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Transcending Sadness: A Philosophical Approach To Psychology

Authored by Shivani Shrotri


Amidst the modern clamor encouraging us to embrace sadness as an inevitable companion, a stark truth is neglected: negative emotions can be soul-crushingly burdensome. It's as if we've resigned ourselves, as a society, to the inevitability of this gloom, inadvertently undermining the power of our own minds. However, delving into the cutting-edge realms of scientific discovery while aligning them with the age-old wisdom of ancient philosophers reveals a revolutionary insight—mental suffering is not a predetermined fate but rather a formidable adversary that can be faced, conquered, and ultimately transcended.


Understanding the root of negativity is essential. What gives rise to emotions like fear and sadness? The answer is simple: thoughts. While some contend that emotions trigger thoughts, evidence strongly suggests a different narrative—that emotions such as fear and sadness often stem from the very fabric of our thoughts (Krishnamurti, 2014). In simpler terms, "I think; therefore, I feel."


Western psychologists like Rick Hanson have identified and validated the existence of mechanisms that drive the metamorphosis of a simple thought into a potent emotion. The prevailing belief that places the brain as the epicenter of all mental activity is not entirely accurate. Hanson portrays how the mind possesses the remarkable ability to sculpt the structure of the brain through its fluid interactions (Mendius & Hanson, 2010). Research at UCLA by neurosurgery professor Itzhak Fried and neuroscientist Christof Koch from Caltech demonstrated that "individuals can rapidly, consciously, and voluntarily control neurons deep inside their head" (Koch, 2010). While the biological mechanisms warrant further exploration, it's clear that the mind, particularly through thought, wields significant control over the neurological processes that give birth to our emotional experiences.


The inquiry, then, revolves around the origins of thoughts. Although neuroscientific theories attempt to respond to this question, diving into an alternative vantage point—a metaphysical lens—might offer more insight into this phenomenon. Since humans interpret the material world through their five senses, South Asian philosophers assert these sensory encounters to be the primary wellspring of thoughts, representing the most pervasive origin of suffering. For instance, upon the demise of a loved one, one loses the ability to engage in sensory experiences related to that person. It is believed that love fuels grief, but philosophers argue that love simply comprises a collection of positive sensory experiences and associated thoughts, including episodic memory (Philippe et al., 2013) and beliefs. The inability to partake in these experiences precipitates feelings of sadness or grief. Pleasure derived from sensory encounters is thus transient, evanescent, and invariably susceptible to either eventual deterioration into negative thoughts and feelings (Arvikar, 2000, p. 401).


In sum, thoughts emanate predominantly from sensory encounters, with both negative and positive emotions generated within the subconscious and heightened by conscious thoughts. If our thoughts are contingent upon our surroundings, we effectively relinquish our control and agency over thoughts and emotions to the external world.


This realization provokes questions: How does one exert control over thoughts and the subconscious to a degree where sensory experiences cease to influence one's thought process? If sensory encounters should not underpin the genesis of thoughts, how does one disassociate sensory experiences from thought? What alternative source can fuel thoughts?


Meditation offers insights into these inquiries, explaining the burgeoning interest among researchers in studying its effects on mood. A notable limitation of current studies lies in their narrow focus on a purely biological approach to understanding meditation, inadequately explaining its efficacy. A philosophical perspective offers a captivating and comprehensive elucidation of how meditation functions.


Meditation entails recognizing human potential. Esteemed South Asian philosophers often describe meditation as "a path of thorough and profound exploration, demanding a constant unification of the mind" (Arvikar, 1966/2007, p. 35). It is not a tool for suppressing thoughts but for asserting control over the subconscious and conscious minds and, by extension, one’s thoughts and emotions (Arvikar, 1966/2007). 


Meditation is practiced through various techniques, with chanting being the most prevalent. Chanting commences with profound concentration in the conscious mind - calming it immediately - so that one may discern concurrent subconscious thoughts. The goal in the initial stages is to recognize the difference between the conscious and subconscious minds. Then, one must engage the subconscious in chanting. As both the subconscious and conscious minds are employed in chanting, the chant within the subconscious should gradually amplify, and attempts should be made to discontinue conscious repetition of the chant. One can tell the difference between a conscious and subconscious chant since the former is verbalized whereas the latter is not; it is more automatic. Ultimately, the quieting of the conscious mind unlocks access to the subconscious, making it significantly easier to control (Arvikar, 1956/2021).


This meditative state itself yields a plethora of positive mood outcomes, including improvements in focus. However, these effects initially only subsist during the course of meditation. Once mastery over the subconscious mind is attained, the goal is to condition (not suppress) it, instructing it to be kinder and reinforcing the notion that one's essence transcends the ego or negativity; their true being is revealed in the meditative state, embodying and experiencing real contentment.


The desire for peace and happiness is universal. Ancient philosophers argue that lasting happiness exists, but its attainment demands effort and a willingness to navigate the complexity of the mind. Is it worth the endeavor? The decision to embrace this pursuit of happiness is individual, contingent upon the readiness to dedicate oneself to the task.


References

Krishnamurti, J. (2014). J. Krishnamurti - San Diego 1970 - Public Talk 2 - Can the human mind be completely free of fear? In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Z32Mh0EiBE

Mendius, R., & Hanson, R. (2010). Buddha’s Brain : The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Paw Prints.

Wheeler, M. (2010, October 27). Mind over matter: Study shows we consciously exert control over individual neurons. UCLA Health. https://www.uclahealth.org/news/mind-over-matter-study-shows-we-consciously-exert-control-over-individual-neurons

Philippe, F. L., Koestner, R., & Lekes, N. (2013). On the directive function of episodic memories in people’s lives: A look at romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 164–179. National Library of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030384

Arvikar, B. M. (2000). Geetaprabodh (p. 401). Mokshadham Prakashan Mandal.

Arvikar, B. M. (2007). Divyamrutdhara (4th ed., p. 35). Dhavale Prakashan. (Original work published 1966)

Arvikar, B. M. (2021). Achar Sahita (3rd ed., pp. 79–80). Mokshadham Prakashan Mandal. (Original work published 1956)

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