Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion

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9781427205223: Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion

Two leading thinkers engage in a landmark conversation about human emotions and the pursuit of psychological fulfillment

At their first meeting, a remarkable bond was sparked between His Holiness the Dalai Lama, one of the world's most revered spiritual leaders, and the psychologist Paul Ekman, whose groundbreaking work helped to define the science of emotions. Now these two luminaries share their thinking about science and spirituality, the bonds between East and West, and the nature and quality of our emotional lives.

In this unparalleled series of conversations, the Dalai Lama and Ekman prod and push toward answers to the central questions of emotional experience. What are the sources of hate and compassion? Should a person extend her compassion to a torturer―and would that even be biologically possible? What does science reveal about the benefits of Buddhist meditation, and can Buddhism improve through engagement with the scientific method? As they come to grips with these issues, they invite us to join them in an unfiltered view of two great traditions and two great minds.

Accompanied by commentaries on the findings of emotion research and the teachings of Buddhism, their interplay―amusing, challenging, eye-opening, and moving―guides us on a transformative journey in the understanding of emotions.

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About the Author:

Tenzin Gyatzo, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and is the temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. The author of The Art of Happiness, among many other books, he is the head of the Tibetan government in exile and resides in Dharamsala, India.

Paul Ekman is the world's foremost expert on facial expressions and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco. He is the author of fourteen books, including Emotions Revealed and lives in northern California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Emotions unite and divide the worlds in which we live, both personal and global, motivating the best and the worst of our actions. They save our lives, enabling quick action in emergencies. Yet how we behave when we are emotional can make our lives, and the lives of those we care about, miserable. Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite. Bringing different perspectives to bear—Eastern and Western, spirituality and science, Buddhism and psychology—the Dalai Lama and I sought to clarify these contradictions and illuminate some paths that might enable a balanced emotional life and a feeling of compassion that can reach across the globe.

As the leader of a millennia-old spiritual tradition as well as a nation in exile, the Dalai Lama holds something resembling divine status among his fellow Tibetans. He is the world’s principal living advocate of nonviolence and the winner, in 1989, of the Nobel Peace Prize and, in 2007, of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given to a civilian by the U.S. government. He is denounced and at times publicly despised by the leaders of the People’s Republic of China, which has occupied Tibet since 1950. Yet he is also more than a religious and political leader: In the Western world his celebrity approaches that of a rock star. He has authored several best selling books and is nearly always traveling, speaking, and inspiring audiences that number in the thousands. He is also strongly interested in integrating the findings of modern science into the Buddhist world view. In our conversations, it became clear to me that he considers himself first and foremost a Buddhist monk and an interpreter of Buddhist thinking to the rest of the world. He believes that Buddhist wisdom provides an ethical framework through which the world might be able to better deal with the problems that divide us.

I am a professor emeritus at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, having spent more than forty years establishing the universality of humans’ emotional behavior, mapping the expressions of the face, discovering how lies are betrayed in our demeanor, and proposing theories to explain both the nature of emotion and why and when people lie. This research has helped to reawaken scientific interest in both emotion and deception. I am the author or editor of fourteen books, five of them— Unmasking the Face, Face of Man, Telling Lies, Why Kids Lie, and Emotions Revealed—written for the general public, and over my career I have become an expert on Charles Darwin’s writings on emotional expression. My work has been of interest to a wide range of organizations, from animation studios to police departments, and I now run a business that designs interactive training tools for improving emotional understanding and evaluating truthfulness. I also advise several governments’ antiterrorism agencies. I am Jewish in background but not observant, and as skeptical about Buddhism as I am about any religion. I have spent my life as a behavioral scientist, developing and applying hard, objective methods to the investigation of what had been considered the soft phenomenon of emotion.

Despite our differences, we discovered important common ground in our perspectives. We share a commitment to reducing human suffering, intense inquisitiveness, and a conviction that we were likely to learn from each other. Our conversations reveal the unfolding of what developed into an intense friendship over the course of the nearly forty hours we spent exploring these issues. Our common concerns for personal and social welfare, borne from decades of thought and work in the most contrasting of conditions, united our efforts and brought forth new ideas, new ways to understand ourselves, practical steps for creating better worlds, in our closest and most distant relationships.

I first met the Dalai Lama in 2000, when I attended a small conference on destructive emotions organized by the Mind and Life Institute, in Boulder, Colorado.1 Since 1987, the institute has brought scientists to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, for conferences on diverse scientific topics. At the 2000 conference I was one of six scientist-participants who talked with the Dalai Lama over five days. My responsibility was to present the Darwinian view of emotion and to explain my scientific research on the universality of emotional expression and physiology. Whether through a shared sense of playful and probing curiosity, our commitment to reducing human suffering, or a conviction that we were likely to learn from each other, the Dalai Lama and I immediately found an unexpectedly strong rapport across the wide gulf of the intellectual heritages we each represent.

In the following few years, I participated as one of a group of scientists in three other conferences with the Dalai Lama. In addition, I was in the audience at a panel session, " Opening the Heart, " that was held in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2004, in which the Dalai Lama was one of a number of religious leaders in attendance. One by one, the spiritual leaders addressed the group: Bishop Desmond Tutu talked about how his religion had helped him open his heart; Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald, a Northwest American Indian, talked about how her religion had opened her heart; the Iranian justice Shirin Ebadi and then Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi each spoke about how their religions had opened their hearts. His Holiness was the last to speak.* He looked around at each of the individuals who had preceded him and, with a broad smile on his face, said something like, "But religions often divide the world. What unifies us are our emotions. We all want to have happiness and reduce suffering." I thought to myself, exactly right—but our emotions also divide us.

When I left the Vancouver meeting, my mind was filled with the issues about the nature of emotion that had been raised by the Dalai Lama’s remarks, issues that I thought merited exploration. He was right in saying emotions are what we had in common, but he had left out all the ways in which our emotions can separate us, and cause us to have conflicts with one another. I was concerned that perhaps I had oversimplified matters in my presentation about emotions four years earlier. I began a list of the unexplored questions, some of them focusing on how humanity might be able to reduce the divisions among us through the unifying nature of our emotions, others on how to decrease the destructive influence emotions can bring into our lives. My initial outline came to twenty pages.

Motivated by the sense that, coming from our distinct traditions of Western psychology and Buddhist philosophy, a back-and forth discussion could spark between us new ideas, I sought the opinions of two colleagues I had met at the Mind and Life Institute conference in 2000. One was Matthieu Ricard. Matthieu received his doctorate in biology in 1972 and then chose to leave the academic world, becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk and a renowned author and photographer.2 He has resided at the Shechen


* I was told the honorific "His Holiness" was adopted for addressing the Dalai Lama when he leaves the home of the government in exile in Dharamsala to represent the Tibetan cause around the world since the Tibetan term for addressing him is very long and cumbersome; "His Holiness" was adopted because it is how the pope, the head of another world religion, is addressed. I rarely used the honorific in our conversations as, being nonreligious myself, I view him as an extraordinary person but not a holy one.

Monastery in Nepal for more than thirty years and has served as a French translator for the Dalai Lama. Matthieu has been a guest in my home many times and agreed to be the subject of scientific study of his expressions and physiology in a series of experiments.3 I also sent the outline to B. Alan Wallace, who was ordained as a monk in 1973 and studied with the Dalai Lama before leaving the monastery to return to the United States, completing his education, and marrying. Alan is the author of many books on meditation and founded the nonprofit Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. He too has become a good friend and had in the past served as the meditation trainer for one of my research projects. Both Matthieu and Alan added ideas to the outline and then urged me to contact the Dalai Lama through his office.

Knowing that the Dalai Lama’s schedule was already overfilled, I was reluctant to request the ten to twelve hours I thought would be required for a conversation on these questions. But I sent it on to Thupten Jinpa, the renowned Tibetan scholar and former monk who serves as an English translator for the Dalai Lama when he travels outside of India. Jinpa is a sweet and gentle man with whom it was easy to establish a warm relationship. In my letter to him I asked if he thought the issues I had outlined were important enough to merit a private conference with the Dalai Lama. Jinpa’s response was enthusiastic. He suggested other issues that should be included and then advocated for three days of meetings. It took fourteen months for a time to open up in the Dalai Lama’s calendar.

As a result of Jinpa’s determination, during the weekend of April 22–23, 2006, the Dalai Lama and I sat down for eleven hours of intense discussion on my twenty-four pages of questions about emotion and compassion, as well as several other questions that came out of the natural flow and surprise of our conversation. It ended up being the first of three dialogues, a total of thirty-nine hours of intimate exchange that we shared over a period of fifteen months.

Our first meeting was held in Libertyville, Illinois, in the luxurious living room of a farm belonging to the Pritzker family, which heads the Hyatt Corporation. The walls were adorned with a portion o...

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