Psychotheraphy / Meditation

Increasing use of Buddhist Practices in Psychotherapy

American Scientist Volume 92, Number 1 January-February 2004

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (Bantam Books, 2003), talks with senior editor Michael Szpir of the American Scientist Magazine (Online) about the increasing use of Buddhist practices in psychotherapy and the benefits of teaching “emotional intelligence” to children in school and adults in organizations.

Note: Daniel Goleman’s first book was published by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy.
Author Interview

The Bookshelf talks with Daniel Goleman
Michael Szpir

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Psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman achieved widespread recognition in 1995 with the publication of his book Emotional Intelligence, which popularized research by psychologists showing that success in life and work is based on much more than IQ. In his latest book, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama (Bantam Books, $26.95), Goleman chronicles a five-day meeting of the minds among Buddhist scholars, cognitive scientists and the Dalai Lama that took place in March 2000 in Dharamsala, India.

Perhaps no other religion or spiritual practice has explored the structure of the mind so carefully as Buddhism. With a precision that approaches the rigor of the best scientific taxonomies, Buddhists have dissected and redissected the mind, generating a catalogue of “mental afflictions” (figuratively citing as many as 84,000) that lead to inner transformation as afflictions are overcome. The top five—hatred, desire, confusion, pride and jealousy—are comparable, though certainly not identical, to the destructive mental states identified in the West. The thoroughness of the Buddhist approach to understanding the mind, and the apparent peace of mind enjoyed by Buddhist monks, has attracted Western scientists hoping to shed further light on the neurobiology of emotions and new pathways to mental health. This union has been manifested most successfully in a series of “Mind and Life” conferences between scientists and the Dalai Lama that date back to 1987. Goleman’s recent book is a day-by-day narrated transcription of this conference.

Senior editor Michael Szpir interviewed Goleman late last year to hear his thoughts about the recent convergence of the brain sciences and Eastern spirituality.

How did you become interested in the relation between Buddhist and Western approaches to understanding the mind? Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?

Back in the early 1970s, when I was completing my doctorate in psychology at Harvard, I had a predoctoral traveling fellowship (from the Ford Foundation) and then a postdoc (from the Social Science Research Council), which gave me the opportunity to spend a total of two years in Asia, particularly India, Sri Lanka and Dharamsala (a “little Tibet” in the Himalayan foothills). While there I began to study the Asian religions as theories of mind. I was surprised to find fully articulated systems of psychology—generally little known—at the heart of these religions; the most fully articulated was “Abhidharma,” a Buddhist system of thought. This system describes how the mind works, and how that process gives rise to ordinary states of suffering, and remedies—especially meditation. I, of course, had never heard of this psychology in my study of psychology in the West, even though it has been in full and continuous operation for more than 1,500 years. (The hubris of Western psychology holds that the discipline began in Europe and America in the early part of the 20th century.)

On my return to the United States I began to write about this system—in my first book, The Meditative Mind, in a textbook on theories of personality, and in some obscure journals—and to do research on meditation as an antidote to stress reactivity (for my dissertation). At the time, as I recall, there was little interest among my professional colleagues. However, I began meditating at about that time and have continued on and off over the years. I experimented with many different varieties of meditation (that was the main topic of my book) and over the years settled into a Buddhist method called mindfulness, and most recently I have been working with Tibetan teachers. Given the recent findings (summarized in Destructive Emotions) that seem to indicate a positive neuroplasticity—for example, shifts to a more positive daily mood range—I’ve tried to make more time for it.

It seems that one of the biggest gaps that must be crossed between the Eastern and Western approaches to the mind is that the scientific method requires an objective third-person approach, whereas Buddhist practice is clearly a subjective first-person phenomenon. How can these differences be resolved? Do you think that the answer lies in the creation of a new approach, a scientific revolution?
When it comes to exploring the mind in the framework of cognitive neuroscience, the maximal yield of data comes from integrating what a person experiences—the first person—with what the measurements show—the third person. The late Francisco Varela, with colleagues like Evan Thompson at York University, proposed an integration, called “neurophenomenology,” which elegantly ties together first-person experience, a second person trained as an interlocutor, and the standard third person, such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Varela has a brief presentation of this method in my book Destructive Emotions. He points out the need for highly trained observers of the mind and proposes that seasoned meditation practitioners can play this role.

What do you think is behind the recent popularity of Buddhist meditation techniques in psychotherapy? I’m guessing you think that this is more than just a passing fad.

There has been on-again-off-again interest in the therapeutic uses of meditation for the last three decades—since a small circle of psychotherapists first became aware of (and themselves tried) meditation practice. But there has also been a notable increase in recent years of these applications by a much wider slice of psychotherapists—far greater interest than ever before. For example, my wife, Tara Bennett-Goleman, has written a book on how to integrate mindfulness with cognitive therapy (Emotional Alchemy, Harmony Books, 2001), which became a New York Times best-seller; she regularly gets invitations to teach the integration of these methods to therapists. Much of this has been driven by recent findings on the successful application of mindfulness meditation in conjunction with cognitive therapy—notably, the research of Jeffrey Schwartz at UCLA, who had success with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and of John Teasdale at Cambridge University, who reports a drop of 50 percent in the relapse rate among severely, chronically depressed patients.

Buddhism has the notion of “mental afflictions,” which are states of mind that, as I understand it, prevent us from perceiving reality. In your book you talk about the subtle relation between these mental afflictions and the Western notion of destructive emotions. I wonder if these Buddhist ideas have caused any Western scientists to rethink their views about emotions or other states of mind.

Mental afflictions—for example, hatred—don’t “prevent” us from perceiving reality, but rather distort that perception. Cognitive psychology tells us much the same thing: When we are in the grip of a strong negative emotion like hatred, it skews memory (we remember things we hate about the other far more readily than what we might like), selective attention (what becomes most salient are any cues for what we dislike), etc. The Buddhist view holds that such states are afflictive because they distort our perception of reality and they create an inner disequilibrium.

On the other hand, the Western consensual definition of what makes an emotion “destructive” is that (no matter the emotion) it leads us to do something that harms ourselves or others. The Buddhist view can be seen as dealing with more subtle levels of destructiveness. Whether this more subtle definition will work its way into a Western scientific framework remains to be seen.

In Destructive Emotions, you discuss how the Buddhist notion of an “empty self” can inform science-based views of the mind. I wonder if you could elaborate on these ideas a little.

The notion of an “empty self” posits that there is no “CEO of the mind,” but rather something like committees constantly vying for power. In this view, the “self” is not a stable, enduring entity in control, but rather a mirage of the mind—not actually real, but merely seemingly so. While that notion seems contrary to our own everyday experience, it actually describes the deconstruction of self that cognitive neuroscience finds as it dissects the mind (most famously, Marvin Minsky’s “society of mind”). So the Buddhist model of the self may turn out to fit the data far better than the notions that have dominated Western thinking for the last century.

I was struck by a comment in your book on how Western science tends to take a negative view of human nature—for example, by explaining altruism as an evolutionary strategy to improve one’s own genetic fitness (and thus a selfish act)—whereas Buddhism emphasizes the importance of compassion in human motivations. What are your thoughts on how (or whether) science might incorporate a more positive/Buddhist view of human nature?

A more positive view has already been introduced into psychology, though not from Buddhism. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has spearheaded a large movement in psychology to study more vigorously positive states and experiences, like “flow” during optimal performance, as well as motivations like compassion. The movement has come in reaction to the earlier out-of-proportion focus on negative states and dysfunction that typified psychology in the last century.

It seems that the idea of emotional intelligence was quickly accepted by the business community, but I have the impression that their motivations were to increase the bottom line or to improve their corporate-ladder-climbing skills. Doesn’t this seem a little ironic?

My own interest in emotional intelligence (and focus in the book of that name) was on education; I feel there is a strong empirical case for helping children’s positive development via school-based programs in social and emotional learning (see for a recommended menu of such programs). While families, on average, have been doing a less effective job of helping children acquire life skills like self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, empathy and cooperation, these programs fit seamlessly into the school day and increase such abilities. They also reduce the incidence of perils like substance abuse, violence, unwanted teen pregnancies, and dropouts—and also seem to boost academic achievement.

When I went on to write my next book, Working With Emotional Intelligence, I wanted to make a business case that the best performers were those people strong in these skills. My hope was that organizations would start including this range of skills in their training programs—in other words, offer an adult education in social and emotional intelligence. That succeeded beyond my wildest dreams—there’s now a mini-industry in the business world that does just that. There may be some irony in that—but this was also my strategic goal. Motivation aside, if people get better at these life skills, everyone benefits: The brain doesn’t distinguish between being a more empathic manager and a more empathic father.

There was another conference of cognitive scientists, Buddhist scholars and the Dalai Lama this past September at MIT. What do you think was the most productive thing that came out of it?

Under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute [], that conference (which will be summarized in the paperback edition of Destructive Emotions, due out in April 2004) was intended to catalyze collaboration between expert meditation practitioners and cognitive neuroscientists (and other researchers). Nearly 800 professionals came (university faculty, grad students, postdocs, clinicians, scholars), with another 1,400 on the wait list. There are many research initiatives underway or in planning as a result. There will be a summer institute (on the model of the Cold Spring Harbor conferences) for graduate students and postdocs. And there is an active discussion among 400 or so researchers on a listserv (see to join the discussion).

Can you say a little bit about your next project? What are you working on now?
I’m working on an article (with Warren Bemis at Harvard’s JFK School of Government) arguing for a culture of candor in organizations, to safeguard against groupthink, blind spots and the kind of collusions that led to the collapse of Enron and the other corporate scandals, unchecked pedophilia in the Catholic church, as well as the Columbia and Challenger shuttle accidents.

Finally, I wonder what’s it like to hang out with the Dalai Lama? Is it even possible to “hang out” with the Dalai Lama, or is he more formal than that?

Unless you’re far more fortunate than I, you don’t “hang out” with the Dalai Lama these days. He’s in such huge demand that his time is tightly guarded and closely scheduled. But when you’re with him (as I’ve been in meetings over the years), you do feel an immense sense of his presence, spontaneity and delight in things, which is a bit contagious.

Courtesy: American Scientist