Being Mindful of Emotion

{Harrison, 2017. The Foundations of Mindfulness: How to Cultivate Attention, Good Judgment, and Tranquility}

Emotion at the Atomic Level: Valence and Action Tendencies 

“How does a monk observe the valences of phenomena?

When experiencing a pleasant feeling, he knows: “This is pleasant.”

When experiencing an unpleasant feeling, he knows: “This is unpleasant.”

He also recognizes valences that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

Likewise, he is aware of the positive, negative, and neutral valences that accompany thought.”


The Buddha used the term vedana (translated as “valence”) in the Satipatthana Sutta to identify emotions at the micro level of our automatic likes and dislikes.

Nearly every perception of a thought, sensation, emotion, or action has an emotional charge, positive or negative. We like or dislike the object to some degree, however small. We find it “pleasant” or “unpleasant.” We have a slight preference for or against it.

This for-or-against sensation is the vedana, or “valence,” of an object. Psychologists also call this the “emotional charge,” “feeling tone,” or “affective tone.” Yet, these terms lack the almost mathematical precision of valence, which can be positive or negative, strong or weak. It can even be rated on a 1-to-10 scale of positives and negatives.

Valences are mostly subliminal. We rarely notice them against the object’s prominence. The effect of valence may be tiny, but it is always there, subtly influencing our response to the object.

We are always surrounded by thousands of possible stimuli. We can consciously notice only a tiny fraction of these. Our attention is very selective, and it discriminates for a purpose. We scan for advantages or threats and ignore the rest. To notice any object implies we have already attributed some value to it. We see it as potentially useful, painful, pretty, tasty, entertaining, repulsive, funny, uncomfortable, sexy, embarrassing, and so forth. This positive or negative value gives the object its emotional charge.

Conversely, we are unlikely to notice anything with a neutral charge since such an object would be irrelevant to our wellbeing. Nor can we ever see a thing pure and naked, “just as it is,” cut free from cognition, feeling, and memory. Instead, even our slightest perceptions are valenced and purposeful. Each is unique to us, enriched by years of personal associations.

Valence explains why even the slightest perception (sati) is also an evaluation (sampajjana). This like-dislike response is a spontaneous, miniaturized judgment based on instinct, habit, and the memory of similar past experiences. All day long, our perceptions’ valences steer us toward profitable behavior and away from loss and threat.


Action Tendencies

How does this dynamic work? Every valence induces an “action tendency,” the predisposition to act, which precedes the act itself. The appropriate premotor cortex neurons fuel up and prepare to fire, just in case they are needed. These action tendencies are known as sankharas or “volitions.” We are prompted to move “toward” what we like and “away” from what we dislike. In psychology, these volitions are called “approach” and “withdrawal” action tendencies. We see we like, we approach. We see; we don’t like; we pull back.

The vast majority of action tendencies don’t result in a whole-body action. When we act, the dynamic goes like this: A perception triggers a valence, which triggers an action tendency in preparation for an actual movement. This happens in about a third of a second before we are conscious of it. When we finally notice something, a judgment, an action tendency, and a bottomless pit of past memory associations have already been woven into what seems like a simple perception. This is the brain’s super-fast automatic process: perception+evaluation+response. Mindfulness is the conscious perception and evaluation of something. It typically refines the automatic judgment that has already taken place and leads to a more considered response.

Valences and action tendencies trigger most instinctive behaviors, impulses, and mood swings. Although we notice only strong valences, even the weaker ones stimulate approach or withdrawal behavior to some degree. For example, walking down a street, we get tugged in various directions.

The object may be “out there” in the world, but the valence is always subjective. If we acknowledge our automatic response, we can usually modulate it if we want to.

To be mindful of a valence means we can say, “I had a thought about my dog and it was pleasant,” and recognize that as mild positive valence. Meditation practice on valences is the second foundation of mindfulness. Once a valence becomes obvious, we should name it as either “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” “like” or “dislike,” positive or negative. Stopping and holding valence also helps arrest its flow-on action tendency. Finally, monitoring valence is training us to be less impulsive and reactive.

It is useful to recognize the positive or negative direction of a valence, but it is more important to notice its strength. We can easily cruise along with the mild positives or negatives, but a strong negative valence or a strong positive valence is each more likely to destabilize us than its weaker forms.

A stressed person doesn’t need to analyze the bundle of emotions behind it. He simply needs to notice he is overreacting (strong negative valence) and adjust. Emotions can carry great visceral conviction, but they are often faulty. The Buddha believed that if we could “just see” the excessive strength of a valence, our response would start to self-correct naturally.

We typically notice our emotional responses only when they pass a certain intensity threshold. Unfortunately, this is often too late. It is better to stop the impulse before we hit the wall.

The Buddha saw these subtle tendencies (sankharas) as the seeds of all our actions (karma) and, thus, the source of all present and future suffering. He warned that simple sense perception can lead to feeling, craving, volitional activity, clinging, attachment, disappointment, despair, regret, disgust, the whole mass of human suffering, and even rebirth. It all starts with a valence and an action tendency. Therefore, the Buddha saw “guarding the sense doors” as essential for inner peace.

Once we become mindful of a response, we can usually adjust its strength or intensity but not its direction. We will still find an unpleasant object unpleasant, just less so. We can’t avoid judgment entirely, and trying would be unwise. We would also have to eradicate all our affective responses to do this. In many cases, this would be quite impossible.


Equanimity: “Neither Pleasant nor Unpleasant”

The Buddha, however, would disagree with the last paragraph. If I wanted to eradicate all affective responses and action tendencies, I could. Nirvana implies perfect equanimity (upekkha), continuous neutrality of affect, and feeling “neither pleasure nor pain.”

The monk strives toward equanimity by repeatedly trying to scale all his positive and negative valences back toward zero every minute of every day. This is the monk’s spiritual training in the second of the four foundations of the Sutta. He tries to systematically neutralize all positive and negative valences, so he will no longer be as vulnerable to suffering or fate. In addition, he strives to minimize all his natural fears and desires, including his attachment to his body and to life itself.

To summarize: Every valence is a spontaneous, miniature judgment with a tendency to “approach or withdraw.” The monk in training aims to reduce all these thousands of tiny judgments and their action tendencies toward zero. No judgment = no attachment to pleasant or unpleasant = no response = stillness, detachment, and tranquility.


Improving Our Judgments

To be mindful of a valence invariably leads to a reappraisal. This is the purpose of sati and attention itself: to consciously perceive and evaluate something. So, for example, if we notice that we are overreacting, we can peg back our response. But what if we’re not overreacting? What if the judgment is perfectly accurate? Is there any point in also noticing our ordinary, adaptive valences?

Absolutely. Valences initiate all our actions. No valence=no action. Valence is a judgment that leads to an action tendency: “This is worth doing” or “This isn’t worth doing.” Suppose we can become mindful of valence. In that case, if we can get a “clear and distinct image” of it, our awareness will lead to a more refined judgment and a more targeted response.

We tend to blunder along, approximating our guesses, operating by the rule of thumb and habit, and often making decisions without realizing it. Most of these decisions work out well enough. However, some go weirdly wrong for no apparent reason. Some, with hindsight, seem utterly crazy.

Learning how to make good judgments in situations of uncertainty and inadequate information is a skill that takes decades to grasp. Aristotle regarded good judgment (phronesis) as one of a mature human’s most important social skills or “virtues.” We never perfect it. We continue to learn. Rule books and maxims are far too crude for the complexity of even simple situations. However, one good way to improve our daily judgments is to notice the valences that initiate them.

Valence is a quick judgment about how to act: “This is important; act now. This is not important; forget it. This would be bad; avoid it.” Suppose we can become fully mindful (sati) of the valence and action tendency. In that case, we can evaluate (sampajjana) if it is accurate. A valence contains both a direction (toward or away, pleasant or unpleasant) and a degree of intensity (strong or weak). The direction is easy to identify and usually can’t be changed, but the intensity is what really matters. With a little practice, it becomes easy to rate the intensity of most valences on a 1-to-10 scale. Once you notice that a particular impulse is a -7 or a +2, it is usually obvious whether it is appropriate or not.

Learning to make better judgments is just like any skill. We learn by repeatedly making slight but frequent adjustments in the right direction until the new skill is automated.

To do some practice, pick the intensity on a scale of 1-to-10 of the objects represented in a list of words. The valence of each one is likely to be slightly or markedly different. If you find that several adjacent words seem to have the same intensity, you probably haven’t got it.

Please spend a few seconds with each word until the valence and intensity level becomes clear. If you move too quickly, the valences will blur into one another. A valence involves a subtle body response that usually takes a few seconds to emerge in consciousness. Finally, can you confidently isolate the valence from any emotion the object evokes? Don’t be surprised if you find this exercise difficult to do. It is not how we usually operate.


The Valence of Emotions

Although valence is part of an emotional response, it is not the emotion itself. The brain regions responsible for valence (primarily the amygdala) can be quite distinct from those representing anger, love, or sorrow. Nevertheless, the same valence can be the fuel behind many emotions. Moreover, it is quite possible to be mindful of a valence, to feel its strength and direction, independent of the emotion driving it.

In the Sutta, the Buddha says that the monk should notice states of mind (the third foundation of mindfulness) such as anger or sadness but also “how these states of mind arise and pass away.” The emotion itself may not change daily, but its valence certainly will. For example, a depressed, grieving, or happy person may remain in that state for months. Still, the valence of those moods can fluctuate within a single day.

It is a big improvement for a depressed person to recognize “Yesterday I felt suicidal (strong negative valence) but today I just feel miserable (mild negative valence).” The intensity may have shifted from -9 to -4. If he observes this positive shift in valence repeatedly and objectively, he will start to recognize what supports it. Exercise, social contact, doing something engaging, or being around an animal can reduce the severity of a bad mood, even if the mood remains.

Likewise, anxious people are strongly biased toward highlighting what is painful and discounting what is good. Their days can be full of lovely events that they fail to notice. Positive psychology encourages them to deliberately “savor” the enjoyable sensations of the present to counteract this tendency. This can be hard to do if you are racing and stressed. Something more practical is “re-valencing.” Every action has a valence that lingers a few seconds after it is over. If you’re anxious, you are bound to undervalue most of what you do. You can change this habit by noticing the affective tone of simple actions.

How did it feel to put away the laundry? Deal with a difficult client or family member? Take the stairs instead of the elevator? Eat the sandwich instead of the cake? These are all good things, but did you actually register them? A valence is an automatic, heuristic judgment that may not be accurate. However, if you are mindful of it, you can re-valence it up or down to reflect its true value: “Yes, I am pleased that I did x. It was worth doing and I’m glad I’ve done it.”

The Buddha prioritized the conscious recognition and “naming” of valences because this is where all our actions start. If you want to understand and fine-tune your emotions daily, start at the atomic level of “valence.”


Painful Emotion

“How does a monk contemplate his states of mind?

He recognizes the mind caught in desire and the mind free of desire.

He recognizes the mind caught in anger and the mind free of anger.

He recognizes the mind caught in delusion and the mind free of delusion. …

He carefully observes how these states of mind arise and pass away and what causes them to do so.

He learns how to extinguish [bad states] when they arise and how to prevent them arising in the future.”


Neuroscience maps mental functions onto brain anatomy: Sensations are processed in the sensory cortex at the brain’s top, back, and sides. Emotions are processed in the limbic system in the center. Thoughts are processed in the prefrontal cortex in the front. Finally, actions are initiated from the motor cortex, a strip across the top of the cerebral cortex.

Because the brain is modular, we could say we each have at least four brains. For example, we all have a sensory brain, an emotional brain, a thinking brain, and a motor, or physical action, brain. Likewise, there are four cognitive functions: sensing, emotion, thinking, and action.

These four brains work together for a common goal: some form of useful action. The sensory brain takes in information. The emotional brain evaluates it. The thinking brain considers strategies if necessary, and the motor brain initiates action. Notice that the thinking brain is an optional extra. Most mental activity is automatic or instinctive and doesn’t require conscious input.

We can always pay good attention to any particular action, thought, body sensation, or emotion if we want to. Still, we can’t focus on all of them at once. The mental stage is too small. Working memory has limited capacity, so we are forced to be choosy. As a result, we tend to prioritize our thoughts and actions and barely notice our emotions.

We can usually describe in detail what we’ve done in a day. Because we always give a high percentage of our attention to our actions, they get embedded in our memory. However, we may not remember our changing emotions or body sensations during the day. If we didn’t focus on them at the time, we won’t remember them later.

Our daily actions are important in ways that emotion isn’t.


A Standard Meditation Practice corrects our natural mental bias toward action and thought. Sitting down stops our habitual activity, and focusing on the body interrupts our habitual thoughts. This frees up our available attention to reorient itself toward our bodies and emotions, as it will naturally do. This somatic input makes us feel emotionally “grounded” and in touch with ourselves.

We eventually realize that body sensations and emotions are closely linked and collectively influence thought. Sadness and tiredness go together, for example. Likewise, anger, fear, lust, pride, and affection have obvious physiological effects.

Nonetheless, emotions are far more difficult to grasp than thoughts, bodily sensations, or valences. Emotions are usually subtle, fluid, complex, and preconscious. They occur as impulses, likes and dislikes, body sensations, passions, or moods, and they can last for seconds, hours, or a lifetime. We can discuss emotions in a generalized way, but they are hard to identify in the flesh. How would you describe your emotional state right now, for example?


Mindfulness as Therapy

In the third part of the Sutta, the Buddha gives a short list of “bad” emotions, what he calls “The Five Hindrances:” desire, anger, lethargy, anxiety, and despair.

Mindfulness is commonly described as “a state of nonjudgmental acceptance,” with the assumption that this is a fundamental Buddhist ideal. However, the list of the five hindrances shows how completely wrong this assumption is.

It is obvious that the Buddha doesn’t want us to regard desire or anger in a nonjudgmental, open-hearted, and accepting manner. His judgment is perfectly clear: Emotion is the root cause of all suffering. He argues that virtually all emotions, but especially desire and anger, are the original sources of all human misery and are the implacable enemies of inner peace and freedom.

Mindfulness provides a practical step-by-step strategy for diminishing destructive emotions. The first step toward controlling a painful emotion is naming it. For example, the Sutta says when a monk is angry, he knows “this is anger.” This implies that the monk has already arrested the action tendency and is not trying to “fix” the discomfort. Instead, he sees that cluster of body sensations and turbulent thoughts as objectively as possible.

The monk carefully observes how anger arises, how it passes away, and what causes it to do so. Observing his anger, he finds that it is bound to change. Emotions are like the weather: they may fade quickly or slowly, but they can’t maintain their initial intensity forever. The nonreactive watching allows the monk to see how emotions naturally change: He observes how anger passes away. His blood pressure drops, his muscle tension fades, and he feels mildly embarrassed about getting so worked up.

If the monk notices this dynamic hundreds of times mindfully, it gets embedded in memory (the etymological root of sati is “memory”). This inevitably predisposes him to be less vulnerable to similar future aggravations. He remembers just waiting long enough or preoccupying himself with something else for a painful mind state to fade.

The monk also trains himself to notice how anger arises. Through repeated acts of observation and memory, he gradually realizes what triggers his bad mental states: He observes how anger arises, how it passes away, and what causes it to do so. This helps him notice danger signs quickly and develop prophylactic habits. This is called the “early detection” of destructive tendencies in psychology.

Eventually, the monk realizes that certain things reduce his propensity to anger. These may include sufficient sleep, reflecting on his goals, being around supportive people, chanting mantras, and maintaining continual self-observation.

The monk also learns to recognize the mind “free of anger.” The Buddha asks the monk to notice a sign of success that is actually a non-sign when he doesn’t get angry in situations when he did in the past. A psychologist would recognize this as “desensitization” or the “extinction” of habitual response.

The Buddha instructs the monk also to learn about the universal nature of emotion by watching others, “He observes this in himself and in others.”

The last section of the Sutta is the comprehensive training path called the Eightfold Path. The sixth part of the Eightfold Path formulates the four efforts that support regulating emotions: You know when a bad mind state is present and how to abandon it. You know how to prevent a bad mind state from arising in the future. You know when a good mind state is present and how to strengthen it. You know how to induce a good mind state when it is not present.

To summarize, the do-it-yourself techniques for disarming a foul emotion include stopping and naming the emotion; watching it fade; noticing what precedes it and understanding its causes; avoiding triggers and cultivating prophylactic habits; observing the whole dynamic in others, and constructing situations for positive states in the future.

It is good to have techniques to reduce excessive emotionality, but the Buddha wanted to extinguish emotion completely. He taught that even pleasant emotions would lead to the whole miserable cycle of desire, attachment, disappointment, and despair. The Buddha equates desire, the first of the five hindrances, with craving, clinging, greed, lust, attachment, and bondage. These antagonistic attitudes toward passions and normal human affections seem extreme, but they were once commonplace in many parts of the Christian world as well. His strategies regarding destructive emotions are excellent, but his hostility toward our most common positive emotions is hard to reconcile with a modern sensibility. Most laypeople apply these methods now by adapting them to twenty-first-century values.


Optimizing Emotion

Have you recently noticed anyone with chronic anxiety, impotent rage or resentment, or the compulsive pursuit of excess? These effects of fear, anger, and greed emerge when left unregulated, contaminating many lives and devastating others.

To “sit, stop, and look” combats impulsive behavior, opening space for a more thoughtful response.

To “calm down” reduces inflammatory arousal.

To “accept whatever is happening” reduces pointless struggle.

Meditation practice promotes inner stillness and non-reactivity and builds an inner resource and resilience for the world of activity.

The medical model, epitomized in psychiatry by the DSM, has pathologized almost every aspect of emotional life. It turns shyness, sadness, worry, exuberance, restlessness, self-criticism, laziness, lust, greed, boredom, neediness, resentment, and “feeling off” into pathologies to be addressed and corrected, primarily through medication.

Emotions are ultimately prompting for action. They take us out of stillness. But are emotions inherently destructive, interfering with the smooth working of the rational mind, or is the problem only one of excess or deficit? Do emotions always create a cognitive bias that prejudices clear sight? Are fear and anger always negative, or can they be rational and adaptive?


Emotion is Necessary for Good Judgment

Emotions are necessary for intelligent, adaptive thought. Emotions do several things: They make us move. No emotion, no valence or action tendency = no action. Emotions contribute to our ability to evaluate the importance of things and determine our choices. They shape our judgment. Emotions are the source of every kind of pleasure and satisfaction.

In the Western philosophical tradition, reason is mostly favored over passion, but not exclusively so. For example, Aristotle, in his Ethics, recognized that “intellect itself moves nothing; choice (based on desire) is the efficient cause of action.” Hume, in his Treatise, says, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Damasio argues that emotion is essential for good judgment, optimal biological state of homeostasis, and our fundamental sense of self.

Aristotle’s belief that the intelligent citizen should aim for an ideal state of optimal emotionality: the “mean” between excess and deficit is confirmed by Damasio’s research conclusions that too little emotion is just as destructive of clear thinking as too much emotion.

Conscious thought has limited capacity. It can see with great precision, but it can simultaneously process only two or three aspects of a situation. It can’t see the forest for the trees. It is too narrowly focused, too dominated by language, and too disembodied to evaluate a complex issue unless emotion guides its deliberations.

On the other hand, emotion draws on the vast library of memories, somatic behaviors, and habitual responses. It doesn’t present an argument, however. Instead, it presents a conviction and an opinion: This is how I feel about “that.”

This emotional response may not be perfectly accurate. It is likely to be heuristic and approximate. It relies on pattern recognition and memory, both of which can be faulty. But its tone is likely to be basically right. This is because the emotional networks in our brains know how we’ve responded to similar situations in the past and what happened thereafter, and they can print all that out as an emotion. The purpose of being mindful of an emotion is to fine-tune this initial judgment.

The language of valence, positive or negative, strong or weak, suggests what to do at the level of immediate action. Emotion goes a lot further. Like a valence, emotion is also a value judgment, but it is profoundly anchored in our bodies, our life histories, and our sense of identity. If we have to make a hard decision, recognizing the underlying emotions and their accompanying stories will give us a perspective that reason or valence alone cannot. The valence tells us what to do and how important it seems to be. The emotion tells us why.


Optimal Emotionality

The problems that passions cause come from excess, deficit, or expression at the wrong time. However, even the most unpleasant emotion can be adaptive if optimally expressed appropriately.

For example, sadness tells us when to give up on a futile or lost hope, and it is a very appropriate response to global warming. Shame is crucial for recognizing social norms. Disgust and self-disgust are the basis of many moral judgments. Pride is an immense boost to confidence and further effort.

Every one of these emotions can be positive, adaptive, and productive. Productive emotions, above all, are rational. They determine the judgments that lead to our best and most adaptive actions. They lead us to a good life.

Aristotle gives us the subtlest interpretation of emotion; following the Greek and Roman motto “Nothing in excess,” an appropriate emotion was the “mean” between extremes. There was an optimal level of emotionality in any situation. Too much courage was foolhardiness. Too little courage was cowardly. Nor was this a universal fixed norm for everyone. What was optimal for a strong young man would be excessive for an older, weaker man. Too much pride was arrogance, but too little was false modesty. Too much generosity was extravagant, but too little was miserly. Too much self-control is rigidity, but too little is incontinence. Too much sensual enjoyment was debasing, but too little was prudish. Too much conversational wit was buffoonery, but a deficit was boorish. A well-bred man could and should express emotion intelligently.

Aristotle said a satisfying, well-directed life (eudaemonia) was not a passive possession. You couldn’t develop the mind without using it in practical situations: “A man becomes just by doing just things.” We develop our compassion only by actively helping others. Eudaemonia depended on continual training, on seeking excellence in those social and intellectual skills that make us human. In practice, it meant seeking the appropriate level of emotional expression in this situation, today, for us, until we die. It takes a lot of work. Despite this, he knew that well-expressed emotion would give us a richer and more rational life than trying to eradicate our passions entirely.


Emotion and Values

An emotion is a deep, intuitive value judgment about something. Emotions are the source of nearly all our personal values. Yet, we hardly consider them in isolation or even know what they are. They drive our behavior, yet we are far more likely to give our available attention to the actions they initiate.

To be mindful of emotion means holding it in mind distinct from what usually surrounds it. To stop and look at an emotion typically puts the brakes on it. However, seeing an emotion clearly can also tell us how much we value something and why. The clear perception of something (sati) leads to a more accurate evaluation (sampajjana) and a better outcome.

We can uncover our core values by considering how we spend our time and energy. These biological currencies tell us how much we think something is worth.

Once we can hold a particular emotion in mind (sati), the evaluation (sampajjana) is bound to arise:  “Is this optimal? Is this too much or too little? Should I give this more energy or less?” We could scale it down or up, shift it sideways to include another emotion, or target it for a more rewarding outcome.


To summarize, the Buddha and many mindfulness writers tend to pathologize emotion in pursuit of a tranquil mind. They attempt to minimize emotion, unlike Aristotle, who preferred to optimize it. They seek to control and reduce it rather than develop it.

In fact, there are many good reasons for cultivating emotions: Emotion is essential for rationality and good judgment. Emotion powers all our actions for good or bad. Every emotion can be adaptive if expressed optimally at the right time. Emotions and their valences are the sources of our core personal and social values. Emotional intelligence is essential for free and satisfying social interaction. Emotions expressed through stories and music train us in cultural sophistication and empathy with others. We can cultivate all of these aspects of our humanity through mindfulness.