Understanding Feelings

Feelings tell us much about how we are currently relating to the world and other people. By learning from our feelings we can know ourselves better and can govern our emotions with sensitivity and understanding. Feelings and emotions are very important in the interactions between the mind of the conscious self and the body and instincts of the natural self. Feelings are central in our daily experiences and strongly affect our happiness and well being. Unfortunately most philosophers and psychologists have not studied the various feelings in depth. Yet we learn about feelings not only from our personal interactions but also through observing others, dramas, and literature.

I have analyzed emotions into thirteen categories that are variations of love and dislike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, humility and pride, anger and guilt, desire and greed, and surprise. By closely monitoring our emotions we can be sensitive to our mood changes and the reasons for them. Thus emotions are not only expressions that signal to others how we feel but also to ourselves. Understanding our feelings helps us to make adjustments and improvements in our attitudes and disposition. By analyzing what is causing various emotions we can become more aware of how to direct our attention and solve our problems. We need to learn how to purify our own negative emotions and guide our positive emotions so that they do not control us. As we gain more mastery over our emotions we can use them to direct energies within ourselves and in our relationships. However, we must learn how to do this for the good of all or else our attempted manipulations will bring negative consequences. A spiritual master can use emotions with conscious intent in order to benefit others.

Generally the emotions of love, joy, hope, humility, and surprise may be considered positive, and dislike, sorrow, fear, pride, anger, guilt, desire, and greed have negative aspects.

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Love and Dislike

Love in my view is not only the greatest spiritual reality, but it is also the most powerful emotion. Love is the strongest positive motivation for doing anything. Yet we can have positive feelings about negative things, or love may not always be expressed in pure ways; so love may sometimes be misdirected or abused as an emotion. We naturally love what we like, but it is a spiritual discipline to love every person whether we like them or not. If our emotional love causes us to favor someone we like over another we do not like in an unjust or counter-productive way, then we need to examine how the love has biased our judgment. Favoring those we like may feel good, but it may not bring beneficial results. People may love things, situations, or beliefs more than the persons involved, and these may also cause unfair actions. The positive emotion of love in my view is for people. The love of other things may be considered desire, and the love of money is greed.

Everyone naturally loves oneself, and the challenge is to learn to love others as much as one loves oneself. Love for persons can be expressed as respect for those we consider worthy or admiration for someone we believe has a special quality. Pity is felt for those who are in need, and it implies also sorrow that the person is in an inferior position. Compassion is felt for those who are suffering, but it implies equality and a greater willingness to help out of love instead of sorrow. These variations of feeling thus indicate our attitude toward the person. Spiritually we can learn how to respect everyone as a person regardless of whether we like them or admire them. This spiritual love is unconditional and may be expressed in any situation. In this way we can elevate our feeling of pity to compassion and avoid giving the impression of a superior attitude. We may take on the feelings of another in sympathy, but then these emotions may drag us down. Empathy also feels what the other person is feeling without necessarily letting it affect one negatively.

The feelings opposite to love are dislike, disgust, and hatred. Love attracts us to what we like, but we are repulsed from what we do not like. In most cultures disgust is a universal emotion that is often expressed by wrinkling up the nose as when turning away from something that smells bad. These feelings of dislike are our first indicators that something may be unhealthy or not good for us. They cause us to question our involvement in the situation and focus our attention on evaluation. Thus these feelings are very useful in helping us to choose between what is good and bad or in deciding what we want or would rather avoid.

Yet our feelings of dislike are usually for some outward thing or behavior. We do not have to generalize this specific judgment or criticism into a complete rejection of the person. We may hate evil actions and bad qualities; yet it is a mistake to hate persons as evil because all souls are good inside. Thus it is important to remember that feelings of dislike and hatred may help us to discern what is bad and to be avoided, but we should not allow these feelings to harden into hatred of a person or, what is even worse, to groups of people. Those who let themselves succumb to such hatred have allowed this to poison their disposition and may be consumed by this hatred, fear, and anger. We have a right to discriminate between what we like and dislike and to choose our own friends; but to harbor bad feelings toward enemies spoils our consciousness, and the animosity can set up destructive conflicts. Booker T. Washington said, “I shall never permit myself to stoop so low as to hate any man.”

Joy and Sorrow

Joy and happiness are also very positive emotions and rarely have negative side effects. Generally these feelings affirm that we are doing well, and they are strong reinforcers of good behavior. A healthy person will normally have a feeling of well being, and those who keep their conscience clear may have generally happy lives. Temporary feelings of joy sometimes need to be kept in perspective. For example, winning a game or contest usually elevates the feelings while losing may depress them. If a person becomes too attached to the high feelings associated with winning while disregarding the countervailing results of losing, then one may keep coming back to get that winning feeling. In gambling particularly this can become habit-forming and self-destructive if losses are ignored. Gambling is a form of entertainment and not a way of creating value unless one excels in a game of skill. Also pleasure may bring temporary happiness, but we will see that this may easily stimulate the emotion of desire. Even the ancient Epicurus, who founded a philosophy based on maximizing pleasure, believed that the happiest person is usually not the one with the greatest pleasures but the one with the least pain. The person seeking a happy life may find that a peaceful life is better than a turbulent quest for many pleasures. Joy comes from within and does not depend on any outer results. Contentment implies acceptance and satisfaction with the way things are. Being attentive to the present moment makes experiencing happiness easier, because when we are remembering the past or thinking about the future, we usually are focusing on some concern.

We can also be happy while we are working to improve conditions. Socrates said that the best person is the one who is most working to improve oneself and that the happiest person is the one who most feels that one is improving oneself. Those who are doing what they believe is good or right usually are enthusiastic about their efforts, and this can help win over others to the cause. Enthusiasm is a positive quality that exudes joy in personal expression. When we achieve success, we naturally feel joy in the accomplishment. Joy is very contagious, and perhaps nothing communicates good feelings more than a warm smile. Humor is very important because it gives us a fresh perspective that suddenly erupts into joyous laughter. Laughing is very healing both for the body and the feelings. Often humor has to do with some conflict which is suddenly released by honestly facing its reality in a new way. Laughing and crying are ways that release emotional karma. Usually people cry in sadness, but sometimes overwhelming joy overflows in tears as well.

The feelings opposite to joy are sorrow and sadness. These feelings are natural and may bring our attention to examine what has gone wrong. If one feels responsible in some way, one may apologize and say, “I’m sorry.” This admission can help relieve the sadness of the situation by helping to resolve the problem or by assuring others that it may not happen again. We may feel sad because we have suffered hurt, loss, failure to achieve our hopes or desires, or concern for someone’s misfortune. The feelings help us to reflect on the situation so that we may remedy it in some way. If we find no remedy, eventually we realize that we just have to go on with our lives anyway. If we are sad because of some continuing situation, then we may decide how to act in order to solve the problem or change our relation to the situation. Mourning the loss of a loved one is normal, but realizing the soul has gone on to other experiences may relieve this. So the sadness is not for the departed one but for our own loss. How we handle this loss is within our control, and it is up to us to learn how to adjust and go on with our lives.

Those who allow extreme sorrow to persist may fall into depression, which is not a healthy condition. Often the most immediate remedy for depression is to get up and do something. Active and energetic people are rarely depressed, but the sedentary may wallow in such negative feelings. Even when one is resting physically, one can pray or meditate in order to focus one’s consciousness on positive realities. Feelings of sorrow and sadness are attitudes that are within our conscious control. Although such feelings may come to us, we can consciously choose to focus on positive things, knowing that our feelings are being challenged and may take time to heal.

Disappointment often occurs because we have set up expectations, hopes, desires, and ambitions that are not adequately fulfilled. One may realize that one has caused oneself to be disappointed and adjust one’s goals and expectations. Sorrow is an effective teacher because it reminds us of what is not working as well as we would wish. Then we can either improve our approach or alter our objectives to make them more practical and realistic.

Hope and Fear

Hope is a positive feeling about the future which may or may not be based on a rational expectation. Obviously hope that is grounded on a strong probability of success is less likely to result in disappointment. Hopes that are not well founded may take us on a precarious emotional adventure ending in sorrow. Yet when things look very bad and one is in despair, hope can lift one’s spirits by directing the attention to better possibilities. Hope was found at the bottom of Pandora’s box of evils, because no matter how bad things get, there is always hope. A practical proverb is, “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst; and aim down the middle.”

Trust is also based on faith, but it implies that one believes the person or situation is reliable and likely to fulfill what is promised. Trust requires responsibility. When we are trusted, we must fulfill our responsibilities in order to maintain our credibility. Confidence implies a positive attitude that one will be successful. Because these emotions may not be based on reality, they can be used by clever people who are trying to manipulate others. Melville wrote a novel about a confidence man, and this expression is the root of the terms “con artist” and “con game.” We must be careful where we place our trust and look to the results to see if the confidence is deserved. The trustworthy are usually more trusting of others unless they have reason to doubt them, while the unreliable often have little confidence in others. Yet those who fool others often deceive themselves as well; otherwise they would not have confidence that dishonesty will prosper. Those who trust others may occasionally be disappointed, but they may believe it is better to give people the benefit of the doubt in order to give them opportunity. Those who are unable to trust others limit their relationships, though they may avoid disappointments. Such disappointments tend to cause people to be more careful about trusting others, and so the feelings gradually become more sensitive as to what situations are trustworthy. Leaders need to inspire confidence, but those that deceive or do not fulfill their promises will eventually lose credibility.

Fear is the basic negative emotion that warns us of dangers. Fear is strongest when our very survival is threatened; but the feeling of fear may occur when we interpret something as a threat to anything we consider valuable. Thus fear is an important warning system. Yet because it is such a powerful emotion, fear may often be used to protect our selfish interests or to manipulate others. Whenever we feel fear, it is helpful to analyze what is the cause of the concern and what is being threatened so that we can discern whether the fear is rational or not. Extreme fear is terror which threatens immediate destruction. Threatening and destroying people with weapons is thus the extreme form of political manipulation. Governments and other authorities also use fear of punishment to try to control social behavior.

If our fears are not resolved quickly, they may turn into anxieties and worries. These too may upset our consciousness and motivate us to do many things that may not be helpful or useful. Certainly if we have a concern, we need to act to relieve it and solve the problem. However, after we are doing what we think is best, lingering anxieties and worries may no longer be productive. Faith that we are doing our best can allow us to let go and trust that everything will eventually be all right. If anxiety or worry persists, then we can re-examine the situation to see if new action is required. The ability to discern that one has done what one can to solve the problem frees one’s consciousness. If necessary we can communicate to our natural self that the situation is being handled and that worry is not productive. While worry is usually over a particular concern, anxiety tends to be a more generalized fear of what is difficult to address or has unknown elements. We can examine our anxieties in order to attempt to relieve them, but again once we act on our concerns that should help to relieve our feelings. Usually the ones who suffer most from anxiety and worries are those who have taken little or no action to solve the problems. We need to listen to our conscience and do what is best; then we can trust the presence of God for continuing guidance and support.

Humility and Pride

Humility is the opposite of pride, which can be positive or negative. Having a humble attitude is the antidote to the dangers of excessive pride. Because the natural tendency is to over-value oneself in comparison to others, humility is often admired for controlling that pride. Sometimes the proud pretend to be humble, but the truly humble usually do not draw attention to themselves. People who are humble and modest are often easier to be around and are usually less demanding. However, being humiliated is a negative emotion as one’s esteem is reduced. Modesty is a way of preventing such humiliation by not setting up high expectations. The humble and modest tend to be shy because they are more introverted. They may be afraid to reveal themselves to others. Shyness can be a painful feeling because of the fear and lack of confidence, but this can be overcome by finding situations where one feels it is safe to express oneself.

The art of gentle living requires some humility because it implies a sensitivity to others rather than a domineering attitude. When more people are humble and gentle in their interactions, conflicts are less likely to arise and will be more easily resolved. Francesco of Assisi called his order the Minor Friars, using the term that referred to the lower class which means the “lesser brothers.”

Pride can be positive as self-esteem and an affirmative self-concept that stimulate us to be a good person and act well. By taking pride in oneself and one’s actions one may reach a higher standard of character and behavior. Yet pride has been listed among the seven deadly sins, and the ancient Greeks noted that excessive pride goes before a fall. People also feel pride in group identifications, and patriotism is usually based on national pride. However, comparing ourselves to others may have negative consequences as the proud tend to place themselves above others and may treat other people as inferior or having fewer rights and privileges. When we act arrogantly and treat people with contempt, we violate the principles of love, justice and equality. The proud seem to believe they have the right to punish others for disobeying them, and this can have serious repercussions. Vanity and narcissism are admiring oneself excessively, and they can hinder the giving and receiving of love. Extreme arrogance expresses itself by bullying others and causing much injustice. Thus we need to monitor our pride to make sure that our self-image matches reality and that we do not present ourselves as superior to other people.

Hand Stress Anger Fear Fist

Angry Fist

Anger and Guilt

Anger is a strong emotion that is usually aroused in reaction to something that is interpreted as wrong. Anger is often directed at someone in revenge for some hurt. Anger is much more active than sorrow and fear, which are passive and weak. Anger may be an emotional attempt to force one’s will on others. Often anger is a kind of righteous indignation toward what is perceived as opposition to what one believes or feels is right, causing one to attempt to punish others. Frustration of one’s attempts to control others can provoke anger. Anger comes out of being upset, and the person who acts in anger may not be rational and can cause harm. Philosophers such as Plato made it a policy never to punish anyone while angry. If we find through rational reflection that a wrong has been done, we may gently express our concern and be determined in our action to put things right. Thus feeling anger may awaken us to a wrong that needs correcting. Those in positions of power or authority may express anger while punishing or reprimanding others, but this abuse may be resented by others and have more subtle consequences. Anger is a natural emotion, and it is not healthy to repress it. By exploring and reflecting on why we feel angry we can learn more about the situation and why it is bothering us.

We call extreme anger getting mad, which means being insane. Anger that lashes out to hurt others is a temporary insanity that may be regretted later. Although expressing anger can release the immediate tension, it may provoke an angry response that escalates the conflict. In extreme cases it may erupt into violence and cause serious harm. Anger is a fiery emotion, and some believe in “fighting fire with fire,” but I suggest that it makes more sense to fight fire with water. By soothing a situation we can usually resolve it more rationally.

Jealousy is a form of anger based on a possessive attachment to someone or something. Like anger, jealousy is an emotional attempt to control others and make them conform to our wishes. Jealousy is most often the result of being attached to a sexual relationship and feeling that the exclusivity of the relationship is being threatened. Jealousy is aroused because one is afraid of losing what one desires. Jealous feelings should alert us to ask ourselves whether we are being too possessive or controlling of others. Love is based on mutual trust; but jealous suspicions may destroy that trust, or a violation of the trust may cause jealousy in the partner. Communication may clarify the commitments in the relationship so that jealousy can be resolved.

Resentment is caused by feeling slighted or hurt, and it can taint our relationships with others. If we examine these feelings, we may figure out what is bothering us and communicate our concerns. Holding a grudge is not helpful. Either tell the person what you are feeling and why, or forgive them and let it go. Sometimes it is easier to tolerate minor problems than it is to work them out. However, in a continuing relationship it may be better to come to some understanding even if the people are not able to agree. Then at least the air is clear, and each person can choose how they wish to act in the future based on the understanding. One may also be angry at oneself, and this may be resented by the natural self. When we feel angry, we need to ask ourselves why we are being bothered by the situation. Are our desires overextended? Are we trying to dominate, control, or manipulate someone? Are we too attached to something? Has someone “hit one of our buttons” where we have temperamental attitudes? Are we taking out our own frustrations on someone else? If after examining ourselves we feel fairly clear that the other person is at fault, then can we understand where they are coming from and why they are expressing that way? If we can understand the other’s point of view, then we may not be so hard on them. Often we feel angry because we need to take some action. After careful examination we may find a loving solution.

When we realize that we have done something wrong or had some effect that we did not want to have, we may feel guilt or shame. We may regret something that has happened that we did not cause, and we may even regret that we were not able to be responsible. However, guilt and shame imply personal responsibility. We feel guilty when we blame ourselves, and we feel shame when we believe that others are blaming us. Both these emotions imply remorse and a feeling that one has done wrong. These feelings thus help us to examine our ethical behavior so that we can repent and improve our ways. Once guilt or shame has accomplished this purpose, it is wise to ask others for forgiveness and to forgive oneself so that one can move on with a clear conscience. For the penitence to be real, one needs to correct what was wrong and not do it again, or else the process may need to be repeated. Continuing guilt or shame implies that the situation has not yet been resolved. Guilt is individual, and one may feel guilty even if no one else knows what one did; the guilty judge themselves. Shame is felt when one feels that others are judging one for having done something wrong. Shame is more prevalent in Asian and African cultures where community and the attitudes of others are more important, while individualistic European and American cultures are more preoccupied with guilt. Apologizing is helpful in both cases but tends to have more effect in relieving shame. We may help to free others by forgiving them, but ultimately one’s own behavior determines whether one has learned the lesson or not. The memory of previous guilt or shame can help prevent us from falling back into the old behavior.

Desire and Greed

Desire may also be experienced as a positive emotion, as it is similar to love. However, many philosophers since the time of the Buddha have warned us that desire causes suffering. Desire motivates us to go after what we want; but if we meet obstacles, lose what we gain, or fail to obtain our objectives, we may feel disappointment. What we desire we do not yet have, and thus it tends to feel unfulfilled. Desire has been called the “mother of sorrow.” When we are satisfied, we no longer feel that desire; but a fulfilled desire is often replaced by other desires. Whenever we feel desire, we do not have what we are wanting and thus experience discontent. Pleasures may be enjoyed in the present without craving others or missing them afterward. The challenge is to be detached so that we master the desires rather than the reverse. Anticipating desires causes craving.

Analyzing our desires tells us much about what we want and seek in life, and we can evaluate them by examining their consequences. Eagerness is the anticipation felt before a desire is fulfilled. The young tend to have more energy and be more eager because they have less experience. When pleasures or desires are blocked, one may experience consternation or frustration. Patience helps one to transcend desires and may keep them under control. Longing, as the word implies, describes desires that persist for a long time or whose fulfillment may be far away. Yet we may long for high ideals that can motivate us to improve ourselves.

Greed is another of the seven deadly sins and implies an excessive desire, usually for money or wealth. Jesus warned us that one cannot love both God and money. Excessive desire for sex is lust, for food is gluttony, and for power or prestige is ambition. All of these desires are for temporal things that will pass away. While sex and food tend to have natural limits of satiety, greed and ambition do not have such physical limits. Pursuing these desires regularly causes habits to develop that may be hard to break. Because it is impractical for one to live without food, money, and some position in life and because it is difficult for many people to be celibate, these desires are usually best monitored by practicing moderation. The problem is not in having the desires but in letting them control us. The successful person is able to satisfy moderate desires and thus avoid the pain of craving them.

A commercial society constantly promotes greed and envy in order to sell its products and so tries to make these desires socially approved. Yet the competition for obtaining so much may become ruthless, and many people tend to experience continual discontent. Greed is the feeling of not being satisfied with what one has but always wanting more, and envy implies the desire to gain what someone else has. Thus many people find themselves working hard just to maintain their position in the “rat race.” Learning to be content with moderate desires can not only increase one’s happiness, but also by simplifying one’s material life one may have more time and energy to pursue spiritual, social, and artistic values. Avarice implies not only the desire to increase one’s wealth but also a reluctance to share it with others. A basic insecurity about the future motivates some people to be stingy. Yet everyone must eventually leave behind their treasures on Earth, and we take with us only the spiritual qualities we have gained from our experience.


Surprise is a sudden emotion in response to something that can quickly alter our mood. Surprise opens our awareness to new possibilities. Being astonished or astounded affects one even more. If this persists, then we say that one is amazed. These feelings indicate that we are exploring new territory in some way that has captured our attention. Wonder can mean intellectual exploration or emotional admiration, as when we call someone or something wonderful. This is a childlike feeling similar to what Jesus meant when he suggested that one must have the innocent attitude of a child to experience God’s grace. Awe is an even stronger emotion and may have a spiritual or religious connotation. The term “awesome” is used as a superlative for maximum impact, though it may refer to raw power as well as to what is good. While surprise is a quick feeling that soon passes, wonder and awe may be more lasting. These feelings notify us that something is important and influential and so may require special attention. The feelings of wonder and awe tell us that we are confronting something very extraordinary or powerful. Thus they help us focus our attention on things that we may not yet fully understand.

By Sanderson Beck

This article is borrowed from The Art of Gentle Living.

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