once in a while, I have the fortunate opportunity to read a book that
invigorates and rekindles my hope in the future of psychology. By the time I
had completed Goleman's Destructive Emotions, I realized this was one of
those books Nevertheless, an inspirational book need not necessarily be a great
book or even a well-executed text. Destructive Emotions has its flaws.
Emotions is written in a narrative
form, primarily as a document of an event. The event predominantly transpired
between March 20th and 24th, 2000, in Dharamsala, India. The
event consisted of a small gathering of minds, including some of the most
widely respected psychological scientists and philosophers of our day. All
participants engage in productive dialogue with a number of eminent Buddhist
scholars, most notably His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso,
who is clearly at center stage during the proceedings.
The events in Dharamsala are
book-ended in the text by accounts of various activities of the participants,
all inspired by the gathering in India. The book opens with an account of a
scientific investigation that transpired at the E. M. Keck Laboratory for
Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at University of Wisconsin—Madison. We
witness a story of Lama Oser, a man with decades of training as a Tibetan monk
in the Himalayas, who is submitted to a variety of psychological assessments.
The findings included a variety of unprecedented discoveries. For example, Oser
was found to possess the unheard of ability to prevent his own startle reflex.
This and other findings seem to strongly support the Buddhist tenet that
meditation has the power to nurture optimal states of well-being far beyond the
norm. My interest was piqued and the chapters that follow take the reader on a
journey into a productive exchange of ideas between Western science and
Buddhist philosophy of mind. Goleman expends great energy attempting to capture
the awe-inspiring energy generated by the meetings.
At the close of the book, Goleman
narrates the various consequences of the conference, including all the projects
to which it gave birth. Of the more innovative and pragmatic of the projects, Ekman
is spearheading the development and testing of a new mind-training program for
adults, Cultivating Emotional Balance. It seems clear that, among the
participants, Ekman was the most profoundly transformed as a professional. In
his case, the conference seemed not only to inspire him; it sparked a genuine metanoia
The most touching of the
personal narratives is the story of Francesco Varela. Many of you will be
familiar with Varela as the Chilean neuroscientist who, with Humberto Maturana,
pioneered the theory of autopoiesis, the emergence of self-producing and
self-regulating systems, which became an innovative means of conceptualizing
the emergence of consciousness from the material substrate of the nervous
system. Over a decade later, after having fled Chile to France, Varela
pioneered the field of neurophenomenology, the introduction of first-person
observational methods into neuroscience, which is only just beginning to catch
fire here in the United States.
Being a Buddhist himself, Varela
can be thanked for giving birth to the Mind and Life Institute, which initiated
the discussions between the Dalai Lama and Western science. The first event of
its kind was held in October of 1987, and three years later the Mind and Life
Institute was formed with the help of U.S. attorney R. Adam Engle. Since then,
the Institute has hosted no less than eleven events with the Dalai Lama, and,
in each case, the discussions have included some of the most well-respected
scholars in their respective fields. We have Varela to thank for making these
dialogues possible. So, it is with deep melancholy that we learn of Varela's
death shortly after the 2000 meeting in Dharamsala.
By the time of the Dharamsala
meeting, Varela was very sick, and he was forced to present his lecture from Paris
via teleconferencing. Varela, who suffered from liver cancer as a consequence
of hepatitis C, had recently undergone a liver transplant, which kept him alive
just long enough to receive a thank you from the other conference presenters
before he passed on. Remarkably, we learn that Varela would have passed up the
opportunity for the transplant if it had not been for the Dalai Lama, who had
encouraged Varela to take all necessary measures to prolong his life. During
his presentation, the discussion between Varela and His Holiness is filled with
mutual gratitude and a love so palpable, it drips like syrup from the pages of
their dialogue. On the edge of tears, undoubtedly both tears of joy and
mourning, Varela addressed His Holiness:
It seems to me wondrous that I am
here with you once more. It is a truly amazing thing that we have been able to
keep up over the years. This time, even more so, it seems like a gift of life
that I can be back here to have this opportunity to talk to you. Your support
and kindness through difficult times was very, very essential to for me. (p.
Such is one of a variety of moments in the book that stir
Another inspiring moment is the
exchange between His Holiness and Paul Ekman, who had brought his daughter, an
activist of the Tibetan cause, to the meeting. In these exchanges, Ekman is
remarkably candid about his own personal struggles to cope with destructive
emotions. In particular, he describes in intimate detail his difficulties with
anger, which he attributes to being the target of abuse by his violent father,
as well as being abandoned by his mother when he was a pre-teen. He also shares
a personal story of irrational rage, when his wife failed to call him while she
was away at a conference. Most remarkably, he testifies to his own healing as a
result of meeting the Dalai Lama. Such moments stir the soul.
Goleman has a talent for
spinning a good story. He has an uncanny knack for observing those
interpersonal and emotional dynamics that often go unnoticed. Of course, he's
done a lot of work in this area, which he calls "emotional
intelligence," so we shouldn't be surprised. The strength of Destructive
Emotions lies in Goleman's ability to connect the reader to the human lives
behind the science. By the end of the book, his characters are flesh and blood
actors who command our sympathies and embody our hopes for an extraordinary
psychology about extraordinary people by extraordinary scholars and
Goleman's strength, however, is
also his weakness. The book, unfortunately, is weighed down by the narrative of
events and biographical details of the characters in his tale. The details
become so dense and the story so tediously descriptive that I found it
difficult at times to stick with the text. I found myself sitting it down and
forgetting to pick it up for days and even weeks at a time. With a book close
to 400 pages in length, the book is in desperate need of pruning.
Part of the problem with Goleman's
approach is that he hasn't seemed to define his audience. Is the book for
scientists, philosophers or Buddhists? For lay people or for professionals? It's
clear that Goleman attempts to appeal to each of these demographics, and so, as
a result, the book will both appeal and equally frustrate each group of
readers. Those who are interested in learning about the fine-grained
theoretical differences between Buddhist and Western concepts of emotion will
have to be satisfied with the nuggets of juicy tidbits scattered throughout the
text. They will be annoyed by the decided lack of detail in these discussions,
and they will likely be frustrated by the necessity of combing through pages
and pages of narrative only to arrive at relatively brief accounts of the
debate and discussion. Psychologists will not learn much new about emotion. The
accounts are quite conventional and well known. However, those scholars who are
unfamiliar with Buddhism are given an accessible and psychology-friendly
introduction. Likewise, lay readers and Buddhists will find an accessible
introduction to some of the major themes in emotion research, but they will
find the Buddhist scholarship to be fairly rudimentary.
In final analysis, the book is a
narrative account of an event. The scholarly details are secondary to the
story. The story is inspiring, but it is little more than a gateway into a new
vision of psychology, one that should give hope to those, such as myself, who
have long been frustrated by psychology's loss of soul. These exchanges between
Western scientists and the Dalai Lama give hope that a science of optimal human
living is a promise that can actually be realized. If you are looking for a
scholarly text, Goleman will point the way to the scholarly projects inspired
by the book, but you will only catch glimpses of these insights in the pages of
Destructive Emotions. For scholars, the book serves less as information
for the head than a springboard for the heart.
© 2004 Brent Dean Robbins
Brent Dean Robbins received his
Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Duquesne University. He is currently
serving as Assistant Professor of Psychology at Daemen College in Buffalo, NY.
He also teaches on-line courses as an adjunct instructor for Massey University.
His areas of interest include the psychology of emotion, psychopathology,
positive psychology, philosophical psychology and qualitative research methods.
He is Editor-in-Chief of Janus Head: An Interdisciplinary Journal (www.janushead.org) and a Board Member of
the International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy.
His newest project includes the establishment of a new non-profit organization,
the Institute for Cultural Therapeutics (ICT), dedicated to applied research in
positive psychology. The first ICT project is the development and testing of a
program to increase strengths and virtues in children and adolescents.