The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion – Excerpt 2

A new view of nature is emerging, which encompasses both galaxies and neurons, gravitation and life, molecules and emotions. As a culmination of centuries of studying nature, mankind has been approaching the thorniest subject of all: ourselves.

-Cognitive Scientist Piero Scaruffi

Until we bring sensory affect back into consideration, we shall be fishing for consciousness in an empty pool.

-Nicholas Humphrey, A History of the Mind

image/Woman meditating on mountain

Slowly but surely, science is figuring it out. Realizing that it’s all connected. That ‘out there’ cannot truly be separated from ‘in here.’ That hard and fast distinctions between our brain and the rest of our body ultimately do a disservice to the entire organism. And that, just as human beings are indivisible from the rest of creation, so our own consciousness – our awareness of being alive and our ability to think about our place in the universe – is ultimately one with our biology and our feelings.

For all the books that have been written on the primacy of the brain, and for all the lectures and news reports tacitly acclaiming neuroscience as King of the Disciplines, glimmers appear now and again that the body and its senses are actually master of the realm. Or, more accurately, that that our mind is equally brain and body, thought and feeling, certainty and intuition, thorough realization and raw sensation. The mind is all of those things put together, an aggregation of capacities whose sum total is matched only by our ability to marvel. This, the most cutting-edge science is beginning to apprehend.

Consider the following news item, headlined “Bruised Egos Said to Cause Physical Pain.” Seems that researchers at the University of California – Los Angeles wired up volunteers playing a group computer game. These volunteers were happily playing along when suddenly it appeared they had been maliciously blocked from further participation. The shock and distress of this rejection registered in their anterior cingulated cortex, a part of the brain that also responds to physical pain. This indicates that a hurt feeling, while instantly noticeable neurologically, is indeed a feeling of hurt – a visceral reaction. The physical and the mental occur simultaneously: two sides of the same coin. (Recer, Paul, “Bruised Egos Said to Cause Physical Pain.” Associated Press, October 9, 2003; also ScienceDaily, October 10, 2003,

Here’s another intriguing demonstration of that fact. Researchers at University College London have found that the brains of people who are ‘merely’ empathizing with others’ physical pain nonetheless register pain themselves. The subjects in this case were women whose partners received an electric shock to the hand. The women were allowed to see the shock being administered but not their partner’s facial reaction (eliminating a significant emotional ‘cue’). MRI scans showed that the women’s brains still lit up in the same areas as if a shock had been administered to them personally. The reaction appeared to be greatest in those who had the strongest emotional bond with their partner. (Nelson, Laura, “I feel your pain.” Nature, online Science Update, Feb. 20, 2004, The results tell us that, again, there is a fine line between the physical and the mental – with feelings dancing on it constantly.

“In an interesting turnaround,” it has been noted, “scientific, rational, mechanistic Western medicine is now taking the part of the respected elder statesman and everything ‘nonscientific’ that of the revolutionary young pioneer.” (Young, Louisa. The Book of the Heart. New York: Doubleday, 2003, p. 87) Indeed, as Canadian physician Gabor Maté points out, among the general public, who are “ahead of the professionals in many ways and less shackled to old orthodoxies,” there is little resistance to the concept that repressed emotion is a factor in illness. (Maté, Gabor, “The Healing Force Within.” Vancouver Sun, April 8, 2003, p. ?) “Intuitively, [it] fits with people’s experience,” he says. But the difficulty remains that clinicians, “who are into their head – by training, by inclination, by the nature of their work” – continue to resist not just the notion but the evidence. (Gunning, Margaret, “January Interview – Gabor Maté,” January magazine, April 2003,


Despite the very real challenges, inroads are being forged. Consider one very illuminating dialogue taking place between West and East. The Dalai Lama, best known as the public face of Tibetan Buddhism, has, going on twenty years, been meeting with prominent neuroscientists to compare conceptions of emotion, volition, consciousness, and mindfulness. And not by accident: the Dalai Lama is fascinated by science and technology, and has pushed for these meetings as much as the Western organizers. In recent years, the discussions have gone public. And what is evident is that both camps have much to learn from each other, as they contrast their assumptions about the mind and their knowledge of science and spirituality. A 2003 conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- which attracted an audience of more than 1300 people -- thus opened with the observation that, while our ability in the West for measuring, describing, and explaining the physical world is unparalleled, Tibetan Buddhism has, over 2500 years, achieved its own insights into human nature through its emphasis on meditation and introspection. (Kaufman, Marc, "A Meeting of Minds." Washington Post, September 21, 2003, p. D1) Perhaps the time is near when such insights can be melded into a wider conception of how we human beings operate.

To that end, I was struck by an observation made by psychologist Paul Ekman concerning the Dalai Lama; specifically, the feeling Ekman got during an encounter with the latter, who, it should be mentioned, is commonly called Kundun ("the presence") by his fellow Tibetans. His presence did indeed make an impression on Ekman, who considers the experience so uniquely moving as to be life-altering. At one of the scientific dialogues, he and his daughter had gone up to the Dalai Lama to ask him a question. In answering, the Dalai Lama took both their hands and rubbed them affectionately. Then, writes Ekman,

I was inexplicably suffused with physical warmth during those five to ten minutes -- a wonderful kind of warmth through my body and face. It was palpable. I felt a kind of goodness I'd never felt before in my life, all the time I sat there. (ibid)

The same observation is made by Marc Kaufman, a Washington Post writer on the sciences. He recalls that, when travelling abroad in the late 1980s, he had an opportunity to meet the Kundun:

I remember that it was a cool day, and that I had spent some time in a chilly windowless waiting room. By the time I was ushered into the Dalai Lama's chambers, I was freezing.

I was greeted by a smiling man in a sleeveless robe. He took one of my hands with both of his and slowly rubbed it. Despite the cold, despite his lack of sleeves, his hands were remarkably warm, and the warmth traveled into and through my hand and up my arm. It didn't transform my life, but it sure made me wonder how he did it. (ibid)

As one who has never met the Dalai Lama, I nonetheless humbly submit that it is more a matter of who he is than how he does it. His neurobiology…his constitutional makeup…his integrated personality…all these terms come to mind to represent the idea that the connectedness of one's heart and one's head, of one's thinking and feeling, is what is most important. Warmth connotes blood flow. Blood flow connotes the heart. The heart connotes feeling. And radiant feeling connotes a personality so comfortable in its own skin, so able to marshal and direct impulses, that the result can indeed be appreciated as a 'presence.'

This trait runs along the lines of charisma, but deeper and more genuine. I remember feeling it in my contacts with the rabbi at the synagogue where I grew up. He was a rotund man with a deep yet engaging voice. His look and his manner conveyed a solidity of belief and a fidelity of word with action. Yet he was not above playfulness, as betokened by a twinkling in the eye and the occasional bear hug. And, as serious as he was theologically, he had a down-to-earth interest in the welfare of his congregants, as evidenced by an outgoing manner and, yes, personal warmth. I myself felt drawn to him and always left a conversation feeling as though I had derived something important in his presence. Surely others felt the same.

This is the sort of bodily grounding -- one might say incarnation -- that I have argued is essential to any understanding of what it means to be human. The body is our terra firma, the foundation for all of our activities, be they primarily physical or predominantly mental. By this point, I hope to have shown that the neurobiology of feeling provides a link between subconscious perception and conscious thought. And, along the scale of evolutionary time, between the primates we once were and the more cortically advanced beings we are today. A bonus as well: variations in the neurobiology of feeling are, as we’ve seen, responsible for experiences and phenomena long considered anomalous. Their status as 'mere' anomalies, scientific curiosities or cul-de-sacs, may at last be at an end.

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