a purely therapeutic application of Buddhist praxis.

Others are more self-consciously Buddhist in their therapeutic approaches. For example, Hayes and Smith (2005), Kabat-Zinn (1990) and Epstein (1995) draw more explicitly on Buddhist thought. I am very much in support of these projects, especially Epstein’s, but I need to say a little about the relation between therapeutic and educational applications of Buddhist thought. Two points should be made here: first, that there is indeed a great similarity between educational and therapeutic practice; many practices from one domain can be deployed in the other. But second, there is an important difference regarding the purpose of the practice.

Typically, we think of education as concerned with initial teaching aiming to promote excellence before things go wrong, whereas we seek out therapy when things have already gone wrong, to be healed, as it were. This article is concerned primarily with education, so my interest is in developing understanding and praxis that will prevent or inhibit an impoverished emotional life, rather than with fixing things after they have gone wrong. Further, as a therapeutic modality, Buddhism can be practiced without acceptance of fundamental ideas such as the Four Noble Truths or the teaching of impermanence, emptiness and anattā. My approach is that embracing a Buddhist world view, especially the teachings of emptiness and impermanence, will have the consequence of less suffering in one’s emotional life.

The Concept of Emotion

Emotions do not form a natural kind; so a definitive analysis of the concept of emotion will be impossible—the distinctions between emotions, motives, thoughts, beliefs, intentions, desires, moods and feelings are neither clear nor distinct. These terms do not denote distinctive items in the mind; as Peters (1962, p. 120) points out, ‘these terms [emotion and motive] are not classificatory ones; they are rather terms which are used to relate states of mind such as fear, anger, jealousy to distinctive frames of reference, those of activity and passivity’. These terms are thus rather terms of art intended to serve particular purposes in particular contexts. For example, jealousy can be an emotion, perhaps describing a reaction to news that a competitor got the promotion to which one aspired, but it could also be the motive for, perhaps, sabotaging her efforts in her new position. It is not as though we have two distinctive mental states or events, but nor is it the case there is a single state causing both the feelings and the actions. We use the terms ‘motive’ and ‘emotion’ not to pick out any real entities in the mind, but rather to explain, predict or describe an individual’s actions or other behavior.

That said, there are three conditions to the ordinary application of the term ‘emotion’. First, emotions are cognitive events; they have specific intentional content. Second, emotions have a feeling component; indeed, we sometimes use the term ‘feeling’ to refer to emotions, although clearly not all feelings qualify as emotions. Third, we refer to a mental event as an emotion only if we are passive with respect to it; in other words, emotions are reactive rather than active. Let me further briefly elaborate on these three conditions.

First, emotions are cognitive events inasmuch as they imply thoughts. One cannot just be afraid, but must always be afraid of something, conceived under a given description. A fear of spiders implies seeing spiders as threatening; similarly, I cannot just be angry but always must be angry towards someone under a given description, such as ‘Johnny, the man who stole my wine’. The cognitive element in emotion is essential in distinguishing emotions from each other—even if there are physiological distinctions between, say, envy and jealousy, it is the cognitive elements that provide the key distinctions between the two emotions (jealousy involves three people, whereas envy involves just two: I can envy George Clooney for his good looks, but I could feel jealous only if I somehow saw him as possessing good looks that were properly mine—perhaps God, showing a lack of care, erroneously gave him my good looks!).

Second, emotions are passions, which is to say that they involve feelings. Without a ‘feeling’ dimension, a state would be unlikely to be referred to as an emotion. Of course, feeling is a matter of degree, and there are distinctive kinds of feeling that accompany distinctive types of emotion: flushed face, quickened heartbeat, nausea, or perhaps what Stocker (1983) refers to as ‘psychic feelings’. In general, we seem to determine the strength of an emotion largely through the strength of the corresponding feelings. The feelings associated with emotion are sometimes pleasant and sometimes unpleasant, but they are often exciting nonetheless; thus, there can be a thrill to anger, jealousy or love that might make the one inclined to pursue the emotion, even with the knowledge that the emotion is potentially harmful or otherwise inapt.

The third aspect of emotions is passivity. By this I mean that emotions are best thought of as reactions, rather than actions (Peters, 1962, 1974). They are events that reflect our vulnerability, as opposed to being things that we do. This is reflected somewhat in our language: we ‘fall’ in love, for example. Emotions are consequently signs of our vulnerability. By saying that we are passive with respect to our emotions I do not suggest that we are not responsible for our emotions; Robert Gordon (1987) compares the passivity of emotion to the passivity of intoxication, which is similarly a state in which one is affected by something else. In intoxication I am affected by the intoxicant, but I am (usually) not helpless here: I can choose not to imbibe, I can govern the situation in which I imbibe, and at least in moderation, I can control the way I respond to intoxication (by not drinking and driving, for example). Analogously, I can control my emotions indirectly: avoiding situations where I will be prone to certain emotions, by using techniques to control the way I am affected in emotion, and by controlling the way I express the emotion. I am thus at least partly responsible for my emotions, despite my passivity.

The passivity of emotion suggests that while responsible for my emotions, I cannot directly choose them, in the way I can choose my actions. I can, if I choose, get up from my desk and go to watch the hockey game on television. My choice directly determines my action, whereas in emotion my choices are at best indirect. I cannot just become angry or fall in love; instead, I must put myself in the way of these emotions, by focusing on a perceived injustice, in the case of anger, or someone’s virtues broadly conceived, in the case of love. Anger or love might befall me, but perhaps not.

Because emotions are events in which we are passive, and because they often cause us to act—or react—in inopportune ways, emotions will often seem disruptive in our lives. Witness the enraged man in the parking lot. It would be useful were there educational means by which we can develop the child’s emotional life so that it better meets his needs—we need therefore to learn ways to control our passivity. My suggestion is that this is where Buddhism comes in.

The Buddhist Dhamma and the Education of the Emotions

Gautama Siddhartha or the Buddha in his first teaching articulates the central Buddhist teaching: the Four Noble Truths. In this section I will argue that this teaching outlines an insightful theory of the education of the emotions. First, let me articulate and briefly explain this teaching.

Legend has it that the Buddha did not arrive at his enlightenment easily. After leaving his luxurious home, including his wife and infant son, the Buddha practiced all sorts of ascetic practices, following the practices of other teachers, in order to achieve enlightenment. These practices did not have the desired effect, leaving him severely malnourished and weak. One day, a peasant girl offered him a bowl of rice, which he ate thankfully. Then he sat under a Bodhi tree and meditated, eventually arriving at what he calls a ‘middle way’ between the excesses of self-indulgence and asceticism. It is not a middle way in the manner of Aristotle’s ‘doctrine of the mean’, because he does not suggest, for example, eating the right amount, which is midway between the extremes of gluttony and denial. Rather, the middle way suggests a path that neither indulges the self nor denies it. The point is not so much about the quantity one eats, for example, but the manner in which one eats—it is eating without craving. To see how the Four Noble Truths instantiate this idea, let’s look at each of the Truths.

The First Noble Truth states that life is dukkha, often somewhat misleadingly translated as ‘suffering’. Indeed, suffering is part of what the Buddha meant: we are subject to pain, sickness, old age and death, and these are experienced as unpleasant. But not all life is unpleasant in this way, so the Buddha indeed means something deeper: that all life is unsatisfactory, indeed deeply so. Life is unsatisfactory because our desires are insatiable. True, I can be thirsty and then satisfy my thirst with a glass of water, but this is just one desire and a similar desire will surely return at a later hour. Moreover, there are multiple desires and many cannot be satisfied. In those cases where I can satisfy my desires, I find that my satisfaction is short lived, as I soon become anxious over whether I will continue to possess the object of my desire: my new car, new lover, new job. Finally, one becomes attached to the self as though it is permanent, when it is just as subject to change as any other entity. The experience of change causes dukkha, especially if one craves permanence. This suggests the Second Noble Truth.

The Second Noble Truth holds that dukkha has a cause: craving. Now we need to gloss ‘craving’ carefully, because if it were understood as synonymous with ‘desire’, then it would be impossible to eliminate it, at least short of death. However, craving is special sort of desire that aims to possess the object of desire as a permanent entity, as for instance if one craves fame, fortune or relationships. The idea is that craving is the source of dukkha. However, dukkha can be defeated through eliminating craving, as the Third Noble Truth states. This is called nirvana; it is meant to be a way of life without craving, rather than a place to which one might proceed on one’s death, as suggested by some Christians regarding Heaven or Muslims regarding Paradise.

The Fourth Noble Truth indicates the path to nirvana. There are eight elements to the path, grouped under three headings: Wisdom, including Right View and Intention; Ethical Conduct, including Right Speech, Action and Livelihood; and Mental Discipline, including Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration. I will discuss Mental Discipline later, as part of a discussion of Buddhist pedagogy regarding the emotions.

For now, it is important to see that the Four Noble Truths can be read as adumbrating an account of the education of the emotions. The first three Truths articulate a norm for emotional life, including an ideal (nirvana) along with a diagnosis of how we fall short of that ideal (dukkha) and an account of the cause of falling short of the ideal (craving). The fourth Truth suggests a remedy. If we want to eliminate craving and therefore dukkha, then we follow the Eightfold Path. So the Four Noble Truths constitute the outline of a theory of the education of the emotions. But we can move deeper: is it true that our uneducated emotional lives are as unsatisfactory as the Buddhist claims? If so, why?

It is important to note that the Buddhist need not argue that every single emotion constitutes dukkha. The claim is that our uneducated—unrefined by the Eightfold Path—emotional lives are dukkha. This is because we, the unenlightened, are subject to craving. So the Buddhist does not need to argue that all emotions must be eliminated. Nirvana allows emotions, but rejects emotions that are caused by craving. The trouble is that many or most emotions are so caused. So for those of us who have not eliminated craving, our overall emotional lives will fall short of the ideal and will constitute dukkha. To understand why this is so, we need to consider three related Buddhist principles: conditioned arising, emptiness and anattā.

Conditioned arising is the basic metaphysical Buddhist insight. Events are caused by other events, and will in turn cause further events. From a metaphysical or theological point of view, this principle has the consequence that there is no first or uncaused cause, i.e. a creator God. But its personal (i.e. educational or psychological) importance is that it suggests that no substance or quality is an essential characteristic of the universe. We are familiar enough with this idea regarding constructed objects; it is obvious that the computer on which I am writing is caused by other events, and that later it will not exist. A similar point can be made regarding relationships and, importantly, the self. My self is not a permanent entity, but is rather a series of events with no defined substantial identity. In this way, conditioned arising suggests the two other foundational ideas, emptiness and anattā.

Emptiness (Pali, suññatā) refers to the idea that permanent substances do not exist, which is a consequence of the principle of conditioned arising. In the work of Nagarjuna, the doctrine of emptiness is strongly emphasized, partly in response to the development of Buddhist schools that argued that there are some permanent entities that constitute the basic building blocks of the universe. Nagarjuna’s ‘Middle Way’ interpretation of Buddhist teaching denies the essential substance of any object (Nagarjuna, 1995). Indeed, Nagarjuna holds that appreciating the emptiness of everything is the main point of Buddhist teaching. For him, even the teaching of emptiness itself—as well as all other elements of the Buddhist dhamma—is empty! This concept of emptiness obviously presents some deep philosophical puzzles.

The teaching comes under fire for being nihilistic—if nothing has permanent and substantial existence then nothing matters—but this seems strange, because suffering need not be permanent in order to warrant compassion. Deeper puzzles concern the emptiness of the doctrine of emptiness. If the doctrine itself is empty, then how can it have any significance? If it is not empty, then there is a counterexample to the teaching. This latter is an important criticism and leads to the development of the ‘two truths’ theory in Madhyamaka thought, which suggests that we can distinguish between ultimate and conventional (or relative) truth. The idea is that emptiness indeed expresses an ultimate truth, as a real description of the nature of reality. However, the emptiness of the teaching does not prevent it from being useful, as the teaching also has conventional truth, in that it leads us towards nirvana. It becomes, to use a further Buddhist concept, a manifestation of ‘skillful means’ (Conze, 1980); it is a teaching that is valuable owing to its pragmatic force in moving one in the right direction, but that may be incomplete or even false if taken as ultimate truth.

Emptiness applies to all phenomena, even to the self. This gives us the important teaching of anattā, which states that the self, like every other object, lacks permanent independent existence. It is misleading to think of this teaching as holding that there are no selves, because the two truths theory allows us to talk of the self at the conventional level; rather, the teaching of anattā applies at the level of ultimate truth. At this level we are to see that the self is a kind of fiction, that there is a human tendency to reify it and crave its continuity through time. But everything changes, including the self. To see this, we are to think of the self as constituted by five attachment groups: physical activities, sensations, perceptual activities, impulses to action, and consciousness. A little reflection on these aspects of the self shows that these groups are not permanent independent existents, but are conditioned like all other events. The self is not to be thought of as a substantive entity, but is rather best thought of as a series of events undergoing constant change. An analogy might be a university that includes campuses with buildings, administrators and faculty, staff and students, which are bound together by common purposes and regulations, including admission criteria, course stipulations and graduation criteria. There is no university over and above these elements, and these elements are always changing, so the university is never identical from one time to another.

The idea of anattā is indeed radical, at least to ordinary ways of understanding our selves. Moreover, philosophers have often attempted to reduce personal identity to one aspect of the person, such as the soul or the body. These proposals are all open to serious questions, and no reductionist view has achieved widespread acceptance. I shall not attempt to discuss these arguments here. However, in the West, albeit long after the Buddha, we do indeed find empiricist thinkers such as Locke and Hume coming close to the Buddha’s thought on this issue (Flanagan, 2011). More recently, Parfit is well known for his embrace of a version of the teaching of anattā. Parfit himself finds that the position is ‘liberating’ and makes him ‘more concerned for the lives of others’ (Fearn, 2005).

Armed with the related teachings of conditioned arising, emptiness and anattā, we can better understand dukkha. We suffer because we crave, and craving can never be satisfied. The three related teachings of conditioned arising, emptiness and anattā preclude permanent satisfaction. Of course, if one desires a slice of pineapple, one can satisfy that desire. However, the impermanence of the self, along with the impermanence of the objects of our craving, leads to inexorable frustration of desire. Both the subject (the self) and the objects of desire are impermanent, so satisfaction is at best a temporary condition. In itself this is not dukkha; however, people often desire permanent satisfaction, and this creates a conflict that leads to dukkha. The trick, then, will be to overcome the desire for permanence, whether regarding the self or the objects of our desires. Overcoming the desire for permanence is the job of the Eightfold Noble Path, which I will discuss later, after I explore a couple examples of the Buddhist diagnosis of emotions.

So let me sum up this section. First, I argue that the Four Noble Truths, the most basic Buddhist teaching, outlines an approach to the education of the emotions. The first three truths articulate a normative account that identifies the normative ideal (nirvana), how we fall short of the ideal (dukkha), as well as the cause of our shortcoming, craving. The fourth truth suggests a pedagogical approach to eliminating the cause of dukkha. Moving a little deeper, I clarified the Buddhist normative vision of the emotions by outlining the three teachings of conditioned arising, emptiness and anattā. In the following section I will explore this account further by considering a couple of examples.

Evaluating Emotional Life: Emptiness and the Emotions

All of this might seem abstract. How does the teaching of emptiness affect the interpretation and evaluation of a person’s emotional life? Can—or should—a Buddhist be emotional? I will argue in this section that there are at least two important implications of the teaching of emptiness on the issue of emotions. First, I argue that the objects of our craving necessarily lack permanence, and thus emotions that arise due to craving for permanence necessarily cause dukkha. Second, I argue that one implication is that we must recognize that emotions, like all other events, are caused by conditions and will therefore pass in time. Emotions lack permanence and the craving for emotional permanence creates dukkha. Therefore, we ought not to cling to our emotions, but rather are enjoined to be aware of them as caused mental phenomena. We may enjoy our emotions, but ought not to attempt permanence in our emotional experience.

Consider first an emotion that is often deemed a worthwhile emotion, that of loving another person. I do not attempt a complete analysis of the concept of love here, but simply need to hold that a necessary condition of loving another person is that one is emotionally attached to the other person; I feel suffering as she suffers, joy as she feels joy, and so on. If I love X, then I am affected by X’s well-being. There is more to love of course than this, but this is sufficient for my purposes. Now, to be attached to a person’s well-being in this way is not intrinsically wrong; indeed it is a sign of compassion to be in this state regarding another person. However, love often becomes more than simply attachment to another’s well-being, becoming also a desire for possession of the other person as an object. One problem with this is that persons, as has already been discussed, lack permanence. A person, like every other thing, is really a conditioned series of events, always changing. The change is not random, as the past conditions the future, but a person is not to be thought of as a permanent thing. However, it is easy to see that the desire for permanence regarding other people necessarily causes dukkha.

To restate the obvious: people change. So to be attached to a person as a permanent entity that will not change creates dukkha, not only for the lover but also for the beloved. It does so for both reasons noted above: first, one craves the permanence of the object of emotion; second, one craves the permanence of the emotion itself. The lover’s desire for the beloved’s permanence will be constricting, especially to the beloved. To the lover, change in the beloved might seem threatening, as the lover cannot be relied on as an object of one’s passion. We should also add that the lover too is impermanent, changing continuously. This creates a tension, as the lover desires permanence, but the beloved cannot guarantee this permanence. The beloved cannot be what the lover craves. The inevitable consequence is dukkha.

Second, the lover suffers in craving permanence for the emotion itself. One will love the beloved forever, hoping to maintain a kind of permanent feeing that lasts—some people imagine—beyond death! But emotions are caused and therefore cannot be permanent. As the conditions that give rise to them change so too must the emotion. So love cannot be permanent. Wanting love to stay the same is inevitably dukkha. However, this does not imply that one cannot love for long periods of time, it just means that one ought not to expect the love to be the same. It must continually be re-created. I suspect that one must come to see this continual re-creation as a choice, an act of will. So the point is not that one ought not to love. It is that we need to love without the expectation of permanence. We ought neither to expect the beloved to be permanent, nor to expect our emotion itself to be permanent.

Let me consider a second emotion, fear, from a Buddhist standpoint. Fear as an emotion implies the felt thought that something is dangerous to oneself. (Again, this is not a complete analysis but simply a necessary condition of fear.) One can fear snakes, clowns, heights or public speaking. Clearly, sometimes fear is warranted in the sense that the object of fear is genuinely dangerous; being afraid of a charging grizzly bear makes sense, given the risk of serious harm. However, a fear of public speaking or crowds is questionable, given that it is not clear that these objects have the power to harm the individual. The harm is more apparent than real. Justified or not, fear can be debilitating—although one could respond with courage too.

So we need a tool by which to distinguish justified from unjustified fear. How does the teaching of emptiness help here? First, we need to recognize that the object of fear might not be genuinely dangerous, once we take account of the doctrine of anattā. Fear has the proper function of enabling us to prevent suffering, but we must be sure that the suffering in question is bona fide. The charging bear is a genuine threat: if it succeeds there will be suffering. However, a fear of losing face in public speaking appears to be a fear that inhibits one from carrying out legitimate purposes, owing to an exaggeration of the importance of the self. I do not want my flaws to be public, so I run from those situations in which my flaws might be made apparent. This, I argue, is to overemphasize the self as a permanent and real entity, forgetting that the self is impermanent. In these cases, we must see that fear does not prevent suffering but in fact contributes to it. Second, note that fear is often pointless too: while some suffering can be avoided through fear, the Buddhist notes that dukkha is the general condition of life. So suffering cannot be fully avoided, whatever one does. Buddhist thought suggests that we accept dukkha as the necessary consequence of our ordinary (natural) ways of living, and that we need to develop a second nature that frees us from the attachment to the self and other entities. Thus, one is in some respects moving beyond fear. In this way, Buddhism helps one to reduce the impact of fear in one’s life.

The Eightfold Noble Path: Buddhist Pedagogy

My thesis is that the teaching of emptiness will promote a better emotional life. The Eightfold Noble Path outlines a theory of what one must learn in order to reach nirvana. But it also outlines the pedagogical dimension of the education of the emotions; it is how we can teach children (and adults) so that they live worthwhile emotional lives. The three divisions of the path: wisdom, ethical conduct and mental discipline, all are necessary for achieving nirvana; however, here I focus on the third division, mental discipline, especially ‘right mindfulness’, as this most clearly applies to the transformation of one’s emotional life. However, it is important to emphasize that the eight factors in the path are intended to be mutually supporting: right views are supportive or right livelihood, which is in turn supportive of right concentration. Consequently, divorcing right mindfulness from its home in the Eightfold Noble Path may well diminish or nullify its value. It is not meant as a morally neutral skill.

We can begin with a diagnosis of our mental life without mindfulness. Our thoughts and our feelings are subject to a kind of wandering, in which they are only partly comprehended, becoming embedded in complex networks of other thoughts and feelings. At a department meeting I begin to feel angry at the remarks of a colleague, which cause me to imagine acts of revenge, and to focus on the perceived slight, perhaps long after my colleague has moved on to other issues. My feelings are only partly experienced, partly comprehended, and lead to other only partly comprehended feelings and emotions. The wandering stream of consciousness from one thought or feeling to the next prevents me from taking proper ownership of my thoughts, recognizing them for what they are. We indulge emotions without embracing them. Mindfulness is meditation on our experience, with the aim of recognizing and accepting our emotions (and thoughts) for what they are.

Mindfulness attempts to remedy the aimlessness of experience though focus on each and every mental event, recognizing it for what it is, along with its cause and its effect. Stephen Batchelor says:

To embrace hatred is to accept it for what it is: a disruptive but transient state of mind. Awareness observes it jolt into being, coloring consciousness and gripping the body. The heart accelerates, the breath becomes shallow and jagged, and an almost physical urge to react dominates the mind. At the same time, this frenzy is set against a dark, quiet gulf of hurt, humiliation, and shame. Awareness notices all this without condoning or condemning, repressing or expressing. It recognizes that just as hatred arises, so it will pass away. (Batchelor, 1997, p. 60)

The idea is that we do not need to react to emotions, but can instead simply recognize and embrace them, non-judgmentally noticing awareness inward, on the emotion itself, rather than outwardly, on the object of one’s emotion. So as the anger arises at the perceived slight, I focus on my responses, rather than on the person who apparently slighted me. I recognize my physical reactions, the desire to hit back in response, as well as the feelings of powerlessness and resentment. I am aware, and this awareness allows the feelings to pursue their natural course of arising and passing away.

The point is very much one of the direction of one’s attention. My emotional life is only partly conscious, as I consider primarily the objects of my emotions: the offensive remark by the nasty colleague, the loss of one’s lover, the dangerousness of the public speaking engagement, the ungraciousness of one’s friend. Turning my attention to the feelings that I experience, rather than towards their objects, I cling neither to the emotion nor to the object, but rather allow my feelings to take their natural course as temporary conditioned events. Their significance is neither rejected (suppressed) nor amplified as though the emotion provides a reason justifying further action. (I need not strike the man who has insulted me, nor must I marry the woman with whom I fall in love.)

It is clear that mindfulness, if one can master it, is a particularly powerful tool against the vicissitudes of ordinary emotional experience. Let me restate, however, that mindfulness must be understood as within the Buddhist context in order to qualify as part of an education of the emotions. My proposal is that the Noble Eightfold Path, glossed holistically with each factor of the path mutually reinforcing the others, supports the education of the emotions. I have focused on the practice of mindfulness, which is particularly significant with regard to the emotions, but I do not argue that it can be divorced from other aspects of the Buddhist dhamma. Mindfulness in its role in the education of the emotions must be seen as a general initiation into Buddhist thought and practice—including Wisdom and Ethical Conduct—without necessarily embracing the clearly religious aspects of Buddhism.

While this is speculative, it is reasonable to suppose that acquiring the wisdom, ethics and mental discipline of the Eightfold Noble Path will require long-term engagement by parents and other adults in the child’s life. My presentation of the dhamma in this article has not emphasized its religious dimension, but it is clear that teaching the Noble Eightfold Path is akin to a form of non-doctrinaire religious education. In a secular state, there would no doubt be much resistance to developing programs designed to support it. However, parents could be free to support Buddhist practice within the family.

Concluding Thoughts

This article attempts to show that Buddhism offers rich resources for enriching one’s emotional life. My case is: (1) that the basic Buddhist teaching, the Four Noble Truths, offers a basic outline of a coherent theory of the education of the emotions; (2) that the somewhat deeper account of conditioned arising, emptiness and anattā as a way of explaining dukkha, suggests promising approaches to understanding how dukkha arises through our emotions; and (3) that the Eightfold Noble Path offers an important means of experiencing emotions without exaggerating their importance. The account offered here can be developed further, especially by explicating how each element in Eightfold Noble Path contributes to emotional development; I focus only a little on the value of mindfulness, but it is clear that all must be part of an adequate summary of the Buddhist path to emotional well-being. Whether this account will seem plausible is, however, a matter of the whether one agrees with the Buddhist depiction of human life as dukkha.

It could be argued that the Buddhist view of life is unjustifiably pessimistic. Is life really so bad? Perhaps, on balance, suffering is outweighed by joy. Perhaps we might have recourse to a John Hick (2010)-inspired theodicy that holds that while the world today is replete with suffering, this offers the possibility for us to create a new world that is our own, rather than one we inherit. If Buddhism is correct, then it is not simply a contingent matter of fact that we suffer, but this is an essential feature of the human condition. We cannot overcome dukkha by working harder to develop technologies that alleviate suffering, at least if the Buddha is right.

Furthermore, one might worry that Buddhism might lead to a kind of self-absorption that eschews close relationships and other deep personal commitments. Of course Buddhists, especially of the Mahayana traditions, do emphasize compassion, but compassion is not love; I can feel compassion for a stranger’s suffering but it would be impossible to love the stranger. However, it could be argued that this alleviation of suffering comes at too great a cost. By abandoning deep personal commitments we might overcome suffering, but would such a life be rich? As Garth Brooks’ song says, ‘I could have missed the pain, but I would have had to miss the dance’. Perhaps nirvana is an achievement not worth pursuing.

Indeed, I find these worthy challenges to the Buddhist ideal, and certainly have not adequately addressed them here. I am persuaded that we can reply to the first objection with the claim that suffering is in fact inevitable, despite the possibility of technological advance; further, I doubt strongly that pleasurable emotions outweigh the painful. But I need to admit that this article has not established these claims as true. The second challenge, namely that the dukkha is worth it because it is the cost of meaningful commitments, is harder to address. For my part, I hold that it is possible to have loving relationships with partners, children, parents and friends, while not craving these relationships as permanent states. However, a defense of this position would demand another article.