Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion / The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman -- NY: Times Books, 2008.

Emotional Awareness is a transcript of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, an experimental psychologist studying emotion. Ekman met the Dalai Lama in 2000 without any affinity for Buddhism. What he discovered was that much of the conclusions of his research fit well with the Dalai Lama's approach to emotions and the cultivation of compassion.

Ekman's views on emotion make up the majority of the book, since his conversations with the Dalai Lama were predicated on questions and topics that Ekman had prepared. In presenting his questions, Ekman expounds his views as a kind of starting point. It is only toward the end of the conversation that the Dalai Lama contributes much more than clarifying questions, points of agreement, and brief statements about Buddhist psychology. However, Ekman's work on emotions is engaging and its fit with Buddhism is intriguing. It provides a well-developed, analytic substructure for understanding emotion.

The main topic of the book -- the awareness of emotion -- turns out to be another way of referring to "mindfulness," and so the conversation can be understood as an exploration of right mindfulness, particularly regarding emotions.

By the end of the book, I came to recognize that the Buddhist view of emotions differs importantly from what I understand as the Freudian view or what has become established as the common sense view of emotions in the West. This view holds that if we do not act on emotions like anger, frustration, annoyance, etc., they become suppressed (or repressed) and manifest themselves elsewhere in destructive ways. They become the basis for neurosis.

In contrast to this, the Buddhist view of these "afflictive" emotions is that they are passing mental disturbances, and that acting on them usually results in harming others and perpetuating bad karma. Instead, the healthy approach to such emotions is to observe them, recognize their source, and in so doing, one can recognize that the source is not the actor, but is instead the broader conditions of the action. By understanding this, one can response to the anger in a way that is not directed at others and does not perpetuate bad karma. The result is that one's anger harmlessly passes away, and one is free to respond constructively to the conditions that produced the emotion. By pausing to recognize the true source of the emotion, that is by being mindful of one's emotions, one creates time to choose how to act on the emotion instead of acting in the grip of the emotion.

Until reading Emotional Awareness I had no other framework for understanding emotions but the Freudian framework, though that model never really reflected my own experience with emotions. Emotional Awareness has given me grounds to question this model and has made clear to me the Buddhist psychology that I have always tried to act on.

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