Are All Negative Emotions Traceable To The Inner Child?

Dear reader, I’d like you to test a hypothesis. It is this: all negative emotions can be traced back to the inner child.

Preliminary Remark #1: The Scope of the Hypothesis

I need to be specific about the scope of this hypothesis. Negative emotions are, in the sense in which I’m speaking of them, only ever ego-centric. Therefore, the hypothesis is not concerned with experiences of melancholy that is in concert with a deep understanding of anicca (or the impermanent nature of phenomenal reality), of poignancy (as when one sees a hawk with a young bird too quiet, though still alive in its talons), or of heartache (while in the presence of a dog that has been abused). Melancholy, poignancy, and heartache are not examples of negative emotions in the sense in which I’m speaking of them here.

Preliminary Remark #2: A Broader Metaphysical Point

Interestingly too, the Source–the ultimate nature of reality as it is in itself–is utterly without emotions. The Source, as itself, cannot experience sadness, anger, or fear. And when in The Upanishads it is said that the Source is ananda (bliss, joy, or abiding happiness), it is not implying that such is a passing phenomenon. Rather, “bliss,” “joy,” or “abiding happiness” is a linguistic approximation for the state, or stateless state, of eternal peace: wholly peace, peace without exceptions. You could say that the nature of the Source just is peace. Not for nothing, then, did the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh write of being peace.

Therefore, we’re presented with a conundrum, aren’t we? If tat tvam asi (“Thou are That” in the ultimate sense), then, by golly, where do negative emotions spring from? We already know that they must spring from the ego-self, but from what kind of ego-self exactly?

The Inner Child

I’m putting my money on what Jung called the inner child. I take it that the inner child, as an arising ego-self phenomenon, can be articulated in the following way:

  1. “I feel hurt.”
  2. AND “I am expressing this hurt in the form of… [negative emotion X].”

Take what strike me as the most common negative emotions:

–Those concerned with actual loss to the ego-self (here we think of sadness, despondency, the blues, despair, and so on).

–Those concerned with potential or perceived loss to the ego-self (fear, anxiety, nervousness, worry, etc.)

–Those concerned with some injury to the ego-self (anger, vengefulness, rage, irritation, peevishness, petulance, and so on)

–Those concerned with the ego-self’s shrinking (shutting down or checking out)

In all of these cases, I submit that the sadness, fear, anger, or shutting down can be reduced to “I feel hurt.”

So, Who Feels Hurt?

Use your “felt sense” (Gendlin) to investigate who feels hurt–who in particular. This may take some months or years of somatic investigation.

If, in the end, your inquiry chimes with mine, then you’ll find that there is a “something” that feels small and vulnerable. In fact, you’ll need to specify precisely how this something manifests. “This anger is arising from the inner child, and the inner child is, very specifically, feeling helpless or powerless as well as existentially alone.” Of course, the last sentence is trying to give a linguistic account of what can be felt more immediately and intuitively. One can “develop the knack” for intuitively feeling the inner child.

If my hypothesis is correct about how negative emotions stem from the inner child, then it becomes easier to more readily see negative emotions as “not not really real” insofar as they arise on behalf of the inner child while also welcoming the inner child and integrating it as needed. Finally, by this means one can more swiftly continue the existential inquiry into the true nature of the Self.

(Note that I’m not arguing for spiritual bypass. Quite the contrary. The inner child, to be taken seriously, is then merged with The All. In this way, the inner child is a “throughway” or “Dharma door.”)


In sum, the above psychological inquiry (“Cleaning Up”) is in the service of the existential inquiry into who you are. Seeing that the inner child is “not me, not mine” (the Buddha) but, of course, without dissociating from this process we call the inner child allows the existential inquiry to continue to unfold.

To put the point bluntly: I know who, or what, I am not. Then who, or what, am I?

The Third Focal Point Of Karma Yoga

About karma yoga, the younger-ish and groovier Ram Dass writes in the amazingly 1970s spiritual-cultural artifact Be Here Now (1971) that the witness, a third focal point, is key:

Using the stuff that makes up your daily life as the vehicle for coming to Union is called karma yoga. It is a most available yoga, and at the same time a most difficult one. It is difficult because it starts with an action which you ar initially performing for an end of maintaining your individual ego, and it overrides or converts that motivation into one of service to the higher Self which transcends ego.

In order to perform karma yoga, there is a simple general principle to keep in mind: bring a third component into every action. If, for example, you are digging a ditch, there is you [in the relative sense–AT] who is digging the ditch, and the ditch which is being dug [to wit, ‘the object’–AT]. Now add a third focus: say, a disinterested person who is seeing you dig the ditch. Now run the entire action through his head while you are digging. It’s as simple as that. Through this method you would ultimately free yourself from identifying with him who is digging the ditch. You would merely see a ditch being dug. (“Cook Book for a Sacred Life” in Be Here Now, p. 66)

Karma yoga is the path of selfless acting or selfish giving. It’s easy to get stuck, as Ram Dass knows well, since taking credit for doing is such a habitual move in the ego game.

Therefore, we need to give everything up to others (or to God), and, what’s more, we need to adopt the standpoint of the witness who is simply observing the unfolding action.

Then, it becomes clear, what you don’t quite see is a “ditch being dug.” You, witnessing awareness, just see digging processually, naturally unfolding. Just a process within and as and none other than the larger cosmic process.

They say: karma is a real bitch. Doesn’t have to be, friends.

Sudden Awakening/Gradual Cultivation

In the Chapter Introduction, “The Immature and the Wise,” to The Dhammapada (trans. and ed. Eknath Easwaran), S. Ruppenthal very parsimoniously and elegantly describes the Zen view of “sudden awakening/gradual cultivation”:

In Buddhism, enlightenment (sambodhi or bodhi) is an instantaneous experience in which mental activity is momentarily suspended completely and sleeping realms of consciousness are dazzled into full wakefulness. Bodhi is not nirvana. It is a temporary stilling of the mine, which brings illumination of consciousness; nirvana, the permanent release from all sources of suffering, is attained only when the experience of enlightenment has been repeated so often that it, not ordinary conditioned awareness, has become one’s constant state. Only when the insights of bodhi are completely absorbed into one’s character and conduct would the Buddha call a person truly awake. (pp. 121-2)

While I don’t have time to comment on this so very clear exposition, I’d like, all the same, to give special thanks to my wife Alexandra and to my conversation partner Daniel for having discussed “sudden awakening/gradual cultivation” with me.

Karma Yoga, Revisited

The Bhagavad Gita argues that one of the paths of Self-realization is karma yoga. Until recently, I had held that karma yoga was not a good path for us moderns due to the prevalance of Total Work. But I was mistaken, not least because I had believed that karma yoga could too easily be conflated with work. It needn’t be.

Here’s a story that illustrates how:

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa [writes Sri Swami Satchidadanda] gives a beautiful parable about this. Once, a few people went to visit a garden, having been told that there were beautiful big fruit trees there. But the garden was completely surrounded by high walls, and they couldn’t even see what was inside. With great effort one person managed to climb the wall and see inside. He saw such luscious fruit that the minute he saw it, he jumped in. Another person climbed up and immediately jumped in the same way. Finally, a third person climbed up, but when she saw it, she said, “My gosh, how can I jump in now? There are so many hungry people below who don’t know what is here or how to climb up.” So, she sat on the wall and said, “Hey, there are a lot of fruits, come on. If you try hard, you can come up like I have.” She lent a hand, pulling people in.

Such people are called teachers. (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Translaton and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, p. 216)

Of course, this is, as we find in Mahayana Buddhism, a beautiful story about the bodhisattva ideal. Yes, it’s also a story about the existence of wholesome, legitimate spiritual teachers.

But what else is this a story about? Quite simply, it gives us all the motivation we need to see that, right here and now, we can selflessly act and selflessly give. Whenever you selflessly perform an act, however small it may be, on behalf of others so that others may suffer less or may flourish, you are engaged in karma yoga. Period.

The point is, in the very situations we find ourselves right now, to make karma yoga more intentional, more thoroughgoing, and more the default. There are fruits enough down below! Lend a hand: pull some beings–cockroaches, spiders, dogs in rescues, family members–up and over. Let’s begin already!

The 8 Limbs Of Philosophia

In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines what he takes to be the “eight limbs of yoga.” Inspired by his example, I want to ask, “What could be the X limbs of Wisdom?

1. Austerities

Many traditions underscore the need for tapas (or austerities). Christian mystics speak of “silence and solitude.” Buddhists observe Noble Silence during certain periods. Many point to fasting during important calendrical times. Which austerities should be a part of the path of wisdom?

2. Movement Practice

Classical Athenians revered the beautiful male form and saw gymnastics as a crucial part of paideia. Obviously, Patanjali made a point of including various asanas, or ways of making the physical form painful and detoxified so that the practitioner could continue on the yogic path.

In the case of philosophy as a way of life, I submit that beautiful physical practice should be underscored. Weight lifting, therefore, would not do, but physical activities that combine strength, ability, and intelligence (e.g., parkour, rock climbing, perhaps horseback riding, etc.). could count.

The gross physical body is to be cultivated in order that its strength, flexibility, and quietness would be sufficient to support the greater inquiry into Wisdom.

3. Purgation/purification

While Ken Wilber makes it seem as if Cleaning Up is an invention of the twentieth century, the truth is that various spiritual and mystical traditions stressed purgation (Christian mysticism) or purification (e.g., Eleusian mysteries). What would purification look like for one on the Path of Wisdom? My hunch is that a samskaric investigation could be at the heart of purification.

4. Ethical Practice

Here, I imagine an ethical practice consisting of two related parts. Part 1: being vigilant about one’s thoughts, being very careful with one’s words (Spinoza used to wear a ring that said caute (“careful”)), likewise being truthful in one’s speech, and being gentle and deliberate in one’s deeds.
Part 2: cultivation of the salient virtues for one on said path, virtues such as temperance, courage, and empathy.

5. Logic

Here, we start to make the turn toward “disciplines of thought.” An elementary understanding of symbolic logic and, more generally, of philosophical reasoning would be appropriate. The point? To strengthen one’s capacity for reasoning and to more broadly strengthen one’s mind.

6. Metaphysics

Theoria: what is reality? What is human beings’ place in the cosmos? And what is the nature of wisdom?

7. Philosophical practice

One would need to learn two things. First, how to deliberate and take action (Aristotle, NE). Second and more broadly, how to inquire in a philosophical sense. The latter I’ve been doing for the past 11 years.

8. Wu Wei 

My sense is that the highest expression of wisdom comes in the form of total embodiment and effortless, spontaneous action, action that is good and clear and decisive.