Daniel Goleman

Four cast-iron benefits of mindfulness

Many thousands of studies demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness have now been published, to the point where mindfulness can almost seem like a miracle cure. The problem is that not all of these studies were conducted well enough to be taken seriously.

Daniel Goleman (author of “Emotional Intelligence”) and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson combed through thousands of studies and found that only one percent of them match the current gold standards for medical research. While we could rightly despair at the poor methodology of the 99 percent, we could instead focus on the four strongly confirmed findings that Goleman and Davidson have identified in the studies conducted using the soundest protocols.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review Goleman outlined those four confirmed benefits, which are: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and kindness. No doubt because he was writing for HBR, Goleman wrote about mindfulness mainly in terms of a tool for creating better workers for corporations — for example parsing kindness as “good corporate citizenship.” So I’d like to take those four benefits and write about them in a less corporate way, looking at how they can benefit us spiritually.

Stronger focus

People who practice mindfulness regularly experience less mind-wandering and distractibility.

Why is this important, and how can it benefit you? Mindfulness improves our filters. It helps us to identify when the mind is wandering in ways that are unhelpful for us, and to bring our attention back to our present-moment experience. Much of the time when the mind is wandering it’s engaged in what the Buddhist meditation tradition calls the “five hindrances” — craving, getting angry, worrying, low energy states of avoidance, and doubting. These hindrances diminish our sense of well-being and cause toxic effects in our interpersonal relationships and in our lives generally.

Reduced mind-wandering goes hand-in-hand with improved executive function, or self-control. Neurologically, what is happening is that the brain’s prefrontal cortex is learning to regulate and damp down activity in the amygdala, which triggers disruptive emotions like anger or anxiety. When we are mindful it’s easier for us to avoid things like addictive activities and needless conflict because we’re able to monitor the mind, spot the early stages of these activities beginning to kick in, and choose other ways of being.

Mindfulness, in other words, gives us greater mental freedom, which in turn brings us greater happiness and more harmony in our lives.

Staying calmer under stress

Since the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala more effectively when we’re mindful, mindfulness reduces stress.

This tends to make for better decision-making. When the amygdala is firing strongly it suppresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which means that we don’t think clearly and make bad decisions. We might, for example, feel panicky about opening bills, stash them out of sight, and thereby increase the number of problems we have. Mindfulness helps us to think more clearly.

Mindfulness also improves our inter-personal relationships. When the amygdala is over-active, it’s constantly looking for potential threats, for example by worrying that someone doesn’t like us or is intending to insult us. Rather than waste energy reacting to “threats” that may not even exist we can just get on with building productive, sustaining, and nourishing connections with others.

This in turn leads to us having a better support network, so that we’re better able to deal with other stresses in our lives.

Better memory

Those who practice mindfulness show a stronger short-term memory (or working memory). For example, the graduate school entrance exams of college students who were taught to be more mindful scores showed increases of 16 percent.

The purpose of working memory is to keep relevant information in conscious awareness while it’s needed. The better our working memory, the more information can be stored there without data loss. On a very practical level, with a poor working memory it’s hard to remember a seven digit phone number long enough to dial it — intrusive thoughts or the inability to screen out other information disrupt our ability to keep the number in mind. Things like performing mental arithmetic depend highly on working memory as well, which partly explains the 16 percent boost that mindful students saw on their Graduate Record Exam scores.

But the benefits of better working memory are more profound than that. An improved working memory allows us to keep ethical principles and guidelines in mind as we go about life. Often the problem with being mindful or kind is that we just forget. So we might have an intention to be less reactive with our spouse, children, or colleagues, but find that this intention fades from the mind in the midst of our interactions. This is a failure of memory, and comes about because we’re not able to consciously keep our long-term goals in mind (such as “be more kind”) while attending to short-term ones, such as responding to what someone just said.

When we’re working on becoming better people — kinder, more compassionate, more honest, more courageous — we need to be able to keep those long-term aims in mind. This is what Buddhist psychology calls “sampajañña” — or continuity of purpose. Long-term change is difficult without this quality.

Kindness

Goleman presents this in terms of mindful people making “good corporate citizens,” which is an angle that I find rather jarring — as if the point of mindfulness practice is to fit in so that we can make more money for corporations.

He does also point out that mindfulness practice leads to “more activity in brain circuits for caring, increased generosity, and a greater likelihood of helping someone in need.”

In other words, mindfulness makes us kinder and more compassionate. This has benefits that go well beyond making more money for businesses. It creates more harmonious families and communities, and helps people who are struggling. In short, mindfulness can help us create a better world — something that’s desperately needed in these challenging times.

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Mindfulness: When focus means single-tasking

Daniel Goleman: Alexander Graham Bell, noting how the sun’s rays ignite paper only when focused in one place, advised, “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.” Yet ordinarily our attention wanders, a sitting duck for whatever distraction comes our way – especially when our email inbox alone offers constant distractions that seem urgent, but are just not that important.

Then there’s multitasking, which really means switching from one narrow focus to another – the mind cannot hold more than one at a time in what’s called “working memory.” So interrupting one task with another can mean taking many minutes to get your original focus…

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Introducing mindfulness in organizations

Daniel Goleman: A topic that often comes up – especially among coaches – is the challenge of introducing mindfulness into an organizational setting. My colleague and a key adviser to Google’s Search Inside Yourself curriculum, Mirabai Bush, has vast experience with introducing mindfulness methods to a wide range of organizations. Of course she’s run into some resistance – at first. Her rule of thumb for overcoming obstacles? Pay close attention to the situation that exists in the organization and the culture. Below she explains why that’s important.

“When I meet with prospective clients, I listen not just for what they need…

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Breaking bad habits: Interview with Dan Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman

Elisha Goldstein, PsychCentral: We all have habits that we want to break and that is why I’m thrilled to bring to today Daniel Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman who . Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures around the world and has many classic books including Emotional Intelligence which has over 5,000,000 copies in print. Tara is author of The New York Times bestseller Emotional Alchemy and her new book Mind Whispering: A New Map to Freedom from Self-Defeating Emotional Habits that can help us transform our emotions, improve our relationships and connect us to the inner wisdom that has always been there…

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How to get out of your own way

Woman peeking out from under the covers of her bed.

I used to write regularly for this blog. Pretty much every month, for years. But then last summer I went through a major house move that totally disrupted my life and brought my writing to a halt.

But that’s really just an excuse. I’ll admit it’s inertia and my inner critic that’s getting in my way now. Despite my wanting to do it, I’ve always found it hard to write. And when I fell off my routine, and weeks and months passed, it just got harder and harder to get restarted.

I’m wondering if this sounds familiar to any of you out there. When it feels like YOU are the main thing getting in your way?

I wish I could say there’s a surefire way out of this, but of course there isn’t. As I slowly nudge myself back, I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’m pursuing.

My main approach is to think in terms of planting small seeds of change. The forces of inertia and my inner critic are too overwhelmingly powerful to confront directly. They’re way bigger than me. It’s futile to struggle against them.

But I can mindfully step back, take a breath – and in each moment of awareness, choose to do one very small thing differently than I have before.

So, when my inner critic tells me that last sentence is awful, I don’t have to delete or rewrite it immediately. A friend of mine says she responds to her critic by saying, “Thank you for sharing!” At the very least, I don’t have to fall hook, line, and sinker for the babble my mind is coming up with. Even if I still think that sentence isn’t very good, I can leave it there and at least allow for the possibility that it’s useful in some way. That’s one step in a new direction.

Another strategy is to respect and work with the natural processes of the brain – specifically, its capacity for productivity and willpower. A recent New York Times article cited research that the brain is productive for about 90 minutes at a time. And to sustain productivity, it’s best to rest – take a nap, take a break, or go meditate. So I’ve stopped making myself sit for hours trying to produce something. I now get up, and at least stretch and walk around every hour and a half.

I think this is the same basic idea that Daniel Goleman writes about in an article about building willpower. He says we each have a fixed budget of willpower. If we keep pushing hard on one thing, we’ll have nothing left to face whatever comes next. And that leaves a perfect opening for my inertia and inner critic to step in and mess me up again.

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On the flip side, Goleman says that being disciplined in small doses on a regular basis does help to strengthen the willpower muscle. It gets easier to do that thing as time goes on. So I take heart in the knowledge that writing in small doses regularly will help me get back into a routine.

I know it will take some time before things feel like I’m back on track. And I suspect there will be a few stumbles and backward steps along the way. Above all else, I’m being careful always to stay kind to myself. No beating myself up, no unrealistic expectations.

I’m just going to point myself forward and know that I’m doing the best I can. And I’ll keep the faith that over time, many small seeds of change can grow into a forest.

What about you? What are your strategies for getting out of your own way? I’d like to hear from you.

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“The Meditative Mind” by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind, by Daniel Goleman

The Meditative Mind is an updated version of a book Daniel Goleman first published in the 1970s and revised in the 1980s. Goleman, who’s famous for his classic, Emotional Intelligence, was in on the first wave of research into the effects of meditation, having made a visit to India and having met some impressive yogis before returning to Harvard. Goleman has been ahead of the curve for a long time. This earlier parts of this book, he points out, first appeared at a time when the links between traditional Asian systems of mental training and modern psychological science were few and far between. They are of course far more common now, with an explosion of research having taken place over the last two decades in particular.

To take account of at least some of these developments, new material has been added, detailing some of the history of the encounter between meditation, on the one hand, and science and psychotherapeutic traditions on the other.

Title: The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditating Experience
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: Unknown
Available from: Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

The Meditative Mind is uneven in tone, but this is to be expected given that it’s a compilation of writings spanning several decades and having been composed for a variety of purposes and circumstances. The book is in five parts.

Part One: The Visuddhimagga: A Map for Inner Space

The first chapter, on Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga, gives a comprehensive and useful overview of the sophisticated psychological theory that underpins practice in Theravadin Buddhism. Since I was already familiar with most of this material, I didn’t find this chapter particularly engaging. I’m also very aware that the commentarial tradition, including Buddhaghosa, departed significantly from the teaching found in the (much earlier) scriptural tradition, and I found that there was a skeptical barrier between me and my appreciation of this particular chapter.

However, to be fair, the point of the chapter is to present an overview of classic Theravadin spiritual orthodoxy, and not to critique it. The chapter performs its task well, and gives an impressive survey of the Asian tradition’s systematic approach to spirituality. What is outlined here is a comprehensive schema of the progress of spiritual development, and given the vague terms in which people tend to think about such matters, this chapter will no doubt surprise and enlighten many readers.

Part Two: Meditation Paths: A Survey

At the risk of making Dr. Goleman feel very old, The Meditative Mind, as far as the earlier material goes, constitutes a valuable historical document. Part Two of the book offers an overview of a number of meditative traditions: Hindu Bakti meditation, Jewish meditation, Christian meditation, Sufism, Patanjali’s Yoga tradition, Tantra, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen. For me this was the most fascinating part of the book. In fact I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most eye-opening spiritual documents I’ve read.

The commonalities between the various traditions are immense, and I came away with a deep respect for non-Buddhist traditions. It’s clear that within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., there have been deep currents of meditative experience, and correspondingly deep insights. I’m convinced now that there have been enlightened practitioners in many traditions besides Buddhism — something I hadn’t really contemplated before. I still consider other traditions to be hampered by their theological baggage, however, and for that reason I do still consider the Buddha’s insight to have gone further than others’, but I am still humbled and reverential toward the Desert Fathers and other non-Buddhist meditators.

Part Three: Meditation Paths: Their Essential Unity

The third part of the book gives a brief outline of some of the commonalities (and divergences) of the various meditative paths, although the emphasis is on their essential unity. Particularly useful was the categorization of meditative techniques into those that involve concentration, “in which the mind focuses on a fixed mental object,” mindfulness, “in which mind observes itself,” and integrated, in which both functions are present simultaneously. As Goleman points out, few schools take a purist approach, and employ whatever means are found to be helpful. This is a valuable reminder not to cling dogmatically to one approach to practice, but to retain a pragmatic approach.

Part Four: The Psychology of Meditation

Part Four examines the spiritual psychology of meditation, and its “potential for cross-fertilization with western psychology.” It was originally written for psychologists in order to introduce them to non-Western systems of psychological theory. The Buddhist scholastic tradition of the Abhidhamma, which attempted to systematize and clarify the Buddha’s teachings, is the main focus. The overview of Abhidhamma (unlike the Abhidhamma itself!) is engrossing, and offers an overview of Buddhist personality theory, and a map of the Buddhist conception of mental health. The enlightened individual is then presented as the exemplar of religious views of the ideal of human “peak performance” and this is contrasted with the history of western psychology’s obsession with psychological disfunction, and compared with the way in which some western psychological theory has sometimes seen the healthy individual in terms very similar to those of the Buddhist tradition.

Part Five: Meditation: Research and Practical Applications

The final section of Meditative Mind offers an overview of some of the impressive findings from meditation studies. The degree to which meditation is able to affect our physiology and psychology — from enhancing the ability to recover from stressful incidents to affecting the immune system — is staggering. This section however, absorbing though it is, seems dated, with no reference to studies after the early 1980’s. Given the huge body of research that has taken place since that time, this is a puzzling omission. Dr. Goleman is well placed to offer such an overview.

So, overall my opinion of The Meditative Mind is mixed. One the one hand it contains much thought-provoking material on comparative psychology. On the other hand it doesn’t bring us up to date on the west’s embrace of meditative practice. There is no mention of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for example, or of the many therapeutic techniques that it has given rise to. On balance, the book is certainly worth reading, although readers will want to turn to Goleman’s The Brain and Emotional Intelligence to get an overview of the dialog between meditation and modern neuroscience, and Ed Halliwell’s The Mindful Manifesto for an excellent survey of how meditative practices are transforming therapeutic approaches.

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O.K., Google, take a deep breath

search inside yourself book cover

Maybe it’s no surprise that a yellow-brick road winds through the Googleplex.

Step onto Google’s campus here — with its indoor treehouse, volleyball court, apiaries, heated toilet seats and, yes, Oz-style road — and you might think you’ve just sailed over the rainbow.

But all the toys and perks belie the frenetic pace here, and many employees acknowledge that life at Google can be hard on fragile egos.

Sure, the amenities are seductive, says Blaise Pabon, an enterprise sales engineer, but “when you get to a place like this, it can tear you apart” if you don’t find a way to handle the …

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“Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress,” by Dan Goleman

Cover of Relax, by Daniel Goleman

I’ve read a couple of books by Dan Goleman, who is most famous for being the author of Emotional Intelligence, but this is the first time I’ve encountered one of his audio programs, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Relax: Six Techniques to Lower Your Stress is, as you might expect, about stress and how to relax. It offers six guided practices intended to help develop a sense of ease, relaxation, and wellbeing.

In the introduction, Goleman points out that there are many and varied symptoms of stress, including psychological tension, muscle tension, and nervous system arousal, and that not everyone experiences stress in the same way. Therefore, not every antidote to stress will work for everyone, and each person needs to find relaxation methods that work for them. It’s worth bearing that in mind while reading my review; just because I found a particular exercise more or less effective than others doesn’t mean that you’d have the same results.

Title: Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: 978-193444-119-0
Available from: More Than Sound as a CD or MP3 download, and from Amazon.com (CD only).

The program on the whole is quite short, at 43 minutes and 33 seconds, and a fair amount of this time is introductory material. But don’t let that put you off; the practical material is very effective, and the entire audio program has a sense of spaciousness. In fact people who are stressed would probably be better focusing on a brief program containing short exercises like this than on a longer program that they don’t have time to listen to.

The six exercises are as follows:

  1. Deep breathing: taking long, slow, deep breaths.
  2. Muscle relaxation: systematically tensing and relaxing major muscle groups
  3. Autosuggestion: dropping into the mind key phrases that induce a sense of physical relaxation.
  4. Countdown: a series of actions accompanying a count down from twelve to one.
  5. Breath focus: simply paying attention to the neutral sensation of the breathing.
  6. Breath count: counting the in and out breaths, and using mental focus to help you drop tension and worry.

Goleman’s presentation is authoritative, assured, and reassuring. Early on he mentions his background at Harvard, and discusses scientific research, and this helps reassure the listener that they’re in the hands of someone who has a deep background in the topic of stress and emotional regulation.

The guidance is well-paced, and accompanied by what you could call “free time” — time in which the listener can practice on her own without guidance. There is some gentle background music accompanying the dialog and running through the “free time.” The music is unobtrusive, although at times I was reminded of the “angelic” keyboard music that I’ve heard at funeral homes. That’s not entirely a bad association, though. At times as I listened to this program I felt like I was ceremoniously saying farewell to my stress.

I found that the individual exercises varied in their effectiveness, but remember that your mileage may vary. Your stress response may manifest differently from mine, and a tool that doesn’t work for me may be just what you need in order to relax deeply.

The first exercise, Deep Breathing, worked well. We simply take long, deep, slow breaths and let go of them, with the hand on the belly. In a stressed state, the breath becomes shallow, quick, and short, and breathing more slowly helps us to bring our physiology back into balance. In addition, simple body awareness has a grounding effect on the mind (as long as you get beyond noticing only the body’s tension).

The Deep Muscle Relaxation exercise involves systematically and consciously tensing and relaxing large muscle groups. This exercise was actually counter-productive for me. I found the periods of tensing to be too long compared to the periods of relaxing, and I ended up with a headache. But remember that not all techniques work for everyone.

I found the Autosuggestion exercise to be very effective. We just notice various parts of the body in turn while dropping in a phrase, allowing the body to respond without trying to relax. So we may notice the eyes and repeat “my eyes are soft and relaxed” This is an exercise I’ll definitely take up. I had one caveat: one of the instructions was to become aware of the heartbeat, repeating “My heartbeat is calm and regular.” Here we hit the problem of affirmations sometimes not being true. Research has shown that affirmations backfire with many people, because in repeating them they’re reminded that they’re very far from the state that they’re telling themselves they’re in. If, for example, you’re so stressed that your heartbeat is pounding and erratic, then simply noticing that fact would likely make your stress worse. Telling yourself under these circumstance that your heartbeat is calm and regular could induce even more stress. But again, this is a case where Your Mileage May Vary. Not all these exercises are going to work with everyone. And in any event, the listener could do this exercise on her own in a modified way, where the statement are true, and where stress triggers are avoided.

The Countdown exercise is described as being “simple,” but in fact it’s a complicated sequence of actions and suggestions accompanying a countdown from twelve to one. I rather liked the fact that I never knew what was coming next. The exercise constantly takes you by surprise, stopping you from getting into a rut, and making it very effective. However, of all the exercises I thought that this one would be too complex to be practiced alone. As long as you’re listening to the audio program, however, there would be no problem.

In Breath Focus, we’re back to a simple form of mindfulness of the breathing. This was a reminder to me of how much can be accomplished in less than five minutes. This in fact seemed like a much longer meditation, and also seemed oddly spacious.

Finally, there is the Breath Count, where we focus on the neutral sensation of the breathing to help us let go of stressful thoughts, and we count at the end of each in and out breath: In – 1 – out – 2 – in – 3 – out – 4 – etc. When we reach ten we start the counting over again. This is a very simple practice, and again it’s led in a very spacious way. After leading us through the practice a couple of times, Goleman gives us space to practice on our own. I suspect that for many people with very busy minds, there perhaps would be a need for more reminders to come back to their experience.

At the end of the exercises there are nice reminders to scan our experience and to take our time going on to our next activity.

This is probably not a CD that will appeal to experienced meditators, but then that’s not the target audience. For people who are stressed and who want simple exercises that help them to develop greater relaxation, this is an excellent program.

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Emotional Intelligence and the Brain: an interview with Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman’s new book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, is a fascinating round-up of the latest cutting-edge research into how emotions are processed in the brain, and how we can better regulate our emotional responses in order to be happier, less stressed, and more creative. This week Bodhipaksa had an opportunity to interview Goleman about the cross-over between Emotional Intelligence and meditative practice.

Bodhipaksa: When I was trying to think of who “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence” would be useful for, I found I couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading it. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote the book?

Title: The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: 978-1-934441-11-4
Available from Amazon.com Kindle Store and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store.

Daniel Goleman: Anyone with a brain.

B: Well, I guess it would be good if everyone with a brain buys your book. Since you first started writing about emotional intelligence the workings of the brain have become much better understood. What research has most surprised you?

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

DG: I was delighted to discover the emerging field of social neuroscience, the new understanding of what happens in two brains while people interact rather than just in one brain alone. That ongoing surprise was why I went on to write Social Intelligence, and now “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence.” I’m particularly intrigued by the new findings on the different role the right and left hemispheres play in an “Aha!” moment of creative insight.

B: That was an especially interesting aspect of your book, especially in terms of insights arising when we’ve intensely focused on a problem and then let go of it and relaxed. A lot of meditators, of course, find that their meditation sessions become creative-thinking sessions. And the tradition doesn’t have much to say about this; I don’t think Buddhism offers any advice on how to think creatively or how to deal with creative thoughts that arise in meditation beyond “let them pass.” Do you have any advice — from your own practice or from your studies — of how to deal with creative thoughts arising in meditation?

DG: As a writer, I’ve long wondered about this. Especially because I like to have a period of writing just after my morning meditation session – I find the writing comes most easily then. And, of course, I get lots of good ideas while meditating – after all, the data suggests greater brain coherence during a session, and that fosters making new connections. This was pretty much settled for me by Anagarika Munindra, my first vipassana teacher, who advised me that when I got a great idea during a session, I just jot it down and let go of it. Over the years that pretty much has been a fall back – most often I just trust that the juicy ideas will come back to me after the session.

B: As a meditation teacher I now find I talk much more in terms of the brain, neural pathways, the relationship of the frontal cortex to the amygdala, etc, than I ever did before. Have you see that happening widely, and if you have can you give some examples?

DG: You’re not alone. Jack Kornfield now teaches each year with Daniel Siegel, the UCLA neuroscientist who wrote The Mindful Brain. And as dharma teachers learn more about brain science, it will be natural to weave these findings into talks. The principle of teaching in the terms that people understand – as the Buddha urged – suggests that in the West this integration of science and Buddhism will strengthen.

B: I actually find myself wanting traditional Buddhist models for discussing mental states — the hindrances, jhanas, etc — to be better understood in terms of their neural correlates. Is anyone working on that kind of investigation, or has work been done that can help elucidate those Buddhist models?

DG: This, I hope will be part of the program in the new field of contemplative neuroscience being spearheaded by scientists like Richard Davidson at Wisconsin and contemplatives like Matthieu Ricard of Sechen Monastery, who work in close collaboration.

B: Do you know what kind of things they’re working on at the moment?

DG: I believe they are continuing to add to their database of meditation adepts –- people with more than 15,000 lifetime retreat hours — and also creating a large sample of longtime Western meditators, whose experience totals are lower that the adepts. I also hear Davidson has some neat new methods for tracking changes in neuroplasticity.

B: One of the things you point out in your new book is that some parts of the brain communicate with each other through ganglia in the gastro-intestinal tract. I found that particularly interesting because in my own teaching I emphasize the relationship between feelings (or vedanas, which are really gut feelings) and the whole complex of thought and emotion that follows from those feelings. Can you comment on that aspect of research a bit more?

DG: In sensing the feelings throughout the body, the insula is another structure of real importance. This nodule allows us to scan for gut feelings, or to sense what’s up with our big toe, for that matter. Such sub-cortical circuitry knows more than we can say –- our life wisdom is embodied, cognitive scientists now tell us –- and so vedana vipassana may be one way to tune up our inner sensing ability.

B: Vedana vipassana meaning clearly sensing our feelings?

DG: Yes –- as taught, for example, by Goenka-ji, who was an early teacher of mine.

B: Do you think that at some point scientific studies of meditation might be changing how we meditate, for example by showing that some techniques are more effective than others, or perhaps by incorporating new techniques, such as combining fMRI with visual feedback, as in a recent study at the University of British Columbia?

DG: If meditation starts to be determined by what a machine tells us rather than by a qualified teacher, I suspect we may start to veer off the path.

B: I’d be wary of that as well, although I’d imagine that for some people with low self-awareness who have difficulty being objective about their feelings these methods could be useful, at least initially.

DG: These mechanical aids may prove useful for people with trouble concentrating –- for example, those with ADHD.

B: I was taking the UBC study as an extreme example, though, and was wondering if there might be more subtle factors at play. After all, as you’ve said, the neuroscience is already changing how we talk about and teach meditation, and in your book you tie an understanding of neuroscience into the art of learning new habits — so is it possible that neuroscience might change how we do meditation?

DG: Perhaps.

B: So far the research has been quite validating for those of us who practice and teach meditation. Have there been any studies done that you think might make meditators look more deeply at their assumptions? For example, you point out that it can be beneficial to be in a bad mood because you look at things more critically. I think some Buddhists might be reluctant to see “negative mental states” as having a useful role to play; the ultimate goal after all is to get rid of them entirely!

DG: Buddhist practitioners would probably make bad bill collectors –- that’s one profession where people actually put themselves in foul moods to be more effective.

B: It’s probably not an example of Right Livelihood! Which leads me to my next question. Some people are concerned because meditation is often being studied — and taught —  detached from its traditional context of ethics. To what extent do you share this concern?

DG: I remember voicing this very question to my first dharma teacher, Anagarika Munindra, in Bodh Gaya in 1970. He said,” Whatever gets people to meditate is beneficial.” The Dalai Lama seems to share this outlook, when he has encouraged neuroscientists to study dharma methods outside the context of Buddhism, rigorously evaluate their benefits, and if they prove helpful, to share them widely.

B: I tend to think the same way, and I assume that an interest in meditation will lead to an interest in living with mindfulness and compassion. Besides I’m already noticing that science is showing that some traditional notions of what constitutes ethical behavior — giving, expressing gratitude, having loving relationships with friends and family — bring about happiness. Is the neuroscience of ethical behavior something you’ve looked into?

DG: Not yet. But Sam Harris has done a good job in his book, “The Moral Landscape.”

B: Lastly (a big question, I know) neurologically speaking, can you see any way the traditional conception of enlightenment as a state entirely free from craving and ill will could actually work? Is the brain that plastic? Can the parts of the brain governing fear, anger, etc go permanently offline or be permanently kept in a state of regulation? Or do you think that Enlightenment is simply an extraordinarily well-regulated brain, but not a state of complete freedom from negative emotional states?

DG: A wonderful question –- the big question, really. The short answer is, We don’t know yet. I love what the Dalai Lama once told me: “Some day the brain scientist and the meditator whose brain is being studied will be one and the same person.” Maybe then we’ll get your answer.

B: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Good luck with your book.

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“The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights,” by Daniel Goleman

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

Although Daniel Goleman’s breakthrough book was the classic Emotional Intelligence, it is his Destructive Emotions that has most impressed me. Destructive Emotions provides the edited highlights of one of the Dalai Lama’s periodic interdisciplinary conferences, and it was the first book to reveal to me the serious scientific work that was being done investigating how the the meditating mind works.

Destructive Emotions kicks off by describing an extraordinary study conducted on a western-born Tibetan monk, who agreed to meditate while having his brain’s functioning studied by functional MRI and EEG. These studies revealed the the monk had developed an extraordinary ability to remain focused in a distracting environment, that he was able to generate compassion at will, and that his experiences of compassion were accompanied by extraordinary shifts in brain activity that are known to accompany positive emotion.

Title: The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
ISBN: 978-1-934441-11-4
Available from Amazon.com Kindle Store and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store.

This was my first introduction to these kinds of studies, and so I was delighted to hear that Goleman has a new book coming out that explores the implications of these, and more recent, studies on the brain and emotional regulation.

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights is a short work, and it’s Goleman’s first digital-only book. It “provides updates on the key findings that further inform our understanding of emotional intelligence and how to apply this skill set.” It’s aimed at those working in the emotional intelligence field, and who need to apply the concept in effective action — leaders, coaches, human resources officers, managers, and educators — but I believe it’s also a must-read for anyone interested in the overlap of science and spirituality.

In The Brain and Emotional Intelligence Goleman convincingly cites studies that support his contention that emotional intelligence is a phenomenon separate from IQ. As Goleman observes, echoing Howard Gardner,

“For an intelligence to be recognized as a distance set of capacities there has to be a unique underlying set of brain areas that govern and regulate that intelligence.”

Using the work of Reuven Bar-On, Goleman shows that it is in fact the case that there are distinct circuits in the brain for emotions and emotional regulation, and these are duly outlined, along with accompanying diagrams (which are unfortunately in black and white on the Kindle).

In highlighting the importance of self-awareness in emotional intelligence, Goleman recounts the fascinating case of a brain-damaged lawyer whose intellect was unaffected, but who was unable to make even simple decisions. Unable to connect his thoughts with his emotions, he was rendered unable to tell good decisions from bad. “In order to make a good decision, we need to have feelings about our thoughts.”

The most important decisions we make are those laden with ethical significance, and the mechanisms of these kinds of decisions are explored. One of the most extraordinary things I learned here was that some parts of the brain are unable to communicate directly with each other, and that they use nerve clusters in the gastrointestinal tract as a relay. It appears that “gut feelings” have a scientific basis. As someone who both relies on gut feelings and who teaches others their importance, this was an important validation.

I was fascinated to learn, in the chapter “Self-Mastery: The Right Brain State for the Job,” about the pros and cons of various positive and negative mental states. In positive states of mind we are more creative, but may also be less discriminating. In negative moods we may be unpleasant to be around, but we also pay more attention to detail, are more able to stick with boring tasks, and are more inclined to think for ourselves.

A chapter on “The Creative Brain” discusses the neurophysiology of creativity, and gives important suggestions about how to make creative insights more likely to arise.

The chapter on “Self Mastery” explores the territory of emotional regulation, and how the amygdala, responsible for the “fight or flight” reflex can hijack the entire brain, leading to stress and panic. Goleman identifies the top five “amygdala triggers” in the workplace: Condescension and lack of respect; being treated unfairly; lack of appreciation; believing that you’re not being listened to; and being held to unrealistic deadlines. Simply being aware of these is helpful, but Goleman goes on to suggest strategies and tools that make an amygdala hijack less likely. These include self-awareness, self-talk, empathy, and (naturally enough) meditation.

Goleman goes on to summarize important research on various topics such as motivation, stress (including how much stress is the right amount), how rapport emerges, why it is that online interactions can be so much more contentious than real-life encounters, gender differences in the brain regarding empathy (and here Goleman rightly stresses that the differences may be true in general, but do not apply to every individual), and sociopathy (a condition suffered by those who do not care about the effects of their actions on others). In most cases the approach is not merely theoretical. The theory is fascinating, but Goleman’s drawing out of the implications for all this on our lives and for practice are, for me, the key element.

Very appropriately, for such a practical book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence ends with chapters on “Developing Emotional Intelligence,” and on how Emotional Intelligence practices are being used to reduce misbehavior in schools.

The chapter on schools is fascinating, and left this reader with a warm glow. That on developing emotional intelligence emphasizes that the brain grows new cells throughout life, and that the brain is plastic. It also walks us through the difficult task of learning new skill and, more importantly, of unlearning old skills, by looking at the underlying changes in circuitry that take place during learning. Here Goleman draws together lessons from his own book, stressing how we can generate commitment, use self-awareness to develop detailed learning plans, and tap into the brain’s capacity for mental rehearsal.

In a way I thought that the order of the final two chapters should have been reversed, leaving us with practical advice rather than with the discussion of how emotional intelligence techniques are being used in schools, but I’m sure that there is research somewhere showing that books are more effective when they leave you with the pleasant feelings that result from a human interest story that is also a success story. And I’m sure Daniel Goleman knows about that research!

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights is a book I’ll be returning to over and over. I’d highly recommend it for anyone, and not just the businesspeople and trainers at whom it seems to be primarily aimed.

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