The Mind and Life VIII conference: Destructive emotions

Attended by H.H. the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India

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Beginning in the mid-1980s, the Mind and Life Institute has brought together scientists from various fields of expertise with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a series of conferences. A theme is picked for each, and five to seven scientists in that field are selected to make presentations to His Holiness. These presentations are given in the morning session each day, and lively discussions among these key participants, who are seated in a circle, occupy the afternoon session. In addition to the scientists, two Tibetan-English translators are present. A group of observers—20 to 40 in number—sit around the periphery. The atmosphere is informal and intimate. The topics of previous conferences have ranged from physics and astronomy to sleeping and dreaming to the relationship between the mind and the brain.

The eighth Mind and Life Conference, held in Dharamsala March 20-24, 2000, explored the topic of destructive emotions. While it is impossible to summarize the complex proceedings in a way pleasing to all, I will mention a few highlights as well as discuss some of the points I found most interesting.

Moral inclination

Dr. Owen Flanagan, Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, spoke about the role of emotion and virtue in making a good life. The West has several approaches to this. Religious moral philosophy speaks of the destructive nature of some emotions and the improvement of human qualities through religious practice, while secular moral philosophy discusses the topic in terms of democracy and reason. Science sees emotions as having a physiological basis, and this raises further questions as to human nature and the possibility of pacifying destructive emotions. In the West, emotions are important for determining what is moral, and morality is essential for the functioning of society. Thus working with emotions is seen as important for social interaction, not for having a good soul or being a good person. This leads the West to focus on self-esteem and self-accomplishment as positive emotions, not on having a harmonious inner emotional life.

Many emotional words - depressed, sorrow, hurting, upset, hurting, miserable, grieving, affliction etc. in black background.

Destructive emotions, are based on misconceptions and therefore cannot be cultivated limitlessly. (Photo by GollyGforce)

We find three main answers in response to the question, “What are we really like deep down inside?” The rational egoists say that we look out for our own good, and know that only by being nice to others will we get what we want. The second is that we first are selfish and take care of ourselves and then are compassionate sharing any extra resources with others. The third is that we are basically compassionate, but if there’s scarcity in resources we become selfish. His Holiness believes human beings are by nature gentle and compassionate, and due to self-centeredness and ignorance, we feel and act in the opposite way. Still, we cannot say that ordinary human nature is one of cherishing others.

Western culture considers love and compassion to be other-oriented. His Holiness clarified that in Buddhism, they are felt towards oneself as well. Wanting ourselves to be happy and free of suffering is not necessarily selfish. Having those feelings in healthy ways is essential to practice the path, and they are included in the love and compassion we develop on the path.

Mental states

Ven. Mattieu Ricard, a scientist and a Buddhist monk, gave an excellent summary of the Buddhist approach to the mind, speaking about the pure luminous nature of mind, the distortions of the destructive emotions, and the potential to eliminate them.

His Holiness mentioned two types of emotions. The first, impulsive, destructive emotions, are based on misconceptions and therefore cannot be cultivated limitlessly. The second, realistic ones, such as compassion and disillusionment with samsara, can be enhanced limitlessly. The first are based on illogical reasons that can be disproved, whereas the second are grounded in valid observation and reasoning. We must use valid reasoning to develop mental states opposed to the destructive emotions. For example, love, as an antidote to anger, must be cultivated through reasoning. It will not arise simply by praying to the Buddha. He also suggested that scientists perform neurological studies to determine if these two types of emotions are linked with specific brain activities.

Conceptual consciousness

Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor of Psychology at UCSF Medical School, spoke about the evolution of human emotion. Previously it was thought that emotions, like language and values, differed from one culture to another. However, Darwin saw them as common to all people and existing in animals as well. Ekman’s research showed that across cultures, people all identified certain facial expressions as indicating the same emotions. Also, the same physiological changes occurred in people from all cultures when they feel specific emotions. For example, when fearful or angry, everyone’s heart rate increases. Emotions occur quickly. We feel that emotions happen to us, not that we choose them. We aren’t witness to the process leading to them and often become aware of them only after they are strong. Here His Holiness gave the example of identifying laxity and excitement in meditation. Initially, we are unable to identify them quickly but with the development of alertness, we can detect them even before they arise.

Ekman differentiated between thoughts, which are private, and emotions, which are not. For example, if someone is fearful when arrested, we know his emotion, but we don’t know the thought provoking it, i.e. is he afraid because he got caught or because he is innocent? Thoughts and emotions are different. His Holiness responded that in Buddhism the word “namtog” (preconception or superstition) encompasses both. Also, both are conceptual consciousnesses, and both must be transformed on the path.

Moods and manifestations

Whereas emotions arise and cease comparatively quickly, moods last longer. We can usually identify a specific event which caused an emotion, but often cannot for a mood. Moods bias how we think and make us vulnerable in ways we usually are not. When we are in a bad mood, for example, we look for a chance to be angry. There is no Tibetan word for “mood,” but His Holiness said that perhaps the mental unhappiness that Shantideva says is the fuel for anger could be an example of it.

In addition to emotions and moods, there are traits and pathological manifestations of emotions. For example, fear is an emotion, apprehension is a mood, shyness is a personal trait, and a phobia is a pathological manifestation.

After a destructive emotion arises, there is a refractory period during which new information cannot enter our mind and we think only of things that reinforce the emotion. Only after this time are we able to look at the situation more reasonably and calm down. For example, if a friend is late, we think he is deliberately insulting us and see everything he does thereafter as hostile. Therapy aims to shorten this refractory period and to help the person control his behavior during the refractory period.

Affective neuroscience

Dr. Richard Davidson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, spoke on the physiology of destructive emotions, also called affective neuroscience. Bringing out a bright pink plastic brain, he showed His Holiness the various areas activated during particular perceptions and emotions. Certain activities, such as playing tennis or having emotions, are complex and many areas of the brain are involved in them. However, certain patterns can be seen. For example, a person with damage to the lower frontal lobe has more unregulated emotions, while the left frontal lobe is more active when we have positive emotions. In both depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the hippocampus shrinks. The amygdala is the center for negative emotions, especially fear, and the amygdala shrinks in a person with uncontrolled aggression. Both the amygdala and the hippocampus change in response to our experiences and are affected by the emotional environment in which we were raised.

All forms of craving—drug addiction, pathological gambling, etc.—involve abnormalities in the dopamine levels in the brain. Molecular changes of dopamine that come during craving alter the dopamine system, so that an object which was previously neutral becomes important. In addition, different brain circuitry is involved in wanting and liking. When we crave something, the wanting circuitry becomes strong and the liking circuitry is weakened. The person feels continually dissatisfied and needs more and better. Richardson proposed several antidotes to destructive negative emotions: change the brain activity, change the refractory period, do cognitive restructuring by learning to think differently about events, and cultivate positive emotions.

Culture and emotions

Dr. Jeanne Tsai, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, spoke on culture and emotions. Cultures differ in their view of the self, and that influences people’s emotions. Thus, therapies that work on Euro-Americans often do not work for Asian-Americans. In general, Westerners feel their self to be independent and separate from others. When asked to describe themselves, Americans speak of their internal attributes, saying, “I am outgoing, smart, attractive, etc.” Asians, on the other hand, experience their self as connected with others and defined in terms of social relationships. They describe themselves in terms of their social roles—”I am a daughter, worker at this place, etc.” People with an independent self seek to distinguish themselves from others. They emphasize self-enhancement, express their beliefs and emotions, and tell others about their own good qualities. They value being different from others and appreciate conflict because it provides an opportunity to express their feelings and opinions. They focus on themselves during an interaction with another, and value emotions such as self-esteem and self-worth. People with an interdependent self seeks to maintain relationships. Thus they minimize their own importance, are modest, and control how they express their beliefs and emotions to maintain harmony with others. Their emotions arise more slowly and they return to baseline quicker than Westerners. During interactions, they focus more on others and value emotions such as humility and willingness to cooperate.

As someone who has taught Buddhism in a variety of cultures, I found this interesting. It made me wonder: Do different aspects of the Dharma need to be emphasized according to the sense of self found in a culture? In addition, Buddhism has been expressed for generations in cultures with an interdependent sense of self. What, then, will change and what should we be careful does not change as Buddhism spreads into cultures where an independent self is valued?

Emotional education

Dr. Mark Greenberg, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University spoke on emotional education. Having studied the development of emotions, he developed a program teaching young children how to manage their destructive emotions, especially anger. This helps children to calm down (i.e. decrease refractory period), be aware of emotional states in themselves and others, discuss their feelings as a method to solve problems, plan ahead to avoid difficulties, and be aware of the effects their behavior has on others. They teach others that emotions are important signals about their own and others’ needs, that feelings are normal but the behavior may or may not be appropriate, that they can’t think clearly until they’re calm, and to treat others the way they want to be treated. The program contains lessons on various emotions and their opposites. The children also have a set of cards with different facial expressions of emotions that they can show so others know how they’re feeling.

His Holiness was pleased with this and added that in addition to managing destructive emotions, children (and adults too) need to cultivate positive ones as well. Although these positive emotions may not be usable in the heat of the moment, they affect our temperament and set a good foundation, like bolstering our emotional “immune system.” Davidson said that when we practice something often, our brain also changes.

Neuroplasticity

Dr. Francisco Varela, Professor of Cognitive Science and Epistemology at Ecole Polytechnique, spoke about neuroplasticity. He explained new, more refined techniques for measuring minute or brief changes in the brain, and showed computer diagrams of synchronicity or the lack of it among different areas of the brain during the process of seeing and knowing an object. His Holiness said there may be a connection between that and the process of our visual consciousness and then our mental consciousness cognizing an object. He suggested teaching lorig (mind and its functions) in conjunction with neuroscience to make the topic more relevant.

Whereas His Holiness was fascinated by discussion of brain activity, others had different reactions. Science teaches that genetic makeup, environment, and external experiences influence the brain, which in turn creates emotions and leads to thoughts. From the Buddhist view, thoughts influence emotions, which in turn affect behavior and brain functions. Some found the scientific view disempowering because by emphasizing external factors, there seemed little the individual could do to influence his emotions and thoughts. They found the Buddhist view more empowering because it seemed that we could do something to help ourselves.

Defining emotion

Having summarized the main events, I would like to discuss some of the points that I found particularly interesting. First, no word for “emotion” exists in the Tibetan language. Klesa (often translated as delusions, afflictions, or disturbing attitudes and negative emotions) include attitudes as well as emotions. When the scientists were presented with the list of the six root and twenty secondary klesa from the lorig text and told that the Buddhist delineation of destructive emotions, they did not understand why ignorance, for example, was called an emotion. Nor was it clear to them why attitudes such as incorrect views of ethical disciplines, and emotions such as jealousy, were together in one list. Later they learned that these are included in one list because they all cause cyclic existence and impede liberation.

Second, the meaning of emotion according to science and Buddhism differs. From a scientific viewpoint, an emotion has three aspects: physiological, feeling, and behavioral. Brain activity and hormonal changes are physiological, and aggressive or passive actions are behavioral. In Buddhism, emotions refer to the mental state. Little is said of the physiological changes, probably because the scientific instruments for measuring them weren’t available in ancient India or Tibet. Buddhism also distinguishes between the emotion of anger and the physical or verbal action of being assertive, which may or may not be motivated by anger. Similarly, someone may be patient inside, but have either assertive or passive behavior, depending on the situation.

Third, Buddhists and scientists differ on what is considered a destructive emotion. For example, scientists say that sadness, disgust, and fear are negative emotions in the sense that they are unpleasant to experience. However, from a Buddhism viewpoint, two types of sadness, disgust, and fear are discussed. One is based on distortion, interferes with liberation, and is to be abandoned, for example, sadness at the breakup of a romantic relationship and fear of losing our job. Another type of sadness helps us on the path. For example, when the prospect of having one rebirth after another in samsara makes us sad and even fills us with disgust and fear, they are positive because they prompt us to generate the determination to be free from cyclic existence and attain liberation. Such sadness, disgust, and fear are positive because they are based on wisdom and stimulate us to practice and gain realizations of the path.

Experiencing emotion

Science says all emotions are natural and okay, and that emotions become destructive only when they are expressed in an inappropriate way or time or to an inappropriate person or degree. For example, it is normal to experience sadness when someone dies, but a depressed person is sad in an inappropriate situation or to an inappropriate degree. Inappropriate physical and verbal displays of emotions need to be changed, but emotional reactions, such as anger, are not bad in themselves. Therapy is aimed more at changing the external expression of the emotions than the internal experience of them. Buddhism, on the other hand, believes that destructive emotions themselves are obstacles and need to be eliminated to have happiness.

The question “Is there a positive form of anger?” came up several times. Some of the scientists believe that from the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, anger enables human beings to destroy their foes, and thus stay alive and reproduce. Another type is associated with a constructive impulse to remove an obstacle. For example, if a child can’t reach her toy, her anger makes her think how to get it. His Holiness commented that this anger may be conjoined with solving problems, but does not necessarily help to solve the problem. It is being called “positive” on basis of its effect—the person getting what she wants—not its being virtuous. In addition, such anger does not always lead to a solution of the problem. For example, frustration and anger due to our inability to concentrate when meditating, rather than help us attain calm abiding, block our practice. His Holiness did not agree that there is a positive form of anger. Although in a secular way, anger at someone who is harming himself or others could be called “positive,” arhats are free of this. Thus, righteous anger is a defilement to be eliminated to attain nirvana. We can have compassion for the person and still try to stop his harmful behavior. Thus, while the West values moral outrage as an emotion, from a Buddhist viewpoint, it is skillful means, a behavior motivated by compassion.

Buddhas feel emotion

In a previous Mind/Life Conference, the question was raised: Does a buddha have emotions? After much discussion, it was decided that buddhas do have emotions, for example, impartial love and compassion for all beings. They feel generous and patient. They care about others and feel sad when they see others suffering. However, a buddha’s sadness at seeing suffering differs from the feeling most people have. Our sadness is a form of personal distress; we feel despair or depression. Buddhas, on the other hand, are sad that others do not observe karma and its effects and thus create the cause for their own suffering. Buddhas feel hope and optimism for the future for they know that such suffering can cease because its causes—disturbing attitudes, negative emotions, and karma—can be eliminated. Buddhas are also much more patient than we are. Knowing that stopping suffering is not a quick fix, they are happy to work for a long time to overcome it.

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