The Emotion that Has No Name

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The folks who write advertisements often call movies ‘heartwarming’. They wouldn’t do this unless they were sure that most people know what ‘heartwarming’ means.

A movie is ‘heartwarming’ if it makes you feel a certain way. If it causes a certain emotion.

What’s the name of this well-known emotion?

This is a trick question because this emotion has no name in English.

There are synonyms for ‘heartwarming’ — moving, touching, heartening, stirring, uplifting — but the emotion that it produces is nameless.

I think the fact that this widely-known emotion has no name is very strange and very interesting.

I’ll call it the nameless emotion.

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The nameless emotion is felt when goodness manifests.

The nameless emotion is the one that sheds joyous tears; that puts a lump in the throat; that chokes us up; that swells the heart and heats the chest.

It’s the emotion that people feel when they cry at a wedding, or when they see enemies help each other, or when the strong serve the weak, or when they learn that an ancient prophecy has come true and changed things from bad to good, or when they watch a big scary creature protect a little vulnerable creature, or when an evil doer is punished, or when a child overcomes obstacles and grows up and achieves victory or success or revenge.

People often think the nameless emotion is silly. Some people, especially men, are embarrassed by it. There’s a pejorative word for heartwarming movies: sappy.

I hold a different view. I think the nameless emotion, which we think is trivial, which doesn’t even merit a name, is how we feel when we intuit God. Just as fear tells us danger is near, the nameless emotion tells us God is near. I think this emotion is the same thing as bhava, the emotion of bhakti, which is one of the traditional paths to enlightenment, the path of devotion to God and love of God.

The nameless emotion is related to love.

People think the nameless emotion is silly because it can be aroused by movies. But that’s bad logic. Fear can be aroused by horror movies, but there’s nothing silly about feeling scared when we wake in the middle of the night and smell smoke.

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What sorts of things do people find most heartwarming? We can get an idea by entering the word in Google image search. That’s how I found most of the photos on this page. Of the first 30 pictures listed by Google, 23 show animals. Four show human babies. Seven show animal babies. Many of the ones that don’t show babies remind us of babies because, for example, they show a big animal next to a small one. Four of them show soldiers. Of the ones that show soldiers, three of the soldiers are shown in a protective or loving way.

Another way to make a list of heartwarming things is to look at websites that analyze TV plots. Here are some “heartwarming moments” from such a site:

  • Someone takes a wooby (a pathetic character) under his or her protection.
  • Someone is nasty on the outside but kind on the inside.
  • A bad person turns good.
  • Heroes save the day in an awesome manner.
  • A king kneels before a commoner who has done something important.
  • Somebody becomes proud of somebody else who was previously not much respected.
  • Somebody who rarely smiles, smiles.

You can find much longer lists on the Web by searching for “heartwarming moments” or “heartwarming tropes.”

I think these items are connected to things we associate with God. They are about power, love, making babies, protecting children, redemption, conversion of evil into good, the righting of wrongs, selflessness, humility, admiration, the heart, and justice.

I’m not going to belabor the point. You can decide for yourself if you agree.

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I noticed the nameless emotion for the first time when I was about twenty-three. I was riding on a train, reading the stories in Genesis — maybe the story about Rachel lying to her father about her period or the one about Joseph wrestling with the angel — and to my surprise I began to cry. I had never read the Bible before. I cried because the stories were very old and yet they had survived and still were completely intelligible. Across a distance of 2500 years, the people in the stories were just like me and the people I knew. We had the same emotions and the same nature. I found this very moving.

I was surprised because I had cried as a child but stopped suddenly when I reached puberty. From age ten to twenty-three I hadn’t cried a single tear. Now suddenly I was crying again. But the childhood tears happened when I was upset. These new adult tears were something else.

A few years later I taught English as a second language. One of the things I did with my class was tell stories. The students listened and then wrote the stories in their own words. I used stories from Greek mythology, the Bible, and Maupassant. I stripped the stories to their bare stark plots to make them more easily understood. In this form the stories seemed to be the raw material from which human life was fashioned. Telling them moved me deeply, and at some point I always got choked up and had to stop talking. It made no difference what the story was about; they moved me because they were archetypes and all humans partook of their nature. I would turn my back to the class and write on the blackboard to hide my tears.

For twenty years after that I don’t remember whether I felt this way. I probably got choked up and cried at movies, but like most people I thought this was unimportant so it made little impression.

In 1998 my kundalini woke up and I began to experience this emotion frequently and spontaneously. Now for the first time I recognized that the feeling was connected with God. I felt or knew that the universe is divine, and this fact was so beautiful and wonderful that it made me cry. Gradually over a period of several years these crying jags became more intense until they reached a peak one day when I couldn’t stop crying for hours. It started when I looked out through the dirty windshield of a car in the rain and felt in the heart that the whole gray dreary rain-smeared world was God. My girlfriend was so worried that she wanted to take me to an emergency room. But I felt perfectly fine. During that episode I asked God for a sign and received one. That’s the only time I’ve done that.

In the following years the crying gradually became less intense. Nowadays, 17 years later, I still feel the divinity of the universe pretty frequently and I still tend to cry a little bit when it happens. It’s not a big deal now. Usually my eyes get moist and I choke up a little bit.

Last year the Goddess began to talk to me. I never asked for that or imagined that it would happen. I think it has something to do with my experiences with kundalini and the nameless emotion.

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Bhakti Yoga is one of the traditional paths. It means love of God and devotion to God.

Practitioners of Bhakti Yoga try through deliberate, purposeful effort to make themselves feel a certain way.

I think Bhakti Yoga is an attempt to produce with effort the state that came to me spontaneously that day when I cried for hours.

That state feels the same as getting choked up at a sappy movie except that sometimes it’s more intense. I think they are the same emotion.

Next time it happens to you, maybe you could ask yourself, “Is this what God feels like?”

Postscript

About a year and a half after I wrote this post, I came across the following comment by Ramana:

After a while H.C. asked Bhagavan [Ramana], “How is it, Bhagavan, we sometimes feel choked with tears in Bhagavan’s Presence?” Bhagavan smiled and kept quiet. I [Devaraja Mudaliar, who was recording the conversation] said, “It is a good thing if one’s tears gush forth like that and even of Bhagavan it is recorded that when he used to go and stand before the image in the temple at Madura[i], before he came here, tears used to flow involuntarily out of his eyes, not as the result of any joy or pain, but purely out of bhakti.” Bhagavan was thereupon kind enough to add, “Even after coming here such a thing has happened. Even on reading or hearing touching passages from books such a thing has happened. Apparently a stock of emotional tears is latent in so many of us, so that at any opportune moment or on the slightest provocation they well out without any control.” (From Day by Day With Bhagavan, 5-6-45.)

5 thoughts on “The Emotion that Has No Name

  1. Beautifully written, almost made me cry. Building up inside me now after a night of difficult dreams. If I cry later, I will let you know.

    1. Thanks. What did you think of the photos? I think the one of the toddler standing on the dog’s neck and the last one create the feeling especially well, at least for me. I felt lucky to find them.

  2. I love going to movies that bring on this nameless emotion. The last one I went to was Creed. Rocky trains Apollo Creeds son who never met his father. I saw it with my 13 yr old son. We both cried.
    I like that you dont call this nameless emotion love.
    You cinveyed the essence of devotion to truth in this short piece of writing. Thanks for the warming.

    1. Thanks Rafe. Yeah, I saw Creed too. I agree, it’s a great example of this. I also agree that the nameless emotion isn’t love but I think they have something in common or they’re related. Maybe deep down, at their root, they are based on the same thing and we can feel that.

      1. I agree. Love seems to be one of those words that gets idealized and romantasized and limited to a particular image. Love is perhaps more of an action than a feeling. But I dont know anymore because all words pose limitations and divisions to some extent.

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