The Dalai Lama’s $750,000 emotional atlas website is kind of blah

emotion atlas

The New York Times today reported that the Dalai Lama commissioned a website that presents an Atlas of Emotions, aimed to help ordinary people understand their emotions better. He paid psychologist Paul Ekman — who helped advise on Pixar’s “Inside Out” and on the TV show, “Lie to Me” — “at least” $750,000 to develop the site.

You should be able to get a hell of a lot of website for three quarters of a million dollars, right?

I’ve been playing around a little with the Dalai Lama’s emotion website. It defines and describes different emotions, their sub-states, the actions they give rise to, their triggers, and the settled moods they give rise to when they become habitual.

It presents five primary emotions, which are portrayed as “continents,” following the atlas theme. These five emotions are fear, sadness, disgust, enjoyment, and anger.

I can see how this could be helpful in giving people a better vocabulary to understand and name their emotions.

However, I have grave reservations about the usefulness of this site. I haven’t see anything in the website about love or compassion, which is odd, given both their importance in life and the Dalai Lama’s (and Buddhism’s) emphasis on them. How can the primary emotions of Buddhism be missing? Where is gratitude? Where is reverence, awe, or admiration? These are all crucial spiritual emotions.

The atlas is meant to be a practical tool, and the site’s description emphasizes this: “This Atlas was created to increase understanding of how emotions influence our lives, giving us choice, (at least some of the time) about which emotion we are experiencing.”

“Understanding” is good, but it doesn’t necessarily transform us. There’s little practical information. We can learn what triggers particular states: for example losing a loved one or being rejected triggers sadness. But there’s no practical guidance about how to deal with loss or rejection in ways that will reduce suffering rather than increase it. Buddhist teachings show how we can do this, and it’s surprising that the whole field of working with emotions is missing from the atlas.

Two primary Buddhist tools for dealing with emotions are mindfulness and equanimity. There’s no guidance on how to develop these. Buddhism also teaches how to cultivate skillful emotions such as kindness, compassion, and appreciation. There’s no guidance on the website at all.

There’s one other thing about the Atlas of Emotions that bothers me. Down at the bottom left is a little stick figure icon pointing to the word “peg.” It’s not obvious what that’s about unless you click on it. Clicking on the icon in fact takes you to Paul Ekman’s site, where the emphasis is on selling his training courses on recognizing micro-emotions. I find this distasteful. He’s used $750,000 (how!) to create a website, and then is using that site to host advertising for his products. Perhaps he pays for this advertising. There’s no way of knowing.

This is disappointing, since I have a lot of respect for Dr. Ekman’s work.

But about that price tag! I’ve developed this website (Wildmind) on a shoestring. It’s not a systematic guide to emotions, as the Atlas of Emotions is, but it contains a wealth of tools for working with emotions. It offers not only practical articles, but also guided meditations to help people practically work with their emotions. It boggles the mind what $750,000 should be able to achieve in terms of relieving human suffering. The Atlas of Emotions is a series of pretty graphics and information about emotional states when it could have been a powerfully transformative tool to help people find relief from suffering.

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • I wanted to check it out but navigating the website from my cell was almost impossible. I agree that the amount of money sounds absurd, especially when there are already tools for what the website seems to be about. For example, I’ve found that “feelings wheels” are very useful to identify feelings and you can get them for free by googling them.

  • Hello Bodhipaksa,

    Thank you very much for your post, I couldn’t agree more, I was looking forward to visiting the atlas when I read the article, but it turned out really disappointing. If the amount reported by the nytimes is correct, this represents a huge waste of money.
    Furthermore I’m afraid of some kind of discredit it may bring to the Dalai Lama’s work and to buddhism in general. Its really a pity.

  • Perhaps this is just the first in a series that will illuminate as it goes along. The money does sound extreme, but I will admit that I have never seen a web site quite like it. I found the page on “partially charted emotions” interesting. For example they say that love is not an emotion in and of itself. I didn’t know that.

    • That information seems to have been added since the site was first announced, Larry. Hopefully they’ll continue adding material and bring in a more practical element.

  • The graphs of the atlas are beautiful – but cause havoc on my mobile device. I completely agree with this blog post however. It is kind of… meh! It’s much more informative of ‘what’, with little ‘why’ or ‘how’ to guide people.

  • If you use a desktop computer, you will find that the site has great depth. Use the down arrow at the bottom of the page to dive deeper. At each level, you can select more specific aspects, then using the down arrow go deeper still. Beyond descriptions of emotional states, you will see strategies for dealing with each of those states. It is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. Suspend judgement, take your time, and play.

  • Erin McLaughlin
    June 19, 2016 3:05 pm

    Seems as if the initial blog was a bit hasty. Patience and trust. The Dali Lama deserves both. Yes? The site looks very useful and offers various approaches and suggestions.

    • A reviewer can hope that the second edition of a book might be better than the second, but when the first edition is published, it’s his or her job to give an impression of what it’s like.

      If the site was launched incomplete, and without any mention of additions to come, then that’s the fault of the site’s authors, not of the reviewer.

  • Well, I don’t believe the updated web site is all that great, either. Thank you for your review. It was immensely helpful. What a breath of fresh air to “hear” someone say what needs to be said. I was also disappointed in the movie “Inside Out”. From the movie trailer, I was hopeful we would be privy to what was happening inside the minds of various family members throughout the entire movie. But that was not the case. The one and only scene we “heard” the feelings that various family members were experiencing was the dinner scene, which was….the trailer. And that was it. The sum total. The one and only “inner feeling” dialogue scene. During the rest of the movie, we seemed to get lost in long term memory. My point here is that, like the movie, this web site about feelings and emotions is not yet where it needs to be. Over the coming months and years, I will hold out hope – – – that mindfulness, love, compassion, calmness, how to overcome triggers. and how to exercise emotional choice – – – will be explored further on this web site in a way that the general public can use and access in a practical and meaningful way.

  • Some additional thoughts: The general public includes me. I have worked very hard to learn all I can about emotions, mindfulness, triggers, and achieving a state of calm. And yes, we all…including you, me and the Dalai Lama, truly and fully deserve patience and trust.

  • The Dalai Lama himself is kinda..meh so I’m not surprised at the website. I heard him speak, went with an open mind. He reminded me of a granddad. Just some old guy saying stuff your grandad could’ve come up with- like “be kind”. On the stage with lots of monks, reminded me very much of Catholicism really. And not a female in sight. The Dalai Lama is whatever people project on him to be, they want him to be some enlightened being. He seemed pretty average to me.


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