Leading psychologist Paul Ekman received an invitation to a Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama in 2000. He went because he knew it would it please his daughter, an admirer of the Dalai Lama. Ekman himself had no great knowledge of Buddhism and no religious beliefs or practices of his own. What happened as a result of this initial encounter changed Ekman's life, both personally and professionally. He hit it off with the Dalai Lama, experiencing a warmth and openness that affected him emotionally and that puzzled him as a scientist. And he learned things about the Buddhist tradition that triggered new perspectives and research agendas from him about the emotions and how we humans can learn to better cultivate them. This book records conversations held between Ekman and the Dalai Lama over several years. These transcripts and sidebars become a treasure-trove of insight into this most basic human (and animal) phenomenon that Buddhism has explored more than two millennia via introspection (meditation). Now science is taking a closer look at, especially with the advances in neuroscience and other techniques that provide us new ways of viewing and testing emotions. This book allows any reader can come away with a better understanding of how we live our emotional lives, and how we can cultivate those emotions for our own good and the good of those with whom we live. No small accomplishment.
The first two of the Four Noble Truths espoused by the Buddha state his assessment of the human condition. The First Noble Truth: Life is unsatisfactory. (More often, we see the original Sanskrit or Pali translated as “suffering”, but I agree that this word is perhaps too aggressive in its portrayal of the original insight.) The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering [or unsatisfactoriness] is attachment. Attachment, as you learn, can mean craving for something (greed), craving to escape something (aversion, hatred), or ignorance of the situation (delusion). So what has this to do with emotions? Via natural selection, mammals, and especially humans, developed emotions that refined our ability to approach or avoid. Mixed with our hyper-sociability (Jon Haidt), we developed a wide variety of emotions that attract or repel us from various perceived situations. Natural selection armed us over millions of years with these mind tools, but with the advent of civilization (living in cities instead of small hunter-gatherer groups), our array of emotions, such as anger and hatred, for instance, could lead us astray. Robert Wright argues in his course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology (now offered on Coursera) that Buddhism is an antidote to some aspects human behavior instilled in us by natural selection. Instead of acting on our feelings of attachment (“Yum, doughnuts! Let’s feast”) or aversion (“Your rotten SOB”), we learn to get between our emotions—developed for quick perceptions and responses—and our actions. This is a fundamental insight shared between HHDL and Ekman, each coming at the issue from their different traditions but finding a lot of agreement. Ekman calls a pause in our reactions a “refractory period”, which may be micro-moment, or—with cultivation—something much longer.
After spending time defining emotions—different from moods, we should note—the two discuss how we might learn to tame them (and not, as some think Buddhism suggests, eliminate them). Here we learn of the benefits of meditation as a mechanism for developing awareness, a meta-awareness (B. Alan Wallace) that allows us to observe the development of an emotion within us and thereby make a conscious decision about how we shall (or shan’t) act in response to the impulse. This ability, along with the conscious cultivation of compassion, allows us to take ourselves in happier and more sociable directions than the naturally selected traits of our emotions might push us.
The above is just a taste of what the book covers. In addition to insights into basic and ongoing Western scientific research about the emotions and the Buddhist insights cultivated over 2000 years, we learn about the participants, especially Ekman. Ekman’s insight that he changes over the course of these conversations (estimated at about 39 hours) is really moving. Ekman grew-up with a very difficult father, and Ekman shares insights he gains about himself and that relationship. Ekman’s growth of insight and appreciation gives the book an emotional (in a very good way!) valence that adds spice to the wonderful scientific and Buddhist knowledge and wisdom that we garner through it.
The emotions are an endlessly fascinating topic. The quality of our lives is a function of our emotions. Much of morality and ethics revolve around our emotions and how we handle them. Indeed, not just Buddhism, but all of the Axial religions and philosophies—later Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Socratic philosophy and its progeny, especially Stoicism, Confucianism, and aspects of Taoism and Hinduism—are efforts to re-direct human conduct from older, more atavistic (and now less well-adapted) traits vested in humans via natural selection. These religions and philosophies (philosophy, that is, “as a way of life”, in the words of Pierre Hadot) developed in response to a very different environment (civilization) than that of the hunter-gatherers from whom we descended. The challenge to us is to use the wisdom of these traditions and refine them (no more required, I suspect) to best fit our contemporary needs. This book goes a long way in forwarding that project. We must thank Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama for their courage in reaching across traditions to help us find our way.
P.S. This is a second take on this book. Indeed, blog 5/682 (i.e., near the beginning of my blogging) addresses my listening to this as an audio book. It was definitely worth a second take!