Co-authored his 15th book with the Dalai Lama, which is based on 39 hours of dialogue and idea exchange, covering such topics as the nature of emotion, achieving emotional balance, and expanding global compassion.
The eyes may be the windows to our soul, but according to Paul Ekman Ph.D. ’58, ’08 Hon., our faces are the true mirrors of our emotions. Dr. Ekman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Medical School in San Francisco, is renowned for his study of emotions and deception and their physical manifestations, particularly as fleeting facial expressions or microexpressions. In September, he published his 15th book, Emotional Awareness: Overcoming Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), which he co-authored with the Dalai Lama, based on 39 hours of dialogue and idea exchange, covering such topics as the nature of emotion, achieving emotional balance, and expanding global compassion. He spoke with Adelphi University Magazine about his work and profound conversation with the exiled leader of the Tibetan people.
What drew you to study emotions generally and emotional expressions specifically?
It was when I was a student at Adelphi, and part of my training was doing psychotherapy, and I thought a lot more was occurring than the words, and that expressions and body movements were really important. And if we were going to really advance our understanding in psychotherapy and technique, we needed to bring this into the scientific arena.
How do you define emotions?
There are really only seven emotions that have a set of characteristics which I will now describe for you. One, is they are generally unbidden…We experience them as seizing us. The second characteristic is they occur through a very fast appraisal system that consciousness does not participate in. So think of the near miss car accident. In less than a quarter of a second, you make a very complex evaluation of the speed of that other car and the angle and compute what adjustments you need to make to your steering wheel, your brake, and your gas pedal. And you do that all without conscious thought, and you do it in under a quarter of a second. And if you didn’t, you wouldn’t survive. Emotion has this capability for an immediate, fast, but opaque to consciousness appraisal…The third (characteristic) is that it’s fairly brief. We can be emotional for as little as a few seconds, rarely for more than a few minutes…One more key characteristic is that it appears that our emotions are not unique to humans. Other animals, particularly other primates, have emotions as well.
What are the seven emotions?
I’ll give you the seven that are universal: anger, fear, disgust, sadness…surprise, enjoyment, and contempt.
What are some ways that people can become more mindful of their emotions?
The one that comes out of Buddhist practice and other contemplative traditions is a focus on anything that you ordinarily do automatically. So, you can do what is called walking meditation, in which you walk like you did when you were first learning to. (You) raise your foot, you lift it, you put it forward, you put it down, and you keep your mind focused on what you’re doing. Or you do the same with breath. You can focus on each breath coming in and out. Now, these are things that we ordinarily don’t think about, but if you can learn to think about these very automatic processes that are done without thought, that helps you monitor the arousal of emotions which occurs without thought…A Western approach to the same thing is to…be more familiar with the sensations that are in your body when an emotion is beginning, so that you can know that you are becoming emotional and then bring consciousness to bear on how you’re going to enact that emotion or whether you don’t want to engage with that emotion.
How has meeting the Dalai Lama changed your life?
I felt, quite apart from everything else, the enormous fun and excitement and closeness and rapport that I had rather instantly with him. I also felt a lot of goodness from him on some occasions that I thought was very useful to me, and yet goodness is not a concept that we deal with in science…The fact that I can’t figure out how to measure what goodness is doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It just means that we don’t yet have the tools or even (the) framework. (The Dalai Lama) didn’t think we ever will, and I told him, in another 50 years, we’ll know quite a lot about it scientifically.
How do you think your meeting with the Dalai Lama has influenced his thinking?
I know he now considers himself a Darwinian…He quotes Darwin back to me. He’s accepted the Darwinian explanation of origins…And I think he has also more clearly articulated the fact that emotions themselves are not problematic. It depends on how you enact them.
What is compassion and why is it now more important than ever?
Various people define it in different ways…I and the Dalai Lama define it (as) the wish to reduce the suffering of all living beings…Compassion is given to us by nature. It’s how parents feel towards their offspring, and sometimes towards each other. When you see a child suffering, without thought, you would act in a way to relieve it, even to the point of sacrificing your own life…There are a few people who…, without any special training or experience, feel that way towards all human beings. But most of us don’t feel that way except towards the people that we’re related to…You can argue that in the 19th and even most of the 20th century, you could have a solely individualistic philosophy…But this planet isn’t going to survive…, most(ly) because of global warming, and food shortage, and water shortage, and energy shortage, unless we develop a more compassionate relationship with all human beings.
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