Reality, and our response to it, can be greatly facilitated by making a simple change. Instead of talking about positive and negative emotion, it’s more accurate to be talking about pleasant and unpleasant emotion. Then, it becomes much easier to identify and discuss situations where pleasant and unpleasant are not synonymous with positive and negative (see this article on real conversations and this article on intimacy strategies).
Instead, the two continua (pleasant to unpleasant; and positive to negative) are orthogonal to each other as indicated in the diagram above. In other words, it is possible to have pleasant emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that are negative for our lives and to have unpleasant emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that are positive for our lives. To make this clear, consider some examples for each quadrant in the picture below and also illustrated above:
- Pleasant and negative: Most addictive drugs, Denial/Suppression/Repression, Some forms of delusion
- Unpleasant and negative: Stepping on a thorn, Your child having cancer
- Unpleasant and positive: Dental work, Studying for an exam, Skillful disagreement
- Pleasant and positive: Reading a book in a hammock, Eating healthy food
This is really obvious, but the lack of this distinction in our language led to confusion at one of the Mind-Life Institute sponsored gatherings in which Western Scientists talked with Eastern Buddhist practitioners and the Dalai Lama himself. Scientists were talking about “positive” and “negative” affect (i.e., emotion) while the Dalai Lama was talking about whether a particular emotion was helpful or not helpful for decreasing suffering. Things could have been much clearer if the group had been able to talk about positive unpleasant emotions and negative pleasant emotions.
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