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Chapter 2 from Presence

The Roots of Consciousness: The Primordial Affective Emotions

Chapters on line: Description and Table of Contents / Chapter 1: Introduction: Emerging Clear Awareness / Chapter 2: Roots of Consciousness: Primordial Affective Emotions / Chapter 4: Spectrum of Awareness / Chapter 6: Magic of Awareness: Enlightened Futility / Chapter 15: Summary: Emerging Consciousness and Twilight Awareness

How does consciousness arise? What is it made of? What are its ingredients? The Buddha combined these into a single question: “What are the causes and conditions that give rise to consciousness?”

Neural science has demonstrated that one necessary condition is affective emotions. Of all the roots of consciousness, the affective emotions are unique in that they can be known directly through introspection. This makes them a powerful tool for deepening and quieting the mind. But first we have to learn to recognize them in our own experience. That is the subject of this chapter.

Affective emotions arise from inside the body and give us a measure of how well or how poorly our life is going. If I ask you “What’s going on inside?” you probably won’t tell me about your liver, spleen, or hip joints. You’ll tell me how good or bad you feel about the course of your life at the moment.

Those are primordial affective emotions. They are completely, 100 percent subjective. We can’t measure them objectively with a ruler, photometer, or audio monitor. We can only know them from inside ourselves. I can’t feel your affective emotions and you can’t feel mine.

By your facial expressions I may infer how you are doing. I know that when I smile, it’s usually because I’m feeling good. So, if I see you smiling, I infer you’re doing well. But even if I have great empathy and can read the subtlest of clues, it’s still only a guess. Sometimes I’m wrong. You might be smiling because you feel embarrassed by my question. A baby may smile because of stomach gas.

Despite the difficulties of measuring affective emotions objectively, in the last half century scientists have been able to glean a lot of objective information about how they work in the brain. [Footnote 1]

The first thing they found is that they are hardwired into the lower parts of the brain by the forces of evolution. I had always thought consciousness was a higher brain function that came out of the cerebral cortex. This is where we think, cogitate, and ponder. In contrast, the mid and lower brain are more primitive and earlier in evolution.

For example, one of the affective emotions is rage. Part of the rage circuitry in the midbrain runs from the periaqueductal gray (PAG), which is right in the center of the midbrain and goes to the medial hypothalamus. [Footnote 2] If we insert an electrode into this circuitry in a cat and deliver a small electric shock, the cat will go instantly from a quiet purr to a full-blown, fang-exposed, claws-extended, hissing rage. On the other hand, if we insert a tiny scalpel into this circuitry and destroy it, there is nothing we can do to the cat to elicit anger.

Rage is one of seven affective emotions that have distinctive subcortical circuitry. If we take out all seven by anesthetizing or cutting specific, tiny subcortical areas, the creature drops into a coma. Without affective emotions, there is no consciousness whatsoever. It’s gone. [Footnote 3]

In contrast, if we remove the entire neocortex, people and mammals can do surprisingly well. For example, Jaak Panksepp surgically removed the neocortex from a rat. He had sixteen graduate students observe the rat along with a second rat that had a neocortex. Panksepp asked the students to figure out which rat had a full brain.

Twelve of the sixteen students — 75 percent — mistakenly said the decorticated rat was the one with all its gray matter. Apparently, this was because the fully intact creature cowered in its cage while the decorticated rodent explored, preened, cared for others, played, and more. The cowering rats appeared to be stupid from the students’ perspective. [Footnote 4]

Again, so far as I know, no one has decorticated a human. But there are rare cases of children born without a neocortex. Usually there had been a stroke in utero that blocked blood flow to the neocortex of the fetus so that it died or never developed. This condition is called “hydrocephalus” because there is cerebrospinal fluid where the neocortex is supposed to be.

Hydrocephalic children don’t have real speech and do have other disabilities. But they can be curious, laugh, express fear, learn from experience, develop preferences, play, and so forth. They are conscious.

To be sure, in mammals and birds the neocortex interacts with affective emotions to enhance, suppress, modify, and otherwise shape them and give rise to other secondary and tertiary emotions. But even without these interactions, the creature can be fully conscious. However, without the subcortical affective emotions, creatures usually remain in a coma. Affective emotions are among the substantive roots of consciousness.

So, I’d like to explore affective emotions, how to recognize them, and how relating to them wisely can deepen our meditation practice and enrich our lives.

Despite their subjective characteristics, seven distinct affective emotions have been identified and studied extensively. Scientists have mapped out where they are in the subcortex and how they connect to other parts of the nervous system. The interactions are so extensive that they do not operate in isolation. They connect in an interdependent network. However, for the purpose of elucidation, we can describe them separately.

Jaak Panksepp [Footnote 5] gives them seven common names but capitalizes them to remind us that he is referring to a more precise scientific description.

These affective emotions have been bred into us by the forces of evolution. They motivate us to do something. The seven are listed below in their probable evolutionary order along with their names and some of the feelings associated with each:

• SEEKING / Expectancy

• RAGE / Anger

• FEAR / Anxiety

• LUST / Sexual Feelings

• CARE / Nurturing

• CONNECTION / Panic and Grief

• PLAY / Joy and “Lovable Oddity”

While these seven have been studied by scientists, they have not been explored as much by meditators. So, I want to look at these not only through the eyes of science and evolution, but also through Buddhist eyes to see how they can inform our practice.

I have found affective emotions can be a practical help in deepening meditation practice. When I recognize any one of the seven in meditation and turn toward and relax into it, the mind tends to quiet down more quickly.

Affective emotions often undergird the thoughts, stories, and other hindrances that arise in meditation. Relaxing into them often moves us toward cessation — what the Buddha called “nirodha.” These seven affective emotions also offer insights into selflessness, peace, and impersonal wellbeing. This is partly what the Buddha meant by the Dhamma teachings being “good in the beginning.”


SEEKING / Expectancy

SEEKING is the first primary emotion. It is often accompanied by the emotional tones of expectancy, curiosity, or interest. It is the most generalized and probably the oldest in evolutionary terms.

When a mammal or bird sees something unusual in their surroundings, their attention is drawn to it. A little dopamine is secreted into the brain, giving a slightly elevated mood that motivates the creature to find out more about what’s going on. There is a little of this seeking in most of the primary emotions.

One common feeling tone is curiosity. However, the tone is not always positive. If we’re in a burning building that is running out of oxygen, we will seek a safe exit. If we’re hungry, rather than sitting around and brooding, we feel the urge to find something to eat. This is “seeking behavior,” but it has more urgency than we associate with mere curiosity.

SEEKING can motivate us to find specific resources. It can also motivate us to just get to know the neighborhood. From an evolutionary perspective, we gain knowledge of the landscape that may help us later when a particular need arises.

These days advertisers and high-tech companies are uncovering specific triggers for SEEKING, and building them into sales pitches and search algorithms. If you find yourself surfing the Internet more than you’d like, it may be because engineers have wittingly or unwittingly found ways to trigger this primary affective emotion.

From a meditative perspective, SEEKING can help or hinder our practice. It can motivate us to seek teachings, learn techniques, find supportive sanghas, and more. But as meditation deepens, it is more skillful to sit back and see what arises rather than always looking down the road or around the next bend. As our practice gets subtler, it helps to receive the moment with open awareness rather than being filled with expectations. SEEKING can become a hindrance that stirs the mind up rather than helping it to settle.

In this situation, it is wise to use the Six Rs (Recognize, Release, Relax, Re-Smile, Return, and Repeat), or more simply to turn toward, relax into, and savor/smile. (See note below on the Six Rs and Three Practices.)

Hindrances are always accompanied by tension. So, it helps to recognize any tightness inherent in seeking and let it relax or soften.

Trying to push SEEKING away is fraught with difficulty. It is wired into us and may arise whether we want it or not. So, in the long run it is always better to utilize relaxed awareness to recognize what is going on, to smile, and to allow the tension to dissolve in the light of that awareness.

Clear Awareness and How It Emerges in Meditation and the Brain

If you are not familiar with the Six Rs and would like to deepen your meditation, they are a highly effective way to respond to the inevitable hindrances and distractions that come into meditation and life. You can find a full description in the appendix of this book (pp. 223-227).

As you become proficient with them, they may consolidate into the Three Ennobling Practices (or “Three Practices” for short). These are based on the instructions given by the Buddha in the first three of the Four Noble Truths (see chapter 5). The phrase “turn toward, relax into, and savor/smile” is a reminder of these three. For the sake of literary simplicity, I sometimes shorten the phrase. But a full practice uses all three. They inject kindness, wisdom, and ease into meditation.


RAGE / Anger

RAGE is the second primary affective emotion. A perceived threat triggers this circuitry: perhaps a dog threatened your child or someone cuts you off on the highway or you get passed over for a deserved raise. Its evolutionary advantage is obvious: it motivates us to defend ourselves or loved ones from potential damage. Its disadvantage may be obvious as well: there are many situations for which full-blown RAGE may be understandable but not helpful.

This circuitry evolved over hundreds of generations whereas the circumstances of our lives may evolve in a few moments. A wired-in instinct may not adapt quickly to a rapidly changing environment. It’s a blunt-force emotion whereas the situations in our lives may require nuance. If we fly into a tantrum with every hint of ego bruising, we may make our lives miserable — not to mention the lives those around us.

Fortunately, the neocortex can make rapid and nuanced assessments of our situation and what’s needed. It can work closely with primary emotions such as RAGE to modify or adapt a course of action. So, rather than express raw RAGE, we can sometimes just feel the anger, annoyance, or peevishness and relax into it or adjust our actions in other ways.

If we have recurring anger, guilt, shame, or embarrassment, there are a few other considerations that may help. One is to see if we are responding adequately to a legitimate physical, social, or mental threat. The circuitry for RAGE is wired in and will continue to be triggered if there is real danger. Without resolving that threat, it’s difficult to relax the RAGE.

But if there is no actual danger and the feelings continue, it is helpful to shift attention from the content of the mind (the stories and rationale) to the processes and feelings themselves: thinking, worrying, complaining, and so forth. Stories and thoughts can spin off into the past and future. But our mental processes are always in the present. When we open to them, they often shift on their own.

With greater perspective, we might see that the person or people who occasioned our rage are themselves out of balance and hurting. This recognition might evoke compassion in us for their plight, which in some situations this is a healthy and healing response.

However, it can be unhealthy if we think something is wrong with us for feeling anger in the first place. Some religious and meditative communities believe it is wrong to feel aggression. This belief may give rise to guilt, embarrassment, shame, and more. We may turn the anger back onto ourselves and bottle it up rather than release it.

From the perspective of meditation, the most important aspect of this emotion is to realize that the circuitry for RAGE is wired into us. We can’t escape it. But it doesn’t mean we have to express it in any specific way. Sometimes it is wise not to vent it in raw form. But it is not wise to pretend it isn’t there.

Rage is an extreme emotion. Sometimes we feel something less dramatic — such as anger, irritation, annoyance, or frustration. But if these quieter feelings don’t resolve themselves, there may be RAGE underneath. It is helpful to acknowledge it openly to ourselves. When we do so, it is easier to relax into it. The Buddha put his faith in awareness of what we’re experiencing inside rather than in a particular outward expression.

There are volumes of research on the dynamics of anger and helpful strategies for working with it wisely. My former therapist used to say that therapy is the art of learning to tolerate feelings. So is meditation. If we can tolerate and allow the feelings to be what they are, (or just let them be), they will shift on their own given enough time and clarity. And when we are naturally and openly aware, we know instinctively what to do and what not to do.


FEAR / Anxiety

If I’m sitting in my backyard and I see a raccoon tearing up the bird feeder for the third time this week, I may feel a flash of RAGE. If I see a bear tearing it up, I may feel a flash of FEAR.

FEAR is the third primary emotion. It is the opposite of RAGE in that it motivates us to get away rather than to attack: flight rather than fight.

Yet FEAR is similar to RAGE in that it is usually triggered by a perceived threat. It can send hormones through our system that key us up for action. In humans it often has personal, gender, and cultural conditioning on top of raw biological proclivities. It can fire up the cerebral cortex to generate stories that sometimes help us to sort out what’s going on, but often just distract us from the threat or discomfort rather than deeply relieving it.

Libraries are filled with books on fear and techniques for working with it wisely and effectively.

The anatomical wiring is deeply embedded in us, so we can’t easily turn these feelings on or off, though we can sometimes numb out or divert the attention we give to them. But even when we try to ignore the feelings, they will have a strong influence that we might not acknowledge.

Paradoxically, if we open awareness to the feelings FEAR triggers, we have more options as to how to respond. By seeing them clearly, it’s as if we are taking a step back. We see FEAR/Anxiety as something we experience rather than something we are. In that clear seeing we have more time to decide how to respond or to not respond at all.

From a meditative perspective, it’s always important to turn toward the experience and open up to it so long as we can tolerate it without acting blindly.

Whether we have recurring FEAR or its gentler derivatives, such as worry, anxiety, or edginess, it is helpful to mentally drop the stories and see if there is raw FEAR underneath. Even if we are not tempted to act on that FEAR, it’s still helpful to see if it’s there in primal form. Then we can turn toward it and relax into this primal emotion.


LUST / Sexual Feelings

For many people, sexual orgasm and its aftermath may come as close to a genuine mystical experience as they’ll ever know. The sense of being a separate self can melt into the background as consciousness expands into wellbeing, contentment, and equanimity. It’s not surprising that this is one of the primordial affective emotions.

However, Panksepp’s term for it — “LUST” — can be misleading. In the dictionary, the word “sexual” means “relating to, or associated with sex,” while “lust” means “unusually intense or unbridled sexual desire” or, more generally, craving for anything.

The fourth affective emotion of LUST (capitalized) might be better described as “sexual feeling.” However, that phrase can include sexual fantasies, romantic stories, plans, and other thoughts that have considerable cortical involvement. The affective emotions are precognitive mid and lower brain functions.

The phrase “precognitive mid and lower brain sexual feeling” is long and awkward. Perhaps this is why Panksepp used “LUST” and signaled that his capitalized terms do not always align with their common usage or dictionary definitions. In other words, LUST does not mean “lust.” It means “precognitive sexual feelings.”

Precognitive sexual feelings have obvious evolutionary importance: without them the species dies out. So, they can be powerful motivators and find wide varieties of expression. They can also strengthen interpersonal bonds, resulting in more than one adult providing care for young ones, for example.

Sexual feelings can also distort and disrupt social bonds in individuals and communities. So, it’s not surprising that there are taboos about when, how, and with whom to express them, as well as attempts to squelch them all together.

From a meditative perspective, awareness of the reality of our inner experience is part of the road to freedom. Sexual feelings are natural, wired in, and change over time. Finding clear, peaceful, kind, genuine, and satisfying ways to be with sexual energy is always helpful.


CARE / Nurturing

CARE is more altruistic than LUST. Mammals and birds are so helpless at birth that they would not survive without care from others. These emotions are especially strong toward young ones, though the emotions can spread out to focus on peers and elders and even the young of other species. A quiet joy can emerge from satisfying, caring exchanges.

CARE, the fifth affective emotion, is so important that it is wired into children, even though the evolutionary imperative is less germane until they are older.

When she was eighteen months old, our granddaughter had a few dolls. She often spread out a tiny doll blanket on the rug, placed a doll on the blanket, wrapped it up, held it against her chest, and patted it on the back as she smiled. After a few moments, she dropped the doll on its head and crawled off to do something else.

Her expression of CARE lacked refinement — after all she was not even two years old. What was remarkable was that the affective emotion was obvious even at such a young age.

In meditation it is helpful to savor CARING feelings when they arise. And as with all emotions, it helps to look beyond the stories to what we actually sense in the moment.


CONNECTION / Panic and Grief

CONNECTION is the urge to reach out to others, particularly when we are in need of support. In some ways it is the inverse of CARE — it’s the urge to connect with someone for our own sake rather than for theirs. And it’s distinct enough to have its own neural wiring cluster. It’s the sixth affective emotion.

Without this instinct we would be less likely to survive and pass our genes along. So, when support is not forthcoming, panic arises in the short run and grief in the long run. Panic and grief are more obvious expressions of this primary emotion, but the urge for CONNECTION is its deeper source and the name I favor. Here’s a nuanced example:

My friend’s four-year-old daughter, Janie, asked her dad, “How long do we go on for?”

“I don’t know,” her dad said. After a pause he added, “My grandfather died in his sixties. His father died when he was in his late nineties.”

Janie was quiet for a few moments. Then she asked, “Am I going to die?”

“Yes,” her dad said softly, “but probably not for a long time.”

Janie’s lip began to quiver. Her eyes moistened. “I don’t want to die. I’ll miss you and mommy.”

Her dad could have said, “When you die, you won’t miss anybody because you won’t be here.” But he had the good sense to skip logic and respond from a deeper place. He put his arm around her and said, “I love you so much.” Janie snuggled in and gradually settled down.

Notice three emotions: panic, sadness, and the urge to connect. Sometimes these emotions can be more dramatic. Early in his career, Jaak Panksepp noted how baby rats emitted distinctive, high-pitched squeals when separated from their mothers. They sounded terrified. [Footnote 6]

A human infant who is happy, dry, and well-fed but left alone for too long will start to cry. Picking her up and talking softly is often enough comfort so that the crying subsides. It’s easy to see similar dynamics in other mammals and birds.

At times in his career, Panksepp called this primary affective emotion PANIC with grief as a relevant expression. Other times he called it SADNESS with panic as a relevant expression. Sadness and panic are part of this emotion and either or both can arise. I was struck by this relationship between panic and sadness. Once Panksepp’s writing pointed it out to me, it made sense intuitively.

My therapist once noted that I seemed to be in a frozen startle underneath. I often noticed this as fretfulness that I could trace to my early years. I also knew it was easy for me to feel lonely, which also seemed left over from my childhood.

When fretfulness or loneliness arise in meditation, I often six-R them or simply turn toward and relax into them. They subside — but sometimes only for a while. Sometimes they keep returning in other ways.

On the other hand, if I feel beneath the fretfulness or sadness, I can often sense a quiet urge to be with others. If I relax into that feeling, it often spreads out and quiets as my mind-heart settles into a deep peace that can then follow me through the day.

So, when I think of the various components of this affect, CONNECTION seems to be the deepest. Panic, fretfulness, sadness, and grief are signals that come up when it is not fulfilled. However, to be fully open and relaxed with the urge itself — whether it’s fulfilled or not — is often enough for me to drift toward nirodha — the cessation of perception, feeling, and consciousness.

In traditional Buddhist terminology, unfulfilled CONNECTION is a cause and condition of panic, sadness, and grief. When CONNECTION is there, panic and grief do not arise. So, I have found it more helpful to think of this emotion as CONNECTION.

Note: The panic may be reminiscent of FEAR. But with closer examination, it is quite different. FEAR is triggered by the presence of a predator or other threat. Panic is the loss of CONNECTION and is triggered by the absence of a nurturer or other support. Furthermore, they light up different areas of the lower brain. FEAR centers in the central amygdala while panic centers in the dorsal thalamus, basal forebrain nuclei, and subcallosal anterior cingulate.

Another place where CONNECTION may be seen is inner talk. A long time ago I noticed that my inner thinking was often in the form of explanations. Sometimes I was mentally talking to a specific person. Other times there was no specific person in my mind, but there was a general sense of talking to someone. The urge to CONNECT was an element of my inner chatter.

If I turned toward and relaxed into the chatter, it often subsided for a while, only to pop up again in a different thought or story. But sometimes I noticed an urge for CONNECTION. This urge was a building block out of which the inner chatter arose. It might be in the form of subtle (or not so subtle) loneliness or fretfulness. If, without trying to get rid of the lonesome feelings or fretful thinking, I relaxed into them, the inner conversation tended to fade away for much longer because it had grown out of those feeling.

Another aspect of CONNECTION is imaginary friends. Some children have imaginary playmates. They talk about them as if they were real, though most know they aren’t.

Recently I realized that I, too, have imaginary friends — a lot of them. When I’m walking in the woods, lying awake in bed, or sitting in meditation I may have spontaneous silent conversations with them. I refer to this simply as “thinking,” but when I look at the flow of thoughts, they sound more like a dialogue with an imaginary friend.

I know they aren’t real, though many of them bear a close resemblance to people I know — usually people with whom I have some tension at that moment. At other times they are vaguely generic.

As I write these words, it’s as if I’m talking to a generic reader, how they (or you) might respond, and how I might reply. Perhaps most, if not all, of the thoughts in my head are embedded in some kind of inner discussion. After all, the nature of speech is communication.

I don’t like to think of myself as crazy enough to talk with someone who isn’t here. But I do so silently all the time. Perhaps it’s just the nature of us humans that speech is spoken thought and thought is silent speaking. Our instincts for CONNECTION often take the shape of dialogue.


PLAY / Joy and Lovable Oddity

Our grandson was sitting on a swing seat suspended from a maple tree by two 15-foot ropes. He continued his countdown: “-four-three-two-one-blast off.” Taking my cue, I swung him back and forth, higher and higher. Then he exclaimed, “We’re in outer space!” On this particular afternoon he imagined us landing in Australia to see the kangaroos before blasting off to Africa and then to Mexico to visit the monkeys.

Before leaving “Mexico,” he began messing around with a plastic lawn chair lying on its side near the swing. As he lifted it, he swung one leg up over the arm of the chair and used the other leg to push off away from the ground. The chair righted itself with him still on the chair’s arm. He laughed with delight and tried it again. This time he tumbled to the ground and laughed. And I laughed with him. After fooling around with the chair for a while, he pulled it over to the swing and tried to crawl from the chair to the swing without touching the ground. When it worked, he laughed. When he tumbled to the ground, he laughed.

“Rocket ship” and “Tumble-the-chair” were two different kinds of play. Rocket ship used speech, stories, and imagination. If he’d been wearing a brain monitor, we’d have seen a lot of activity in the neocortex from his language and stories. This kind of play includes strategy games such as checkers, chess, cards, and board games.

Tumble-the-chair used very little language or stories. A brain monitor would have shown the subcortical circuitry for what Jaak Panksepp called PLAY, the seventh primary affective emotion. This kind of PLAY is primarily rough-and-tumble horsing around, or just plain goofiness. It includes minimal use of speech or language.

When studying PLAY, Panksepp sometimes put two children in a room that was empty except for a mat. He invited them to “play and have fun.” Often, they ran around, chased each other, pushed each other, and so on.

From an adult perspective, these activities can help children learn physical mastery, social skills, and more. But from the kids’ perspective, their activities were not goal directed. And they were always accompanied by laughter no matter what the outcome.

This non-goal-directed free-form PLAY is wired into us. Children need a certain amount of PLAY to grow into happy, socially sensitive adults. Without it they are statistically more likely to become delinquent, criminal, or depressed as adults.

The most important age for PLAY may be the “terrible twos,” when unstructured activity can be confused with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). But some subcortical play can last into human adulthood. In some animals, it disappears as they grow up. But in all mammals and birds, a certain amount of PLAY in the early years helps them develop into happy, socially sensitive adults. The brain needs PLAY to learn how to interact and enjoy others without bullying or other distortions.

Research has also revealed that some of the areas that light up in primary affective PLAY also light up while we are dreaming. Of course, dream sleep is accompanied by atonia, in which the large muscles remain relaxed though smaller muscles that control eyes, fingers, lips, and more may remain active.

The relationship between PLAY and dreaming is provocative and intriguing. Compared to normal waking consciousness, both playing and dreaming are less constrained by the laws of physics and are shaped more by emotion, whim, and unconscious urges.

PLAY has important implications for meditation as well as for our daily lives. When my kids were growing up, I used to call PLAY “fadoodling.” My grandson’s chair tumbling was fadoodling because he enjoyed it and laughed no matter what the outcome. It was not goal directed.

As an adult, I sometimes call PLAY “puttering” — something I do more because I enjoy it rather than because I think I have to accomplish anything tangible.

Athletes may call it “being in the zone.” While it may aid high performance, when an athlete or a chess master is “in the zone,” they enjoy their frame of mind-heart in the moment as much as or more than when they win the game.

In a similar way, PLAY in meditation is not a special practice or technique so much as simple joy in whatever we are doing or not doing. We cannot attain it — there is nothing to be gained. But we can attune to it, because it’s always here.

It’s a paradox: we can’t attain higher jhanas, nirodha, or nibbana. The attempt to get there will make it ultimately impossible. We can only be there. We may spontaneously drop into it by just being here. But if we try to get there, it won’t work.

So, in formal meditation, if we let the mind do what it wants and simply see where it lands, this does not guarantee we will “get there.” But without this attitude, we can never be fully there. Or here.

In meditation PLAY is an attitude to be felt, not a task to be accomplished. A relaxed, playful mind is more sensitive and perceptive than one that tries too hard. If we take meditation or ourselves too seriously, we may benefit by practicing goofiness off the cushion and relaxed pleasure on the cushion.

We’ll come back to this when we talk about homeostasis and finding healthy balances in life. For now, it’s helpful to remember to take joy in life’s oddities. Carmen Bernos de Gasztold captured this spirit in his “Prayer of the Elephant” [Footnote 7] :

Dear God,
it is I, the elephant,
Your creature,
who is talking to You.
I am so embarrassed by my great self,
and truly it is not my fault
if I spoil Your jungle a little with my big feet.
Let me be careful and behave wisely,
always keeping my dignity and poise.
Give me such philosophic thoughts
that I can rejoice everywhere I go
in the lovable oddity of things.

Regardless of what emotions arise, they come out of the body. So, it is often helpful to see if you sense something more in one part of the body than in another. If so, you can let go of any labels and let awareness settle into the center of the actual sensation. This lets you be with it on its own terms rather than through a mental label. Sometimes that is enough to allow it to relax and unwind on its own.


No Escape

Since these seven affective emotions are wired into us, we are not to blame for them and we cannot escape them completely. They can be modified, attenuated, exaggerated, and otherwise shaped by the neocortex through experience. They can be contained or expressed in lots of different ways. But they cannot be avoided entirely. And if we try to ignore them, they will find subconscious expressions. Suppressed anger might show up as a sharp edge in our voice. Ignored fear may show up as a bit of hypervigilance. And so forth.

On the other hand, if we acknowledge and explore them, we can find wise and generous ways to be with them. They may guide our feelings, but with increasing awareness, we can use them wisely and generously.

In the next two chapters, we’ll look at ways of doing just that. We’ll look at them through the lens of Buddhist practice and look at Buddhist practice through the lens of affective emotions. Chapters 3 and 4 offers the Buddhist view of spaciousness and chapter 5 lays out the specifics of Buddhist meditation and how to cultivate this broad view.



Summary of the Affective Emotions, giving the essence of their original purpose.

Primary Emotion / Secondary Emotions -- Notes

SEEKING / Expectancy -- Explore for resources (dopamine)
RAGE / Anger -- Defend and compete for resources
FEAR / Anxiety -- Escape bodily damage
LUST / Sexual Feelings -- Find mates, intimacy, reproducing, pleasure
CARE / Nurturing -- Care for offspring
CONNECTION / Panic and Grief -- Distress signals help maintain social bonds, especially for the young
PLAY / Joy --> Social bonding and learning social limits



A final word on affective emotions and consciousness…

While the primordial affective emotions are among the sources of consciousness, they are not the only source. They are not by themselves the determinant of consciousness or unconsciousness. The neuroscientific evidence suggests a delicate interdependent web of areas of the brain that together give rise to consciousness and a sense of self. These areas include the affective emotions along with the hypothalamus, periaqueductal gray, superior colliculi, parabrachial nucleus, area postrema, nucleus tractus solitarius, posteromedial cortex (PMC), and more. No single site works alone or has ultimate control. However, I’d like to emphasize what I said at the beginning of this chapter:

Of all these structures, the affective emotions are the easiest to identify in our direct, subjective experience. I and many of my students can attest to that.

Of all the factors relevant to consciousness, primordial emotions are uniquely accessible through introspection. Working wisely with them helps us walk the path laid out by the Buddha. Relaxing them moves us along the Buddha’s map toward nirodha (cessation of consciousness) and even nibbana (extinction of consciousness) accompanied by deep awakening.



1. Jaak Panksepp was among the first scientists to map out the affective emotions (Panksepp and Biven, The Archaeology of Mind) . Mark Solms gives a comprehensive, well-written overview (Solms, The Hidden Spring) .
2. Panksepp and Biven, p. 18.
3. So far as I know, no one has actually taken out these sever areas in a human. The ethical objections to such a procedure are obvious and overwhelming. However, all mammals share these seven specific areas. Some researchers have destroyed these in non-human mammals. The results have always been complete unconsciousness. And there are rare cases in humans where these areas have been partially or totally removed through accident or disease. The results have been consistent (though not 100% conclusive) with the hypothesis that without these areas intact, there is comma. Ibid.
4. Solms, pp. 51-77.
5. Ibid, Panksepp and Biven
6. Panksepp and Biven, The Archaeology of Mind, Kindle version, p. 315.
7. Prayers from the Ark (Penguin Books, 1976).



Copyright 2023 by Doug Kraft

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