What Can You Do About

Negative Emotions Within You

And Around You?

  By Mariamne Paulus


It seems that negativity pervades our group psyche these days. People suffer from depression, discouragement, hatred, resentment, fear, and anger. And those feelings give birth to more and more violence. Road rage leads to traffic injuries and deaths. Young people either shoot at peers and teachers or commit suicide. Spouses kill spouses or parents kill children. And our country has chosen war, invasion, and occupation as the principle weapon for creating safety and peace in the world and for establishing democracy.

Of course not everyone is functioning in negativity, but the energy of it surrounds us. We are swimming in the ocean with negativity even if we haven’t swallowed it. Those of us walking spiritual paths have a tremendous challenge if we are to counterbalance this negativity. First we have to overcome any negativity within. Then we can help to transmute the energies permeating the group psyche.

I recently read a book called Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? (Narrated by Daniel Goleman, New York: Bantam Dell, 2003) It reports on a scientific dialogue between the Dalai Lama, Buddhist scholars, and Western psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers. The book is very grounding and encouraging. It provides evidence that meditation definitely effects change, physiologically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. For thousands of years spiritual teachers have taught that negative emotions alienate us from other persons and the world around us and have advocated meditation as a way to transform emotions, and Buddhists have a 2,500-year history of investigating the workings of the mind and learning how to overcome our tendencies toward destructive emotions. Now scientific research and advanced technology have proven the effectiveness of these techniques.

Differences between East and West

Most meditation techniques have come to us from the East. Consequently, it was helpful to read about emotions with both Eastern and Western world views being discussed.

The Dalai Lama lives in the same world I was describing above. As a Buddhist he is committed to modeling and teaching compassion for all sentient beings, and he feels passionate about the importance of teaching others to live compassionately. He feels strongly that the message must not be confined to religious circles. His own interest in science led him to request an opportunity to dialogue with scientists about emotions.

During the dialogue, it became quite clear that there are some basic differences between the Buddhist understanding of emotions and the Western view.

Western emotions tend to be judged good or bad according to their usefulness in structuring social life. Happiness, sadness, love, friendship, forgiveness, gratitude, regret (or remorse for having done something wrong), guilt and shame contribute to better interpersonal relationships, whereas anger, contempt, indignation and fear tend to break down the social fabric.

Consequently, the Westerners in the dialogue were inclined to view the following as destructive states of mind: low self-esteem, overconfidence, harboring negative emotions, jealousy and envy, lack of compassion, and inability to have close interpersonal relations. They viewed as constructive states of mind, self-respect, self-esteem (if deserved), feelings of integrity, compassion, benevolence, generosity, seeing the true, the good, and the right, love, and friendship. As you can see, nearly all of these emotions, or states of mind, are directly related to interpersonal relations.

Buddhists place far more importance on structuring one’s soul than on structuring social life. Therefore, they view destructive emotions (also called obscuring or afflictive mental factors) as something that prevents the mind from ascertaining reality as it is, causing a gap between the way things appear and the way things are. This is a concern for those who seek to evolve spiritually by learning to discern what is true and real.

For instance, Buddhists view desire, or excessive attachment, as destructive because it makes it impossible for us to see a balance between the pleasant and the unpleasant, the constructive and the destructive, qualities in something or someone. Instead, we view the object of our desire or attachment as one hundred percent attractive. Aversion, on the other hand, blinds us to some of the positive qualities of the object, causing us to feel one hundred percent negative toward that object, wishing to repel, destroy, or run away from it.

Buddhist philosophy views such emotional states as destructive because they impair our judgment, our ability to make a correct assessment of the nature of things. By contrast, constructive emotions help us to more correctly appreciate the nature of what we perceive. They are grounded on sound reasoning. The ability to make correct assessments of reality, so important to Buddhists, is not something on which Westerners tend to place much value. These differences reflect the values and disciplines attendant to the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist cultures and religions.

Another way Buddhist philosophy evaluates emotions as negative is that they cause you to experience less happiness, less well-being, less lucidity and freedom, and more distortion. Buddhist scriptures speak of eighty-four thousand kinds of negative emotions, but they can be represented by five main ones: hatred, hostility or anger; desire, attachment, or craving; confusion, ignorance, or delusion; pride; and jealousy (the inability to rejoice in others’ happiness). In addition, the mental states of afflictive doubt and afflictive views are considered destructive. Buddhists are not so much concerned with the fact that the above mentioned emotions make it difficult for us to enter into and enjoy relationships. Instead, they know that these emotions make the one who experiences them unhappy, and to be unhappy makes it difficult to make progress on a spiritual path.

“The principle in the West boils down, it would seem, to whether an emotion feels good, while the Buddhist rule of thumb regards the emotion in terms of whether it furthers spiritual progress or holds us back,” as Daniel Goleman summarized it. Westerners tend to look outwards to find the cause or object of their emotions, whereas Buddhists look within for both the cause and the effect of emotional states.

Among positive emotions, Westerners included some that were virtually unknown or unrecognized by Buddhist philosophy. Among those feelings were certain kinds of self-respect and self-esteem, self-worth, and self-accomplishment, as well as romantic love and friendship.

It was interesting to me that the Buddhists did not value feelings of self-respect, self-worth, etc., because the very concept of self-loathing was completely foreign to them. Without the negative polarity, there was no need to single out the positive emotion. I was reminded of a story I read once about some Christian missionaries who found a tribe in South America that had never before encountered white people. The missionaries wanted to tell the natives the glad news that Jesus had died for their sins, but they discovered that the natives had no concept of sin. Consequently, the missionaries proceeded to teach them about sin, so that they could save them from it!

After centuries of indoctrination by Christianity in the concept that we were born in sin, are unworthy of salvation, and can do nothing ourselves to get ourselves out of this predicament, it is no wonder that we value highly feelings of self-respect, self-worth, and self-accomplishment. It was equally noteworthy that the Tibetan word for compassion applies both to oneself and to others. Our English word applies only to others.

Whereas Westerners tend to view all emotions as natural and therefore inherently good and useful, Buddhist philosophy believes that the destructive emotions are not embedded in the basic nature of consciousness and therefore can be totally released.

Just learning about these differences in ways of thinking about emotions helps us to expand our view of the challenge that lies before us. Perhaps it will be helpful to balance our orientation toward the outer world in which we live with an awareness of the inner world that conditions and prepares us for interaction with the outer. Our work with Life As A Waking Dream accomplishes just that. We learn to see that what is going on inside us is reflected in the world around us. We get to experience our inner states through outer experiences, and then we can change the outer by working with the inner.

What’s New?

The newest contribution to the discussion about destructive emotions was made by the Neuroscientists. The development of the MRI has made it possible for them to study the intricate web of neural connections linking thoughts and feelings, cognition and emotions. What they have discovered is that there is not just one area of the brain that regulates emotions. Instead, many parts of the brain work together to produce the complex behavior that we call an emotional response.

A critical zone for regulating emotion is the frontal lobe, right behind the forehead and a part of the cortex. Another is the parietal lobe, an area where representations from the senses, such as vision, hearing and touch, all come together. The parietal lobe also plays a role in mental representations, such as when we picture something “in the mind’s eye.” Then buried within the middle of the brain, in the region known as the limbic system, is the amygdale, which turns out to be very critical for certain kinds of negative emotions, particularly fear. Finally, the hippocampus, a long structure just behind the amygdale that has been linked to memory has an important role in emotion because it is essential for our appreciation of the context of events.

To be able to trace the effect of emotions on the brain has made it possible to begin to understand the connection between mind and emotions with body. For example, Richard Davidson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, reports that “In both depression and posttraumatic stress disorder it has been found that the hippocampus actually shrinks. That can be measured objectively. That . . . when depression is treated with antidepressant medication, it prevents the atrophy of the hippocampus that typically occurs if the depression goes untreated.” Since the hippocampus is linked to memory and the context of events in which emotions arise, it is easier to understand why persons who suffer from depression begin to have distorted views of their own history and the origin of their depressive state.

Another example of this connection between mind and body is the finding that the parts of the brain that are most involved with processing and regulating emotions are also extensively connected with the functioning of the body, in particular with the immune system, the endocrine system (which regulates hormones) and with the autonomic nervous system (which regulates heart rate, blood pressure, and so on). Therefore it is not surprising that the mind and emotions have such a powerful influence on the functioning of the body.

Studying the brain, scientists have discovered that there are big differences in people’s strength of emotional response and in the length of time it takes them to recover from a feeling response. People who have a shorter recovery time also find it easier to control their emotions if you ask them to. Moreover, these people produce less of the hormone cortisol, which plays a key role in stress. Therefore, those persons who tend to have strong emotional responses and to take longer times to recover from them are more likely to suffer from stress-related conditions.

Neuroscientists have discovered that, for example, someone who is prone to pathological rage actually may be unable to anticipate the negative consequences of his rage because the both the frontal lobe and the amygdale atrophy or severely shrink in people with a history of severe aggression. Since the part of the brain that would help them to perceive the effects of their emotions has actually shrunken, they are not able to make reasoned choices about their emotional expression.

With regard to craving, neuroscientists have discovered that in virtually all forms of craving that have been studied, there is an abnormality in the chemical system’s ability to produce dopamine, which plays an important role in reward and in the pleasurable feelings that occur in response to reward. So if one engages in habitual craving, he becomes less and less able to feel satisfied due to the reduction of the production of dopamine.

And in a third example, the afflictive emotion called delusion involves the influence of the emotional circuits of the brain on the circuits of the brain responsible for perceiving things or apprehending the world, and also circuits that are involved in thought. That delusion disrupts both our perceptions of reality and our thinking is actually reflected in the brain.

What’s to be Done?

With all this neurological evidence to support our awareness that certain emotional states are destructive within our relationships, in our own spiritual development, and on the physical body, the dialogue between the Dalai Lama and the scientists turned to the question, what can be done? All who were present wanted to know how they could educate children, especially, to overcome destructive emotions.

Matthieu Ricard was part of the dialogue. He and his father, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, authored a best-selling book called The Monk and the Philosopher. In the book, Matthieu argues that for two millennia or more, Buddhist practitioners have been utilizing what amounts to an “inner science,” a systematic method for transforming the inner world to produce a better human being – one that is more selfless and compassionate, with greater calm and equanimity. One result of that program, he observes, is relief from the tyranny of destructive emotions.

Researchers have been studying meditators in their laboratories. Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin, for example, conducted extensive research using the MRI with a Tibetan Lama who is known as one of Tibet’s greatest spiritual masters. Although there are dozens of distinct, highly developed kinds of mental training that get lumped together in English under the term “meditation,” Davidson and his team, in consultation with the Lama, decided to test six different methods that they felt would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity: a visualization, one-pointed concentration, generating compassion, meditation on devotion, meditation on fearlessness, and what the Lama called the “open state,” a thought-free wakefulness in which the mind is open, vast, and aware, with no intentional mental activity.

Not only did they discover that there were differences in which parts of the brain were involved in each method, but they made surprising accompanying discoveries.

In research with close to two hundred people, Davidson’s lab had found that when people have high levels of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex, they simultaneously report feelings such as happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy, and alertness. On the other hand, high levels of activity in the right prefrontal cortex correlate with reports of distressing emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and worry. In fact they found that people with an extreme rightward tilt in the ratio of the activity in these prefrontal areas are highly likely to succumb to clinical depression or an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. People in the grip of depression who also report intense anxiety have the highest levels of activation in those prefrontal areas.

In fact they have discovered that we each have a characteristic ratio of right-to-left activation in the prefrontal areas that offers a barometer of the moods we are likely to feel day to day. That ratio represents what amounts to an emotional set point, the mean around which our daily moods swing.

When the Lama was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a very strong leftward shift in the parameter of prefrontal function, one that was extraordinarily unlikely to occur by chance alone. In other words, the Lama seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others’ well-being seems to create a greater state of well-being within oneself. This finding lent scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is himself the immediate beneficiary. Among the benefits of cultivating compassion, according to classic Buddhist texts, are being loved by people and animals, having a serene mind, sleeping and waking peacefully, and having pleasant dreams. In other words, Buddhists believe that pursing meditation makes people calmer, happier and more loving, as well as less and less prone to destructive emotions.

This suggests that persons disposed to anxiety and depression would benefit greatly if they would meditate daily on compassion, for themselves and for all sentient beings. Such meditation does not require training. Rather, a decision to sit quietly, breathing into the heart center, and intending to awaken compassion within and breathe it out to all is sufficient.

Paul Ekman is one of the world’s most eminent experts on the science of emotion. He heads the Human Interaction Laboratory in the University of California at San Francisco. One of his most important discoveries has been that facial expressions reflecting emotional states are universal and cross-cultural. An unexpected discovery during the work with trained meditators is that they were quicker than other people at recognizing the emotional states reflected in the faces of others. Ekman hypothesized that it was because meditation requires both openness and conscientiousness, and he had learned from studies with thousands of people, that people who do better at recognizing subtle emotions are more open to new experience.

This suggests that anyone who wants to be sensitive and responsive to the emotional states of others would do well to practice meditation, perhaps focusing on what the Lama described as the “open state,” a thought-free wakefulness in which the mind is open, vast, and aware, with no intentional mental activity.

Third, scientists were surprised to learn that experienced meditators appear to have only a minimal startle response. This was a great surprise, because, like all reflexes, the startle reflects activity of the brain stem, the most primitive, reptilian part of the brain and lies beyond the range of voluntary regulation.

When Lama Oser was asked to suppress the startle as a gunshot went off, the reflex almost disappeared. No researchers had ever found anyone who could do that. Given that the larger someone’s startle, the more intensely that person tends to experience upsetting emotions, the Lamas ability to suppress the startle response suggested that he had reached a remarkable level of emotional equanimity.

Persons who tend to get upset easily by the smallest surprise of one kind or another might try practicing the Open State meditation, described above, or one-pointed concentration, a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention. Such practice on a daily basis would make it easier to control the startle response to sudden intrusions and thus to avoid slipping into upsetting emotions.

Finally, Paul Ekman conducted an experiment with the Lama in which he interacted with persons with whom he disagreed on certain issues. They found that in the interaction with an easygoing professor with whom he disagreed, the two smiled often, held eye contact, and spoke fluidly. In fact, they had such a good time exploring their disagreements that they did not want to stop.

In an exchange with an aggressive, rather confrontational person, however, the difficult person started out with a strong degree of emotional arousal. However, over the course of a fifteen-minute dispute, his arousal decreased. At the end of their talk he volunteered, “I couldn’t be confrontational. I was always met with reason and smiles; it’s overwhelming. I felt something – like a shadow or an aura—and I couldn’t be aggressive.” The Lama had responded to aggression with loving kindness.

This experiment seemed to suggest that for persons who tend to become confrontational during disagreements, or who are not confident in engaging with confrontational persons, meditation on loving kindness would help to establish a quality of being that would have a beneficial effect on all with whom they would interact.

Qualities of Extraordinary People

The end result of the dialogue on emotion was that several participants developed educational projects for teaching people how to cultivate positive emotions through meditation and practice with the qualities that Paul Ekman has come to identify with what he terms extraordinary people. The first quality is a sense of goodness that reflects with integrity the true person in whom there is a transparency between their personal and public lives. The second quality is selflessness, lacking concern about status, fame, or ego. The third is compelling personal presence that others find nourishing. And finally, the qualities of attentiveness and concentration preclude a wandering mind, whether in meditation or in interaction.

The Dalai Lama pointed out that a talent for single-pointed concentration is not necessarily a spiritual activity. It is a tool that can be used for a wide variety of cognitive tasks. But, he said, “more spiritual states of mind, such as the practice of loving kindness and compassion, really come when you experience empathetic states. They have an expansive focus, not a narrow one, and underlying these are a sense of confidence or courage.” He has encouraged further research into these states of mind so that people can be trained in secular contexts to cultivate loving kindness and compassion.

The end result of the dialogue and the research conducted thus far on emotions is that emotions can be controlled and modified if the mind is trained. One of the best ways to train the mind is through meditation, and there are many techniques being widely taught, so that meditation is no longer viewed as esoteric. And in addition, it costs nothing but our time.

The Dalai Lama has suggested that “the world today needs citizens and leaders who can work toward ensuring stability and engage in dialogue with the ‘enemy’ no matter what kind of aggression or assault they may have endured.

“The calamity of 9/11 demonstrated that modern technology and human intelligence guided by hatred can lead to immense destruction. Such terrible acts are a violent symptom of an afflicted mental state. To respond wisely and effectively, we need to be guided by more healthy states of mind, not just to avoid feeding the flames of hatred, but to respond skillfully. We would do well to remember that the war against hatred and terror can be waged on this, the internal front, too.”

We have found, in our and Life As A Waking Dream work, that training the mind through a study of the structure of the Self and how it works through the personality also makes it possible for people to choose their emotions rather than to be dominated by them.

The mind and emotions are inseparable, but how they interact can be changed if we are intentional and persistent in our work with self. By changing our internal states, we can change how we respond to individuals and events in the world around us. We can become models of the possibility of living in positive emotional states, and we can help to transmute the negative emotions that might otherwise overwhelm individuals who have not yet learned to have creative jurisdiction over their inner lives.


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