The Buddhist tradition 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. From the perspective of science, these same emotional states pose a perplexing challenge: These are brain responses that have, in part, shaped the human mind, and presumably played a crucial role in human survival. But now, in modern life, they pose grave dangers to our individual and collective fate.
Our meeting [Mind and Life VIII] explored a range of urgent questions about that perennial human predicament, our destructive emotions. Are they a fundamental, unchangeable part of the human legacy? What makes these urges so powerful, leading otherwise rational people to commit acts they later regret? What is the place of such emotions in the evolution of our species--are they essential for human survival? What leverage points might there be for ameliorating their threat to our personal happiness and stability? How much plasticity might there be in the brain, and how might we shift in a more positive direction the very neural systems that harbor destructive impulses? Most important, how can we overcome them?
The Lama in the Lab
Lama Öser strikes most anyone who meets him as resplendent--not because of his maroon and gold Tibetan monk's robes, but because of his radiant smile. Oser, a European-born convert to Buddhism, has trained as a Tibetan monk in the Himalayas for more than three decades, including many years at the side of one of Tibet's greatest spiritual masters.
But today Öser (whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is about to take a revolutionary step in the history of the spiritual lineages he has become a part of: He will engage in meditation while having his brain scanned by state-of-the-art brain imaging devices. To be sure, there have been sporadic attempts to study brain activity in meditation, and decades of tests with monks and yogis in Western labs, some revealing remarkable abilities to control respiration, brain waves, or core-body temperature. But this--the first experiment with someone at Öser's level of training, using such sophisticated measures--will take that research to an entirely new level, deeper than ever in charting the specific links between highly disciplined and mental strategies and their impact on brain function. And this research agenda has a pragmatic focus: to assess meditation as mind training, a practical answer to the perennial human conundrum of how we can better handle our destructive emotions.
Medicines are the leading modality in the West for addressing disturbing emotions, and for better or for worse, there is no doubt that mood-altering pills have brought solace to millions. But one compelling question the research with Öser raises is whether a person, through his or her own efforts, can bring about lasting positive changes in brain function that are even more far-reaching than medication in their impact on emotions. And that question, in turn, raises others: For instance, if in fact people can train their minds to overcome destructive emotions, could practical, nonreligious aspects of such training be part of every child's education? Or could such training in emotional self-management be offered to adults, whether or not they were spiritual seekers?
These very questions had been raised over the course of a remarkable five-day dialogue held the year before between the Dalai Lama and a small group of scientists and a philosopher of mind at his private quarters in Dharamsala, India. The research with Öser marked one culmination of several lines of scientific inquiry set in motion during the dialogue. There the Dalai Lama had been a prime mover in inspiring this research: in a real sense, he was an active collaborator in turning the lens of science on the practices of his own spiritual tradition.
It was at the invitation of Richard Davidson, one of the scientists who participated in the Dharamsala dialogues, that Öser had come to the E.M. Keck Labaratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. The laboratory was founded by Davidson, a leading pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience, which studies the interplay of the brain and emotions, Davidson had wanted Öser--a particularly intriguing subject--to be studied intensively with state-of-the-art brain measures.