The Best and Worst of Us

Tricycle speaks with psychologist Paul Ekman about his work with the Dalai Lama on destructive and constructive emotions.

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Psychologist Paul Ekman admits he had little interest in Buddhism when he was invited to Dharamsala, India, in 2000 for one of the Dalai Lama’s dialogues with scientists, sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute. But Ekman, a renowned behavioral scientist who is the world’s leading expert on facial expressions, was passionate about the subject on the table: destructive emotions. To his great surprise, that encounter with the Dalai Lama transformed his life.

Today, the two are good friends. At Ekman’s instigation, they spent nearly 40 hours in conversation between April 2006 and June 2007. Edited with Ekman’s commentary, their discussion is set out in Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance (Henry Holt, 2009, $15.00 paper; Minding Emotions, an audio/video download of conversation highlights, is available at paulekman.com). Ekman is still a nonbeliever, but he and His Holiness have found much common ground, not least the pleasure of two exceptional, lively minds exploring the nature of emotion in a spirit of mutual discovery. (They also share an interest in Darwin, the first to study emotional expression scientifically.)

Now a professor emeritus at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco, where he founded the Human Interaction Laboratory, Ekman no longer teaches, but he is busier than ever. His recent projects include the Conference on the Language of Mental Life, a program that grew out of his talks with the Dalai Lama, to be held July 15–19 in Telluride, Colorado, and his advisory role on Lie to Me, a Fox TV series in which the main characters solve crimes using deception-detection techniques based on Ekman’s research. After each episode Ekman blogs on the science behind the story line. It’s not his first brush with Hollywood: companies like Pixar regularly consult him on facial expressions for their cartoons. Then, too, there is his ongoing consulting for government antiterrorism agencies. But when Tricycle’s Joan Duncan Oliver phoned Ekman at his California office last November, what he most wanted to discuss was the Dalai Lama.


Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman

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