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Series: Destructive Emotions I

27.08.2010

These wise people, meditative, persevering, always possessed of strong powers, attain to Nirvana, the highest happiness.1

As an inaugural post, I’ll begin a series on the book Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? narrated by Daniel Goleman.  This book is a transcription of the events from the 9th Mind and Life Conference (this year saw the 20th meeting), whose goal it was to determine the extent to which the brain and mind can be trained to bring an end to or transform destructive emotions.  I won’t bore you with a detailed play-by-play, but I’ll try to touch on the major themes brought up in this dialogue between Western psychological thought and Eastern, specifically Buddhist, psychological theory.

Now, this is not a new book, so I’m not claiming to be touching on any new ground here, but it is new for me, and is something I want to add to that squishy library called my “brain.”  I’m writing here to solidify my understanding of what I’ve learned and to keep track of it for my metaphorical book depository… and perhaps a graduate school admissions board?  We’ll see.

Next time I’ll be talking about some basic Buddhist doctrine and the nature of mind, but for now let’s begin with the first chapter.  It is pretty detail oriented, so the descriptions might be tedious.  But it’s good stuff, so stick with it.

Goleman begins Destructive Emotions with a section he calls The Lama in the Lab.  Here they subject Lama Oser to various tests using established research methods.  I find this particular section of much interest because it chronicles the physical effects in the brain and in the body of prolonged meditative experience.  If you’re anything like me, then you’ll appreciate the quantifiable evidence that Goleman gives us in regards to the efficacy of meditation in its ability to shape brain activity.

Lama Oser first undergoes examination, the team wants to know whether or not meditation is a practical and effective way for controlling destructive emotions.  They do so by monitoring brain activity between rested and meditative states, his reaction to shocking stimuli, images with heightened emotional content, and so forth.  What the team found was that Oser was able to control his brain activity using the mental processes he honed during decades of training.  In each of the six meditations Oser performed, he produced distinct shifts in brain activity.  The clarity of changes they saw are normally observed only in gross changes of consciousness, as in the shift from sleeping to waking, and allowed the researchers to easily view his brain in the moments before perception.2

When Oser performed his meditation on compassion, the activity in his left middle frontal gyrus became significantly pronounced.  According to researcher Richard Davidson’s findings, this area is the center for positive emotions, and activity here corresponds to a persons overall state of mental wellbeing.  For instance, a person with low activity in the left gyrus and higher activity in the right prefrontal area (its opposite) are more likely to develop anxiety disorders or depression.3

Information like this can be transformational in someone’s quest for a moral life.  There are many theories about how we come to have morality, and how we ought to define it.  According to Davidson and Goleman, we have here a compelling connection between the mentality of compassion and the generation of positive emotion.  So if you want to be happy, be compassionate.  That’s good news for those of us who feel intuitively that compassion is a virtue.  Believe me, there are people who challenge this, and besides that, I think it’s important to gather information in order to have a more substantially justified world-view.  Back to the book.

Goleman goes on to discuss a few more examples of Oser’s exceptional control over his mind, one of which was the lama’s ability to remain composed during heated debate.  Oser had a conversation with a gentle professor and a highly argumentative one regarding very personal subjects, and Paul Ekman, one of the researchers, noted that the lama’s physiology was essentially the same regardless of his conversation partner.  Not only that, but the argumentative man’s physiology went from a highly agitated state to a relaxed state throughout his fifteen minute conversation with Oser.  He said he just couldn’t be agitated anymore.4

While this is only anecdotal, it is another story to add to a long list of instances where compassion and calm has defused tense situations. I’ve noticed as well that in conversation, emotions tend to skew reasoned responses and lead to a lower quality of discussion. If anyone can lend some citations to research on the relationship between emotions and one’s ability to reason, I’d appreciate it.

If you remember, the goal of this chapter was to determine if there is some kind of training that will enable the mind to overcome destructive emotions.  Goleman and his cohorts conclude that mental training is like building muscles, because according to Davidson, the brain itself will be modified by the training you give it.  Lama Oser speculates, “Such results of training point to the possibility that one could…eventually free one’s mind from afflictive emotions.  The very notion of enlightenment then begins to make sense.”5 Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, says, “Through training the mind people can become more calm- especially those who suffer from too many ups and downs.  That’s the conclusion from these studies of Buddhist mind training.  And that’s my main end: I’m not thinking how to further Buddhism, but how the Buddhist tradition can make some contribution to the benefit of society….  But we’re only human beings; the main thing you can do is train your own mind.”6

1The Dhammapada verse 23, trans. Irving Babbit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 6
2Goleman, Daniel. Destructive Emotions (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003), 11,24.
3Goleman, 12.
4Goleman, 18.
5Goleman, 25-26.
6Goleman, 27.
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