When I think of an enemy I get angry

incenseYou may have read elsewhere on this site that meditation relies on the fact that there is a gap between stimulus and response, and that (assuming we’re aware) we can make choices in that gap. We can choose how we will respond in any given situation. Buddhist psychology draws an interesting distinction between feeling and emotion, and this distinction throws some light into the gap.


In common usage we tend to use the words feeling and emotion pretty much interchangeably, but in Buddhist psychology feeling (vedana) refers to our basic, gut-level likes and dislikes. Feelings are basically of three kinds — pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

These responses are automatic — we have no control over them. There are some things about some people that we simply do not like at any given moment (our likes and dislikes can change over time, however).

Feelings really are “gut level” responses. When we feel uncomfortable in particular we experience the sensation in the belly. This is probably to do with the autonomic nervous system responding to different stimuli by changing the pattern of nervous stimulation to the body, including the intestines.

Paying attention to these feelings is very useful. Sometimes we override the “gut feelings” we have about situations and regret it later. Of course those gut feelings are not always accurate — evolution favors a certain degree of caution. If the woods look dark and scary then it may well be favorable to your survival to avoid going in there.

Those feelings are useful even in situations that are far removed from survival. say for example I mis-spell the common word “enough” and render it as “eneugh.” Notice what happens in your guts when you look at the mis-spelling. Generally people feel a distinctly unpleasant sensation. It’s often by paying attention to feelings that we can recognize, say, good writing from bad writing.


Emotion, on the other hand, refers to the active responses that arise on the basis of those feelings. On the basis of an unpleasant feeling, we may well give rise to ill will (which is an emotion). When we’re not being mindful, these emotion responses arise automatically. When we do have awareness, however, we have more choice over how we respond.

When you call to mind someone you don’t get on with, you bring into your mind a host of unpleasant associations that are tied to that person. These give rise to unpleasant feelings. Then one of two things can happen. If we lose our awareness, then it’s likely that the emotional response of ill will will arise on the basis of those unpleasant feelings.

However, if we maintain our awareness we have choices. We can choose to experience the unpleasant feelings that arise spontaneously, and we can choose to wish that person well.

Learning to be comfortable with discomfort

One important thing to remember is that things that feel unpleasant are not necessarily “negative.” One example is feeling ashamed. Feeling ashamed is not a pleasant experience (it’s an unpleasant feeling), but it’s considered positive in Buddhist psychological terms because it’s an emotion based on an ethical sensibility. It feels unpleasant to know that an action we’ve performed isn’t congruent with our ideals of how we’d like to behave. So “unpleasant” doesn’t always mean “bad.”

And not everything that feels pleasant is positive, of course. It’s possible to take pleasure from being unkind, and unkindness is an ethically negative emotional state.

One of the things that we have to learn in meditation is to be comfortable with discomfort — so that we don’t react inappropriately and create negative emotional states that will only lead to more suffering in the future.

Letting go of ill will

Anyway, to get back to you and that difficult person and your meditation practice… Being aware of this distinction between feeling and emotion allows us to become comfortable with the discomfort of unpleasant feeling without giving rise to ill will.

We can learn, through the practice of mindfulness, to simply sit with feelings of discomfort so that we have an opportunity to experience lovingkindness for the person we have difficulty with rather than the habitual ill will that tends to arise. There’s a gap between feeling and emotion in which we can choose our emotional responses.

When we lose our mindfulness and ill will does arise, then we can become aware of that and choose to let go of it as soon as we’re able to. With practice our mindfulness cannot but grow stronger, and our positive emotions cannot but develop and unfold.

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