Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology: a match made in Nirvana?

Dealing with emotions

Buddhist monks have long been admired for their emotional control, and a previous MIT conference participant, Paul Ekman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, thinks exploration of this skill may help psychologists better understand ways people can deal with unpleasant emotions.

Tibetan Buddhist monks, explains Ekman, practice intensive mental awareness through mindfulness meditation–where emotions and other mental events are recognized, but not reacted to. This training may give them the ability to weather emotional experiences–such as fear–to an extent unheard of in Westerners.

In the course of his research, Ekman and Robert Levenson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, may have found a man who cannot be startled. In a series of yet unpublished experiments, Ekman exposed one Tibetan Buddhist monk to a sudden sound as loud as a firecracker and monitored the participant’s blood pressure, muscle movements, heart rate and skin temperature for signs of startle. The Buddhist monk, possibly due to hours of practice regulating his emotions through meditation, registered little sign of disturbance.

“We found things we had never seen before,” says Ekman, who is in the process of verifying his results through replication of the experiment.

Emotions, explains Ekman, have evolved to “run our behavior automatically,” especially in situations requiring quick response and little time for deliberation. Buddhist monks, says Ekman, practice a fine-grained awareness of their own feelings through meditation “in order, in their words, to recognize the spark before the flame.

“This preventative mental work, says Ekman, is different from Western conceptions of emotional control, where unpleasant emotions are considered almost inevitable. Western psychology tends to focus on emotional damage control “after you are already burning up,” he explains. By studying Buddhist masters of calm, says Ekman, we may gain a better understanding of the extent to which emotions can be controlled and moderated.

Source: Tibetan Buddhism and research psychology: a match made in Nirvana?

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