© 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.

Can meditation change this ratio for the better? What you’re asking is whether the brain is plastic—that is, can it be shaped and changed? And the good news is, the brain is extremely plastic if we undergo systematic, repeated experiences. The problem is, we almost never try to train the brain unless we are in the course of acquiring a skill. If you learn to play the piano, for instance, you are reshaping the cortical area that controls fine finger movements, and further developing parts of the auditory cortex. If you start to drive a cab in London, within six months the part of your brain that is operating when you are interpreting a map—in other words, your visual-spatial memory—starts to expand and become stronger. This has been demonstrated using functional MRls, the gold standard now for assessing brain function. The good news for practitioners is that meditation practice seems to be one of those systematic trainings of the brain that yields quite beneficial effects, even from the beginning.

Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn—who’s been so important in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and culture—teamed up to do a study to appear in a scientific journal, in which they taught stressed-out research scientists at a biotech firm to do mindfulness meditation. The subjects practiced about three hours a week for eight weeks. Davidson did brain assessments both before and after, and he found that in the before state, these guys—and they were mostly men—tended to have a right prefrontal tilt: they felt hassled, pressured, stressed-out, didn’t enjoy their work anymore. But after the mindfulness training, Davidson found there was a significant shift from right prefrontal activity to the left. The subjects started to love their work again; they felt it was a challenge instead of a hassle; their moods were much, much better. It’s clear that simply beginning meditation can bring about a significant shift in the brain.

Now, the question is, how far can you push it? Davidson has just started to answer that question. One of the first practitioners he studied is the head of a monastery in Southern India. They brought him into the lab and tried to get his baseline for right-left ratio. The rightleft ratio, by the way, is a bell curve. Most people tend to be in the middle, with very few people far to the right or left. This particular subject had the highest value for a leftward tilt that had ever been seen in his lab. Davidson has also found—and this I find quite significant—that when he asked another highly experienced practitioner to do a meditation on compassion, his brain went into an extreme value toward the left, too, again in the highest range seen thus far. These and other early results are so compelling that Davidson, along with other scientists, has begun an ongoing program to study very highly experienced practitioners, people who have done three years or more of intensive retreat.

What does this suggest? If these findings remain consistent as Davidson progresses with more studies, this suggests that in terms of neuroplasticity, dharma practice may push the brain toward the upper registers of positivity in moods. If you look at classical Abhidharma—the Buddhist psychology—and the traditional texts, it says that the more you practice, the less you should experience the kleshas, or destructive emotions, and the more you should experience the positive ones. Lo and behold, 2,500 years later science is saying, Hey, it looks like that’s what happens!

In your book, Davidson refers to what he calls “altered traits of consciousness.” What does he mean? Well, an altered trait of consciousness is in contrast to an alteredstate. In meditation practice, with time, you may have occasional experiences of bliss or of rapture or have visions; all kinds of pleasant things can happen. Those are temporary altered states, and they fade; virtually every tradition in Buddhism refers to them as epiphenomena rather than goals in themselves. The standard advice is, just do the practice, don’t make a big deal of it. One of the biggest confusions of Western culture has been to misinterpret such temporary states—to mistake momentary bliss experiences for actual realization. But realization has to do with stabilizing the underlying abilities of insight that generate those experiences—not the blissful states themselves. In such stabilization, you are altering your mind—or “brain,” as we in the West would say. To achieve some stability would be to acquire what Davidson calls an “altered trait”—in other words, something that endures. Long-term meditation, science is now discovering, moves us toward enduring changes in brain activity.

© 1999 by Pepin Van Roojen. All Rights Reserved.
© 1999 by Pepin Van Roojen. All Rights Reserved.

Given the fact that the negative emotions seem to have been built into us over millennia of evolutionary development, does that set up a rather bleak picture for countering them with meditation practice? I think that recent discoveries pointing in favor of neuroplasticity offer great hope. I’ve been a strong advocate of what’s called social-emotional learning programs in school for kids. Because if we can help kids acquire the everyday skills, like self-awareness, self-control, and empathy, that allow you to manage anger, fear, and depression—and these skills can be taught more easily to children—then we will help them shape their brains in a more optimal way for the rest of their lives. But as adults we need a little remedial work. And it looks like meditation is good for that task.

Have you studied the effects of meditation in children? No. But we know that meditation shapes the brain, and you can conjecture that it gives people quite an advantage if they do it earlier in life, when the brain is being formed, rather than later. That’s the case, for instance, with tulkus, or for people who have been monks or nuns as children. What the effect of that is we don’t know because we’ve never studied it, but you can see that it might give children a great advantage through life in how, for example, they relate to their negative emotions. It may be that they have much stronger neural circuitry from childhood onward in, say, inhibiting negative emotions, because they’ve had the right kind of mental training. It makes you wonder about what’s happening to the brain of someone who does a three-year retreat from the age of twelve or thirteen.

What implications does all of this have for the field of psychology? The deep assumptions that underlie psychology look rather culture-bound now, particularly when it comes to what the upper limits of human potential might be. Freud said that the best psychoanalysis can do is bring people from neurosis to ordinary unhappiness. It’s only been within the last five years or so that psychologists have started to think about a positivepsychology, that is, the positive range of moods. Most of the studies have focused on the negative range of emotion. Now there are psychologists who are looking at optimism and equanimity and happiness as areas in which people can develop. But what the upper limits of happiness might be is still relatively circumscribed; there’s nothing in psychology, for example, to approximate the Buddhist idea of sukkha, of a happiness beyond circumstances, beyond conditions of life, of an ongoing internal state wherein one is replete no matter what else might be going on. That’s just not in the vision of modern psychology.

Were any of the results of your collective studies particularly surprising? One unexpected discovery was that meditation training may make you a keener observer of other people’s emotional states—I found it surprising, as did the Dalai Lama, when he heard about it. Paul Ekman, another of the scientists involved in the Mind and Life discussions, is a world expert on the facial expression of emotion. He discovered what are called “microexpressions,” fleeting facial © 1999 by Pepin Van Roojen. All Rights Reserved.expressions that last a twentieth of a second or less. They’re completely automatic and unconscious, revealing your true feelings at a particular moment. Ekman has developed a test of people’s ability to detect microexpressions accurately. Curiously, he’s found that most people who might want to be good at it, like judges or police or psychotherapists, aren’t any better than the average person. I think the group that tested best were secret service agents. But when Ekman brought in seasoned practitioners, he discovered that they had an accutacy rating in the ninety-ninth percentile for many of the emotions—but not for all of them. Interestingly, exactly which emotions they were so good at detecting, differed from one person to another. But Ekman had virtually never seen such accuracy. And this was an unanticipated benefit of meditation. It may be because of a general perceptual sharpening, or because of some kind of enhanced empathy. A central tenet of Buddhism is compassion, and although it would be unscientific to draw any conclusion at this point, Ekman’s findings are certainly consistent with cultivating compassion. In fact, I think empathy is a prerequisite for compassion, so in that sense it’s completely in accord with the Buddhist teachings.

In your book, the Dalai Lama is very clear about the fact that concentration by itself is not spiritual practice, it merely sharpens the brain’s ability to focus.That’s a key point. Not all meditation that changes the brain is necessarily spiritually beneficial. Meditative abilities such as simply strengthening one’s ability to concentrate can be quite worldly in and of themselves. Meditative states start to have spiritual benefits when they’re used for developing insight and compassion. So if you strengthen your concentration and then use it in support of cultivating insight—for looking into the mind—that’s good, and if you use it as a support for cultivating compassion, that has genuine spiritual benefit, too. But if you use it just to become a better martial arts practitioner, I don’t think it has any particular spiritual benefits. In other words, it can be used to any human end, bad or good, but without the spiritual element of cultivating insight and compassion, it’s a different goal altogether.

Can science aid in the process of overcoming afflictive emotions?
I don’t think that science can come up with some gadget that gives us a new way of practicing; I’m skeptical of that. I think that ultimately each of us has to do that work ourselves, internally. But I think that in our culture science can be of enormous help in establishing that the methodologies we’ve been using in dharma practice for millennia actually are effective on scientific grounds. The scientific findings that establish the efficacy of dharma practice in helping to alleviate disturbing emotions might remove some doubts that get in the way of a commitment to practice the dharma. And they might motivate and inspire people to work harder in their practice. So in that sense, science can be of aid to dharma practice. And it can do more than alleviate dharma practitioners’ doubts; it can interest people who haven’t been practitioners in starting meditation practice.

I think one of the most significant developments is that very high-level scientists in the West are now using state of-the-art measures with highly experienced dharma practitioners. This has become a major research focus in itself; so much so that in September, those scientists will be presenting their results and reflections at a public conference at MIT. In a related research effort, Paul Ekman, at the University of California at San Francisco, is testing a combination of Buddhist meditation and Western methods that will be offered in a secular context to help anyone who might benefit. Both of these developments are the direct result of the Dalai Lama’s explicit urging.

So what is the bottom line on the mind’s potential for transformation and liberation from afflictive emotions?
Well, it’s beginning to look like the Buddha just might have had it right.

Dharma to your inbox

Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters