Theory of Bliss

The Logic of Irrational Emotion

By Thomas C Veatch


Humor Theory
The Ugliness of Beauty
Postural Anesthesia
Oxytocin and the Vortex of Love
On Suffering
What is Anger
Notes from on the Ground

The Occasion

In 2012 the wonderful Sean Guillory invited me to a humor theory debate at a conference which he was organizing, which gave me a chance to return to and struggle and argue with Veatch's (1998) Theory of Humor (yeah that was me). Thank you Sean! Out of that experience emerged this generalization of Humor Theory, which includes other non-down-regulated emotions such as bliss and serenity.

The Guiding Star

My Penn PhD adviser, the great Mark Liberman, once taught me that when in the course of sustained scientific effort one finds a simplification, a set of cases which previously seemed different, but suddenly emerged into the light as instances of the same thing, that that is a great event in science.

I had such a moment when I realized that the high virtues were a natural category, that they were applications of one phenomenon, the non-operation of the inner judge. It was a bit overwhelming, to come up from the treeline to see over mountain ranges. I am glad I could share that vision, and perhaps some of its excitement, with you here.


This theory of bliss (and serenity or, generally, of transcendent or non-down-regulated emotion) seeks to insightfully describe how emotion is regulated, or not regulated, in the human psyche. Using certain essential machinery of our semi-rational psychology, "inner surrender" is here defined and elaborated, the high virtues are understood and explored as inner surrender applied to various domains and thus as instances of the same thing, and the core doctrines of known religions are seen as means of accessing inner surrender. Veatch's Razor is expressed, distinguishing pro- and contra-bliss mental activities.

Inner Surrender

Veatch's 1998 Theory of Humor suggested the presence of an inner emotional regulation system which one might call the Inner Judge, which has a front end which may be more conscious and a back end which seems less so, on the front end it evaluates the situation in focus all the time and figures out how to feel about it, and on the back end, it implements the emotions by pumping the adrenalin, the hormones, etc., that carry out the physiological and other activities that amount to having that particular feeling.

Here I propose that this inner emotional judgement system has as one of its primary tasks the downregulation of emotion, in addition of course to the preparation of the organism for related action. So if you match your desires to the world, and there is a mismatch, then this system downregulates you, pushes you down, down, down: unsatisfied, unhappy, ugh. On the other hand if it compares your desires to the world, and they do match, then it doesn't downregulate you quite as much. That is, you're definitely still not drooling on the floor, horselaughing, losing comportment, you just have a small smile and more or less calmly say, "I'm happy now". That is what I'll called Judged Happiness, and it's basically a slightly less downregulated emotional state. Not an unregulated, and not an upregulated emotional state.

Now the Inner Judge generally seems to have its eye on the ball of figuring out the moral of the current story: What is going on here, and How shall I feel about it? It pretty much won't let its eye off that ball. And in my argument it is a quite rational entity, except perhaps in its choice of emotions based on situational triggers or partial matching. So just allow me to propose and then assume all that. Oh, one more thing, also that, as the Hindus say, bliss is underlying and constantly present.

Now the consequence for Humor Theory is great, because the above machinery provides an Explanation. The Inner Judge makes the judgement that a situation in focus is a Violation, then it also makes the judgement that the situation is Not a Violation, by viewing it in a different way, from a different angle or in a different frame, or perhaps with new developments in it. Being as how the two judgements are in mutual contradiction, the Inner Judge finds it has no analysis, cannot come to a conclusion, indeed cannot (down)regulate the emotions consistent with the moral it has extracted from the story. The contradiction itself forces the Inner Judge into non operation. When it stops operating, it stops having an analysis, it stops constructing memory and the sense of time, it stops downregulating the emotions. Suddenly out comes unregulated emotional flow, the bliss that is underlyingly present already. Bam, mad emotional activation, horselaughter, lunatic mirth, non-downregulated emotion. Comportment may be lost. Bliss. Irrational emotion.

So that's a lot of extra machinery just to handle what some might call the flaws, they might call them the self-contradictions of Veatch's Theory of Humor. But I don't accept that an organism is unable to have mutually contradictory views of a situation at the same instant. Put an ice cube on one end of a worm, light a match at the other, is it hot or is it cold? The worm lives in a complicated world, and it has to do its best to deal with the apparent contradictions of its complex situation. It's no failure of logic or of science to assert than an organism may have complex internal representations, some of which may contradict others. Science does hold, I hope, that logical consistency is characteristic of the actual qualities of the actual world, whereas representations of the actual world colored in with optional added features, such as emotional evaluations, need not be mutually logically consistent even within a single organism.

And just consider whether this extra machinery is useful for a moment, by exploring how it might work in other aspects of human life. Are there any other parts of human life in which something like the non-operation of the inner judge may lead to a non-downregulated emotional flow state, that you might call, for example, bliss (if activated) or serenity (if not activated)?

I would say Yes. Many, indeed. First, though, doesn't it seem that the inner judge is so attached to doing its own self-conceived duty that it will not intentionally stop doing so? Although forced into non-operation by humor perception, it may have a hard time stopping. Sleep disorders, it can't stop running on. Alcoholism, the poor fellow has to anesthetize it to get it to quit telling the negative and painful stories about one's life, or play the self-deceptive trick of denial, reversing the sense or the roles of each painful thought, so as not to feel that excruciatingly painful responsibility for one's actions and life. And the eating disorders, the judge judges I'm pathetic and weak when I eat, there you go again, giving in to your hunger, telling this miserable story until 20% of its victims die from it. The inner judge doesn't want to stop doing its duty.

The only way for it to stop doing its duty seems to be to be forced to stop by humor perception, or to somehow otherwise voluntarily give up or surrender doing this duty.

Let's establish a technical term, "inner surrender", to refer to this operation of the inner judge letting go and shutting the **** up. You know it doesn't want to. Most people most of the time won't let it let go. It has to hold on tight, grab on with white knuckles, no matter what, to continually have a story about what's going on, and impose its view of how to feel about it.

But if it can do inner surrender, then it can stop. Yes.

The High Virtues As Applications of Inner Surrender

In what ways might an inner judge carry out the action of inner surrender?

Humility, is there a component of inner surrender in humility? Let it not be about you and your ego and how you want everything to be? Yes.

Trust, is there inner surrender in trust?

Love, doesn't that falling in love moment involve inner surrender?

How about service? You know Consumer Reports reports that volunteers are happier than non-volunteers. Service is surrendering your agenda to that of another.

Forgiveness, is there inner surrender in forgiveness? I thought so. Surrender the activity of telling the story of yourself as victim and someone else as perpetrator, that's called forgiveness.

So here we have the high virtues, and they have a common element of inner surrender in them.

Decomposing the high virtues

Let us summarize:
  • Inner surrender applied to a person's victim story defines forgiveness.
  • Inner surrender applied to social status defines humility.
  • Inner surrender applied to goal-directed action action defines service.
  • Inner surrender applied to interpersonal relationships defines trust.
  • Inner surrender applied to meditation is peak spiritual experience.

Other Modes

What about sex? Yes, throughout for the girls, at the end for the boys, would be my guess, does that apply for you?

What about physical exercise? Would you agree with my sister, a lifetime runner, that that is the whole point?

What about trust, touch, oxytocin, the pro-social emotions? Oxytocin, the smooth-muscle regulating hormone, has been shown to be the hormone of trust. As mentioned above, trust is one of the high virtues. Then inner surrender characterizes the experience of mammals touching each other, of childbirth, of eating.

What about inability to access inner surrender? Alcoholism, addiction, insomnia, anorexia/bulimia all have a pathological degree of lack of inner surrender. These might be considered diseases of the inner judge.


  • Inner surrender occurs in the runner's high, in high-intensity sports, in the experience of massage, of a hot tub, of sexuality, of positive social connection.
  • Inner surrender is sought by the self-medicating alcoholic or drug user, and unattainable for the insomniac and anorexic/bulimic.
So there seems to be a powerful commonality here about getting free from our downregulating inner judge.

Core messages of great religions are equivalent to inner surrender

So, What about religion? I have a story about every religion other than Wicca and Jainism, and that's because I don't know anything about Wicca and Jainism. Islam, for example, is a word which means "submission". Boom, done, need I say more? I didn't think so.

But we can run the list.

  • Christianity's central doctrine of the sinful nature of man, might have other than humble uses when applied to converting the politically independent heathen, or to bringing in tithes, but if one contemplates oneself as a sinner is it possible not to experience humility? No. Here at the very center of Christianity is a doorway to bliss.

  • Buddhism, well, the ideal of Buddhism is Nirvana, a thought-free state of inner stillness. Is the inner judge operating during stillness? No. Is the non-operation of the inner judge the very definition of inner surrender? Yes. So the goal of Buddhism also is inner surrender.

  • Judaism. The central prayer of Judaism is the Shma: Shma Israel! Adonai Elohainu, Adonai Ekhad.
    Shma: Listen. Israel: us. Adonai: The personal name of our community deity. Unspoken: Is. Elohainu: God. Ekhad: One.
    So the Shma says, "Listen my people, our god is God, our god is one." What does it mean, this oneness? An established argument is that the Jews created or popularized monotheism, under a context of interpretation that there is a marketplace of gods and that therefore the point of the Shma is that, Hey, ours is the important one, yours don't count, none of them, indeed ours is the only one that even exists, yours are nothing. That is one reading of the Shma indeed. And such a chauvinism might help sustain a persecuted community, but where is the upliftment in that, the emotional or spiritual underlying substance here?

    Obviously if I ask for salt and you give me pepper, such a foolishness cannot be the point of oneness. Oneness in the most important of its senses is that most important quality, namely an emotional quality -- emotions being the domain of importance itself -- the emotional quality of oneness, of not making distinctions, as between us and them, love and hate, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, disgusting and tasteful. The distinctions are emotional judgements which cause separation emotionally and socially, which are activities of the inner emotional judgement system, and which when the inner judge is not operational, are absent. This is the meaning of Oneness which I hear in the Shma. Of course I'm hardly a Jew, as any Jew would recognize, so you have to form your own opinion.

  • Hinduism is all about the surrendered relationship of disciple to guru. The most repeated element in spoken Hindu ritual is "namah", "I bow". The central representation of the guru's feet is indeed a symbol of surrender. A great teacher of his generation, Swami Muktananda, said, "I will summarize the Vedas for you in three words. All is One." (P.C. 1984) The discussion of Oneness under Judaism applies.

  • Confucianism, all about filial piety, along with other ideologies of static social structure exemplified perhaps most powerfully by the Indian caste system, can be seen as expanding inner surrender to include interpersonal surrender, accepting one's place in the hierarchy and structure of social reality, and interacting with surrender or obedience to one's parents and other authorities. If the outer structure is mirrored in inner psychology, you can see inner surrender is what Confucianism is all about.

Veatch's Razor

There exists a clear difference between the bliss-enhancing, serenity-inducing aspects of inner life and of religious doctrine and practice on the one hand versus the bliss-destroying aspects on the other.

Certain mental activities take us straight out of bliss and serenity by regulating our emotion.

The actions are: attributing emotionally significant qualities to oneself, for example by telling a story about what is happening to one, which tells one how to feel about it, by identifying oneself in the situation or story with any limited role or characteristics. Not doing that lets one experience non-downregulated emotion. That's it; pretty simple. Stop the bad stuff, the good stuff is already there.

Judgement of a situation in which you are the good person and someone else is the bad person, that is to say, moral judgement in general, is a clear case of the inner judge in action. Through its operation, immediately, bliss and serenity are removed from your experience. Veatch's Razor says: if you can avoid turning on the inner judge's activity of attributing emotionally significant qualities to yourself, whether statically or through time (in narrative), then you can be blissful and serene. (And if not, then not.) If spirituality and higher joy, considered as states characterizeable in psychological science, are simply this bliss, this serenity, this non-down-regulated state of emotional flow, then they are instantly destroyed by the emotion-controlling, self-attributional activity of the inner judge. Distinguish between on and off states of the inner judge, and you distinguish between bliss, serenity, the high virtues and other modes of perhaps irrational, unregulated emotion, as well as the core messages of every examined religion, taken together on the one hand, versus controlled, downregulated, one might say suffering, emotional states on the other.

If God picks sides, it's the first. Anyway it's worth a try.

Further work

Further work may:
  • Delineate the spiritual significance (and insignificance) of a variety of religious doctrines and self-help instructions.
  • Interview a variety of religious leaders to clarify their views on the claims of this theory.
  • Re-present a variety of effective means of attaining bliss and serenity, providing an encompassing and ecumenical spirituality, and destroying the significant barriers between religions (not excluding the anti-religious).
  • Explore implications for evolution.
  • Explore the nature of suffering in this context.
  • Relate to psychological diseases.
  • Relate to typologies of sin.
Notes from (a forehead) on the ground.

Epilog 1/13/2018: A dreamstate insight:

I meditated, slept, woke up.

In my innermost intellect, awakening, mostly unbound by body consciousness, while observing my own arising and subsiding with breathing (I was repeating the mantra, Om namah shivaaya, canonically, with feeling), the twist of ignorance clarified. The twist began straight: This is all mine and feels so nice that way, free, self aware, encompassing, calm, loving, centered. All good things. Straight. Then, as soon as I identify into an aspect, my emotional bars come down.

The identification movement and the emotional bars coming down movement are the same movement.

For example, arising from the ocean of sleep, remembering the duties of my day, and that these are my duties (identifying as the one to whom the duties belong) is the step that induces the stress of the performance or non-performance of those duties. It's the same thing at quite a deep level, and there is a twist to it. The twisting into limited identification traps me into the feeling of being that identified one, distracts my self-aware creation/subsidence process via the operation of identifying into some role or attribute and, distracted, my emotions become not my own natural flow but those of my role or attribute as my child self imagines they must be. Loss of paying attention inwardly loses emotional freedom and the self awareness in everything.

The twist is the turning of attention not just toward that scenario or sequence but with the quality of identification, or my having that attribute or role, and away from the self-created awareness of an unlimited space of vibration, calm and encompassing. The act of paying attention in one direction is the same as taking attention away from the other direction. This justifies referring to it as ignorance, as in some Eastern systems they do. The ownership of one's own being, the direct seeing that the creative source of all comes from your own center of aligned, surrendered volition, which is actually true vision, is forgotten and ignored as the inner commitment of ego draws attention away from that emotional awareness toward a side, toward being colored by that role or attribute. It's not just that then you become vulnerable to emotional misery nor just that you are thereby enslaved by unbreakable chains of ego-bound circumstance, it's that the turning away toward some identified version of what you think is yourself, on the one hand, and the pervading emotional lockdown experience, on the other, are a but single self-enslaving movement. If it were a screen sliding across the stage gradually uncovering a new scene, both qualities arise with it together, the emotional/cognitive identification commitment, and the emotional effect which is unavoidable given that identification. If you believe that's what you are, then you become stuck with the feeling of it too. They arise together, simultaneously and in the same degree. They are two sides of one coin.

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Copyright © 2012-2020, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: August 8, 13, 23 2013; July 26, 2017; August 3, 2018