What Is an Emotion?

by Steven Kessler

We've all lived with emotions for so long that we take it for granted that we know what they are -- but do we?

We may think they simply happen in out bodies and are beyond our control. They may seem to be entirely self-generated -- just something that arises, unbidden. But are they, really?

We may think of emotions as identical to feelings, and indeed, we often use the two words interchangeably. But are feelings and emotions exactly the same? And what is the role of sensations in the arising of feelings? Or of emotions?

The best description I've seen is this one. An emotion is a combination of two things: a sense perception (often a physical sensation) and a mental interpretation of what that sense perception/sensation means. In other words, we first have a sensation or sense perception in our body, and then our mind assigns a meaning to it. And the meaning assigned by our minds is the major factor in determining the emotion.

For example, let's look at how the same sensations in the body might be interpreted three different ways, depending on what's going on in your mind at the time. Let's say the sensations are these: your heart is beating harder and faster than usual, you feel a slight tingling in your torso, and your palms are sweating slightly. Now let's consider what's going on in your mind. If you're riding a roller coaster, you might think "This is exciting!" Your mind has assigned 'excitement' as the meaning of those sensations, and 'excitement' is your emotion. If you're on a first date with someone you really like, you might think "I'm falling in love!" Your mind has assigned 'love' as the meaning of those sensations, and that is your emotion. If you're at home alone sitting on the couch, you might think "I'm having a heart attack!" and feel fear. Your mind has assigned 'fear' as the meaning of those sensations, and that is your emotion.

All three interpretations arise out of how your mind interprets the underlying sensations. And even though the sensations are the same, your mind may assign different meanings to those sensations, depending on the situation and your mental beliefs about the situation.

Because emotions are created in this 2-step process, working effectively with emotions requires that we take note of both steps. Rather than just accepting the emotion as the whole story, we need to look deeper. We need to first track the sensations arising in the body. These are the raw data. Then we need to track what meaning the mind is assigning to those sensations. That meaning tells us a lot about what's going on in the mind -- what attitudes, beliefs, and expectations are present.

I have found that, often, to get under the beliefs and attitudes and get to what is really going on in a person, going to the raw data of their sensation experience in this moment is the most useful path. Tracking the raw sensation experience cuts through the tangle of mental activity and goes to the source -- the body.

If you want to investigate what you feel and what it means, I suggest you start by tracking your raw sensory experience, in addition to how your mind interprets it. I think you'll find the practice very illuminating.

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