How to Cure 'Destructive Emotions'

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman finds in Buddhism a possible cure-all for anger, depression, and more.

BY: Interview by Rebecca Phillips


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Will people be more skeptical about this method than they would about trying medication?

I think people are open to it. The Dalai Lama is quite smart in saying, 'Look at all this through a scientific lens, and if science validates the method then publish it and share that.'

In a recent book, "Why God Won't Go Away," Andrew Newberg, at the University of Pennsylvania, seemed to imply that his research on meditation proved that people have an impulse to believe in the divine. Did anything about the divine or transcendent come up in your discussion?

The Dalai Lama is immensely practical in his interests. And he really wants to see what there might be that would be of actual use to people to help them suffer less and be more happy.

So it wasn't a theological discussion. It was, however, in some places, theoretical because there is both a Buddhist psychology and a Western psychology. So there were very interesting presentations on the Buddhist version of the mind and how to work with it.

Were there some cases where Buddhism and science couldn't be reconciled?

We had friendly disagreements because the paradigms can be so different. For example, it turned out that in Buddhism there's an emotional state called sukha, which is an ongoing, imperturbable sense of joy that you feel regardless of what happens to you in life. What was remarkable in this dialogue is that there's no parallel in Western psychology and it made us wonder, 'What are we missing? What else are we missing?' He [the Dalai Lama] made another point which was that in Tibetan, and actually in all Asian Buddhist countries, the word for "compassion" means both compassion for yourself as well as other people. Whereas in English it only means for other people, not for yourself. He said, "You're missing a very important word." I thought that was a good insight.

What does this book about emotions have to do with your previous books about emotional intelligence?

It's not directly connected, but the themes of how we can be more aware of our emotion and what we can do that will help us manage our emotions better were touched on deeply in both books.

Have there been important findings about this since the book was finished?

Recently, at Columbia University, Richard Davidson reported new data with another lama, where he found that when he asked him to meditate on compassion, the activity in the part of the brain which is active during happiness--the left pre-frontal cortex, just behind the forehead--increased 800%. He said with an ordinary person, if you asked them to do something like that, the magnitude of change would be only 10-15%. So this is 80 times greater. That's remarkable.

You've been studying meditation since early on in your career. Has the way the world, or how Westerners at least, views meditation changed since when you started? Is there a greater interest among scientists in meditation now?

Absolutely. When I first did research on meditation it was at Harvard in the early 70's, and my professor thought I had gone crazy to be interested in such a thing. It was very fringe. But now it's part of the mainstream. People don't really blink much when you study meditation because it's understood that it's a valid set of methods and that it's a form of mind-training. Now we're interested in how far you can train the mind--what is the upside of human potential?

That's why the studies with the lamas are so fascinating and interesting. We're finding that, for example, on the ability to read other people's emotions from subtle, very quick facial changes, these lamas were getting perfect scores where most people do terribly on it. And it suggests that there's something in their training that enhances empathy and sharpens perception.

Or the fact that we're seeing the highest readings in the positive direction on the brain set-point for emotion as a result of spiritual practice. These are very important findings not just for scientists but for all of us--these methods can be of great benefit for any of us.


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