Increasing use of Buddhist Practices in Psychotherapy
American Scientist Volume 92, Number 1 January-February 2004
Goleman, author of Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the
Dalai Lama (Bantam Books, 2003), talks with senior editor Michael Szpir
of the American Scientist Magazine (Online) about the increasing use of
Buddhist practices in psychotherapy and the benefits of teaching "emotional
intelligence" to children in school and adults in organizations.
Psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman achieved widespread recognition in 1995 with the publication of his book Emotional Intelligence, which popularized research by psychologists showing that success in life and work is based on much more than IQ. In his latest book, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (Bantam Books, $26.95), Goleman chronicles a five-day meeting of the minds among Buddhist scholars, cognitive scientists and the Dalai Lama that took place in March 2000 in Dharamsala, India.
Perhaps no other religion or spiritual practice has explored the structure of the mind so carefully as Buddhism. With a precision that approaches the rigor of the best scientific taxonomies, Buddhists have dissected and redissected the mind, generating a catalogue of "mental afflictions" (figuratively citing as many as 84,000) that lead to inner transformation as afflictions are overcome. The top fivehatred, desire, confusion, pride and jealousyare comparable, though certainly not identical, to the destructive mental states identified in the West. The thoroughness of the Buddhist approach to understanding the mind, and the apparent peace of mind enjoyed by Buddhist monks, has attracted Western scientists hoping to shed further light on the neurobiology of emotions and new pathways to mental health. This union has been manifested most successfully in a series of "Mind and Life" conferences between scientists and the Dalai Lama that date back to 1987. Goleman's recent book is a day-by-day narrated transcription of this conference.
Senior editor Michael Szpir interviewed Goleman late last year to hear his thoughts about the recent convergence of the brain sciences and Eastern spirituality.
How did you become interested in the relation between Buddhist and Western approaches to understanding the mind? Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?
Back in the early 1970s, when I was completing my doctorate in psychology at Harvard, I had a predoctoral traveling fellowship (from the Ford Foundation) and then a postdoc (from the Social Science Research Council), which gave me the opportunity to spend a total of two years in Asia, particularly India, Sri Lanka and Dharamsala (a "little Tibet" in the Himalayan foothills). While there I began to study the Asian religions as theories of mind. I was surprised to find fully articulated systems of psychologygenerally little knownat the heart of these religions; the most fully articulated was "Abhidharma," a Buddhist system of thought. This system describes how the mind works, and how that process gives rise to ordinary states of suffering, and remediesespecially meditation. I, of course, had never heard of this psychology in my study of psychology in the West, even though it has been in full and continuous operation for more than 1,500 years. (The hubris of Western psychology holds that the discipline began in Europe and America in the early part of the 20th century.)
On my return to the United States I began to write about this systemin my first book, The Meditative Mind, in a textbook on theories of personality, and in some obscure journalsand to do research on meditation as an antidote to stress reactivity (for my dissertation). At the time, as I recall, there was little interest among my professional colleagues. However, I began meditating at about that time and have continued on and off over the years. I experimented with many different varieties of meditation (that was the main topic of my book) and over the years settled into a Buddhist method called mindfulness, and most recently I have been working with Tibetan teachers. Given the recent findings (summarized in Destructive Emotions) that seem to indicate a positive neuroplasticityfor example, shifts to a more positive daily mood rangeI've tried to make more time for it.
It seems that one
of the biggest gaps that must be crossed between the Eastern and Western
approaches to the mind is that the scientific method requires an objective
third-person approach, whereas Buddhist practice is clearly a subjective
first-person phenomenon. How can these differences be resolved? Do you
think that the answer lies in the creation of a new approach, a scientific
What do you think
is behind the recent popularity of Buddhist meditation techniques in psychotherapy?
I'm guessing you think that this is more than just a passing fad.
Buddhism has the notion
of "mental afflictions," which are states of mind that, as I
understand it, prevent us from perceiving reality. In your book you talk
about the subtle relation between these mental afflictions and the Western
notion of destructive emotions. I wonder if these Buddhist ideas have
caused any Western scientists to rethink their views about emotions or
other states of mind.
On the other hand, the Western consensual definition of what makes an emotion "destructive" is that (no matter the emotion) it leads us to do something that harms ourselves or others. The Buddhist view can be seen as dealing with more subtle levels of destructiveness. Whether this more subtle definition will work its way into a Western scientific framework remains to be seen.
In Destructive Emotions,
you discuss how the Buddhist notion of an "empty self" can inform
science-based views of the mind. I wonder if you could elaborate on these
ideas a little.
I was struck by a
comment in your book on how Western science tends to take a negative view
of human naturefor example, by explaining altruism as an evolutionary
strategy to improve one's own genetic fitness (and thus a selfish act)whereas
Buddhism emphasizes the importance of compassion in human motivations.
What are your thoughts on how (or whether) science might incorporate a
more positive/Buddhist view of human nature?
It seems that the
idea of emotional intelligence was quickly accepted by the business community,
but I have the impression that their motivations were to increase the
bottom line or to improve their corporate-ladder-climbing skills. Doesn't
this seem a little ironic?
When I went on to write my next book, Working With Emotional Intelligence, I wanted to make a business case that the best performers were those people strong in these skills. My hope was that organizations would start including this range of skills in their training programsin other words, offer an adult education in social and emotional intelligence. That succeeded beyond my wildest dreamsthere's now a mini-industry in the business world that does just that. There may be some irony in thatbut this was also my strategic goal. Motivation aside, if people get better at these life skills, everyone benefits: The brain doesn't distinguish between being a more empathic manager and a more empathic father.
There was another
conference of cognitive scientists, Buddhist scholars and the Dalai Lama
this past September at MIT. What do you think was the most productive
thing that came out of it?
Can you say a little
bit about your next project? What are you working on now?
Finally, I wonder
what's it like to hang out with the Dalai Lama? Is it even possible to
"hang out" with the Dalai Lama, or is he more formal than that?