How to Cure 'Destructive Emotions'

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

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So the point of this research is not necessarily that people won't experience these emotions, but that we'll be able to deal with them better?

Yes. The point is to find ways to help people--and not just Buddhists, but anybody--handle their destructive emotions more effectively.

The first chapter explains that researchers found, through studying a Buddhist monk, Öser, that meditation was a way to control these emotions. But Öser is someone who meditates all the time. How can a lay person benefit from meditation?

The research in the first chapter showed some extraordinary effects from long-term meditation. He is completely unresponsive, for example, when he hears a gun, or a sound like a gunshot. Everybody else startles. But Öser had amazing mastery over his emotional reactivity, and he can generate positive emotion. In fact, his baseline for emotion--his everyday baseline--is in the positive range.

But that doesn't mean this is only for people with time for huge, intensive practice. The other research underway now is looking at beginners. And now that we know what to look for, we're starting to see similar shifts in people who are just in the first two months of meditating. In another study of meditation, they taught it to highly stressed workers at a tech firm. The researchers found that they shifted the brain set-point for emotions from the "distressed zone" to the "good zone." That was after two months of an hour [of meditation] a day.


It has to be daily meditation?

Yes, daily meditation. Daily practice is key.

Other than meditation, are you aware of any other spiritual practices that might help achieve this shift in the brain?

The only one we know so far is mindfulness meditation. That's the only one that's been tested. We don't know what else of the many practices these lamas have done or have studied over the years might account for any of the specific effects we're seeing.

Did you discuss what effect Buddhist practice can have on constructive emotions?

Many of the practices are about generating positive emotions like compassion, lovingkindness, a sense of joy in other people's happiness. One of the points that was made was that American psychology should focus more on positive emotions and helping people learn how to reduce their quantity of negative, destructive emotions and experience more positive emotions day-to-day.

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Interview by Rebecca Phillips
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