“Having no emotions, but behaving emotionally”

Griffin, modified 3 Years ago at 8/9/20 3:02 AM
Created 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 12:40 PM

“Having no emotions, but behaving emotionally”

Posts: 271 Join Date: 4/7/18 Recent Posts
I was always confused by practitioners who claim that they don’t feel emotions, while clearly expressing emotions in their behavior (smiling, writing angry comments etc.)

Today I had an unusual experience that showed me the possible explanation for this enigma. Actually, I have had several similar episodes in the past, but then I didn’t make the connection with “limited emotional range models”, which are the topic of much controversy, especially on this forum.

Namely, I had a short, but fierce argument with my wife (the cause was trivial). Suddenly, I became aware that, while my subjective feeling of anger is very shallow, I behave as if I am in full blown rage. It’s hard to describe: on the one hand, I felt like I am 90% cool-headed and 10% angry; and on the other hand, some inner pressure pushed me to behave as if my anger was 10 times stronger. Later, the pressure quickly subsided and things returned to normal.

I also remembered a few similar occasions from the past, when strong anger expressed itself through my behavior, but didn’t appear in my subjective emotional experience at all. There was some sort of pressure that made me act in a certain way, but it felt emotionally neutral. I think these events are probably unrelated to my meditation practice, because they began happening before I started meditating.

Now I see how teachers like Garry Weber may indeed subjectively experience no emotions whatsoever, although they totally behave like they do. They may even say that the body is doing some movements on its own (moving lips to make a smile etc.), but there is no emotion nor sense of agency present.


Disclaimer: I think that this way of being is unhealthy. It’s probably a type of dissociation intertwined with insight. A psycho-physiological “force” that lies behind emotions is still there (so behavior is the same), but some dissociative defense mechanism is numbing the emotional/psychological component of the process.

However, I would say that those people are not lying or just rationalizing, there is indeed something different happening with their emotions (if their experience has anything in common with those short episodes I had).

Although he is now a controversial source, I think Culadasa offered a very interesting explanation about this. In one of his old Patreon Q&A, he said that practitioners with traumatic past have a tendency to this kind of experience, because, at some level of awakening, their brain just “decides” that emotions=suffering, and therefore stops sending emotions to conscious experience. He said that (as someone who has had extremely traumatic childhood) he went through this phase in his practice, but later succeeded to get in touch with emotions again.

This makes sense, since my first “no-emotions” event was when I was being bullied as a kid: I felt like it’s not happening to “me”, the situation felt “unreal” or dream-like, and emotional experience was very shallow. Instead of running away or becoming angry and defending myself, I was passive. That was probably an attempt of the brain to reduce suffering, but psychologically unhealthy one (dissociation).

As for Culadasa, it seems that his relations with emotions remained complicated. As he confessed to Michael Taft in a podcast (before the scandal), he had repressed many negative emotions, because awakening made it much easier to ignore them. Later events indicate that his behavior probably remained controlled by some unsolved unconscious patterns. Maybe this spiritual bypassing was reinforced by an off-cushion practice that encouraged ignoring negative emotions and redirecting attention to samatha-esque qualities, described in TMI stage 10:

“Practicing mindfulness off the cushion means being aware whenever desire or aversion arise. When that happens, recognize what’s going on: some unconscious sub-minds are in conflict with what is, craving for something to be different. Don’t resist, reject, or suppress the craving. Instead, ignore it. Then, intentionally direct your attention to that inner pleasure and happiness that has nothing to do with what’s occurring externally. Likewise, purposely intend to notice the positive aspects of whatever you perceive.”
Oatmilk, modified 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 3:17 PM
Created 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 3:14 PM

RE: “Having no emotions, but behaving emotionally”

Posts: 141 Join Date: 7/30/20 Recent Posts
Hey Griffin, 

depending on how mature your practice and path-knowledge is, experiencing no emotions is kind of normal and I would be careful with pathological terms. 
While it's true that you don't necessarily experience emotions, you still have affect. Affect is your basic sense of feeling, ranging from ununpleasant to pleasant (valence), and from agitated to calm (arousal). 
Speaking of my own experience, there are three scenarios on how emotions are perceived. 
1) While being emotionally activiated from the inside, there is seemingly no response from the body. Let's say you experience anger, but your body is not tensing up for example. 
2) While being in a familar scenario, in which there's a recognition of an emotion, there is no 'mental' perception of it. For example, watching a horror movie. The body tenses up, while fear is not experienced from a mental perspective. 
3) Being very identified with ones mind, emotions are experienced as usual.

The perception of emotions also varies, depending on the insight stages. While in Review and the first three Nanas for example, strong emotional content is showing up,whereas emotions are experienced very vague in Equanimity.

Depending on the tradition, emotions are also seen as dualistic perception.

I hope this was somehow useful(:
Daniel M Ingram, modified 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 7:08 PM
Created 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 7:08 PM

RE: “Having no emotions, but behaving emotionally”

Posts: 3268 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
I understand the arguments here and have considered them.

I have also noticed things in my own life like crying while feeling very little sadness, appearing angry while having very little that one might ordinarily consider the feeling of anger, but I consider this like having a finger that has been anesthetized with lidocaine: it is not that I don't have a finger, just that I don't feel pain in it.

I agree that there is something potentially quite dangerous about not feeling feelings much or at all and thus thinking you are not having them, just as the feet and hands of those numb from leprosy don't tend to last that long, or those who have strong psychopathic personality traits who literally feel no empathy often cause difficulties as well even though they might find their lack of empathy to be a blessing and think that it was those who did feel empathy that were the idiots, as one psychopath expressed to me one day.

Still, if one is yelling or crying or laughing, even if one doesn't feel it as anger or sadness or happiness, I still functionally consider those feelings. Call me old-fashioned.

Ricky Lee Nuthman, modified 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 8:15 PM
Created 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 8:15 PM

RE: “Having no emotions, but behaving emotionally”

Posts: 92 Join Date: 4/22/18 Recent Posts
When I finished my first 10 day meditation retreat some years ago I began having interesting emotional responses that I found bizarre at the time.

After leaving the retreat center, still with that fresh concentration glow, my wife and I both went to a dental appointment. When we arrived,  the receptionist asked us to be seated. About 45 minutes later, I felt like I should be agitated, but weirdly didn't at all. I asked the receptionist how long until we could go in.

She looked at me, and asked me my name. She looked me up in the computer, and said, "you don't have an appointment today"

My face scrunched up, and I angrily said, "Why did you get my info and let me sit there for 45 minutes?" 

Then she said she would see what happened in the system because we had a printed appointment card to prove it. Instead, she proceeded to have a personal casual conversation with her friend on the phone for another 30 minutes. 

I started making some really nasty faces and complained again. However, here is the weird thing. I didn't feel any of it. In fact, both times I got 'angry' I started to giggle a little toward the end. She must have thought I had gone mad.

I was giggling because of the absurdness of being this 'actor' going through the motions of getting pissed off without feeling any of the emotions.. maybe there was a split second of tiny upset, but not really proportionate to the way my body was behaving.

I noticed that there is some amount of permanent reduction in my emotional response, but nothing even close to that after retreat glow. I have dreamed of that becoming my permanent state, but it seems like a long way off!

So yeah, it is possible, in my experience at the very least temporarily,  to have a physical yet not mental response to emotions.
Jazz Muzak, modified 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 9:39 PM
Created 3 Years ago at 8/8/20 9:31 PM

RE: “Having no emotions, but behaving emotionally”

Posts: 36 Join Date: 9/27/19 Recent Posts
I have run into a few people who claim interesting things about emotion, actions, practice, etc. They will say things like "I have no emotions" or "I have never practiced" or "I don't do anything", or even more extreme, "nothing happens", "nothing exists", etc etc etc...

In these cases, the justification SEEMS to be "there is no self, therefore there is no 'I' to do/experience/feel these actions/practices/emotions." My personal experience has a different color, so to speak. There is clearly no central actor/controller in experience, but very clearly actions, emotions, practice, even interesting things like the sense of agency, human interaction (which seems to require some this side/that side distiction), mundane desire, etc show up in a causal manner. What happens in my life isn't so different from before, it just happens on its own now. This causes me to be not so sure when I hear people talk about how they don't experience certain aspects of human experience. It's entirely possible I'm delusional and haven't practiced correctly, but six or so years of heavy practice have increased the notion that this is a humble, human birth, and I can't escape that until I die. YMMV.

I realize I kinda got off subject with my dumb personal story. The point being, it's possible some of the people claiming they have no emotions have some weird philosophical justification for their stance, not that they literally don't manifest emotion in their subjective experience/outward expression.
Griffin, modified 3 Years ago at 8/11/20 3:32 PM
Created 3 Years ago at 8/11/20 3:32 PM

RE: “Having no emotions, but behaving emotionally”

Posts: 271 Join Date: 4/7/18 Recent Posts
Thanks everyone! Great comments.