|Author explores Buddhisms insights
Rich Barlow, Boston Globe Staff
Best-selling author Daniel Goleman who wrote "Emotional Intelligence" attended a week-long conclave of Western scientists and Buddhist practitioners in March 2000. Golemans new book, "Destructive Emotions" (Bantam), recounts that meeting and the research it spawned.
It also highlights an intriguing side of the Dalai Lama, who participated. Besides being a spiritual leader, he is an avid student of science, eager to put Buddhist practice to the test.
The East and West must bridge some philosophical differences about emotion Westerners speak of showing "compassion" to others, for example, while in Buddhism, the word implies caring for oneself as well but they have much in common, said Goleman, who spoke this week at Harvard.
MIT will host the Dalai Lama and others in a symposium on the research in September.
Q: What can Western science learn from Buddhism?
A. The meeting revolved around the perennial question of how can we better manage emotions that are destructive. Buddhism, among other religions, has a range of methods for helping people do just that.
Q: There are limits to these techniques, right?
A: The Dalai Lamas quite practical. He says you cant make another person do it, but we can do it within ourselves. You can do it with kids. And you can do it to be more effective as you deal with people who may be destructive. For instance, 9/11 has created a vast epidemic of fearfulness. It doesnt help to be anxious. You dont necessarily make the best decisions. So even in dealing with people who might be destructive, managing your own turbulent emotions is a more effective means.
Q: What does Buddhism have to learn from Western science?
A: In this arena, we may have more to learn from a well-practiced tradition like Buddhism than it does from science, although I dont want to belittle the great advances that have been made in psychology. The scientists seemed to feel that Buddhism had lots to offer.
One of the researchers has discovered theres a set point in the brain that predicts our daily moods. It can be measured by looking at the activity on the right vs. the left areas just behind the forehead. The more to the right, the more disturbing emotions people experience; the more to the left, the better the mood. Most of us are in the middle. People far to the right might be clinically depressed. When he had a Tibetan lama come into the lab, he had the highest reading to the left that hed ever seen. (Another) researcher used a standard measure in emotions research, which is how much a person startles to a sound like a gunshot. The stronger and longer your startle response, the more strongly you experience distressing emotions. In the study, people are told, "Youre going to hear a gunshot, try not to startle," and nobody can do it. Then they brought a lama in, and for the first time in 40 years of research, the response was virtually eliminated.
Q: In what areas does meditation hold out the most potential benefit prisoners, medical patients, schoolchildren, employees in the workplace?
A: All of the above. There may be implications from this research beyond Buddhism. We ought to take a look at a wide range of spiritual practices, whether it be prayer or yoga, because of the new understanding of whats called neuroplasticity, which means that the brain continues to change itself as the result of experience. If we are doing things daily as part of spiritual practice that have benefit, it may show up at the level of the brain.
Q: Your meeting discussed a curriculum in schools teaching values, like compassion. Dont schools already do that?
A: Its been a nascent movement for about a decade. Schools that actually do this
are, unfortunately, a minority. If you know a kid who goes to public school in Boston, ask
him if anybody ever talked about compassion.
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