Paul Ekman

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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Meditation improves emotional behaviors in teachers, study finds

Schoolteachers who underwent a short but intensive program of meditation were less depressed, anxious or stressed – and more compassionate and aware of others’ feelings, according to a UCSF-led study that blended ancient meditation practices with the most current scientific methods for regulating emotions.

A core feature of many religions, meditation is practiced by tens of millions around the world as part of their spiritual beliefs as well as to alleviate psychological problems, improve self-awareness and to clear the mind. Previous research has linked meditation to positive changes in blood pressure, metabolism and pain, but less is known about the specific emotional changes that result from the practice.

The new study was designed to create new techniques to reduce destructive emotions while improving social and emotional behavior.

The study will be published in the April issue of the journal Emotion.

“The findings suggest that increased awareness of mental processes can influence emotional behavior,” said lead author Margaret Kemeny, PhD, director of the Health Psychology Program in UCSF’s Department of Psychiatry. “The study is particularly important because opportunities for reflection and contemplation seem to be fading in our fast-paced, technology-driven culture.”

Altogether, 82 female schoolteachers between the ages of 25 and 60 participated in the project. Teachers were chosen because their work is stressful and because the meditation skills they learned could be immediately useful to their daily lives, possibly trickling down to benefit their students.

Study Arose After Meeting Dalai Lama
The study arose from a meeting in 2000 between Buddhist scholars, behavioral scientists and emotion experts at the home of the Dalai Lama. There, the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, PhD, a UCSF emeritus professor and world expert in emotions, pondered the topic of emotions, leading the Dalai Lama to pose a question: In the modern world, would a secular version of Buddhist contemplation reduce harmful emotions?

From that, Ekman and Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace developed a 42-hour, eight-week training program, integrating secular meditation practices with techniques learned from the scientific study of emotion. It incorporated three categories of meditative practice:

  1. Concentration practices involving sustained, focused attention on a specific mental or sensory experience;
  2. Mindfulness practices involving the close examination of one’s body and feelings;
  3. Directive practices designed to promote empathy and compassion toward others.

In the randomized, controlled trial, the schoolteachers learned to better understand the relationship between emotion and cognition, and to better recognize emotions in others and their own emotional patterns so they could better resolve difficult problems in their relationships. All the teachers were new to meditation and all were involved in an intimate relationship.

“We wanted to test whether the intervention affected both personal well-being as well as behavior that would affect the well-being of their intimate partners,” said Kemeny.

As a test, the teachers and their partners underwent a “marital interaction” task measuring minute changes in facial expression while they attempted to resolve a problem in their relationship. In this type of encounter, those who express certain negative facial expressions are more likely to divorce, research has shown.

Some of the teachers’ key facial movements during the marital interaction task changed, particularly hostile looks which diminished. In addition, depressed mood levels dropped by more than half. In a follow-up assessment five months later, many of the positive changes remained, the authors said.

“We know much less about longer-term changes that occur as a result of meditation, particularly once the ‘glow’ of the experience wears off,” Kemeny said. “It’s important to know what they are because these changes probably play an important role in the longer-term effects of meditation on mental and physical health symptoms and conditions.”

The study involved researchers from a number of institutions including UCSF, UC Davis, and Stanford University.

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The technology of happiness

For years westerners have assumed that Buddhists must be a miserable lot: their teachings dwell so much on suffering. But recent scientific research suggests what Buddhists have believed all along. Buddhism — or at least Buddhist meditation — leads to happiness.

Media headlines in the last few years have trumpeted new research into the effects of meditation on brain activity, behavior and even resistance to disease. The findings are still provisional, but as the philosopher Owen Flanagan commented in New Scientist magazine: “The most reasonable hypothesis is that there’s something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek.”

The background is a growing dialog between Buddhist teachers and leading figures in fields such as neuroscience. The most important meetings, organized by the Colorado-based Mind and Life Institute, have brought western scientists together with the Dalai Lama. Destructive Emotions, by Daniel Goleman, offers a graphic account of one of these meetings.

   Conscientious Buddhist practice results in the kind of happiness we all seek

The dialogue showed that Buddhists’ 2,500-year-long exploration of consciousness offers much to scientists who are examining the relationship between the mind and the brain, and seeking treatments for conditions such as depression. Historically, western psychology has focused on mental disorders but some researchers are now looking at positive emotions and experiences. Buddhist meditation expands the scope of what these can entail, and accomplished meditators offer possible living examples of these states.

However, according to Goleman, the dialog also raised many questions: can meditation change brain circuits associated with emotions? Do different meditation practices produce distinct brain effects? Does the development of certain brain areas through meditation help to prevent illness? Which areas of the brain are developed in experienced meditators? How long does it take before meditation produces significant brain changes?

Some participants in the Dharamsala meeting followed up the talk with research. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Wisconsin used new scanning techniques to examine the brain activity of experienced meditators. Their first subject was a western monk in a Tibetan tradition, referred to as Oser (not his real name). He was attached first to a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner, and then — using electrodes attached to the scalp — to an EEG, which measured Oser’s brain activity while he went through a series of meditation practices. In these he developed concentration, then compassion, devotion fearlessness and the open state of dzogchen, as well I as practicing visualization.

   The abbot of a leading Tibetan monastery registered the highest activity in the brain centers associated with positive emotions that had ever been measured.

The fMRI showed changes in Oser’s brain activity as he switched meditations. The EEG showed that during the meditation on compassion his brain activity shifted dramatically to the left. The underlying theory is that, in people who are stressed or depressed, the right frontal cortex of the brain is overactive and the left frontal cortex under-active. Such people sometimes show heightened activation of the amygdala, a key center for processing fear. But habitually calm and happy people show greater activity in the left frontal cortex, produce less of the stress hormone cortisol, recover faster from negative events and have higher levels of certain immune cells.

Following these initial tests a string of experienced Buddhist practitioners were tested at the Wisconsin lab. The abbot of a leading Tibetan monastery registered the highest activity in the brain centers associated with positive emotions that had ever been measured.

To assess whether similar results could be achieved by new meditators and those outside a religious context, Davidson joined forces with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is well-known for teaching mindfulness meditation to those with chronic or terminal illnesses. Their team recruited stressed-out volunteers from a local biotechnology firm. The volunteers were all tested with EEGs at the outset, and then separated into two groups — 25 into the meditation group and 16 into the “control” group.

The meditators took an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation developed by Kabat-Zinn, then both meditators and “control” volunteers were tested again. They were also given a ‘flu shot and had blood tests to check for antibody response. Four months later they all had EEG tests again. The meditators’ brains showed a pronounced shift in activity toward the left frontal lobe, while the non-meditators’ brains did not. The meditators also had more robust responses to ‘flu jabs.

   fMRl scans suggest that the configurations of meditators’ brains can differ from those of non-meditators

The fMRl scans, which offer a detailed image of the brain, even suggest that the configurations of meditators’ brains can differ from those of non-meditators. Scientists already knew that areas of the brain controlling any particular activity develop the more an individual participates in it. In the case of mindfulness meditation, preliminary findings indicate that it strengthens the neurological circuits around the amygdala, suggesting that meditators create a buffer against the instinctively generated messages of fear and panic.

In a separate study, Paul Ekman of San Francisco’s Human Interaction Laboratory, assessed meditators’ ability to detect another’s moods by measuring their response to involuntary changes in facial muscles. These spontaneous shifts – which can be as fleeting as one 20th of a second – are tell-tale indicators of our true feelings, and without training most people have little ability to detect them.

Yet when Dr. Ekman tested two Tibetan practitioners, one scored perfectly on reading three of six emotions, and the other scored perfectly on four. An American teacher of Buddhist meditation got a perfect score on all six. Overall these experienced Buddhists performed better than any other group — even the previous best performers: secret service agents.This suggests increased perceptiveness and sensitivity to other people’s thoughts and emotions.

   A real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation

Another test performed by Ekman measured the “startle reflex” involuntary muscle spasms in response to a loud noise or alarming sight. Ordinarily, no-one can control these responses but, when Oser was exposed to an extremely loud noise while in an open-state meditation, his startle response virtually disappeared.

Ekman was amazed: “This is a spectacular accomplishment. We have no idea of the anatomy that would allow him to suppress that startle reflex.” The monk himself commented, “If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky.”

Before ordinary Buddhists grow self-congratulatory, we might ask how our brain waves would measure up to the lamas’? Nonetheless, these results offer a new way of envisaging the effects of meditation. For Owen Flanagan, “Buddhist … practitioners are deeply in touch with their glowing left prefrontal cortex and their becalmed amygdala.” Scientific findings also suggest secular applications for meditation, for example as part of medical treatment.

These research programs are still in their infancy, and further results will give a fuller picture of the effects of meditation on the brain. But even when there is more data, could this research “prove” the Buddha’s teaching? That would be going too far. Writing in the New York Times, the Dalai Lama comments, “I have great respect for science. But scientists, on their own, cannot prove Nirvana. Science shows there are practices that can make a difference between a happy life and a miserable life. A real understanding of the true nature of the mind can only be gained through meditation.”

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention

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Four reasons Buddhists can love evolution

Charles DarwinEvolution — at least in the United States — has a deeply troubled relationship with religion. Or at least it does with some religions.

As you can see from the Pew Trust chart below, Buddhists on the whole (81% of them) think that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth.

In fact of all the religious traditions included on the chart, Buddhists are the most accepting of evolution, with evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the least accepting.

Those of us who value an objective and evidence-based (read “scientific”) understanding of the world are greatly disturbed by attempts to displace sound science from the classroom, to introduce spurious ideas such as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design,” and to give the impression that evolution is somehow scientifically controversial, when in fact it’s backed by an overwhelming amount of evidence from all branches of science.

graph of belief in evolution, by religious affiliation

Many of us see the intrusion of religion into the public sphere as being a serious erosion of the principles of the US constitution, which protect us from government-sponsored religious coercion by ensuring that no religion can use government to foist itself upon us. We see the fear of Evolution that some religious practitioners have as being a potentially serious threat to our own religious freedoms.

But evolution, on the other hand, holds no fear for Buddhists, and in fact it fits with the Buddhist world view rather well. And this year being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of “The Origin Of Species,” this is perhaps a good time to explain why it is that Buddhism quite happily accepts evolution as an explanation for the origins of human life, and to explore how Buddhists relate to science in general and evolution in particular.

NO CREATION MYTH

St Sebastian pierced by arrowsFirst up is that Buddhism has no creation myth to defend. It’s true that in the Pali Aggañña Sutta (PDF) the Buddha tells a story about the creation of the world, in which he claims that the the universe goes through periods of evolution and involution (similar to the ideas of the “Big Bang” and what’s sometimes called “The Big Crunch” where gravitational forces draw all the matter in the universe back to a central point).

But the sutta is a parody on the claims of the religious Orthodox of the day — the Brahmins — to be a superior class of human being, with special privileges in society and a special relationship with the gods. The parody shows the gods to be deluded beings just like ourselves and the Brahmins to be Pretenders to social and religious pre-eminence. The Aggañña Sutta is clearly not to be taken literally as a origins myth.

If you need convincing of that fact, you’ll need to take a look at a broader range of Buddhist teachings, including the famous Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. In this parable the Buddha points out that religious practitioners who concern themselves with the origins of the universe and other topics are missing the point of religious practice.

Religion, a very fundamental sense, is not about God, myths, rules, or even beliefs. Instead it’s about moving from a state of suffering to a state of non-suffering. The rest of a religious tradition is merely (in theory, anyway) a tool to help us achieve the end of suffering.

The Buddha in fact said that he only taught one thing, suffering and how to end it. Contemplating the origins of the universe or any other such topic is merely a distraction. Just as a man shot with a poison arrow would die if instead of pulling out the arrow he speculated endlessly about who made the arrow, why it was shot, what kind of wood was used, etc, so too suffering beings continue to suffer as long as they focus on anything but understanding how suffering arises and how to deal with it. And even that is only useful insofar as those beings actually put their understanding into practice.

It’s likely that the Buddha had no special knowledge of the origins of the universe, but even if he had known he wouldn’t have discussed the matter: “And why are [these things] undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.

“Conjecture about the origin of the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” [Acintita Sutta]. Certainly, some fundamentalists seem seriously out-to-lunch, so perhaps the Buddha was right in claiming that dwelling repeatedly on things you can never prove from your own experience can drive you a bit crazy.

EMPHASIS ON SEEKING TRUTH, NOT BELIEVING DOGMA

spiritual seekingBuddhism has an emphasis on seeking truth, and has no interest in getting people to “believe” anything. Belief is not a path to salvation. No amount of belief that the arrow isn’t poisoned, or belief that it was sent as a test of your faith, or that it’s a relatively new arrow and not the old arrow that carbon dating shows it to be will save you from suffering. It’s our actions that cause us suffering or help us to escape suffering.

Buddhism encourages us not to believe what we’ve been told is the truth, but instead to seek the truth through our own experience. The Kalama Sutta, often called the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, is the most important source that affirms that we must each seek the truth though our own experience. The Kalamas were a clan who were rather confused because they had lots of teachers, both orthodox Brahmins and more experimental shramanas, coming to their area and giving contradictory teachings. Who was right? Who was wrong? The Kalamas were interested in the Buddha’s take on how to cut their through the thicket of views and establish what was true. The Buddha said,

Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’

That may not seem to leave much! You can’t trust sacred scriptures, tradition, or even so-called “common sense.” So what did the Buddha say could be trusted as a source of truth? He said,

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

So there are two things here. First, we have to trust our own experience. What leads to happiness and what leads to suffering? Second, we can trust “the wise” – but with the unspoken proviso that we have to establish who are “the wise” on the basis of — again — our experience.

It’s precisely fundamentalism’s “belief in beliefs” and its taking the writings of bronze age nomadic herdsmen as the infallible and literal word of God that leads them into the trap of having to deny the evidence of their own senses. As Barbara O’Brien writes on her About.com blog, “I mean, who you gonna believe? A 5,000-year-old book or your own lying eyes?”

For Buddhists, the outmoded scientific understanding of 5th century BCE India is simply not a problem. We’ve already been encouraged to reject anything that conflicts with evidence. And since the evidence from biology, physics, and chemistry suggests overwhelmingly that the universe is billions of years old and that life has evolved, even if Buddhist scriptures did conflict with evolution (which they don’t) we’d have an ethical obligation to discard them.

ACCEPTANCE OF IMPERMANENCE

flowing river in autumnWhen Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution through natural selection 150 years ago, virtually everyone — scientists and preachers alike — believed that species were fixed and immutable. What would the Buddha have said about the fact that species do in fact change and evolve over time? He’d have said, “Of course. All conditioned things are subject to change.” There simply is no problem in Buddhism with accepting that species evolve.

The monotheistic religions tend to take what’s called an “eternalistic” view of the universe. God is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow still manages to act). The soul is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow can be either saved or damned).

This view of things (or at least certain important things) is an attempt to find security in an unstable and impermanent world. Existentially, we find we suffer because we lose the things we love, including ourselves. How do we respond to the raw fact of impermanence? We can either argue that the self is in fact eternal and unchanging, or we can do as Buddhism does and accept and embrace change.

Buddhism sees the problem of change not as being change itself, but in how we relate to it — the problem is that we cling to impermanent things. When we cling to something impermanent (anything from status, or a new car, or a relationship, all the way to life itself) we will inevitably suffer as the thing we depend upon changes. The problem is not change, but clinging.

Buddhism would see the attempt to see species as immutable to be a form of clinging — clinging to the categories that the mind creates. In the mind of the eternalist it becomes a form of blasphemy to question the labels that the mind imposes upon reality. Buddhism is very astute at recognizing that all labels are merely arbitrary and static snapshots of our perception of an ever-changing process of change. Even the categories and labels that Buddhism uses are seen as being, ultimately, false. Thus we have texts like the Heart Sutra that negate important Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths (“There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path”) as well as numerous other teachings.

In the Pali texts it’s clear that the same approach is taken. The Dharma (the teachings and practices) are seen as a raft, to be abandoned when we reach the far shore of direct perception of reality. We of course need the raft just now, but it’s important also that we recognize that the raft is something to be abandoned. If we cling to it we’ll never be able to step onto the shores of true spiritual awakening.

So in short, Buddhism has no fear of impermanence. The evolution of species is just another example of impermanence and of the lack of inherent selfhood.

CONTINUITY OF EVOLUTION AND DHARMA

nautilus shell

While traveling around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin was struck by the fact that he could understand facial expressions of people from different cultures, but not their languages or gestures. Darwin also believed that our sense of moral compassion came from a natural desire to alleviate the suffering of others. He was an ardent abolitionist. Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco … said … that these views are nearly identical to those of Tibetan Buddhists. “I am now calling myself a Darwinian,” Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama saying, after Ekman read him some passages of Darwin’s work. [From New Scientist]

That’s quite something, that the Dalai Lama considers himself a Darwinist. From an evolutionary point of view, ethics and compassion have evolved. They are a natural part of the evolved universe. This is important to the Dalai Lama because he has a profound belief that goodness is inherent to our nature.

The English Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, (who happens to be my own teacher) makes explicit this link between the Darwinianly evolved universe and the path of spirituality. He argues that we have inherited faculties such as self-awareness and compassion, but that our evolution is incomplete. Biological, or Darwinian evolution, he calls “The Lower Evolution,” while he compares and contrasts the spiritual path by referring to it as “The Higher Evolution.”

The Lower Evolution is not a conscious process, has no end-point (it is “non-teleological”), and operates on groups rather than on individuals. The Higher Evolution is not something that just happens to us: it’s the result of our own efforts to shape our consciousness, to make something of ourselves. The Higher Evolution is teleological — it has an end point. We find ourselves suffering, and the sense of self-awareness we have inherited allows us to ask why this is, and what we can do about it. The end point of The Higher Evolution is the attainment of non-suffering. And The Higher Evolution is an individual rather than a collective process. We can practice with others, we can learn from others, and we can even sometimes teach and guide others, but in the end it is we as individuals who must bring about the changes within ourselves that lead to non-suffering.

An old friend of mine once made a very interesting comparison between the Lower and Higher Evolutions. Biological evolution takes place through selection pressure. There are limited resources in the world and creatures must compete for them. Those creatures that are most successful at competing for resources will survive and will pass on their genetic adaptations to future generations. And so species evolve in response to selection pressure.

In the “environment” of the mind we have a “population” of mental habits and mental states. Some of those (greed, hatred, delusion) cause us suffering. Others, by contrast (compassion, awareness) tend to make us happier. Once we commit ourselves to the goal of suffering less, and as we maintain an awareness of that goal in our consciousness, we create a selection pressure of sorts.

Those habits that cause us suffering will tend to lose the battle for inner resources because we will choose not to feed them. Those mental habits that tend to being happiness will tend to thrive and grow because resources (our mental energy) is being poured into them.

Here’s what’s said to be a Cherokee legend:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This is evolution in action — not the Darwinian evolution of species but the Higher Evolution of the individual consciousness. Biological evolution has given us the tools of self-awareness and understanding that allow us to “evolve” ourselves into more spiritually advanced — and happier — beings. But it’s up to us to do the work of feeding only the helpful wolf.

Evolution is, for Buddhists, not something to deny or to be afraid of, but something to accept (as long as the evidence is in its favor) and to make use of.

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Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “If one is estranged from oneself, then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others…”

Lindbergh’s comment reminds me that being fully aware of others involves awareness of oneself. There’s nothing particularly mystical about this — it’s just a question of psychology and neurophysiology. And without this awareness of oneself, friendship is simply impossible.

On a psychological level, next time you’re interacting with someone, pay attention to what’s happening on a gut level. You’ll notice that there are sensations in the body, mostly focused on the abdomen, that arise in response to the other person. In Buddhist terminology these are vedanas, which are often translated as “feelings.” Vedanas are not emotions, but are a basic response to perceptions. These responses are traditionally categorized as pleasurable, uncomfortable, or neutral.

Have you ever had an intuition about another person? Perhaps you’ve suspected they’re not telling the truth, although you can’t quite say why. Or perhaps you’ve had a sense that there’s something wrong, even though the other person hasn’t said anything overtly to indicate that. What’s happening is that you’re noticing, although perhaps not very consciously, vedanas that are arising in response to your contact with that other person.

 I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon  

At one time I was running a retreat center which was short-staffed. While I was on retreat elsewhere, I had a conversation with a very charming man who not only had all the qualifications and experience we needed, but who really wanted to move to a retreat center. I was really thrilled to have had such a chance encounter. That night, though, I dreamed that I went to visit him in hospital, and as I got close to his bedside he turned into a demon who grabbed hold of me and started twisting my limbs in all directions — much further than they could move in real life. I was completely helpless and worried that I was going to be severely injured. Needless to say, I woke up in a panic.

Unfortunately I ignored my instincts and we hired him. And my dream turned out to be remarkably prescient. He turned out to be a former drug addict with something of a split personality. Some days he was charming, kind, and thoughtful. Other days he was brooding, unreasonable, and cynical. You never knew whether you were going to meet Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. And life with him (or them) felt just like being grabbed by a demon who was twisting me around.

I’d ignored my intuition. Looking back I realize that I’d had a sense of unease right from the start. He’d been too charming. Something was a bit unreal about the way he interacted. I’d known that, but I’d ignored it. I’d ignored it because we we so desperate for staff. My subconscious had decided to step things up a gear and to make the message very clear in the form of a dream image — but then on retreat you can often have odd dreams, and a lot of my dream life featured demons at that time in my life.

Being out of touch with myself was a big mistake. Had I paid attention to my initial unacknowledged vedanas, which were whispering “there’s something wrong here — look deeper” I’d have saved myself, and others, from a lot of suffering.

 In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on.  

In any given situation the mind is busy evaluating, on an unconscious level, what’s going on. When you’re with another person you’re picking up on cues such as their tone of voice, the things they say (and don’t say), their posture, and even their breathing rate and the bloodflow to their facial skin. Research by Paul Ekman has also shown that we can pick up on what he calls “micro-expressions” — brief movements in the muscles on the face that reveal what’s going on inside, even if the other person is trying to disguise their true emotional state, and possibly even if they’re unaware of some of their emotions.

We can train ourselves to notice such things on a conscious level (and therapists and law-enforcement officers often do), but mostly we process all of this below the level of consciousness. While we’re busy concentrating on the actual content of a conversation there’s a whole world of activity going on below. It’s as if the conscious mind is the office of the CEO, up on the 20th floor, while down below there are another 19 floors of workers, busy collecting and processing information, having meetings to decide what’s important, and — where necessary — sending memos to the boss. Those memos are our vedanas, which might manifest as a feeling of unease, or discomfort, or frustration, or anxiety, or a feeling of pleasure, or a warm glow, or boredom.

And we may or may not pay attention to those feelings. Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below. Sometimes we’ve even developed a habit of ignoring the body and its feelings.

Being in touch with our feelings can be a way of connecting more deeply with others, however, and not just a way of avoiding getting into painful situations! Sometimes when talking with others there will be a pang at a gut level — something akin to a feeling of pain. And if we pay attention to this we may be impelled to ask the other person if there’s something wrong. An opportunity for compassion has arisen. It’s this sensitivity to our responsiveness to others that makes friendship possible. Awareness of self — at least in a certain way — is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.

 Sometimes we’re so caught up in rational thought that we don’t pay attention to the messages from below.  

On a neurophysiological level, what’s happening is that our mirror neurons are providing us with information about the other person. Mirror neurons are what allow us to connect with others — without them we’d effectively be autistic. I watch with amazement as my 19-month-old daughter sees and hears me saying a word and is able to reproduce it for the first time. How does she do this? How is she able to have a visual and auditory impression of me speaking and translate that into a physical pattern of movements in the diaphragm, larynx, tongue, lips, etc — all beautifully coordinated. It’s her mirror neurons that allow her to do this. And it’s my mirror neurons that allow me to share her joy at mastering a new word, or to empathize with her when she’s scared. Mirror neurons, it seems, are what allow us to connect with each other. I have no doubt whatsoever that they are involved in generating vedanas.

One last word of caution, however. Vedanas may be messages from the intel agents, analysts, number crunchers and committees that inhabit floors 1 to 19. But the memos they send up to the executive suit on the 20th floor are often cryptic: “sadness,” or “hurt,” or “this is fun!” Our executive levels have first of all to notice those messages and then to interpret them. Why do I feel uncomfortable at a given moment in a situation? If it because the other person has said something I have doubts about? Perhaps they’re making an assumption I disagree with? Or perhaps they’ve hit on an uncomfortable truth, something I’d rather not hear? The inarticulate speech from the lower floors needs careful interpretation. And this is something best done in dialog: “There’s something I feel a bit uncomfortable with here — can you say a bit more about what you mean?”

This too brings us closer to others. In noticing our vedanas and expressing them skillfully, we learn to look deeper, and come to know others more deeply. Awareness of self is awareness of the other. Awareness of the other is awareness of oneself.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com

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Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue With the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman

destructive emotionsAvailable from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Don’t be put off by the title: this book should really be called “Positive emotions and how to develop them.”

A new book from Buddhist author Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence”) is always going to be an exciting event. More so in this case because of the extraordinary background out of which the book emerged.

The Dalai Lama, a fan of science since boyhood (he famously enjoys tinkering with watches and has been known to rubberneck when passing electronics stores) annually gathers the world’s eminent minds in order to educate himself about the latest scientific findings and in order to promote cross-cultural dialog. The resulting discussions are like a cross between darshan (the traditional act of sitting at the feet of a spiritual master) and the best Discovery Channel documentary on brain science that you’ve ever seen.

The particular gathering that forms the basis of this book includes some fascinating characters and presents some astonishing scientific findings about the effects — the very positive effects — of meditation and spiritual practice on the human brain.

As the Dalai Lama explains, “With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play in reminding us of our humanity.”

Goleman’s role was both as host of the dialogs and as editor of the highlights. He skillfully presents dialogues between the Dalai Lama and a group of eminent psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers that probe the challenging questions:

Can the worlds of science and philosophy work together to recognize destructive emotions such as hatred, craving, and delusion? If so, can they transform those feelings for the ultimate improvement of humanity?

The Dalai Lama is the big name star of the show, but the strong supporting cast, including psychologist Paul Ekman, philosopher Owen Flanagan, the late Francisco Varela, neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

This Amazon bestseller is a must-have book.

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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Meditation medication of the future

For people seeking to improve their health, the US surgeon-general advises putting aside an hour, several times a week, for “compassionate” meditation.

Actually, he doesn’t. He prescribes 60 minutes of physical exercise. But noted molecular biologist Eric Lander, a leader of the Human Genome Project, believes the change is coming.

“It is certainly not inconceivable that 20 years from now the US surgeon-general might recommend 60 minutes of mental exercise five times a week,” Lander told a conference of renowned scientists and Buddhist scholars at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) at the weekend.

Such a prediction, from a man of Lander’s stature at a venue like MIT, is an indication of mainstream science’s growing fascination with Buddhism, and especially with the preliminary but extraordinary results of state-of-the-art research into the Olympian mental athleticism of trained Buddhist monks.

Some of the data presented at the conference – attended by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama – pointed not only to amazingly high attention spans, but also meditation techniques that could actually “rewire” the brain’s neural pathways.

Harvard-trained neuroscientist Richard Davidson showed brain-scan images of a monk who was able to push levels of activity in his left, prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain associated with positive emotions – “off the chart” by using a technique known as compassion meditation.

In a different meditative state, the same monk could do what, until then, had been thought to be impossible. He was able to suppress the “startle reflex” – the involuntary response to a loud, sudden noise like a gunshot.

Paul Ekman, an eminent expert on the science of emotion, described the monk’s level of control as a “spectacular accomplishment”.

Alan Wallace, a former monk and president of the Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness in Santa Barbara, believes Buddhist practices aimed at improving emotional and cognitive balance could be powerful tools, and not just in treating depression and mental illness.

“I see no reason why some of these techniques could not be introduced into the school system,” Wallace said.

“People will do better in education and a myriad professions because they are happier, more balanced and more attentive,” he added.

One obvious problem raised by several of the scientists at the conference was that the monks involved in the studies had honed their mental skills over the best part of a lifetime.

“It’s a wonderful achievement, but if it takes 15 years, it’s not going to help most folks,” said Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Another objection comes from those who believe there could be a price to pay in the Buddhist practice of reducing or eliminating “afflictive” emotions in favour of their positive counterparts.

One argument suggests some of the emotions that fall in the negative camp – such as anger or fear – are important for survival.

“Martin Luther King was an angry man and a lot of good things came from his anger,” Gilbert said.

See an archive of this article

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Buddhists really are happier, study shows

Scientists say they have evidence to show that Buddhists really are happier and calmer than other people.

Tests carried out in the United States reveal that areas of their brain associated with good mood and positive feelings are more active.

The findings come as another study suggests that Buddhist meditation can help to calm people.

Researchers at University of California San Francisco Medical Centre have found the practise can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory.

There is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek

They found that experienced Buddhists, who meditate regularly, were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry compared to other people.

Paul Ekman, who carried out the study, said: “The most reasonable hypothesis is that there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek.”

BBC: Read more

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A monk in the lab

The Dalai Lama: These are times when destructive emotions like anger, fear and hatred are giving rise to devastating problems throughout the world. While the daily news offers grim reminders of the destructive power of such emotions, the question we must ask is this: What can we do, person by person, to overcome them?

Of course such disturbing emotions have always been part of the human condition. Some — those who tend to believe nothing will ”cure” our impulses to hate or oppress one another — might say that this is simply the price of being human. But this view can create apathy in the face of destructive emotions, leading us to conclude that destructiveness is beyond our control.

I believe that there are practical ways for us as individuals to curb our dangerous impulses — impulses that collectively can lead to war and mass violence. As evidence I have not only my spiritual practice and the understanding of human existence based on Buddhist teachings, but now also the work of scientists.

For the last 15 years I have engaged in a series of conversations with Western scientists. We have exchanged views on topics ranging from quantum physics and cosmology to compassion and destructive emotions. I have found that while scientific findings offer a deeper understanding of such fields as cosmology, it seems that Buddhist explanations — particularly in the cognitive, biological and brain sciences — can sometimes give Western-trained scientists a new way to look at their own fields.

New York Times: Read the rest of this article…

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