Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles To Psychological Balance and Compassion
By the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman
Times Books

Paul Ekman is one of the most respected scientists in the Bay Area, internationally famous for his painstaking work in identifying emotions from facial expressions, even “microexpressions” that indicate when someone is lying. He developed training based on these findings that the Secret Service uses. He also proved one of Darwin’s more obscure theories, that emotional expressions are the same across human cultures.

In early 2000, he agreed to participate in a dialogue of scientists with the Dalai Lama, mostly because he could bring his daughter along—she was a dedicated Buddhist who’d been to Tibet. It changed his life.

That discussion on “destructive emotions” was the eighth in the “Mind and Life” series with the Dalai Lama that will convene its 18th session this spring. There are books derived from 8 of them; I’ve read 7, and Destructive Emotions (Bantam) is among the best. While western sciences like neurobiology and psychology work from the outside with objective tests, Buddhism—particularly Tibetan Buddhism—has developed complex and subtle concepts from interior observation.

That 2000 conference shaped Ekman’s subsequent researches, and sent him back for some 39 hours of one-on-one dialogues with the Dalai Lama, resulting in this book. The subject is the title: Emotional Awareness. The topics include how emotions arise, how they are experienced and lead to behavior, as well as specific sets of emotions, from anger to compassion.

Apart from the concepts, there’s drama in the Mind and Life books (will science and “religion” clash?) and comedy (chiefly in the scientists’ reaction when the Dalai Lama asks an incisive question or spots a logical flaw. Few know that Tibetan monks are trained in debate—in the monastery it’s the principal spectator sport.)

Ekman is desperately interested in developing ways for people to learn how to behave better, beginning with the emotion or even the period just before the emotion engages. This book is formally a dialogue, with mini-essays on relevant topics by Ekman and others: both scientists and Buddhist scholars, as well as the growing number of Buddhist scientists.

The human drama in this book emerges in pieces, as Ekman reveals aspects of his own life—such as his abusive childhood, and his resulting problems controlling his temper—which suggest why he has been studying emotion for a half century.

Towards the end Ekman reveals something else. It was not just the discussion in 2000 but a wordless moment with the Dalai Lama that changed him: as he introduced his daughter, the Dalai Lama took his hand and held it. Ekman felt transformed. Like a proper scientist, he asked others if they noticed the change. His wife did. And he asked others if they’d had this experience: they had. Yet the science he knew could not account for it. But Ekman realized it was important because he knew it was real. Such an experience as well as others related to him by meditators and others perhaps led him to write: “We have seen it in our lifetimes again and again, that when we do not have the tools or methods to scientifically study something, we ignore it—or even worse, claim it does not exist.”

Though he doesn't mention it here, the scientific interest in meditation is itself a case in point. Not so long ago it was the consensus orthodoxy that people could not consciously control physical functions like heart rate. But some scientists studied Buddhist meditators, which led to "biofeedback" machines, the theory of "relaxation response," etc., and that made the idea more acceptable. Now meditators are being studied again, using brain imaging.

It is Ekman’s openness to evidence, no matter where it comes from or leads, that is science at its best. He investigates what matters to him as a human being, a husband, father, member of the community, and in view of the legacy he leaves to the future. That the steps along the way are still a bit awkward is less important than the illuminating attempt.

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