Emotions are driven by conceptual thoughts

Nov 16, 2023


In our culture – and it’s certainly how we all experience things – we talk about intellectual or thinking mind and then we talk about emotions, and we see them as completely separate, don’t we? Well, according to Buddha, everything we experience in our ordinary waking, talking life is conceptual. 


Therefore, it follows that all the “emotions” and “feelings” we experience are, according to Lord Buddha’s model of the mind, all conceptual. What does this mean? 


How, then, is anger, for example, “conceptual”? Okay: the more we become familiar with our minds, the more we can see that once the heat and energy and agitation has calmed down, we’re left with the thoughts of anger running through our heads, right? The commentary about the person, what he did, how dare he, who does he think he is, poor me, not fair. . . and all the other garbage that follows. 


Well, these are all thoughts, right? That’s “conception,” isn’t it? All the packaging of those thoughts, the emotion and heat and agitation and the rest, all this is there simply because we have the strong habit to be angry from before, before, before. But because that’s the most vivid part of it for us, we call anger an “emotion” or “feeling” and therefore don’t even notice the conceptual component. 


In other words, when we begin to harness the emotional components of the anger, we’re left with the bare bones, which is the thoughts.


Attachment is just the same: it’s a bunch of thoughts about the object. But we only notice all the emotion because it’s the most evident to us: the feelings of yearning and neediness and craving, the agitation, desperation, and the rest. Again, all of that is there simply because we have had attachment for eons: it’s a huge, huge habit. 


For this reason we give them such power and don’t believe we can change them. Which is why the first level of practice is to subdue the grossest level of our energy, which is the body and the speech, the servants of our mental consciousness. When we can begin to subdue them, we have some space to see the workings of our mind, the bare bones of the conceptual thoughts.


Now, interestingly, love is also conceptual. And when it is deeply habitual, it is also packaged in emotion and feeling, isn’t it? Again, though, that’s all we understand about “love”: that it’s an “emotion.” But strip away the emotional packaging and you’re left with the bare bones, which is thought: “May he be happy.” Which is why we have to start with the simple thought, “May he be happy,” then, with much practice and familiarization, genuine affection – the feeling and emotion – will come, won’t it?


It’s easy to see that we have practiced anger and jealousy and attachment and the rest, isn’t it? Look at how easily the emotion arises! The job is to practice love and kindness and the rest; then those emotions will arise easily. 


When we understand this conceptual component, we can begin to discriminate between attachment and love. Attachment is a bunch of neurotic, needy thoughts based on me. Love is a bunch of altruistic thoughts based on other. That’s all. Right now we have both, and they’re completely mixed, like water and milk: impossible to distinguish between them. But that’s our job: by looking deeply into our minds every minute, to see the difference; and the more we look, the clearer it will become – that’s logic. The key to success, however, is a clear understanding of how the mind functions – and, of course, here we’re using Lord Buddha’s model of the mind. 


But within the mental consciousness itself it’s also hard to distinguish between positive or virtuous states of mind and negative or non-virtuous ones. Attachment and love, for example: they are absolutely opposite. Attachment is always negative, destructive, non-productive, the cause of suffering, and love is always positive, beneficial, productive, the cause of happiness. But how we confuse them! 


The trouble is we usually only ever love the people we are attached to and usually only have attachment for the people we love – so we think they’re mixed. But love is necessarily altruistic: the wish that another be happy, and attachment is necessarily self-centered and needy. And of course, it’s rooted in the fundamental misconception of ego-grasping: the stronger this ignorance that grasps at and believes in the self-existent me, the more the attachment, the hunger, the neediness.


Conclusion: it is possible to enjoy the cake without attachment; and it is possible to love a person without attachment. That’s Buddha’s point! Then, ironically, we will really get pleasure and joy! That’s what is hard to see; at the moment, we can’t even imagine love without attachment. And mainly that’s because we have very woolly views of what they are.


More blog posts

The buddhas and bodhisattvas come where they’re needed

A question came up recently: Since Lama Zopa passed away and there have been prayers for his swift return, is that to be taken in a literal sense? Will he only reincarnate if there's prayer? It’s a really good question, and the answer is completely logical and simple...

Big surprise! Attachment is the main source of our problems

As far as the four noble truths are concerned, the main source of our suffering is attachment: this is what we have to understand. This is surprising: we don’t think like this. This is not Jung's model of the mind, or Freud's. And you don't get attachment from your...

Neuroses are not at the core of our being and therefore can be removed

Let’s talk about the fundamental point that underpins all of Buddha’s teachings from A to Z – all of Buddha's teachings from A to zed, as we say in England and Australia. According to the Buddhist analysis, the neurotic states of mind, the unhappy states of mind, the...

Share this article