The Best and Worst of Us

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

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

I was fascinated to read that after meeting the Dalai Lama for the first time, you did not experience anger for seven months. Although you were skeptical about how it happened, you had little doubt that a major reorganization of your emotional life had occurred. How do you account for that shift? The way I would conceptualize it from a Western science framework is that after my mother’s death—I was 14 when she committed suicide—I developed hatred toward my father, whom I held responsible. He was a cruel man, insulting and abusive, and very competitive with me. That kind of hatred is an enduring state of wanting to harm another person: it’s not that you’re feeling hate every moment, but whenever the person comes to mind, directly or indirectly, that hatred recurs. It corrodes the personality, so it became a platform for the development of an anger that was too ready and too strong. When I met the Dalai Lama, my father had been dead for 40 years, but I still hated him. During my initial meeting with the Dalai Lama, I think he focused “goodness” on the wound I still felt from my mother’s death, and although the hatred remained until a few years later, it produced a profound change.

My psychoanalyst colleagues think I had a transference reaction to the Dalai Lama. But I never for a moment felt he was a father figure; I felt he was the brother I never had. His explanation was that in a previous incarnation we were brothers.

How do you feel about that?
Well, I think reincarnation is a nice fairy tale, like heaven and hell, but I don’t disrespect him for believing it. I’ve never had faith in a theological sense, so I don’t know how to explain it. I believe that at some point, we will understand this kind of fundamental transformation scientifically. The Dalai Lama and I disagree on this. He thinks I’m just being a reductionist and that it will forever be a mystery. My faith, however, is that there is nothing about the mind that is not the product of the brain.

A few years ago, you finally forgave your father. Do you think the ability to forgive him was tied to that encounter with the Dalai Lama?
It was, although at my first meeting with the Dalai Lama I argued strongly with him about the benefits of hatred, saying that I thought it could motivate constructive action. I don’t know if I would have had the drive to accomplish all the things I’ve done if I hadn’t been motivated by a desire to get revenge on my father. However, the Dalai Lama and I ended up with a joint view that hatred can have short-term benefits in motivating altruistic acts but a long-term cost in corroding the personality. I can’t really specify when I stopped feeling hatred for my father; it wasn’t an abrupt change, so it wasn’t noticeable. But now I am quite aware of no longer feeling that hatred—no longer being preoccupied with how I can get revenge on him.

You called your conversations with the Dalai Lama “a dialogue process.” What did you learn from one another? To give you an example, if I hadn’t been talking to him, I would not have taken on the issue of how to better conceive of emotions than just thinking of them as positive or negative, as in Western psychology. I wouldn’t have seen that you can’t simply say an emotion is afflictive or not afflictive, because notafflictive is neutral. From a Darwinian point of view, we wouldn’t have emotions if they weren’t useful to us. So how do we decide when the very same emotion is constructive or destructive? It depends on how it is enacted in a particular context.

Eight or ten years ago I challenged Richard Dawkins’s view that deception occurs because of a fundamental interest in exploiting others. I said, no, if you look at the history of human life on this planet, it was largely in small cooperative groups that dealt with prey and predators. This is what the Buddhists refer to as interdependence, but neither the Dalai Lama nor I had applied that to emotion. And when we did, an idea arose out of our conversation. I suggested that whenever an emotional episode resulted in better cooperation we should consider it constructive, and when it interfered with subsequent cooperation it should be regarded as destructive. He agreed.

On another topic, our discussion of compassion resulted in quite a different formulation, which I continue to elaborate. At the time of our meetings I distinguished simple familial compassion from global compassion—compassion for all beings—which is different from what he calls infinite compassion that embraces all living creatures. He found that useful and changed his view, so that he no longer thought about compassion as emotion. Emotion is involved in compassion, but as the motivation for it. That was another thing that contributed to my thinking: whenever you look at an emotion, you have to look at the motivation for that emotion. That is crucial for whether it will be enacted in a constructive or destructive fashion. I had never thought about it that way.

So motivation and intention, which are central to Buddhism, were not really part of your thinking? You can lose your license as a scientist by recognizing that people have intentions. You can measure people’s visible or audible behavior, but it isn’t easy to measure what their intentions are, so psychology has almost acted as if things we can’t readily measure don’t exist. It’s no accident that cognitive behavior therapy—which emphasizes what we can do to create and change our intentions—has linked itself to mindfulness. But that’s not what has dominated Western psychology.

When you asked the Dalai Lama what practices would help people whose emotions rise up quickly and intensely, his answer was essentially the Buddha’s notion of skillful means—that there are as many methods as there are people on earth. Does this raise the question of whether there can be any replicable studies of meditation and emotion? No, because the study we did, called Cultivating Emotional Balance—which we undertook at the Dalai Lama’s request—combined different types of meditation and also Western practices. Different things may be more useful to one person than to another. And even for the same person, different things may be useful on different days.

So how did you measure the effectiveness of meditation? The most important measure we used was, did it change their relationship with their spouse or their children? We used the standard measures of depression and anxiety, and we got huge changes—as big as anything that has ever been recorded by any technique. What we can’t say is which is the right change agent. Was there one thing that works best for everyone? We have no way to know. We have a smorgasbord, but we can’t say which tastes better.

Paul Ekman

There’s been an ongoing dialogue between Buddhism and psychotherapy in recent years, a lot of it spawned by the Mind and Life meetings. What have your encounters with the Dalai Lama added to this conversation? What’s different is the focus on these two issues—emotion and compassion. As I understand it, the very concept of emotion isn’t singled out in Buddhist thinking—that mental state, with its characteristics, or how it differs from other mental states. Our emotions are responsible for the best and worst of us. The very name of the 2000 Mind and Life meeting— “Destructive Emotions”—seemed to me to take the wrong perspective. It further supported the idea that the goal is to get rid of your emotions, which are so destructive. That’s never been the goal, and even if it was, we’re never going to achieve it.

I’m trying to get another 30 minutes with the Dalai Lama, to focus on an issue I think is so important: heroic compassion and global compassion—how the two of these relate and what our goals should be in that regard. How and why does “heroic compassion” occur? How can we know whether we have it?

You probably read about that man who threw himself on a New York subway track to save a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks and was about to be hit by an oncoming train. Is that heroic compassion?
If you were standing next to him and you didn’t jump, you’d know you don’t have it. What is it like to know you don’t have it? What is it like to be the bystander who doesn’t act? How does that change you? Is that a useful change? I don’t know the answer, and there’s no better person to explore it with than the Dalai Lama.

When you and the Dalai Lama discussed interdependence and science, you said an interest in cooperation was “creeping into” science. How so?
A fundamental tenet of a Darwinian view is that in every generation there will always be variations in human nature: you need the raw materials because you never know what the environment is going to favor. We live in a world where what one country does influences other countries, so we have to start having a broader global perspective. That means we have to tap the cooperative side of human nature— and that, of course, amazingly enough, is the Buddhist perspective. The world has caught up. The changes in the world technologically have now made a Buddhist view so appropriate.

The Dalai Lama’s probably not surprised. I think he’s pleased. But he’s pleased so much of the time, and he’s distressed so much of the time. It depends on what’s in front of him. But he’s an optimist. And that’s one of the changes that’s occurred in me since I met him: I used to be a pessimist. Now I don’t know whether to call myself an optimist or a reformed pessimist. I still can’t avoid thinking about worst cases.

Do you think the Dalai Lama thinks about worst cases? I think the Dalai Lama has a realistic perception of the world, and he thinks I have a typical Western, impatient view of the world. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’m going to be reincarnated. That’s a useful way of taking a very, very long view, but I can’t get over the Western view that we don’t have forever and we can’t guarantee we won’t blow up the world before the evolution of change occurs in a more natural way.

Where the Dalai Lama is right is that impatience can distort our worldview and make our actions less effective. Impatience can be very good by helping us not put up with tyranny, but it can distort our view of what is possible and how to bring about change. We have to cultivate patience so that our perception isn’t distorted.

Are you saying that when we’re in the throes of emotion, that defines our thinking? That’s right. Emotion filters what we’re thinking. Yet go back to the fellow who jumped on the subway tracks. It was an emotion that made him do that, and we know it was irresistible. He didn’t consider, he didn’t choose. He acted because of the emotion that required him to act. And that’s a saving grace for humanity.

Images © Paul Ekman Group LLC

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