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.
Oser engaged in various meditative practices, from concentrating on a bolt that was part of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device scanning his brain, to visualizing highly elaborate Buddhist deities similar to those depicted in Tibetan thangka paintings.
Preliminary results found Oser able to voluntarily regulate his brain activity through mental discipline alone in a way that left him far less susceptible to "destructive emotions" than are most people. Moreover, Goleman wrote, Oser's brain showed signs of physical changes that point to a scientific basis to explain why he is able to maintain a high degree of equanimity in the face of intense laboratory provocations that prompt anxiety, 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 brain continually changes as a result of our experiences" by establishing fresh connections between neurons, the specialized nerve cells in the brain that convey information.
Earlier studies have shown various forms of meditation to be useful in fighting stress and even raising immunity levels in people. Goleman, a former New York Times behavioral sciences reporter who also wrote the 1995 best seller "Emotional Intelligence," said the latest findings hold potentially far greater implications.
"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?" he asked.
Nor are the positive results limited to a meditation virtuoso such as Oser, Goleman noted. Later tests conducted by Richard J. Davidson, director of the University of Wisconsin's Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, in conjunction with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the University of Massachusetts 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 of Iowa's Daniel Tranel, said he found the findings described by Goleman "plausible" and "very exciting." "This is where you would want neuroscience to go, because it gets it to the level of application," said Tranel, who described himself as "more conservative and mainstream" than some involved in the collaboration, whom he knows as professional colleagues.
"Destructive Emotions" is an attempt to make highly esoteric theological and scientific material accessible to the layperson. It also serves as an announcement for the next meeting in the Buddhist-science exchange set for Sept. 13-14 in Boston. It will be the first meeting in the series of encounters open to the public.
Adam Engle, chairman of the Mind and Life Institute of Boulder, Colo., the sponsoring group, said the meeting "will focus on and review what has been done in the area of collaborative research so far, and what can be done in the future. We hope to spark interest in developing teams to move ahead on the research."
The meeting will not be a spiritual gabfest for beginning meditators. "It will be structured toward the scientific community; toward research assistants, post-doc graduate students, people who can generally advance the field," Engle said. Additional information on the Boston conference can be obtained from the institute Web site, www.mindandlife.org/index.html.
In an interview, Goleman said the apparent emotional benefits derived from Buddhist meditation are as likely to be gained from similar contemplative practices advanced by other religions. The collaboration began with Buddhist practices because of the Dalai Lama's interest, and because many of those associated with the Mind and Life Institute are themselves Buddhists.
"Buddhism is a good place to start because there is an extensive body of literature relating to the subject within Buddhism, and particularly within Tibetan Buddhism, where it's been preserved because of that nation's historical isolation and lower level of Westernization," said Goleman. "Tibet has been like a time capsule into this very internal system of exploration."