Embodied Cognition and Emotions: A Buddhist Perspective on Body-Mind Reactivity in Daily Life and Contemplative Life by Prof. Padmasiri da Silva

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Embodied Cognition and Emotions: A Buddhist Perspective on Body-Mind Reactivity in Daily Life and Contemplative Life

Prof. Padmasiri da Silva, Monash University, Australia


Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent on the features of the physical body, when a person’s body beyond the brain play a significant role from a causal or constitutive role in cognitive processing. Traditional cognitive science has looked at cognition in a very narrow sense in abstraction from the bodily mechanisms of sensory processing and motor control. But with the publication of the book, The Embodied Mind by Varella, Thompson and Rosch, a new dialogue emerged between cognitive science and the Buddhist contemplative/meditative psychology. This was a major paradigm shift in our appraisal of information processing: “One of the major key realizations over the last few years in science has been to understand that you cannot have anything close to a mind or mental capacity without it being completely embodied, enfolded with the world” (Varela, 1999, 72-76). Against this background there emerged a new dialogue between cognitive science and Buddhist contemplative/meditative psychology, and also we see the emergence of the new field, which is neurophenomenology.

While using this new paradigm shift as a valuable perspective, it has to be mentioned at the outset, that this paper has a specific focus on emotional reactivity in negative emotions, both at the level of the body and mind. There are two important articles regarding emotions, which are a subject of critical examination in the present article. I briefly re-visit P.E.Strawsons’s classic paper on Freedom and Resentment (Strawson, 1962) which has remained as an important contribution to philosophy over the years and Owen Flanagan’s analysis of Strawson’s study along with an analysis of Buddhist thoughts on managing destructive emotions (Flanagan, 2000). An attempt is made here for a deeper analysis of ‘’emotional reactivity” in terms of the integration of Buddhist contemplative practice to recent research in neurology. The article will develop the concept of non-reactivity with a special focus on internal affective and autonomic, as well as interactive flexibility with other people balance.

The second part of the essay would be more focused on the inroads of anger/reactivity to the contemplative practice on the anatomical parts of the body and their repulsiveness, which offers a contrast to the physical bliss of meditative absorption, which would be presented earlier. Thus combining both emotional balance is recommended.

Embodied Emotions

The subject of embodied emotions has received much attention in a different lineage from Buddhism. Jesse Prinz has revived the Jamesinian thesis that emotions are perceptions of changes in the body and they allow us to literally perceive danger (fear) and loss (grief): “The core idea I will defend is that emotions are perceptions (conscious or unconscious) of patterned changes in the body” (Prinz, 2004, 45). Also, Antonio Damasio’s ground-breaking research in emotions, body and neurology, brings out the physical transformation of emotions in the body:

Think of the muscles in the face adopting the configurations that are typical of joy, sorrow, or anger; or the skin blanching a reaction to bad news or flushing in a situation of embarrassment; or consider the body postures that signify joy, defiance, sadness or discouragement; or the sweaty and clammy hands of apprehension; the racing heart associated with pride; or the slowing, near-stillness of the heart in terror”(Damasio, 2000, 59).

But the prominent Western philosophers have not greatly opened up to the central issue of ‘managing emotions’, leaving this concern to the therapist. In addition to looking at the concept of emotions (de Silva, 2013), in Buddhism there is important focus on managing emotions, but also using “mindfulness techniques”, both in authentic meditation practice, as well as in mindfulness-based therapies (de Silva, 2007).

Reason, Passion and Mindfulness

In general, the Western philosophers (with a few exceptions), as different from contemporary therapists and neurologist, were quite comfortable and made no attempt to challenge the Platonic notion of reason as the charioteer controlling the horses (the passions). One exception is Hume who upheld that reason is the slave of passions. Jerome Neu, presents an interesting thesis that Spinoza offers a philosophical theory of ‘reason’ as a model for therapy and Hume feelings as the base for therapy. I have shown that Buddhism goes beyond both in its conception of an emotion accommodating both models and offering mindfulness to generate a more holistic therapy and mindfulness as a technique is alien to Hume and Spinoza (de Silva, 1983). As presented in an article by Graham Parks (1990) on the transmutation of emotions in the Zen Buddhist tradition and Nietzsche, there are interesting parallels in looking at emotions as among somatically the most significant, closest ties to the body. “They have a special connection with pathology, being capable themselves of engendering illness as well as participating in its cure” (Parkes, 199017. Parkes also concludes: “What Zen and Nietzchean perspectives have in common is an appreciation of the vital power of the emotions and a refusal to let that power be lost through the reduction or extirpation of affect”(Parkes, 24). There has been a misunderstanding as in the views of Flanagan (discussed below) that early Buddhism advocates the destruction or extirpation of anger, where as in Buddhism, negative emotions like anger or depression may have a cognitive or hermeneutic role in converting them into insights. As Ven.Nyanaponika says, with a little magic emotions like fear, resentment, irritation, restlessness could be converted into objects of meditation, and they become our teachers (Nyanaponika, 1986,21). There is a hermeneutic role as mentioned by Parkes in the early Buddhist techniques of dealing with negative emotions. Though Parks is a bit critical of what he refers to as the ‘’quietistic’facet of Buddhism, Buddhism does not advocate the destruction of the passions but rather make them a context for widening one’s cognitive skills and insights. While Parks compares Mahayana Buddhism and Zen with Nietzche, early Buddhism/Theravada gives a significant role to emotions and the category of feelings (vedana) (de Silva, 2013), upholds the concept of embodied cognition and emotions and discerns a hermeneutic/epistemic role in emotions and converting negative emotions as a resource for insights rather than their destruction, (as Flanagan upholds). Elsewhere, I have discussed in detail the Buddhist perspective on the emotion of sadness (de Silva, 2013).

During more recent times, Candace Pert presented a groundbreaking discovery in her work Molecules of Emotion (Pert, 1997) that the body is a second brain based on the theme that chemicals act as messengers between the body and brain.

Part II

Using this background, the present paper has a specific focus on mind-body emotional reactivity in negative emotions. I shall briefly re-visit Strawson’s classic paper on “Freedom and Resentment” (1962) and Owen Flanagen’s response to Strawson and a discussion of Buddhism and ‘Destructive Emotions’. I accept the importance of Strawson’s paper but he has conflated two significant dimensions of moral emotions. While Flanagan clears issues pertaining to the inductive basis of Strawson’s views on reactive attitudes, his extension into Buddhism and destructive emotions and emotional reactivity betray a certain simplicity which does not do justice to the more complex issue of mind-body emotional reactivity in Buddhism. Though Flanagan’s analytical response to Strawson’s paper on ‘reactive attitudes’ is useful, he misses the deeper Buddhist contemplative way to manage negative/destructive emotions. This paper will develop the Buddhist concept of non-reactivity.

‘Reactive Attitudes’ according to Strawson are human responses that include the following: indignation, resentment, gratitude, approbation, guilt, shame, pride, hurt feelings, and also feelings of affection, love and forgiveness. But there is a clearly a psychological and moral difference between resentment, indignation etc which are ‘reactive ’ and affection, love and forgiveness which are ‘receptive’ and Strawson has conflated the two categories. While both Strawson and Flanagan explore these reactive attitudes in theories of evolution and biology, neurological studies by Daniel J.Siegel makes a clear distinction between ‘reaction’ and ‘reception’:

But some ingrained states are more “sticky” and restrictive, locking us into old patterns of neural firing, tying us to previously learned information, priming us to react in rigid ways. This locked-down state is “reactive”—meaning that our behaviour is in large part determined by prior learning and is often survival-based and automatic. We react reflexively rather than responding openly. (Seigel, 2012, 199).

Siegel also observes that reactivity is our fight-flight survival reflex, where as receptivity is our experience of being safe. (Seigel, 2012, 215). Seigel says regarding developing non-reactivity, that it is basically a way of pausing before externally responding and attaining coordination and balance-a balance between accelerator and brakes functions of the brain. Basically the pre-frontal cortex plays a prominent role in developing non-reactivity: the regulation of the body system, balancing emotions, attuning to others, modulating fear, responding flexibly, and exhibiting insight and empathy (Seigel, 2007, 26). Even morality appears to be linked to the pre-frontal region but more research is needed.

Paul Ekman also makes a similar point regarding non-reactivity and emotions. “When we are in the grip of an emotion like eg. anger, a cascade of changes occur in split seconds without our choice of immediate awareness, in the emotional signals on the face and voice; present actions, learned actions, the autonomic nervous system that regulates the body; regulatory that continually modify our behaviour.....These changes are involuntary and we do not chose them’ (Ekman, 2003). But if we can make a choice and become conscious of what we feel, then he says it is close to what the Buddhist call mindfulness.

Backed by mindfulness techniques there is a focus on ‘impulsive awareness often reflected in the body’; thought patterns including our automatic appraisals (auto pilot); causes of anger and indentifying emotional triggers.

The Deeper Facets of Buddhist Contemplative Practice

Buddhist practice for developing mindfulness has a deeper source in contemplative practice, which is developing a ‘sixth senses’ going beyond the five senses. The five senses bring information with the translation of neural impulses to smell, taste, sound, touch and visual image. While the five senses bring information from the outside world, a consciousness independent of the five senses emerge in deep meditative states, which is referred to as a sixth sense, and in Pali referred to as anindriyapatibattha nana. First I shall give the background to the emergence of the sixth sense and then locate it in terms of current neurological findings.

When the meditator shifts from tranquility meditation (samatha) to insight meditation (vipassana), the breath is seen as an ‘air draft’ rather than as breath, and it is seen as one of the vibration patterns: the air (striker element), that which pushes; the point of touch, the tip of the nose or the lips, the base element (solidity); the rubbing of the air draft on the lips or nose, ignition (fire element); generation of heat/coolness, the moist element (water). In deep meditation the whole process is penetrated as the impersonal flow of vibration patterns (dropping any personal identification). As the meditator continually observes the subtle flow of these vibrations, the breath will settle, calm down, and a relaxed state of peace emerges. The gap between the ‘in-breath’ and the ‘outer breath’ disappears, and there is the experience of the complete ‘breath-body’.

“When the breath becomes finer and the mind settles, we arrive at a consciousness which is unrelated to the senses. The mind is no longer running after sense impingements....It is at this stage we notice a preliminary form of primordial consciousness—one that cannot be experienced through the sense faculties. In Pali this is described as anindriyapatibattha vinnana (anindriya is non-sensory), a consciousness that is unrelated to the sense faculties (Ven.Dhammajiva Maha Thero, 2008, 8);( Also, see, Ven.Dhammajiva Mahathero, In This Life Itself: Practical Teachings on Insight Meditation, Nissarana Forest Hermitage Publication.

At this point gradually the bodily dispositions (kaya sankhara) subside, and all the feverish activity of the body through time slows down (passambayam kayasankhara). This experience helps to discern the shifting contours of body (rupa) and mind (nama), and the whole range of bodily dispositions, mental dispositions and verbal dispositions. As one enters the deeper meditation experience, one may discern that body and mind emerge together and fade off together. One may agree with the words of a psychotherapist, Bruno Cayoun that “Thought emerges with concomitant bodily sensations” (Cayoun, 2011, 40). It must be mentioned that the tranquilisation of the breath-body leads to joy (piti), rapture and well-being (sukha).

Another important facet of the meditation practice described is the blending of certain skills: mindfulness (sati), investigation (dhamma-vicaya) energy (viriya), rapture (piti), tranquility (passaddha), concentration (samadhi) and equanimity (upekkha).

The ‘Sixth sense in Neurology’.

This six sense is what the neurologist describe as ‘interoception’.

“Our sixth sector of the rim includes sensations in our limbs, our body’s motion, the tension or relaxation in our muscles, the state of our internal milieu, including our organs as lungs, hearts and intestines. These bodily aspects of potential awareness serve as a deep source of intuition and shape our emotional state (Seigel, 2997, 122).

He also says that the hormonal state of the body, the tensions of the muscles in the limbs, torso and face have an impact on our feelings. It was William James who at a very early in the history of psychology stated that our emotions are an interpretation of physiological changes in the body. In addition to Seigel, Yana Suchy, a psychologist has emphasised the importance of interoceptive awareness, which is now receiving the increasing attention of health psychologists.

Flanagan on ‘Destructive Emotions’.

“In the West, by contrast, it is generally assumed that “anger” is a basic emotion that can be suppressed or managed, but not eliminated from one’s basic emotional constitution” (Flanagan, 2000, 259—281). The above notion that the Buddhists attempt to ‘eliminate anger’, presented by Flanagan in his article, is very simplistic. What is found in Buddhism in both its therapy and the liberation quest from suffering is a very mature understanding of the nature of anger.

Regarding anger and lust, the section on ‘thoughts’ (citta) in the Satipatthana says that one should look at anger as anger or lust as lust without making judgments, and also it is said that anger would be a very profitable object of contemplation (dhammanupassana).

Venerable Nyanaponika says, “One should face them squarely, but distinguish them from one’s reactions to them, eg. connivance, fear, resentment, irritation”. He also says, “This method of transforming disturbances to objects of meditation, as simple as it is ingenious, may be regarded as the culmination of the non-violent procedure” (Nyanaponika, 1986, 21).

Also, in the Buddhist meditative path which goes beyond the five precepts, anger has more complex meanings in terms of the five hindrances (nivarana): illwill (vyapada), anger is related to certain forms of boredom (thina-middha), related to restless and worry (uddhacca-kukkucca). Within the meditative frame of mind, anger is neither good nor bad, neither yours nor mine; it is an impersonal process that stays for a while and pass away. Thus the process is more subtle than Flanagan’s description of the destruction of anger in Buddhism.

Visible and Invisible forms of Anger

The Pura-bheda Sutta considers lust (raga) as a close and visible enemy but anger (dosa) as a hidden enemy and examines nine forms of anger going to the past, present and future. Our emotional lives are fed by subliminal proclivities (anusaya) and anger (patighanusaya) is one of the seven anusayas. It enters as a deception where one justifies anger on moral grounds, it enters the very bosom of envy and jealousy, and has a hidden presence in certain cases of depression, boredom and emotional ambivalence. In general, the advice given in the Nibbedika Sutta (AVi, 131) sounds a kindred note with the advice the Buddha gives regarding managing negative thoughts, desires and feelings. ‘Nibbedika’ means ‘recognise’, ‘understand’—their conditioned origin, diverse manifestations, their outcome, the nature of cessation (nirodha’) and not destruction.


Is there a place for the emotion of repulsiveness towards the body in Buddhist meditation? This is an intricate issue that needs careful study. Contemplating the body in terms of mortality, dissolution and decay, generally described as asubha bhavana could lead to loathing and sometimes the excitation of subliminal anger (patighanusaya) .The discourses of the Buddha record an example of excessive contemplation of the anatomical parts of the body. “An overemphasis of repulsiveness could lead to loathing which could manifest as an expression of frustrated desire. The discourses recollect an example of excessive contemplation of the anatomical parts of the body. After the Buddha had instructed a group of monks on this practice and retired into solitude, the monks contemplated the anatomical parts of the anatomical parts of their repulsiveness with such fervour...that a number of them committed suicide”(Ve.Dhammajiva, 208, 61-62). I have already discussed the positive experience of joy and rapture of the body in meditative states, which stands quite in contrast to the meditation on the repulsiveness of the body. Though the Buddha gave sufficient to misguided monks in this context, positive results are also obtained which is described by the Pali word nibbida: “The snake feels disgust towards its old skin when the sloughing is not yet complete and parts of the old skin adhere to the body. Similarly, the disgust felt towards residual attachments and defilements will give to the discipline an additional urgency in the struggle for final liberation. Such disgust is a symptom of growing detachment (Ven. Nyanaponika, Uraga Sutta, The Worn Out Skin, 1971, 9). A good contrast is the Kayagata Sutta which takes the physical bliss of absorption attainment as an object of contemplation and thus the contemplation of the body is not necessarily linked to loathing/repulsiveness. The Satipatthana compares the contemplation of the anatomical parts of the body to examining a bag full of grains and beans. “Just as examining these grains and beans will quite probably will not stimulate any affective reaction, so contemplating the anatomical constitution of the body should be carried out with a balanced and detached attitude, so that the effect is to cool desire, not stimulate aversion”(Analayo, 2003, 149).


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