How to Cure 'Destructive Emotions'

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman finds in Buddhism a possible cure-all for anger, depression, and more.

Interview by Rebecca Phillips

Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling "Emotional Intelligence," attended a meeting of the Mind and Life Institute, a gathering of scientists and Buddhist thinkers, in Dharamsala, India in March 2000. His latest book, "Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?" narrates the discussions that took place there between the Dalai Lama, other Buddhist scholars, and western psychologists and neuroscientists. The Buddhists and scientists worked together to review research and determine methods to conquer what they have termed "destructive emotions"--feelings like anger, depression, and fear. In an interview, Goleman explained the institute's findings, especially the effect of meditation on emotional health.

What exactly do you mean by 'destructive emotions'?

Destructive emotions refer to an emotion that leads us to do something that harms ourselves or someone else. The premise [of the meeting] was that there are helpful insights from both the deep spiritual wisdom of Buddhism and from modern findings in science, and that each might inform the other.

What emotions are included?

Almost any emotion can become destructive. Even too much happiness, if it's manic excitement, can lead us to do destructive things. But we're mainly talking about anger, paralyzing fear, and depression. Most of the discussions focused on anger, but we also had presentations on, for example, craving and addiction.

Are there times when some of those emotions can be positive?

Anger, from an evolutionary point of view, serves a purpose. It's helped us survive. Anger is quite appropriate in response to an injustice or a wrong that needs to be righted. But, as the Dalai Lama pointed out, if you're going to be effective in responding to what makes you angry, you need to keep the focus and energy of the anger, but drop the anger itself in order to act more skillfully.

So the point of this research is not necessarily that people won't experience these emotions, but that we'll be able to deal with them better?
Yes. The point is to find ways to help people--and not just Buddhists, but anybody--handle their destructive emotions more effectively.

The first chapter explains that researchers found, through studying a Buddhist monk, Öser, that meditation was a way to control these emotions. But Öser is someone who meditates all the time. How can a lay person benefit from meditation?

The research in the first chapter showed some extraordinary effects from long-term meditation. He is completely unresponsive, for example, when he hears a gun, or a sound like a gunshot. Everybody else startles. But Öser had amazing mastery over his emotional reactivity, and he can generate positive emotion. In fact, his baseline for emotion--his everyday baseline--is in the positive range.

But that doesn't mean this is only for people with time for huge, intensive practice. The other research underway now is looking at beginners. And now that we know what to look for, we're starting to see similar shifts in people who are just in the first two months of meditating. In another study of meditation, they taught it to highly stressed workers at a tech firm. The researchers found that they shifted the brain set-point for emotions from the "distressed zone" to the "good zone." That was after two months of an hour [of meditation] a day.

It has to be daily meditation?

Yes, daily meditation. Daily practice is key.

Other than meditation, are you aware of any other spiritual practices that might help achieve this shift in the brain?

The only one we know so far is mindfulness meditation. That's the only one that's been tested. We don't know what else of the many practices these lamas have done or have studied over the years might account for any of the specific effects we're seeing.

Did you discuss what effect Buddhist practice can have on constructive emotions?

Many of the practices are about generating positive emotions like compassion, lovingkindness, a sense of joy in other people's happiness. One of the points that was made was that American psychology should focus more on positive emotions and helping people learn how to reduce their quantity of negative, destructive emotions and experience more positive emotions day-to-day.

That seems to be happening with the positive psychology movement.
Of course, within the last few years we've had that whole movement toward positive psychology. But it turns out there's a very useful set of methods in Buddhism and other spiritual traditions for doing this that have been around for centuries. The Dalai Lama said, 'Look, study our methods and if you find anything that is of use to people, that will alleviate their suffering or make them happier, take it out of the Buddhist context and share it widely.

How can you reach out to psychiatrists and psychologists about this?

The way to do that is through sound research and publishing in a psychiatry journal.

So you will keep it in the scientific realm. Are the participants in the 2000 meeting continuing this research?

Most of the scientists in the meeting have been inspired to go on and bring this back into their own work. Richard Davidson, for example, at the University of Wisconsin, is regularly bringing advanced practitioners into his lab to study their brains using state-of-the-art brain-imaging methods. Several of the other researchers are doing programs. Paul Ekman at the University of California, San Francisco, is now piloting a program with teachers and nurses to teach them 'mindfulness' as a way of helping them to manage their lives and work better and to have more positive emotions.

Will people be more skeptical about this method than they would about trying medication?

I think people are open to it. The Dalai Lama is quite smart in saying, 'Look at all this through a scientific lens, and if science validates the method then publish it and share that.

In a recent book, "Why God Won't Go Away," Andrew Newberg, at the University of Pennsylvania, seemed to imply that his research on meditation proved that people have an impulse to believe in the divine. Did anything about the divine or transcendent come up in your discussion?

The Dalai Lama is immensely practical in his interests. And he really wants to see what there might be that would be of actual use to people to help them suffer less and be more happy.So it wasn't a theological discussion. It was, however, in some places, theoretical because there is both a Buddhist psychology and a Western psychology. So there were very interesting presentations on the Buddhist version of the mind and how to work with it.

Were there some cases where Buddhism and science couldn't be reconciled?

We had friendly disagreements because the paradigms can be so different. For example, it turned out that in Buddhism there's an emotional state called sukha, which is an ongoing, imperturbable sense of joy that you feel regardless of what happens to you in life. What was remarkable in this dialogue is that there's no parallel in Western psychology and it made us wonder, 'What are we missing? What else are we missing?' He [the Dalai Lama] made another point which was that in Tibetan, and actually in all Asian Buddhist countries, the word for "compassion" means both compassion for yourself as well as other people. Whereas in English it only means for other people, not for yourself. He said, "You're missing a very important word." I thought that was a good insight.

What does this book about emotions have to do with your previous books about emotional intelligence?

It's not directly connected, but the themes of how we can be more aware of our emotion and what we can do that will help us manage our emotions better were touched on deeply in both books.

Have there been important findings about this since the book was finished?

Recently, at Columbia University, Richard Davidson reported new data with another lama, where he found that when he asked him to meditate on compassion, the activity in the part of the brain which is active during happiness--the left pre-frontal cortex, just behind the forehead--increased 800%. He said with an ordinary person, if you asked them to do something like that, the magnitude of change would be only 10-15%. So this is 80 times greater. That's remarkable.

You've been studying meditation since early on in your career. Has the way the world, or how Westerners at least, views meditation changed since when you started? Is there a greater interest among scientists in meditation now?

Absolutely. When I first did research on meditation it was at Harvard in the early 70's, and my professor thought I had gone crazy to be interested in such a thing. It was very fringe. But now it's part of the mainstream. People don't really blink much when you study meditation because it's understood that it's a valid set of methods and that it's a form of mind-training. Now we're interested in how far you can train the mind--what is the upside of human potential?That's why the studies with the lamas are so fascinating and interesting. We're finding that, for example, on the ability to read other people's emotions from subtle, very quick facial changes, these lamas were getting perfect scores where most people do terribly on it. And it suggests that there's something in their training that enhances empathy and sharpens perception.Or the fact that we're seeing the highest readings in the positive direction on the brain set-point for emotion as a result of spiritual practice. These are very important findings not just for scientists but for all of us--these methods can be of great benefit for any of us.