On Awakening: Is There Emotion at the End of the Tunnel?

Some contemplatives report reaching a state where they no longer experience emotion:

I went to the mountains to learn how to live a new type of existence, an existence without time, without thought, without the emotions, feelings, and energies of self. I hadn't the slightest idea how things would go; all I knew was that I had to go and find out. While the discoveries were numerous and I have much to say about this adventure, I think I can sum it up in one phrase by saying: until I went to the mountains I had never truly lived. Not for a single day in my life had I ever lived before. Without a doubt I was in the Great Flow, so totally at one with it that every notion of ecstasy, bliss, love and joy, pale by comparison to the extraordinary simplicity, clarity, and oneness of such an existence.

[...]

A friend recently told me that the falling away of the affective system was invariably a psychotic symptom. While I had never heard this before and cannot verify it, my present perspective is quite the opposite. As I see it, the affective system is not only the cause of every psychological illness, it is the cause of all man's suffering.

[...]

It occurred to me that the falling away of the affective life might be a piece of esoteric knowledge not given to the outsider, or even to the proficient. Since he could not understand it ahead of time, as a future prospect, it could prove too frightening. So as it stands now, the high contemplative goal is generally regarded as a feeling state of uninterrupted bliss, a heavenly feeling that seems to be the accepted and expected end of man. I feel bad about this because it won't happen. Heaven is something else.

[...]

We cling to the affective system out of fear of what life would be like without it. We are afraid that without feelings we will be inhuman, cold, insensitive, robot-like creatures, so detached from this world that we might as well be dead. Needless to say, there is no truth to this view, it is just another myth created out of fear of the unknown—where all myths come from. Nevertheless, to explain what life is like without this system is basically impossible, it is a dimension that can only be lived, not one that can be understood. All that need be said is that it is a dynamic, intense state of taking care of whatever arises in the now-moment. It is a continuous waking state in which the physical organism remains sensitive, responsive, and totally unimpaired. When fully adjusted to the dimension of no self, nothing is found to be missing or wanting. It is only in the encounter with other selves that a self or affective system is a reminder of what was.

—Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self

As the overall picture was examined what emerged was a continuum that seemed to progress from 'normal' waking consciousness toward a distant location where participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency or ability to make a choice.

[...]

Just before the farthest locations where they stopped reporting the experience of emotion, participants reported their emotional experiences as highly positive. They described experiencing a single emotion that felt like a combination of intense, impersonal compassion, joy, and love. The transition to this location was often gradual with only a handful of participants reporting this as their initial PNSE location, but the transition that followed it to a location of no emotion was an immediate and highly noticeable change.

Jeffrey Martin's PNSE paper

This is controversial. Those experiencing felt emotions tend to claim that such a state is impossible and also pathological, while those without felt emotions tend to say things like, "The water's fine! No, better than fine. It's great! No, better than great. It's incredible! No, better than incredible. It's the solution to war and strife and angst, to the human condition itself."

One reason such a dimension is difficult to imagine is that few people realize the full extent of what the affective system really is. Some people think of it as the loving heart in man, when actually this is only one side of the continuum. Its opposite, anger and hate, is responsible for the only diabolical force in existence, for I can think of no evil for which man is not responsible. Unfortunately, these affective extremes are not far apart, they are only relative to one another. A way out of this dilemma of relativity would be to live on only half the beam—the good half, that is—but it doesn't work this way; either we are potentially subject to all these movements or we are subject to none of them.

—Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self

Thus the single root cause of all the mayhem and misery that epitomises the human condition is the persistent feeling of being an identity inhabiting the body: an affective 'entity' as in a deep, abiding and profound feeling of being an occupant, a tenant, a squatter or a phantom hiding behind a façade, a mask, a persona; as a subjective emotional psychological 'self' and/or a passionate psychic 'being' ('I' as ego and 'me' as soul) inhabiting the psyche; a deep feeling of being a 'spirit'; a consciousness of the immanence of 'presence' (which exists immortally); an awareness of being an autological 'being' ... the realisation of 'Being' itself. In other words: everything you think, feel and instinctually know yourself to be ... is to be an alien in an alien world.

—Richard, father of The Actual Freedom Trust

This all came to a head a few years back when the Richard quoted above collided with the pragmatic dharma movement and, well, I'll let Daniel Ingram tell you what happened:

I personally know a handful of people who have claimed that they have eliminated all emotional affective feelings, specifically by following some version of the teachings of Actualism, though the Genitor (as Richard calls himself) of Actualism didn't approve of all of those claims and certainly not of all of those methods, as they often fused some Buddhist concepts with Actualist ones, something Richard very much doesn't like. A lot of this history can be found here on this forum and other related sister fora.

Two people who I know who have claimed this have later said that they were wrong, that there was still affect, one of which is T J Broccoli, who has posted about this recently on this forum, and the other one is remaining somewhat out of all this for the moment for reasons that are not entirely clear.

A third one I can't get in touch with for unknown reasons, and so how their claim has held up over the years is unknown: a few phone calls and emails have garnered no responses, which I consider somewhat odd, but then life is odd, isn't it?

A person who claimed that they were free of feelings and later recounted this has told me that the person I mention in the video has recounted her claim, but this is hearsay, so who knows? I haven't gotten in touch with her to verify this.

I know one more who still claims that they have done it and it stuck, with them also claiming to have gotten arahatship in a few weeks or so of practice before they did that.

The "in the video" person mentioned then chimes in with this:

Firstly, let me cut to the chase: I absolutely retract any claim whatsoever to being 100% free of affect. I probably exist in the state that in actualism is known as "Virtual Freedom." I am entirely happy and harmless 99% of the time, but there are moments when emotions arise.

[...]

If you would like my pure and unadulterated opinion about the entire thing—the collection of AF folks here, all of whom I've come to know incredibly well or did at one time, I will give it (a rarity on these fora). In my opinion, none of the people I interacted with were either free of "beliefs" or affect.

It just gets messier from there. This post by Daniel is the most useful thing resulting from the entire brouhaha. If you're just after an infusion of unadultered drama, try Tarin's "renunciation" and Richard's response.

Personal View

I'm inclined to believe that, yes, you really can eliminate emotions as felt experiences. In general, I'm convinced that most skepticism of the form "experiencing what you say you're experiencing is impossible" stems from mistaken, overly restrictive views about what consciousness must be like, that is, its limitations. From where I sit, I see three plausible routes for extinguishing emotion:

If I can't see it, it's not there

A deficiency in recognizing one's emotions is common enough that psychiatrists have reified it into a scary medical thing (of course), alexithymia, and diagnosed 10% of the population with it. Psychiatry is insane—I mention this only to demonstrate there are individuals who are less able or unable to recognize their emotions. Similarly, you can dull emotional content with (sometimes) SSRIs, atypical antipsychotics, lithium, and whatever other medication falls into the miscellaneous box of horrors category that is not-suited-for-first-line-treatment mood stabilizers. 1

Implying: some people are emotionally aware, some aren't, and it's a knob that can be turned. So, at the very least, one can simply delude themselves until they stop recognizing their emotions at all and viola!, no more emotions as felt experience.

Yes, yes, I hear your internal screams and I agree: this is a bad idea. It traps you into reacting to something you're unable to see. Even so, it's a popular strategy among men everywhere.

It was the body all along

My current Grand Theory of Emotion (loosely held) is that emotions come into being in a moment of recognition that is a compounding of bodily arousal with a cognitive appraisal of the present moment. Fear in the midst of a bear encounter is the result of a pounding heart and the deduction, "my heart is racing because there is a bear, I must be afraid." —hence why beta blockers like propranolol are effective treatments for phobias. No pounding heart, no fear.

My suspicion is that this compounding into emotion is not inevitable and fixed, just habitual and mindless by default and, as such, interrupt-able through stable mindfulness of the body. Doing so, I expect that emotions can be reduced to and experienced solely in physical terms: fear as a racing heart, frustration as tension around the "third eye" area, etc.

This is pretty good: it removes the mental aspect of suffering while awareness of what is being felt remains intact. It's "I'm crying so I know I'm sad yet there is no mental sting, just wetness on my face."

No trigger, no bullet, no suffering

Remove any and all emotional triggers and presto, no emotion. This is more or less the method proposed by the Actual Freedom Trust, which can be summarized as:

  1. Develop a constant, always online emotional sensitivity to how you're experiencing this moment of being alive.
  2. Activate delight and get to feeling good.
  3. Whenever this delight diminishes (alerted by this emotional sensitivity), investigate why and notice how silly it was, at which point you're back to feeling good except better off having understood and consequently weakened that trigger.
  4. Repeat until no triggers remain, at which point nothing can pull you from feeling good.

It is a little more complicated than that, as eventually the joy ceases, too, but that's the gist of it.

This is the most radical and thorough of the three, I think. My experimentation (along with other first-hand accounts) leads me to believe that the final state is a sort of intimate, unflinching, open, defenseless, accepting and curious examination of things-as-they-are. There is a very satisfying sort of direct clarity to it.

I'm uncertain about the precise extent and nature of the state's limitations. Anything that benefits from dark triad traits ought suffer, at least: I imagine it would not be very suitable for a boxer (no aggression), a Casanova (no possessive desire), nor the ladder climbing necessary to become "upper-level management and CEOs". That's before even mentioning the whole "removing the 'default' in 'default mode network'" thing, the consequences of which are unclear.

The benefit, however, is: the end of suffering!


  1. Don't stop taking your meds.


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