The Dalai Lama’s Atlas of Emotions

The Dalai Lama’s Atlas of Emotions

Recently, a friend sent me news of a unique collaboration. The Dalai Lama had asked an American scientist to help him form an Atlas of Emotions.

Dr. Paul Ekman surveyed scientists in related fields the world over to find some consensus on the nature of emotions and the moods and states they produce. The Dalai Lama said the concept of mood is missing from the Tibetan worldview so he was delighted by it.

The research led to 5 categories of emotions:  anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment.

You may recognize the 5 characters in the Disney film Inside Out. Ekman was a consultant on the film.

The research then led to a collaboration to map the Atlas, described here.

You can see the resulting Atlas of Emotions here.

Each emotion has an elaborate subset of states, triggers, actions and moods.

They express into more specific emotions called states that have characteristic “shapes”, though you may individually organize them a bit differently. Notice the “envelope” shape of the states – they vary by the style of emotion. Also the height indicates intensity.

Those states can be triggered by specific circumstances and can drive specific kinds of actions. The further down the process we get, the more individual this will be. Each person develops their own triggers from past experiences, for example.

Triggers would inherently be associated with what I call a charge, an unresolved energetic dynamic. We can also call this an undigested experience. When something reminds us of that, we get emotionally triggered and that causes a response. (Action)

Notice that this is quite distinct from a physical response, such as to intense heat. That may also trigger an emotional response but if there is no old charge, the emotional reaction will be brief or neutral.

If the current emotion or state doesn’t resolve, it leads to Moods – “a longer lasting cousin” of the emotion.

The Atlas is not designed as peer-reviewed research but rather to summarize current understanding and to visualize the dynamics.

The point here is NOT to intellectualize how we feel. Concepts about emotions are simply concepts. They do not help us come to any resolution nor to experience them. What the Dalai Lama seeks is to help you be more conscious of your emotional states and through that, reach a calm state. Inner peace.

From the perspective of this blog, it is very useful to be conscious of our emotional states. Not so much intellectually but with emotional awareness. That can help us acknowledge how we are and digest recent experiences. But it doesn’t tend to resolve old charges very effectively.

In my experience, a deep effortless meditation supplemented with skilled energy healing is more effective. The deep meditation brings the calm state being sought, and that helps resolve emotions and reduce moods. We can then use healing techniques for the harder nuts.

What also struck me about the Atlas (and the Inside Out movie) is the colours associated with the emotions. When seen, the gunas or core qualities of energy have specific colours. Their interplay leads to the qualities of our inner world and the world around us.

Golden is Sattva (clarity) is joy
Red is Rajas (fire) is anger
Blue is Tamas (inertia) is sadness

Perfect alignment.

Fear is purple, a blend of blue and red. There is some validity to that guna combination.
Disgust is correctly green, but green would be a blend of sattva and tamas, which doesn’t align to me. It’s also not that useful to see emotions as a spectrum. The core emotions are distinct flavours, not degrees.

For example, the old saying that ‘in anger is fear’. Fear can be seen as a more fundamental emotion than anger, a survival instinct. Disgust is also is like fear, but in a different way.

If we look at them in terms of attraction and aversion, 4 of them are aversion emotions – responses to things we’d rather avoid. Only Joy is attractive, something we try to hold on to. This gives you a sense of why happiness is so important for people. And why some problematic behavior results from grasping at it. We can also perhaps see how easy it is to fall into a personal hell, immersed in aversion to life experiences.

Also notice that Love and Compassion are not listed. I would consider this accurate. Love is another attractor but I would consider it a feeling, not an emotion in the same way the others are.

To understand what I mean here, we can consider the koshas or “energy bodies”. The emotions are expressions of the energy or prana body. The fine feelings are associated with the intuitive or intellect body, more subtle than the mind.

We can also associate the 4 aversive emotions with the lower 3 chakras but love and real joy are associated with the heart and throat chakras. Bliss itself is not driven by an emotional state. We can certainly categorize some forms of happiness as the high end of the emotion. But sustained happiness and bliss are deeper than that and not driven by triggers. Similarly, emotional attachment in a relationship is not the same as the flow of unconditional love.

The point of this exploration is to discover your true nature. All of it.

Last Updated on June 16, 2016 by

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  1. Rob

    You said “The emotions are expressions of the energy or prana body.” That supports the definition of emotion as a thought (mind) associated with a sensation (body). Pranamaya kosha bridges annamaya kosha and manomaya kosha.

  2. Hi Rob
    I’ve found the substance of feelings, thoughts, and emotions as quite distinct and they function in different koshas.

    Feelings are part of a flow of attention. Thoughts are ripples in a field we call mind. And emotions are movements of energy in a coarser field.

    Of course, these layers are not totally distinct but interpenetrate. The movement of one creates movements in the other in all directions. So a sensation creates an emotion, creates a thought, and vice versa – to varying degrees.

    For that reason, I would not define an emotion that way. It can certainly be related to a thought and a sensation but can also be experienced distinctly.

    Thanks for the comment.

    1. Hi Rob
      To be clear, note my third paragraph in the comment above. I don’t mean they’re completely separate. I mean they’re different things that are intertwined. So an emotion isn’t a thought but it certainly triggers them.

      For example – you see someone kick a dog. Typically, you’d first have an emotional reaction, like anger. That would spur thoughts and sensations, perhaps action. Movies and theater are designed to trigger emotional reactions.

      Coming out of the forest to see a remarkable vista would be another.

      On the other hand, you stub your toe. First, a sensation, then an emotional reaction, and then thoughts about it. If the sensation is strong, we won’t be thinking about it, just experiencing the sensation and emotions.

      Or we’re reading the paper and the mind is digesting it, making associations (the mind makes associations prior to sensory info becoming conscious). For awhile, we’re neutral about the content. Then we read something that triggers an emotional response. If it’s a strong one, it may cause sensations too.

      1. It’s worth mentioning a standard instruction about purifying during meditation. When we settle deeply in a meditation, old resistance can release. If it’s energetic, it can trigger emotions.

        But the mind being what it is, it likes to have a story about everything. It doesn’t like noticing an emotion for “no reason”. So it will tend to associate the emotion with whatever thoughts happen to be drifting by.

        Some anger comes to the surface from purification and we happen to think about our friend Fred. Now we’re angry about Fred. And that’s actually for no reason.

        So we’re instructed to allow and ignore what comes up in meditation. Or at least test it in the real world before acting on it.

        Funnily enough, a lot of that’s pretty true of most thoughts. We take our minds much to seriously. 🙂

  3. Rob

    Yes it is clear that thoughts and sensations are “entangled”. Your example about the toe was that first came the sensation, then anger, then thoughts. The dog example was the reverse order. But I am suggesting that there is no “anger” apart from the sensation-thought pair. The utility of the definition is that emotions can be dis-integrated by focusing awareness on either component. I stub my toe and attend to the sensatin instead of putting energy into the associated thoughts. Or I attend to the thoughts by questioning their validity. Either way the emotion quickly subsides or never arises.

  4. Rob

    To be more precise, the “anger” mentioned in the above examples is just the sensation of the “fight or flight” hormonal response of the body to both the initial sensation (stub toe) and the subsequent though (stupid chair in the way). They reinforce each other in a little whirlwind.

    1. Hi Rob
      Yes, I see your point but I experience them as distinct. For example that you can attend to thoughts or to emotions distinctly and disentangle them indicates they’re not the same thing. And I mentioned the meditation instruction.

      Generally, we do experience them together but they can be experienced alone.

      I disagree anger is a sensation or a fight-flight-freeze response. It may well be entangled with a fight response but it’s not necessary for that mechanism to be triggered to experience anger. It can also work inversely, that we feel anger and that triggers the fight response.

      In day-to-day living, we can see them as more or less equivalent and interrelated things. But for effective healing, we want to be able to allow whatever resistance is there to surface. A basic understanding of the distinctions can be useful, even just in letting the mind relax about it.

      Of course, it’s not useful to over-intellectualize it, as mentioned in the article. Just to become conscious of the distinctions. What is an emotion? What emotion is this? Can I allow it to be here?

  5. If the article seems pretty obvious to you, it’s worth noting that a common way for people to unconsciously handle unresolved difficult emotions is just to tune them out or suppress them. And we have lots of examples to energetically model that from.

    If asked to describe what they’re feeling, a surprising number of people will draw a blank or use a pat answer like “fine”. Emotions are an empty space.

    When they begin to learn to feel again, they may not have language for it because it’s been suppressed since childhood.

    Add in that our culture often doesn’t support healthy expression of anger or sadness and it becomes challenging to make this conscious.

    At least kids today know what disgust is. (laughs)

  6. Teresa Cross

    The first time I undertook a serious meditation practice, under an American Buddhist teacher, I very soon went into the collective unconscious and was right there when the Nazis were making lampshades out of human skin. But the meditative container made this bearable.

    Later while meditating I came to a mystical understanding of evil doers like Hitler. My joy was indescribable.

    Thank you for the Atlas link!

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