Emotion Is Rooted in Thought

Hi Ted,
I’ve been immersing in the Vedanta teachings of James Swartz on Shining World for a few months now and these teachings have helped me a lot. James suggested that I could address my questions to his teachers, so I thought I would send you this one.

Just a bit about me, I was a student of Andrew Cohen for about a third of my adult life by the time I left that community. Mostly I learned from Andrew what not to do and how not to treat people and for that I am very grateful.  I love the Vedanta system because it is knowledge based. I suffered a lot from the experience based spiritual trip that Cohen represented and recognize Vedanta to be a fantastic gift of sanity and a great antidote to the endless cycle of spiritual striving.

Something interesting dawned on me today, maybe because I’ve been listening to so many teachings. I was walking down the street and experiencing a lot of sadness and emotion – I have experienced pretty severe depression and it was like “oh no, here it comes again” – But this time I could trace it all to one very specific morose thought. It wasn’t even a very original thought, just one that kind of sucks me down every time.  It was like, now isn’t that interesting? What is happening and why? I understood that emotion comes from thought and that thought is an object like any other. It’s mechanical. James said in one of his emails something about making sure that my “jiva” is happy and I think the process of understanding this will make that possible.

I guess if there is question here it has to do with the discovery trail backwards from emotion to thought to whatever is driving the thought. If the source of sadness is a thought generated by a depression vasana, what role does “tamas” have in it? Is it sufficient to just watch the whole thing unfold? It actually does feel painful, but it’s pain from a distance surrounded by some consideration. Does that mean something is being metabolized?

Thanks for your input, much love,



Hi Ted, Thanks so much for your detailed reply.  It helps to know that I’m onto something here.  So your answer has brought up a bunch more questions and they are in between the paragraphs below.


Hi, Tatiana.


It’s nice to meet you.


You have made an extremely valuable analysis. Tracing emotion back to thought and thought back to its source allows us to see that we are not the generators of our thoughts and feelings. While we certainly experience them and do have some control over whether we allow ourselves to hitch ourselves to the caravan of our thoughts and get swept up in the windstorm of our emotions, we are not responsible for their presence in our mind. The value of this realization is that we don’t have to feel guilty about the thoughts and feelings that arise within us, and this affords us a degree of objectivity with regard to them. We can see them for the subtle stardust they are rather than believing them to be the light by which they are illumined. In other words, we can see them as incidental objects rather than an essential aspect of the observing subject (i.e., the self). To put it in the first person, I am not my thoughts or feelings; I am the pure consciousness that watches them come and go and yet remains ever unsullied by their quality.


Tatiana: Well I think I have my work cut out for me here.  It’s a little embarrassing because I have done so much practice and meditation in my life and really missed the boat.


Ted: Don’t worry. Everybody misses the boat. You don’t really come to Vedanta until you’ve realized the futility of all your other efforts.


Tatiana: It’s very easy for me to be aware of thoughts as objects while sitting in meditation, but like most people, walking around and engaging with life, I am almost completely unconscious most of the time, habitually glued to the playbook of my thoughts and feelings.  I understand in theory that I am awareness and the observing Self…


Ted: Actually, the mind is making a case that it only understands in theory that it is awareness, but the fact is that its case is only known because it is appearing in the “light” of awareness that is you. The awareness or observing self that you are is not something unknown to you. The very fact that the apparent person you seem to be knows anything is because you are illumining the mind. You cannot escape or avoid yourself, for you are yourself. The mind has simply been co-opted by the ego, which is not an entity itself but simply the idea that it is the limited person defined by the body-mind-sense complex. The ego loves to moan and groan about how it doesn’t know the self, but the fact of the matter is that the self is actor wearing the costume and enlivening the character of the ego.


Tatiana: …but because of the force of habit, it’s very, very challenging to put this into practice moment to moment.  I’m sure you appreciate this as someone who has done so!  Not complaining, just making a comment on this.


Ted: This is how the process works. First, you gain a theoretical or intellectual understanding of the teachings, and then you continue to dwell on the teachings and the irrefutable truth that is revealed through a logical analysis of your own experience until you de-condition the mind and relieve it of its erroneous conviction that it is real. This continuous meditation on and application of the teachings to each and every moment of your life is referred to in Sanskrit as nididhyasana. It constitutes the final phase of Vedantic self-inquiry and must continue until such time as you have as much conviction that you are limitless awareness as you now have that you are the body-mind-sense complex. Gaining this conviction doesn’t mean that the body-mind-sense complex goes away or that you cease to function as a person in the world. It simply means that you know that the body-mind-sense complex is not real in that it has no independent nature of its own and is completely dependent on you, awareness, for its existence in much the same way as a dream is dependent on the dreamer for its existence.


The quality of any given thought or emotion, which as you have realized are directly connected, emotion being the physiological symptom or by-product of thought, is determined by the guna coloring it. The gunas or energetic constituents of both subtle and gross objects are the “building blocks” of creation, we might say. While the mahabhutas (i.e., subtle elements) and the sthula bhutas (i.e., gross elements) are the ingredients that comprise all existent objects, the gunas are the three basic energetic qualities that lend the elements—and, by extension, the innumerable objects comprised of various combinations and configurations of those elements—their nature.

Tatiana: Can you tell me a little more about what is meant by mahabhutas and sthula bhutas? Is that thought-objects and apparent physical objects or is it the stuff those things are made out of?

Ted: The bhutas are the five basic elements—space, air, fire, water, and earth—that comprise every object in the manifest universe in both its subtle or “inner” and gross or “outer” aspects. Mahabhutas are the subtle forms of these elements, which might be understood as the subtle material of which thoughts and emotions are made. Sthulabhutas are the elements in their gross or physical form, the material of which the physical world or transactional reality is made.

Tatiana: The Vedanta language and concepts are very new to me.  I probably think I understand more than I actually do.


Ted: This being the case, IT IS VITALLY IMPORTANT that you become familiar with some of the basic terms we use in conveying the teachings of Vedanta. As soon as you’ve finished reading this e-mail, access the text Tattva Bodha in the Source Texts section of my website and read it…several times. It is a rather short text written by Adi Shankara, and it is the foundational text by means of which the most important terms used in teaching Vedanta are defined. The reason it is vital that you read this text is that if our communication is going to be fruitful, we need to be on the same page, so to speak. We need to know what we mean when we make use of certain words.


Another way to put it is to say that while the subtle and gross elements are the fabric of the subtle and gross bodies, the gunas are the fabric of the causal body. And since the causal body is the source of all manifest objects, both subtle and gross, including the elements themselves, the gunas color the essential character of everything.

Tatiana: Would it be accurate to describe the gunas as energetic forces that influence physical, mental and emotional structure?  I am assuming that the gunas are also objects because they are not Self?

Ted: Yes, on both accounts. The gunas are the fundamental constituents of both the subtle and gross aspects of the manifestation. Everything, everything, everything is a composed of the three gunas in various combinations and permutations.


As is everything in the manifestation, the gunas are in a constant state of flux. While any given object may be generally characterized by the predominance of a particular guna, no object is completely static. And the more subtle the object, the more it fluctuates. As the subtlest aspect of the manifestation, therefore, the human mind is constantly engaged in “the guna shuffle.”

Tatiana: This is really helpful because it means that I can really give up on trying to control a moving/changing object such as mind, thought and emotion.  But I can still observe it. Or not.


Ted: Right on, sister.

Tatiana: Also, it’s much easier to observe this in other people than in myself.

Ted: Ain’t that always the case?

Tatiana: I have been supporting my clients in their own physical and emotional understanding for years and these energies and their effects are clear as day to me in others, I just didn’t have language for them.


Ted: This is why Vedanta is so powerful. It puts everything in such simple terms. It lays the cards on the table, so to speak, and enables us to read them and understand their implications within the whole network of neuroses. This clarity enables us to establish some objectivity toward the forces affecting our mind and empowers us to defuse and/or redirect them while at the same time granting us enough space from our thoughts and feelings to prevent the suffering that inevitably ensues when we identify with them.


The practice of triguna vibhava yoga is a means of managing the gunas in such a way as to regulate the relative proportions of rajas and tamas in order to cultivate a predominately sattvic mind that is capable of engaging in effective self-inquiry and ultimately assimilating self-knowledge. This practice involves observing the effects of one’s food intake; money management; sexual conduct; recreational activities; relationships, social involvements; work and living environment; professional, social, and familial responsibilities, etc., and then adjusting our partaking of, participation in, and/or attitude toward these aspects of our lives in order to promote a less stressful way of life and greater sense of inner peace.


Tatiana: Ok here’s where I have a bunch of questions.  First, it’s a bit of a revelation to me that the gunas can be managed at all.   I understood them to be some sort of a force of nature that can be observed but can’t be changed.  My relationship to them can be changed of course, but they are just kind of a fact of life. Am I missing something here?


Ted: You can’t change the nature of the gunas themselves or the influence their energetic qualities exert on the mind and body, but you can regulate the relative proportions of the gunas in your mind and body and, thus, enhance or diminish their impact as you see fit. This is done through the choices you make in terms of virtually every aspect of your lifestyle—food, work, recreation, sex, relationships, money, goals, possessions, the environments you find yourself working, living, and interacting within, etc.


For instance, you might observe that eating tamasic food, such as a greasy cheeseburger with a side of fries, doesn’t leave you feeling physically energetic or mentally alert enough to engage in a concentrated study of scripture, or that ingesting rajasic fair, such as slugging down an el grande caramel macchiato with an added shot of espresso, doesn’t afford you the calm mind or relaxed body that are most conducive for meditation, whereas eating a sattvic diet consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat gives you just the right degree of calm, focused alertness that enables you to take care of your worldly responsibilities as well as undertake self-inquiry.


Managing the gunas basically boils down to paying close attention to the affect your actions and indulgences in the various aspects of your life have on your mind and body and then using common sense to adjust your behaviors in ways that will more effectively regulate the relative proportions of rajas and tamas in order to cultivate a predominately sattvic mind.


Management of the gunas is a whole yoga, or spiritual practice, unto itself referred to as triguna vibhava yoga and is a rather complex issue that is explained in great detail in the chapter devoted to lifestyle in the book, “How to Attain Enlightenment” by James Swartz. It is also extensively dealt with in the article, “Isvara-Jiva-Jagat Identity“ by Sundari Viglietti, which is available in the Articles collection of the Publications section on the Shining World website.


Tatiana: Also, is it totally necessary to have a sattvic mind to engage in self-inquiry?

Ted: It’s not necessary to have a sattvic mind to initially engage in self-inquiry, but only a sattvic mind will be capable of ultimately assimilating self-knowledge.

Having a sattvic mind doesn’t mean that the mind needs to be completely free of the influence of rajas and tamas. In fact, a sufficient degree of rajas is necessary in order to have enough motivation or get-up-go to initiate actions—including self-inquiry—and a sufficient degree of tamas is necessary in order to be focused enough to complete the tasks we undertake, practical or grounded enough to successfully navigate through daily life, and relaxed enough to sleep.


The importance of a sattvic mind lies in its ability to maintain an alert, but introverted focus. If the mind is constantly addled by extroverting desires, which are a symptom of excessive rajas, or saddled with the oppressive weight of confusion, laziness, or apathy, which are symptoms of excessive tamas, it will have neither the inward-directed focus necessary to contemplate nor the subtlety necessary to recognize the true nature of the projections arising within it. By analogy, it will be either so fascinated with or so fooled by the forms of the waves that it will fail to realize that their essential nature is nothing other than water.


Most importantly, only a sattvic mind is sufficiently still to register an accurate reflection of pure awareness. Just as the true nature of the sun is most accurately reflected in the still surface of a body of water, so the true nature of awareness is most accurately reflected in a still mind. When the thought-waves even out in meditation or during moments when the mind is content, the unmodified nature of pure awareness is glimpsed, so to speak. Though you don’t “see” attributeless awareness as you would an object, you “sense” or recognize its limitless nature, and, moreover, you understand that this awareness is you, the witnessing consciousness in whose “light” all objective phenomena appear as well as the “substanceless substance” of which they are all made. The reflection of awareness (i.e., the intuitive recognition or understanding its limitless nature and its identity as the fundamental reality supporting and yet ever free of all ephemeral forms that arise within the scope of its being) is not awareness itself, for awareness is not an object available for perception. But the reflection is so accurate that it is basically as good as the original. Only the sattvic mind has the capacity to gain direct knowledge of its true nature in this way.

Tatiana: It’s an unpleasant emotion and really not wanting to suffer it that gets my attention enough to alert me to inquire in the first place. Since encountering Vedanta and reading about the requirements, I’m making the lifestyle adjustments because this is what I want.  I’m very blessed with a peaceful life and there is really no external cause for disturbance any more, so I know that I can’t point the finger anywhere outside although I do try.


The ultimate value of triguna vibhava yoga is that the sattvic mind that it produces is able to readily distinguish between the real and the apparent, and in this way comes to realize that it is actually altogether free of the gunas and their energetic effects.

Tatiana: Ha!  I guess I have no idea what you mean by sattvic mind. Maybe it doesn’t matter if there is an emotional tsunami or anything else happening that has nothing to do with sattvic mind.  I think I was imagining a sort of lobotomized person with no brain activity.


Ted: Here again, I’m going to suggest that you do a little bit of reading before we proceed with our dialogue. My recommendation is that on the heels of reading Tattva Bodha you read either of James’ two books: “How to Attain Enlightenment” or “The Essence of Enlightenment.” These two books follow essentially the same format, but the latter is a little more conversational in its delivery. Both cover all the basic teachings of Vedanta and provide an overview of the process of self-inquiry. Once you have read those, we will be able to tighten up any loose bolts that remain with relative ease I’m guessing.


Though we can produce a predominance of any particular guna in our system by means of our lifestyle choices, we will never fully neutralize the effects of any of the gunas. All three will continue to influence us to a certain extent, and at any given time one will exert a predominant influence on the mind. Thus, while it is advisable to manage the gunas in such a way that will most effectively produce the state of mind that you desire, it is also important to know that the gunas are nothing more than objects—albeit extremely subtle ones—and as such have no effect on one’s essential nature. In terms of your question, it is crucial to remain cognizant of the fact that when tamas colors the mind and produces the experience of dullness, confusion, laziness, or depression, you, the witnessing awareness by whom the experience is known, are not affected in the least. This knowledge does not make the experience disappear, but it does allow for some space between you and the experience of the apparent person you seem to be. The value of establishing this space is that it can afford you a psychological “no-man’s land” in which you can more objectively assess the experience, consciously resist identifying with the thoughts and feelings characterizing it, and thereby save yourself from the suffering that inevitably results from this erroneous identification.

Tatiana: This is the crux of it for me. I have very recently been viewing it as a wonderful gift and an opportunity when tamas becomes unbearably palpable.  If I just practice this, it will be enough I think. Very clarifying.  Thank you.


Such a conscious application of atma-anatma-viveka, the discrimination between the self and the “not-self,” is the basis of self-inquiry and is a clear sign that, as you put it, “something is being metabolized,” or, in more Vedantic terms, that the assimilation of self-knowledge is serving to neutralize the depression vasana, which we might characterize as the habitual tendency towards associating with and succumbing to the effects of a tamasic mind.

Tatiana: Again, yes.  Thank you.


The constant application of atma-anatma-viveka, supported by the practices of karma yoga, devotional worship, meditation, and triguna vibhava yoga will eventually result in the neutralization of all binding vasanas that agitate the mind with desire and thereby prevent it from seeing perfect fullness that is its true nature. Therefore, while witnessing the influence that the gunas exert on the mind can be somewhat painful, the ultimate payoff for doing so is that you break your identification with the gunas and thereby “gain” ultimate inner freedom.

Tatiana: Thanks again for your response.

Much love,



All the best,