Buddhism's Other Option

A new book examines Buddhist practices' influences on the brain and emotions.

BY: Ira Rifkin


c. 2003 Religion News Service

We all have bad days, or so Western psychology assumes. There are times when anger, anxiety and depression just seem to get the upper hand. The most we can do, psychology contends, is learn to contain our emotions--or take a pill.

Buddhism claims another option. Not only can negative emotions be controlled, says the 2,500-year-old tradition, they literally can be transformed or eliminated through meditation--a variety of practices involving techniques such as one-pointed concentration, visualization and detached self-reflection.

For the past two years, a unique effort to measure that claim against Western scientific standards has taken place. Among those involved are the world's best-known Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, and a small group of Western researchers, primarily neuroscientists and psychologists.

While the work is highly experimental, initial findings reportedly bolster Buddhism's assertions about the nature of human emotions. "Simply put, output is related to input," said writer Daniel Goleman, author of a recently released book about the project. "All religious traditions postulate that it is desirable to transcend negative emotions. Now we have some scientific data that, by God, it can happen."

More than most major religions, Buddhism has made psychology and the workings of the mind a major component of its teachings. "The Buddhist tradition," Goleman wrote in "Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?" (Bantam), "has long pointed out that recognizing and transforming destructive emotions lies at the heart of spiritual practice--indeed, some hold that whatever lessens destructive emotions is spiritual practice."

Goleman's book, is, in the main, an account written for the layperson of two meetings -- a 2000 gathering in Dharamsala, India, seat of the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government-in-exile, and a 2001 follow-up session in Madison, Wis. The two gatherings were part of an ongoing dialogue between Buddhists and scientists that dates to 1987.

The 2000 session was an exchange of ideas; scientists described the latest theories about the nature of the brain and mind, and Buddhist scholars explained their tradition's understanding of human psychology. The Madison meeting went beyond dialogue. It included scientific experiments involving advanced Buddhist practitioners designed to explore their reactions to stresses, such as gunshot sounds close to the ear that leave most people frazzled and presumably more likely to dump their anxiety on others.

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