In March of 2000, Paul Ekman arrived in Dharamsala, India, as a highly accomplished research psychologist. Dr. Ekman was soon to be named by the American Psychological Association as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. He was staunchly scientific in his views and pessimistic in his outlook on life. The Mind and Life Institute invited Dr. Ekman to participate in the eighth of a series of private dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and preeminent Western scientists. He was asked to present on his extensive research into the nature of human emotion: its universal components, evolutionary purpose, functions and facial expressions. Although not personally interested in Buddhism, Dr. Ekman had accepted the invitation.
One week later, he left a different man. Frequently at these meetings, the Dalai Lama would stay at tea breaks in the mornings and afternoons to chat informally with the participants. At one such interlude, His Holiness held Dr. Ekman’s hand. The scientist had an experience unlike any he had ever had before, one for which he has no easy explanation. There was, he said, a strong sensation of warmth, but more than that. In the months that followed, Dr. Ekman found that he almost never got angry, which represented a significant temperamental change.
Since the meeting in 2000, he has had the unique opportunity to spend thirty-nine hours speaking one-on-one with the Dalai Lama about emotions for a book they are writing together.
Paul Ekman is now an optimist.
Inquiring Mind: This seems to be an extraordinary collaboration between you and His Holiness—the scientist and the monk.
Paul Ekman: I really do feel like the Dalai Lama is the brother I never had. I nearly said “it’s almost as if, ” because I wouldn’t want to be seen as presuming; on the other hand, it’s exactly how I feel. I told the Dalai Lama the same thing. It’s a mystery to me: how two people who are so different in origins and background could feel so close. He said it was no mystery to him. But, of course, he has an easy explanation unavailable to me as a non-Buddhist, as I don’t believe we could have known each other in a past incarnation.
For the sake of identification, I sometimes use the initials H.H. I have a hard time calling him “His Holiness” or “Your Holiness,” because I don’t think of him as holy. To me he’s not holy at all. Holy refers to a saint, and I’ve never met a saint. I think of him as very human.
IM: What were the main topics of your discussions?
PE: We talked about mental life—issues like emotions and passion, altruism, awareness, training the mind—a lot of territory, and we ended up with very few differences. We have arrived at the same conclusions but used different means to get there. And while we both changed our positions on some things during our discussions, we ended up disagreeing about only a couple of minor points.
You know, he’s a very passionate man. There isn’t anyone else I know whom I can engage without worrying about the force of my arguments. It can be intimidating to people that I get so passionate, but he gets just as passionate! We both got very excited—with no anger. I told him, “It’s just wonderful. Your passion matches my passion; I don’t have to tone things down.” He replied, “What’s the point of talking if you’re not excited!” Absolutely right!
So we covered the territory as well as we could, and I feel some regret that there was nothing more to discuss. He asked me at the last hour, “All over? No more? No more questions?” I said, “I’m out!”
IM: You mentioned that you each changed your views about certain things.
PE: Yes. I changed my views about forgiveness and hatred. Those are two biggies, aren’t they? Hatred was the hardest to give up! [Laughter] I believe it has played an important role in my surviving a physically abusive parent—a father who was competitive with me when I was a little kid all the way up until I fled my house. He even tried to get me arrested by claiming I had threatened his life. I hadn’t; I just told him he couldn’t hit me anymore: “Never hit me again, or I’ll hit you back.” This is a father who, when I got my first grant, wrote a letter to his congressman protesting that the grant was a waste of taxpayers’ money. My father decided early on what I was about, and any contrary evidence was very disturbing to him. So for a long time, one of my motives—only recently I would have said my only motive—was to beat him at his own game. I did a lot better than he did at everything in life—from being a professor at a medical school (he was a physician) to having fourteen books published (he had none). I would think, “When he hears about this, it’ll be turning a knife.” Since my father died forty years ago, all this has been in my mind, but I’ve used the metaphor “I hope he turns over in his grave when he hears about this.”
But through my interactions with H.H.—in inexplicable ways—there’s been a major change in my emotional life. I couldn’t get him to talk much about it, other than acknowledging he knows this happens to people in his presence. He prefers to treat it as a mystery. I said, “I think you really have more of an idea about this than you’re willing to tell me.” [Approximating the voice of the Dalai Lama:] “No. Mystery. Mystery.”
IM: Can you describe what happened to your feeling of hatred?
PE: On an emotional level it disappeared. I don’t know why; all I know is that it stopped being a preoccupation sometime after our meeting in Chicago in April 2006. We met for eleven hours over three days. We did talk about hatred and I defended the virtues of hatred as a positive motivator. I told him that I’d saved a lot of lives in my life as a result of the work I did to feed my hatred of my father, so how can we say it’s destructive? I have other examples in my book Emotions Revealed of hatred keeping someone together and why it worked.
But I really don’t hate my father anymore. I don’t even think about him anymore. He won’t learn that I’ve been spending time with a world leader. It’s an irrelevancy. He’s been dead for a long time. And now I have a little bit of compassion for what a miserable life my father led and for all he missed in being a parent that I’ve since experienced. He never met my children; he was dead for twenty years before they were born.
IM: What happened to your theory that hatred has value as a motivating emotion?
PE: What the Dalai Lama and I now agree to—I think this is a change in his position—is that hatred can be of short-term positive benefit but that it’s a long-term poison. That’s our joint view. Hatred can have some short-term benefits to you and to society, but over the long term it will corrode your nature.
We also agreed on the importance of distinguishing anger from hatred. Hatred is intrinsically the desire to hurt the other person, while the primary focus of anger is to remove an obstacle to the goal you’re pursuing. If you’re skilled, hurting the other person is not part of your goal. You want just the opposite: to help the other person achieve their ends without blocking your activity.
We became clear about the differences in terms of constructive emotion versus destructive or afflictive emotion. “Constructive” refers to an emotional episode that furthers collaboration between you and another person. Forty years ago I studied a Stone Age culture—people who never left a village of 200 during their whole lives. They were totally collaborative; they couldn’t survive without cooperation. Contrary to some evolutionary theorists, I think what’s intrinsic to human social nature is cooperation.
IM: So the difference between anger and hatred is like the difference between being angry with the action instead of the actor.
PE: Which is the Dalai Lama’s view exactly. As we talked we kept refining our terms. I distinguished eleven different types of anger. He loved that. He loves complication and distinction, because it brings much more focus to our understanding.
Of course, our distinctions were complicated by the fact that we were dealing with four languages. You’ve got Sanskrit (which is where, it seems, a lot of Tibetan scholarship comes from); then you have the Tibetan version of the Sanskrit; then you have what he calls “Buddhalogical English,” which are words I think are misadopted from English to refer to the Tibetan version of the Sanskrit; and finally you have English. One of my new assignments is to bring four or five Tibetan scholars with expertise in the Sanskrit and Tibetan language of mental life together with four or five scholars with expertise in the English language of mental life, and to map out the terminology and come up with a new language. H.H. and I are always having to tell stories to make a point, because otherwise we can’t be certain we are talking about the same kind of experience. He believes there are a lot of misunderstandings in the West of what Tibetans are talking about, due to mistakes made in word choices.
IM: Is it true that the Tibetan language doesn’t have a single word that refers to what in English we call emotion?
PE: That’s right. The Dalai Lama said to me, “Well, it’s becoming very clear that you have an idea of exactly what emotion is—so tell us.” My definition of emotion includes about eight characteristics. For one thing, emotions can last as little as a few seconds, which distinguishes them from moods, which last hours or longer. One of the fundamental truths about emotions is that they’re fleeting. So if you hold on to an emotion, you’re twisting its nature. That fits very well with Buddhist views. Another characteristic of our emotional life, which I’ve added to my list recently, is that we are biased to see provocation and danger. People who see snakes rather than coiled ropes are more cautious and therefore more likely to add to the gene pool than those who aren’t looking for the danger.
The characteristic that’s probably most troublesome for our emotional life is the fact that the evaluation process that triggers an emotion and gives rise to the impulse for action is often extremely complex, fast and impenetrable by consciousness. Picture a near-miss car accident. We’ve got a mechanism in our brain for making—in literally under 200 milliseconds—complex evaluations of the speed of an approaching object and then dictating learned behavior (because cars were not part of our ancestral environment) as to how much to turn the wheel, hit the brake, depress the gas pedal. And that all happens with no awareness. Awareness comes afterwards.
So we’ve got a mechanism that’s always searching for possible danger, provocation, loss—all the things that trigger emotion. It’s also attuned to all the things that we mislearned as children. (Children are bad learners. For one thing, they’re very egocentric. They imagine that whatever happens is due to them. Parents get divorced, it’s their fault. Rarely is it true, but that’s not how kids see the world.) It’s very difficult to untangle the wiring of this mechanism, to undo all of these mistaken triggers.
Here’s one thing I discovered that I love so much. I always thought I was a coward because when I saw a situation coming that was going to give me a lot of trouble, I’d just try to avoid it. When I told that to H.H., he said, “That’s exactly what you should try to do first. Always avoid situations that might bring forth a destructive emotion.” Then, if you can’t avoid them, try to use what you’ve learned to get yourself prepared. I’ve developed a whole series of exercises and mental strategies to prepare people to deal with a difficult person or situation. Preparation is essential. For instance, do a self-scan: “Am I in a state of equilibrium where I can recognize destructive impulses and not engage them? Or if I engage them, can I do it in a way that’s going to be useful for the difficult person or situation I’m dealing with?”
IM: That sounds like the sort of skillful means you might hear suggested at an insight meditation retreat. Maybe you are an intuitive Buddhist.
PE: [Laughter] I developed these exercises without knowing anything about Buddhist teaching. Meanwhile, an exercise that the Dalai Lama talked about at length—which was a surprise to me but probably won’t be to you—is how the Tibetans take rather simple beliefs and practice them in their minds for thousands of hours until they become what he calls an “integral conviction.” A belief such as “we are all connected” becomes how your mind is furnished—to use one metaphor—or the framework from which you now view the world. It’s no longer just a consideration or belief; it’s now ingrained, an inescapable part of your—what’s the word?—outlook. I love the word outlook!
You could say that this practice is a form of brainwashing, too, and I wouldn’t disagree. In the West, the only people who spend anywhere near that amount of time in a particular practice are concert musicians—and that’s developing a motor skill. But these Tibetan monks are putting an unbelievable amount of time into reshaping their outlook.
IM: Do you think that science might be able to find an easier way to change our emotional life, our mental habits?
PE: At one point I asked H.H., “Suppose I could create a biofeedback technology that would allow me to create compassionate people or people who were aware of impulses before action, and that I could do this in eighty hours of training. Would you be in favor of that?” He thought it was a great idea. “If you can do that with science, do it! Then we’ll make that available.” He doesn’t care what method one uses; he cares about what’s achieved.
But he also thinks I’m a typical Westerner who’s impatient and wants to see things change quickly. He thinks that change happens one person at a time. I say the world might not be rescuable if we do it slowly, person by person. We need a more sudden change. Maybe that’s just a Western/non-Western disagreement.
See, I’m impatient, particularly at the age of seventy-three. I don’t have twenty years to wait to see what’s going to happen. I want to see something happen while I’m still alive. I want to have some more assurance than I do now that my children and grandchildren aren’t going to live in a much worse world than the one in which I lived.
IM: What about the other “biggie” you mentioned? How were you changed in relation to forgiveness?
PE: I think forgiveness was among a number of things that were changed by my dramatic encounter seven years ago, and which over time has continued to generate change. The anger changed a lot earlier. So many different things happened that I can’t untangle them.
H.H. and I talked a lot about an incident where a Chinese officer executed a sixteen-year-old boy for a crime committed by his father. And it wasn’t enough to execute him. While the boy was waiting in prison for his execution, the officer came in and beat him senseless with a metal pipe. The Dalai Lama forgives the Chinese officer who did this. He said, “I forgive, but I don’t forget. If I were there, I would have used force if necessary to stop the officer. But I wasn’t there, and the officer will get punished in his next life.” I reject the idea of reincarnation, but I don’t think it is necessary to believe in reincarnation to forgive and behave ethically.
IM: But if you don’t believe in reincarnation, then how did the Dalai Lama change your understanding of forgiveness?
PE: Well, I better understood his view. I think forgiveness is the wrong term. It’s a term that often implies excusing and accepting. The Dalai Lama does hold people responsible for what they do, but he knows that harboring resentment or anger at this officer, or anyone else, will only harm himself. So he is suggesting that in forgiving someone, you don’t retain a sense of anger; you don’t focus on the past and harbor resentment because that would poison you. I can accept that view of forgiveness.
IM: In your many hours of meeting with His Holiness, it sounds like at times you introduced him to new terms and approaches. I know you sometimes lead workshops. Did you describe any of your exercises to him?
PE: Yes. He thinks they’re pretty good for a nonmeditator! [Laughter] I have a whole series of exercises; they aren’t rocket science. For instance, I suggest rehearsing for an encounter that you know might provoke difficult emotions. I want to convince my wife to move back to San Francisco from Oakland, so I’ve begun rehearsing in my mind how I’m going to present this to her. It’s like a little play in my mind, with some ideas of how she might respond. I don’t want it to be a struggle between us. If she responds in what I would consider an intemperate way, how can I resist getting sucked into an argument?
Another exercise I’m focusing on at the moment is the self-scan. It’s a way to bring yourself back to a state of equilibrium. The military has asked me if I would be willing to develop a technology to help people return to equilibrium in high-stress situations such as warfare. I suggested setting up a little telephone box somewhere in the field where soldiers could sit down and choose among three or four different ways to decompress. You want people like soldiers and police to be able to make good decisions. I emphasize that you do a self-scan before you enter a situation of potential danger. And if you can’t do it, then your partner has to help you and say, “Take ten deep breaths” or whatever. Different things work for different people.
IM: You recently attended two insight meditation retreats. What are some of your impressions?
PE: It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done other than quit smoking.
IM: Did you find it to be a useful training of the mind, perhaps an exercise or practice you would prescribe for people as a way to intervene between the impulse and the action?
PE: I think the practices were of some benefit. But it seemed to me that the teachers’ understanding of the mind was fifty years out of date. (I’m talking about their Western understanding. Their understanding of Buddhism, I presume, was really good.) We’ve learned so much in the past few hundred years. The Dalai Lama gets very excited about scientific discoveries. He now is quoting Darwin back to me. [Laughter] I gave him a quote in which Darwin says, “The highest moral virtue is to be concerned about the welfare of all sentient beings.” He loved that. That’s why you’ll hear him say, “Darwin says . . .” Isn’t that wonderful?
I’m reminded of when I told him I didn’t believe in reincarnation. He said to me, “The Buddha was an empiricist who instructed his followers that if it didn’t fit their experience, then reject it.” That’s a scientist! I like that. That’s really good.
When I finished my training in 1958—that’s fifty years ago—there were a lot of things that were either misunderstood or mysteries, which we now understand. The Dalai Lama and I differ in that he thinks there are things that will forever be mysteries and I don’t. Neither of us will live long enough to find out who’s right, because we’re not going to be here in another fifty years.
IM: But don’t you think some things in life can’t be explained? What about your transformations in your meetings with the Dalai Lama?
PE: I have my own theory on that. I’ve talked to seven other people who had similar experiences with him. I was about to retire, others had just gone through a divorce, some had survived a life-threatening illness. All of us were in transition. Also, we all had an emotional wound in early life. I had my mother’s suicide. I think the Dalai Lama senses that a person is open. In transitions you’re much more open to change. And when there’s a wound, he senses it. He focuses and radiates goodness, and that heals. I don’t know if we have a way of measuring it, because no one has tried.
I’m not talking about a metaphor; I’m talking about something that is palpable. When I had this experience with him—it was an eight- or nine-minute period—he was talking to my daughter and he and I were holding hands the whole time. My body was filled with a sensation that I’d never felt before. I have small versions of it now whenever I’m with him. In fact, when I’m sitting at the computer editing what he said, I get little versions of it. But that first experience was extremely intense. I think I was feeling that goodness. And it did heal something. A mystery?