© 1999 by Pepin Van Roojen. All Rights Reserved.

In your new book, Destructive Emotions, you write that “recognizing and transforming destructive emotions is the heart of spiritual practice.” Can you tell us what you mean by “destructive emotions”? There are two perspectives, one from the East and the other from the West. The Western view of destructive emotions—the modern philosophical and scientific view—is that they are emotions that result in harm to oneself or to others. And “harm” here is meant in the most obvious sense: physical harm, affective harm, social harm. The view from the East is subtler. The Buddhist view, as it emerged in conversations with the Dalai Lama at the Mind and Life conference {see “The Lama in the Lab,“} in March 2000, is that destructive emotions are those that disturb one’s internal equilibrium, while healthy ones foster equilibrium of the mind. In this sense, “harmful” emotions are essentially what Buddhists call the kleshas, or defilements, which are enumerated in the classical texts. The kleshas operate on a gross level—in the form of hatred, craving, jealousy, and so on—and also more subtly, mingling with our thoughts to disturb equilibrium internally.

Buddhist teachings tell us that meditation can train the mind to replace destructive emotions with positive states, like equanimity. How does this hold up to scientific scrutiny? As I report in Destructive Emotions, we now have extremely compelling evidence showing that yes, dharma practice does alleviate destructive emotions and that it does so by profoundly altering the way the brain functions. The work of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been key in discovering this. Davidson has been involved in research on meditation on and off for thirty years.

When he and I were graduate students at Harvard together in the 1970s, we both did research on meditation. He looked at the attentional training effects; I looked at the stress-alleviation effects. But the methodologies back then were so primitive compared to what we have now that we didn’t get very far. Now he is working in a field called “affective neuroscience,” which looks at emotions and the brain, and he has come back to the study of meditation with state-of-the-art methods that are yielding quite compelling results on meditation’s benefits.

Can you say something about those results? Yes, but first some background: Davidson’s research has found that when people are in the grip of a strong disturbing emotion—anger, paralyzing fear, depression—there’s an unusually high amount of activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the emotional centers of the brain. Along with this heightened activity, there’s an unusually high level of activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, situated just behind the forehead. It seems that the amygdala is driving this area of the prefrontal cortex when we’re in the grip of destructive emotional states. When destructive emotions take over, our thoughts, our memories, and our perceptions are skewed accordingly, and they have a cascading effect. For instance, when we’re angry, we more easily remember things that make us angry. In other words, anger feeds itself, and we are more likely to act in a way that expresses that anger. That’s a description, then, of the brain caught in a destructive emotion. By contrast, when the opposite range manifests—positive states like optimism, hope, buoyancy—the amygdala and the right side are quiet, whereas the area on the left in the prefrontal area is active.

As we go through our day, each of us has a distinct ratio of prefrontal activity on the right and the left. Surprisingly, Davidson has found that that ratio will predict the typical range of our moods day-to-day. So people who tend to have much more right prefrontal activity are much more prone to bad moods. People who have much more left prefrontal activity are more likely to experience very good moods, and if they get a very bad mood, it won’t be very strong or it won’t last very long.

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