The Centrality of Emotion, Part 1: What Ancient Philosophy Offers Modern Naturalists

(cc) azrasta
(cc) azrasta

Emotion is central. As much as we naturalists embrace objective science, the reason we do so is for the sake of the subjective. If it were not for the emotional response to nature, community, and the depths of our own minds – in short, the enrichment of our inner world – there would be little point to Spiritual Naturalism at all.

This is something I’ve realized as I’ve been working to create an online educational course for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. In order to make it applicable to all paths of Spiritual Naturalism, I’ve had to drill down into the core of what we do. What I’ve discovered is that emotion is central, but a principled approach to cultivating it is hardly to be found in the science we so cherish. Rather, we must return to ancient philosophy for a model. Part 1 of this article explores this issue, while Part 2 attempts to integrate ancient philosophy and modern science.

A Path of Head and Heart

Whether you are a Naturalistic Pagan or a Secular Buddhist or a Humanistic Jew, at the center of it all is emotion. This has been recognized by leaders in the modern naturalist movement, for example DT Strain and Tom Clark, and no doubt numerous others. What these modern thinkers affirm is that the spiritual response to life involves not only intellectual assent to a set of principles, but also a fully-embodied life practice motivated by emotion. In other words, it is a path of head and heart.

However, despite the obvious importance of emotion to our daily lives and its recognition among spiritual leaders, there is relatively little in modern science or philosophy that has anything to do with it. With few exceptions*, science and philosophy have let the question of a subjectively happy life slide to the periphery. To judge by modern higher learning, emotion is not central at all.

It wasn’t always that way. Ancient philosophy, as scholar Martha Nussbaum observes, was primarily a “therapy of desire.” The central question was how best to live. Happiness, in the sense of a meaningful and worthwhile life, was the goal, and the question was what emotional desires led most directly to that blessed state.

So, if the ancient world had what the modern is missing, perhaps we would do well to take a deeper look at why and how they made emotion central.

Why Emotion Is Central

Philosophers in the ancient world placed emotion at the center. The reason is aptly summarized by the 8th cen. Buddhist Shantideva, who said (to paraphrase): “To keep your foot from being hurt on a stone, you need not cover the world in leather; all you have to do is cover your own two feet.” In other words, if the world is emotionally painful, don’t expect it to change for you; just change yourself.

This sentiment was echoed throughout the ancient world. For example, the Stoics of ancient Greece – far from being emotionless, as the common misconception would have it – believed only those emotions which were in accord with reality were conducive to happiness. You cannot help but suffer if you yearn for what can never be; happiness comes from deep acceptance of how the world actually is. Meanwhile, far away in ancient China, Confucius and Lao-tzu were in complete agreement: we must flow with the Dao, not against it. All these philosophers taught the central insight that happiness comes only from emotional reconciliation to the universe, not as we wish it to be but as it truly is.

So, in short, ancient philosophy’s approach to happiness is to cultivate an emotional life that is in right relationship to reality. Thus, the rationale for the centrality of emotion is clear. As Shantideva reminds us, if the world is painful, you need not wait for the world to change; all you need to do is change yourself.

How Emotion Is Central

Philosophers didn’t just bloviate on emotion; they got their hands dirty. Each school analyzed exactly how it arises in order to discover how best to work with it.

McEvilley details the theories of the various schools, but the general method can be summed up in three simple steps:

  1. analyze how emotions arise
  2. diagnose the point(s) at which influence is possible, and
  3. train yourself in the skills necessary to do this successfully

For example, the Buddha put forth the twelve links of paticca-samuppada, or co-dependent arising, showing how attachment leads to suffering and where the process can be interrupted. Something similar was advanced by the Stoics, detailing how the mind processes an emotional impulse until it reaches a point where one may withhold assent if it is not in accord with reality. Such understandings of the emotional process allowed the philosopher leverage on her own emotions: by understanding how the process occurs, she learned how to influence it in more fruitful directions, thereby taking responsibility for her own emotional life.

From the Ancient World to the Modern

In short, the ancient world had what the modern world is largely missing, namely a workable method for making emotion genuinely central to one’s life path. There is one major problem, however: all of these philosophies are products of their times, drawing on long-outdated models of the mind and world. The Buddha’s paticca-samuppada, for example, includes not only emotion but also karma and rebirth, both of which stick out like a sore thumb to modern naturalists.** Today’s scientific models are far more accurate.

So, it seems the ancient and modern worlds each hold one half of the puzzle: the former has the right approach to the subjective, the latter to the objective.

Is there any way we can bring these two together? Can we apply the ancient approach to the most accurate, up-to-date, evidence-based models of emotion? Part 2 of this series takes up this challenge.

Meanwhile, what’s your take on this idea? Do you think it’s possible to bring the ancient approach to modern scientific models of emotion? Or do you foresee problems?

Continue to Part 2


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*The few exceptions include Positive Psychology, which grew out of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which in turn was inspired by ancient Stoic philosophy. Another important exception, which we’ll meet in Part 2, is appraisal theory, one of several modern theories of how emotion arises.
**Of course, this is not always interpreted in a supernatural way. Secular Buddhists tend to interpret these as metaphors, with karma as the straight-forward cause-and-effect consequences of action, and rebirth as the moment-to-moment re-arising of consciousness. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what a modern paticca samuppada might look like if it started with scientific evidence, rather than being accommodated to it (which is the aim of Part 2 of this article).

This article was originally published at

11 thoughts on “The Centrality of Emotion, Part 1: What Ancient Philosophy Offers Modern Naturalists”

  1. Nice piece! I think the key to combining ancient and modern wisdom is to remember that ancient wisdom is valuable to the extent that it is based, not in an outmoded cosmology, but in the existential realities of human existence. For example, Buddhism’s insight that careful attention to the moment by moment texture of one’s lived experience is the key to releasing the grip of negative emotions can now be elaborated with the neuroscience of how this is possible. This is because both are grounded in the same thing — the universal characteristics of human perception and awareness.

  2. emotions come immediately after birth, but following very shortly are the capacities for language (sign before verbal), conscience, memory, love, then reflection and awareness come gradually so we develop Heart from a collection and conflation of our capacities we can call Buddha-nature. Thus we have the capacity for enlightenment that comes integrated well after a lot of nurturing and training about good/evil etc. We are taught to be inspired by nature, mostly, otherwise we just exploit what confronts us. Conservation, “ecology” and beauty are learned responses some associated with archetypes (Jung) some associated with our aggregates (Freud). Spirituality is different for each person depending on how they are trained or what they study and learn as adults. Are you trying to train or “can” us into a single model of spirituality that relates to nature? That would be a very limiting capacity when so much i.e. music, poetry, doing philosophy, art… do not necessarily come from nature. You seem to be trying to create a dogma, then apologize for it by showing how it is all encompassing.

  3. Brandon,

    Thanks for the very thoughtful article. I wish I could wholeheartedly agree with you, but I can’t. Personally, I have no desire to make emotion central to my life, nor do I think it should be a central value in spiritual naturalism. I do, though, have a desire to live in a more soulful manner, and I think becoming more soulful can be a central value for spiritual naturalism. There is a deep relationship between soulfulness and emotion, but there is also an important difference.

    While soul is the realm of emotion, it is also the realm of imagination and intellect. I don’t like being critical here, but I think that there is something mistaken in trying to make one of the triad – emotion, imagination, intellect – more central than the other. Great art, as an example, is always composed of an integrated whole of these three and a secular spirituality is in some ways equivalent to the art of living in a great way.

    The triad above is still missing a very important member, however, and that is intentionality — what is sometimes called “will power.” It too is a part of the soul and is informed by the other three. Much ancient spirituality puts intentionality (and judgment which is central to intentionality) at the center. But too much emphasis on will has its own problems.

    At this point it would be nice to say that spirituality consists in the integration of all of these elements of the soul – to bring them into a peaceful and productive harmony. Easier said than done, though. But the excessive privileging of any one of them over the others will ultimately result in an unharmonious soul.

  4. As I was reading this article the topic of oppressed minorities came to mind. For example, suppose you are a gay man living in and unable to escape a hateful part of the world. How does one change themselves to be in alignment with the ‘flow’ in that situation?

    Perhaps it’s about being at peace with one’s own thoughts as well? I think personal authenticity is better than suppression, and I think advocacy and activism is a better path than biting your lip and pretending to be something you’re not.

    Great article though! Really thought provoking 🙂

  5. Brandon, I agree with you about the centrality of emotion. And I agree that a recognition and appreciation of emotion is not to be found in science. But “science” has two meanings and the role of emotion in the two are very different. In science as a method that depends on objective experimentation, emotion has no place. But in science as the accumulated knowledge of natural world, our emotional responses to such knowledge seem repressed. With exceptions such as Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas, scientists seem uneasy expressing their passion for the niche of nature that they study, and the pubic seems to take the cue from them. The protracted conflict between biologists and creationists is partly a conflict between the passion of religion and scientific cool, and people go with the emotional. And sometimes it seems to me our culture is increasingly hyperemotional in the realm of entertainment (include sports, politics, digital gadgetry, marketing, and music as well as movies and TV) and emotionally stunted when it comes to our understanding of nature (health and illness a possible exception).

    I’m not sure drawing on the ancient philosophers will help return a balance here. But I can think of contemporary literature that might. Great writers and artists can show us a way toward emotion and imagination as responses to the close-up study of nature. The beautiful photo at the top of your piece suggests as much.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’ll try to respond to each person one at a time, starting with Mark.

    Mark, thanks, I definitely agree. The commonality of existential human conditions and experiences make learning from other cultures and eras a deeply valuable pursuit. That also means the trick is learning to recognize which parts of a tradition should be appreciated for their universality and which should be appreciated for their uniqueness to their time and place. 🙂

  7. Irv, thanks for your comment. I don’t see how the ideas in this article suggest a dogma or that others must somehow be limited to these ideas (“canned into a single model”). There can be any number of worthy paths to follow.

    Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “nature” since the article only mentions it once, and even then it is just one of a set of three examples of things we emotionally respond to.

  8. Thomas, I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of imagination and intentionality, and that these and emotion must be harmonized.

    I suspect we may not really be disagreeing here, actually. What I meant by making emotion “genuinely central” was making it not peripheral. I didn’t mean to suggest emotion was to take the #1 position, ousting any other central component. I was envisioning it being *one* of the things at the center. Apologies if I gave the wrong impression.

    Incidentally, one of the things coming in Part 2 that agrees with your comment is appraisal theory, a modern psychological model of how emotion unfolds. I’ll give a brief run-down of the model, then show how it would seem to agree with you.

    According to appraisal theory, first a stimulus is perceived (i.e. some situation happens), then the mind begins a mostly unconscious cognitive process of appraising how it relates to your goals, and finally this leads to a physiological response (which usually creates a state of action readiness or communicates something to others, such as pumping oxytocin when feeling caring or hanging the head when feeling ashamed). The subjective, first-person experience of all this is what we call emotion. What’s more, as the process is unfolding, we can begin to realize consciously that it is occurring and potentially adjust our appraisal if skilled enough to do so, resulting in a different emotional outcome.

    Now, here’s how the model would seem to agree with you. If you look closely at this model, there is no clear-cut separation between emotion and other more intellectual elements. Both rational thought and imagination are implied in the cognitive appraisal process (especially at the later stage where conscious reappraisal becomes possible). Further, intentionality is implied not only in that later reappraisal stage where one might intentionally adjust one’s view of the situation, but also in setting goals to which the situation might relate (e.g. if tiredness appears while running, one is likely to experience a different emotion if one has previously set the intention to persevere through the whole half-marathon).

    So, If I’ve understood correctly, there is significant resonance between this model and the triad of emotion, imagination, and intention. 🙂

  9. Juniper wrote:
    >As I was reading this article the topic of oppressed minorities came to mind. For example, suppose you are a gay man living in and unable to escape a hateful part of the world. How does one change themselves to be in alignment with the ‘flow’ in that situation?

    That is a really great question, Juniper. I’m in broad agreement that yes, it’s generally about finding a measure of inner peace (of a dynamic kind, not a static lack of emotion), and that advocacy and activism are called for. The kind of emotional engagement described here is actually intended to enable and empower such activism. Emotional suppression is the opposite of what I’m promoting; it’s about more intentional engagement with one’s emotions – being more in touch, not less.

    In response to the situation of the gay man in a social context of homophobia, basically I would say that a certain degree of anger and resentment is entirely appropriate (“in alignment with the flow of the situation”) if it helps motivate you to useful action toward change of the situation, such as a) campaigning for social change, or b) taking measures to maintain your own mental health in that toxic situation. In some cases, only b) may be possible, but if not then b) can only support and empower a). So b) is useful in both cases.

    On the other hand, if the anger and resentment become disconnected from useful ends and become little more than sources of additional suffering on top of the already unjust situation, then it is time to think about what you can do to alter your perceptions for a healthier emotional outcome.

    One of the keys to understanding Shantideva’s point about changing ourselves rather than waiting for the world to change is recognizing that mere passivity or resignation to “fate” is the opposite of what he means. That is one version of just waiting for the world to change. Instead, we can take action to change ourselves, and thereby empower ourselves in the world.

  10. What’s missing in this view of emotion, it seems to me, is the realization that emotions arise largely out of instinctual drives involving survival, integration into community, and reproduction. They arise in the primitive, unthinking part of the brain that supported much of human behavior in pre-civilized tribes. “Civilization” (including religion) has been possible because forces of social control have trained people, as children, to suppress emotion-driven behavior (and thus, crippled our natural emotions). Religious “laws” (morality) contributed very importantly to this suppression of emotion.
    However, emotion IS an important component of contemporary culture–probably more than reason. It’s the bedrock of psychology and the social sciences. It undergirds most of literature, the arts, and the media, particularly TV and movies. To deny this strong emotional thread in contemporary culture seems a bit self-deceived.


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