What do we mean by each of these words when used in the context of meditation: feelings, sensations, emotions? Why does it matter? It matters in terms of clarity of instruction to know what the instructor means. Feelings and emotions “color” the mind. Emotions can create false perceptions and are obstacles in clear reasoning and thinking. So one way or another, it is important be aware of them whether the distinction is made or not. And Sanskrit and Pali do not make the distinction but English (and English instruction!) does.
These terms come up frequently in meditation practice instructions as they are a big part of the practice. The question came up, specific meaning and distinction between feelings and emotion, during the online Coursera course on Buddhism and evolutionary psychology offered by Professor Robert Wright at Princeton. The way I see it, he makes a distinction but also uses them interchangeably, the way I have done in my teaching. It is probably true of many of us. Clarity of usage could prevent potential confusion and distraction when used in meditation instructions.
For me, when practicing and teaching yoga meditations, feelings are sensations in the physical body–heat/cold, heaviness/lightness, pain/pleasure and all other sensations in the body. Feelings and sensations (we sense the feeling) are the same in this respect. Emotions are “feelings or sensations” in the mind space or mental body–fear, anxiety, joy, mental pain/pleasure, mental heaviness and lightness, jealousy, greed, etc. And as the mind and body are a continuum, feelings are associated with emotions and vice versa. This also explains why we intuitively use them interchangeably and perhaps why some languages don’t make a precise distinction.
In the Blogginheads.tv interview with Robert Wright, Joseph Goldstein who is leading American Buddhist explains that from the Buddhist point of view, feeling is the “flavor” of an emotion–pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. I hear that as the way we categorize an emotion. We seek/crave/thirst for it, avoid/avert/not crave it, or simply ignore it. In yoga, this is raga (attraction/pleasure) and dwesha (repulsion/pain) (Yoga Sutra 2.7 and 2.8).
In colloquial Indian languages, there is no distinction made between the three and the closest word is more “feeling” and not “emotion”. The closest “generic” is bhava in both the Sanskrit and Hindi dictionaries. In both Sanskrit and Pali, the word vedana is translated as “feelings” in English.
In the Stanford article “The Concept of Emotion in Classical Indian Philosophy” readers will find more information regarding Vedanta, Samkhya, and Buddhist views.
While there is no equivalent for the term “emotion” in Sanskrit, the concept nevertheless plays an important role in Indian philosophy. Terms used in Sanskrit texts include vedanā (feeling) and bhāva (feeling) as well as names of individual emotions, such as rāga (love, attraction), dveṣa (hatred, aversion), harṣa (joy), bhaya (fear) and śoka (sorrow). One of the reasons why emotions are philosophically interesting in India and the West is their relationship with the mental phenomenon of vijñāna or jñāna which is translated as “cognition”. The relationship between emotion and cognition is important for any account of reason and rationality. (Source: http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=concept-emotion-india)
Here is what Wikipedia writes:
Feeling is the nominalization of the verb to feel. The word was first used in the English language to describe the physical sensation of touch through either experience or perception. The word is also used to describe experiences other than the physical sensation of touch, such as “a feeling of warmth“. and of sentience in general. In Latin, “sentire” meant to feel, hear or smell. In psychology, the word is usually reserved for the conscious subjective experience of emotion.
In psychology and philosophy, emotion is a subjective, conscious experience characterized primarily by psychophysiological expressions, biological reactions, and mental states. Emotion is often associated and considered reciprocally influential with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, and motivation. It also is influenced by hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, oxytocin, cortisol and GABA. Emotion is often the driving force behind motivation, positive or negative. An alternative definition of emotion is a “positive or negative experience that is associated with a particular pattern of physiological activity.”