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Daniel Goleman is a former science journalist for the New York Times and co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning at the Yale University Child Studies Center (now[…]

As Obama comes off his meeting with the Dalai Lama, a psychologist describes a past meeting that the exiled monk had with a group of neuroscientists where he wound up in a 5 day debate over the nature of destructive emotions.

Question: Describe the work of the Dalai Lama

Daniel Goleman: Well, the book I wrote, “Destructive Emotions”, was about a 5-day meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of neuroscientists. He wanted to know what do science understand about destructive emotions. He’s quite concerned about that because he sees how destructive emotions drive much of the human suffering on the planet right now. So we had kind of compassionate motivation to understand. And it’s very interesting because from the point of view of Western science, what makes an emotion destructive is not that any emotion is intrinsically destructive, every emotion has an evolutionary function, anger, anxiety, fear, joy, they all make us do things that can be highly functional and have great survival value. But when distressing emotions are pushed to the point where we do harm to ourselves, and the other people, they become destructive. The Dalai Lama said, “That’s interesting but I look at it in a different way.” He said, “I think of a destructive emotion as any emotional state that destroys your inner balance, that upsets your equilibrium, and skews your perception of reality.” It was a much more subtle standard. And that created a very interesting discussion over 5 days.

Question: What does meditation do for the brain?

Daniel Goleman: Well, the Mind & Life Institute catalyze these experiments where high, you have to say, Olympic level meditators came to brain imaging labs in the West and have their brains studied while they did different meditation practices. And what they’re finding is brain configurations that they’ve never seen before. These are different brains. For example, the left prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, is the center of positive emotions or part of the key… key part of the circuitry for that. And when these monks meditate on compassion, it lights up, it activates to a level that just never seen in ordinary life. And they’re finding, you know, a range of specific… state specific effects like this.

Question: Is meditation the absence of thought?

Daniel Goleman: No. Meditation is not absence of thought. Meditation is the sustained effort to focus your attention in a certain way. Thoughts will come, distract you. What you do is return your mind to the point of focus. And what that does is very similar to, like, working out on a natalist. When you… Every time you return your mind, it’s like another rep on the natalist machine. You’re strengthening your ability to attend to one thing and not be distracted by others. So it’s mental training, basically. It’s a mental gym.

Question: What can eastern thought teach the west?

Daniel Goleman: There’s a village in the Himalayas in Tibet that has had about the same population in the same place under dire climatic conditions. It’s very high and really cold much the time. There’s no electricity, no heating. People have lived there successfully for a thousand years. How? They’re very finely attuned to their environment. Inuits, you know, in the Arctic circle, have lived for thousands of years very successfully. Bushman live well in the desert very successfully. All of these groups have high ecological intelligence. They are highly sensitive to their own environment and they have learned how to adapt to it without destroying the environment so it persists over centuries. And so, they can thrive. That’s what we need to learn. We have been modern people, have become deskilled in this. We’re so out of touch with our environment. We depend on artificial means, on heating, on cooling, on this, on that in order to survive. If we were put in the Arctic, you know, in the outback in Africa or in a little village in Tibet and had to survive on our own resource, we probably die in a day or two. So what we need to do is learn how to find equilibrium with our own ecosystem, which is a global one now and which we seem to be bent on destroying at present.