By Daniel Goleman
The human body seems to have a natural system of ethics not unlike Buddhadharma, where negative emotions make one ill and wholesome mind states promote health. So it’s really in our self-interest to be compassionate and gentle
Buddhism has as principal aims the goal of transforming perception and experience and synchronizing mind and body. According to Buddhist teaching, the process of harmonizing mind and body and transforming experience is a gradual one. This path is based on the practice of various forms of meditation, coupled with a moral imperative to engage in virtuous action. Such action is based on the awareness of the interdependence of all life and the universal compassion that emerges from this awareness.
Tibetan Buddhist thinkers have long been concerned with psycho-physical health. According to this tradition, illness is the result of an imbalance in the psycho-physical body, produced by conflicting emotions such as anger or greed.
Emotions & Health
According to scientific studies conducted in the recent past, on one hand the link between emotions and health is particularly strong for negative feelings like anger, anxiety, and depression. These states can increase vulnerability to disease, worsen symptoms or hinder recovery. On the other hand, positive states seem to have salutary effects on health—although the data on health impact of positive emotions is not as strong as for negative ones.
Evidence suggests that the body’s own mind, the immune system, provides a basis for a de facto ethical system in the difference between emotional states that help one stay healthy and live longer, and those that promote disease. The body’s ethical system, this ‘body dharma’, approximates an aspect of Buddhadharma, in that the afflictive emotions tend to make one ill and wholesome states of mind tend to promote health. In looking at the new scientific evidence, I am struck by how similar the states of mind that lead to illness or to health are to those described as wholesome or unwholesome in ancient spiritual systems like Buddhism or Christianity.
The whole idea that states of mind can affect health is very new in science, and it’s telling what states have not been studied. There are no studies of the effect of greed on health, because greed is not considered a problem in the West; it’s a cultural norm. And while looking at qualities of mind in meditation and how they affect diseases is a promising idea, it’s way beyond where science is now.
Let’s look at optimism. It is really more an outlook, a view that has to do with how you explain the bad things that happen in your life, which in turn can keep you from becoming depressed or demoralized in the face of setbacks. In failing an examination, for example, some people would say they are stupid. They explain it in terms of a permanent trait in themselves. That’s the negative or pessimistic view. Others would say they failed because it was a hard test, next time they’ll study harder. They explain bad things in terms of a constantly changing situation—a more Buddhist view, I think.
In one study started in the 1940s, students at Harvard University were classified as pessimists or optimists based on essays they had written explaining events in their lives. About 30 years later, the health history of these same students was examined. Starting in their 40s, the pessimists had more serious diseases and health problems than the optimists. At the University of Michigan, similar classification was made of people undergoing bypass surgery; the optimists had fewer problems during surgery and made a faster recovery. So even in that intense situation, optimism seemed to be good for health.
If these scientific trends continue to be verified by future findings, this might provide an answer to the problem of how to convince people to live ethically who have no religious belief but only get the individualistic ethic—‘whatever I want is what I should get’. Perhaps you can say it’s in their self-interest to be loving, not to be angry.
Mind, Brain, Body
The relationship between emotions, cognition, and brain activity leads to the question of the nature of consciousness. This is a key point on which science and Buddhism diverge—whether consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, or has a separate existence in its most subtle form.
This central disagreement between Buddhism and Western neuroscience revolves around the nature of consciousness. In the West, neuroscientists believe the problem of explaining consciousness can be solved by identifying neural correlates of consciousness in the brain. One prominent theory holds that this can be accomplished by locating circuits of neurons associated with aspects of consciousness and determining how they are interconnected with other circuits. This model assumes consciousness emerges from the vast interplay of countless neural networks of cells.
Still, neuroscientists acknowledge that at the present time no one knows how a complex assembly of neurons can be aware if itself. And some critics observe that neuroscience research assumes reductionism—the view that mental events and behavior can be reduced to physiology. There is a healthy and active debate in contemporary science concerning the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, which seems to escape explanation in terms of physiological processes.
By contrast, one Tibetan Buddhist model proposes eight varieties of consciousness—the consciousness of the ‘universal ground’ (Kun shi), thought (sems), and the six senses. The basic duality of subjectivity, the perception of self as distinct from objects of awareness, emerges at the level of the universal ground. Sems is cognition, the core of discursive thoughts. As the ‘sixth sense’, cognition acts to coordinate and synthesize the other five sense consciousnesses.
In Buddhism, meditation is used to stabilize and examine the mind carefully, finally recognizing subtle aspects of mind beyond sense perceptions and thought. The Western belief that consciousness is an emergent function of brain activity is a reductionist, materialist position from the Buddhist perspective. Buddhism asserts that although many forms of consciousness are associated with the brain and sensory perception, some subtle elements of consciousness are not limited to brain activity. An ‘intrinsic awareness’ is beyond ordinary consciousness; the ‘Buddha nature’ of all beings, it is not dependent on the body or the brain.
From Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions, and Health edited by Daniel Goleman. © 1997 by the Mind and Life Institute. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston. Website: www.shambhala.com.
Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and author of the groundbreaking 1995 bestseller, Emotional Intelligence. His reportage on the behavioural sciences for The New York Times has received two Pulitzer Prize nominations. As member of the board of directors of the Mind & Life Institute, he has been part of several conferences with the Dalai Lama and western scientists.
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