We all have bad days, or so Western psychology assumes. Thereare times when anger, anxiety and depression just seem to get the upperhand. The most we can do, psychology contends, is learn to contain ouremotions--or take a pill.
Buddhism claims another option. Not only can negative emotions becontrolled, says the 2,500-year-old tradition, they literally can betransformed or eliminated through meditation--a variety of practicesinvolving techniques such as one-pointed concentration, visualization anddetached self-reflection.
For the past two years, a unique effort to measure that claim againstWestern scientific standards has taken place. Among those involved are theworld's best-known Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, and a small group of Westernresearchers, primarily neuroscientists and psychologists.
While the work is highly experimental, initial findings reportedlybolster Buddhism's assertions about the nature of human emotions. "Simplyput, output is related to input," said writer Daniel Goleman, author of arecently released book about the project. "All religious traditionspostulate that it is desirable to transcend negative emotions. Now we havesome scientific data that, by God, it can happen."
More than most major religions, Buddhism has made psychology and theworkings of the mind a major component of its teachings. "The Buddhisttradition," Goleman wrote in "Destructive Emotions: How Can We OvercomeThem?" (Bantam), "has long pointed out that recognizing and transformingdestructive emotions lies at the heart of spiritual practice--indeed, somehold that whatever lessens destructive emotions is spiritual practice."
Goleman's book, is, in the main, an account written for the layperson oftwo meetings -- a 2000 gathering in Dharamsala, India, seat of the DalaiLama's Tibetan government-in-exile, and a 2001 follow-up session in Madison,Wis. The two gatherings were part of an ongoing dialogue between Buddhistsand scientists that dates to 1987.
The 2000 session was an exchange of ideas; scientists described thelatest theories about the nature of the brain and mind, and Buddhistscholars explained their tradition's understanding of human psychology. TheMadison meeting went beyond dialogue. It included scientific experimentsinvolving advanced Buddhist practitioners designed to explore theirreactions to stresses, such as gunshot sounds close to the ear that leavemost people frazzled and presumably more likely to dump their anxiety onothers.
Oser engaged in various meditative practices, from concentrating on abolt that was part of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device scanninghis brain, to visualizing highly elaborate Buddhist deities similar to thosedepicted in Tibetan thangka paintings.
Preliminary results found Oser able to voluntarily regulate his brainactivity through mental discipline alone in a way that left him far lesssusceptible to "destructive emotions" than are most people. Moreover,Goleman wrote, Oser's brain showed signs of physical changes that point to ascientific basis to explain why he is able to maintain a high degree ofequanimity in the face of intense laboratory provocations that promptanxiety, fear and anger in others.
The changes fall into a category of brain activity known as"neuroplasticity," defined by Goleman as "the notion that the braincontinually changes as a result of our experiences" by establishing freshconnections between neurons, the specialized nerve cells in the brain thatconvey information.
Earlier studies have shown various forms of meditation to be useful infighting stress and even raising immunity levels in people. Goleman, aformer New York Times behavioral sciences reporter who also wrote the 1995best seller "Emotional Intelligence," said the latest findings holdpotentially far greater implications.
"For instance, if in fact people can train their minds to overcomedestructive emotions, could practical, nonreligious aspects of such trainingbe part of every child's education? Or could such training in emotionalself-management be offered to adults, whether or not they were spiritualseekers?" he asked.
Nor are the positive results limited to a meditation virtuoso such asOser, Goleman noted. Later tests conducted by Richard J. Davidson, directorof the University of Wisconsin's Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging andBehavior, in conjunction with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the University ofMassachusetts Medical Center's Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program,showed positive results in mood regulation even among novice meditators.
One neuroscientist with no connection to the project, the University ofIowa's Daniel Tranel, said he found the findings described by Goleman"plausible" and "very exciting." "This is where you would want neuroscienceto go, because it gets it to the level of application," said Tranel, whodescribed himself as "more conservative and mainstream" than some involvedin the collaboration, whom he knows as professional colleagues.