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With an eye toward understanding the inner workings of the mind and using that knowledge to reduce human suffering, psychologists and Buddhist monks may have more in common than they realize, and possibly even compatible methodology. These commonalities are driving collaborations between some psychologists and Buddhist monks.

Richard Davidson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for one, believes that the shared goals and empiricism of these two traditions could lead to useful advances for each. Tibetan Buddhism, says Davidson, is not a dogmatic religion; knowledge in the tradition is gained by examining one's own experience. Monks train for years to become expert observers of the inner workings of their own minds, he says. Research psychology, on the other hand, attempts to understand mental processes by focusing on third-person observation and de-emphasizing subjective observations of mental phenomena, he explains.

Davidson, who explores brain states and their relationship to human experiences such as consciousness and emotion, recently headed a conference titled "Investigating the mind: exchanges between Buddhism and the biobehavioral sciences on how the mind works." At the symposium, which was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September, researchers in psychology, neuroscience and other fields discussed theories of cognitive control and attention, mental imagery and emotion with Tibetan Buddhist scholars, including the Dalai Lama. The conference is the second in a series sponsored by MIT and the Mind and Life Institute. The meetings are part of an ongoing series intended to illuminate potential areas for fruitful collaboration between Western science and Tibetan Buddhism.

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.

A model research population

In addition to practicing emotional control through mindfulness meditation, Tibetan Buddhist monks calm the mind by envisioning complex mental images, including Buddhist deities and symbolic geometric designs called mandalas.

Tibetan Buddhist monks, says Marlene Behrmann, PhD, a Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor, are the "virtuosos of mental imagery"--a process where the mind transforms an idea into an image. With upwards of 30 years of rigorous mental conditioning, these monks "represent the far end of the sophistication continuum of mental imagery," says Behrmann, who attended the recent MIT conference. So adept are the Tibetan monks, they report generating each complex image simultaneously, whereas most theories on mental image construction maintain that people create images one stroke at a time.

Mental imagery, says Behrmann, is critical in a number of tasks besides meditation, from assessing a potential chess move to determining whether a new couch will fit in the living room. She speculates that the current body of research on mental imagery focuses on the skills of amateurs--specifically, Western college sophomores. By broadening the pool of research participants to include visualization experts such as Tibetan Buddhist monks, psychologists might be able to get an idea of what the upper limits of human visualization look like, says Behrmann. An increased understanding of the mechanism of mental imagery could aid Buddhist practitioners in perfecting meditative techniques, as well as add to our understanding of the way the visual system works, says Behrmann.

Buddhist concepts sharpen Western theories

Buddhist theories of the mind have also influenced the work of Stephanie Rude, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, who is interested in applying these ideas to work with people with mental illnesses such as depression. Rude sees particular merit in an idea borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism: that the self--a belief in something permanent, stable and integral to a person--hinders happiness.

"When you read Buddhist writings, you get a sense of self as an obstacle in achieving fulfillment," explains Rude. That is a huge difference in perspective from the West, where the concept of self-esteem or a "healthy" self is central to both theory and clinical practice, she says. Yet, consistent with the Buddhist view, some Western research suggests that focusing on the self can compound negative emotions, explains Rude.

"A depressed person may make himself feel worse by interpreting his suffering as meaning he has failed in some way," says Rude, explaining that a trained Buddhist monk might choose to see his suffering as an inevitable part of being human.

Westerners are conditioned, says Rude, to take suffering more personally--to think about suffering as something about themselves. Eschewing a concept of the self as something immutable and central may help us to feel less harmed by the slings and arrows of misfortune, suggests Rude. Tibetan Buddhist acceptance of mental suffering as an unavoidable condition of life, rather than a reflection on their personal failings, may help monks face sadness with equanimity.

While Rude does not plan to study monks directly, she says she considers the body of knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism to be a major resource in her continuing study of depression.

"It's a big challenge to Western researchers to figure out how these ideas might be used without losing too much in translation," says Rude. Eventually, she says, psychologists may be able to use techniques cut on the teeth of Buddhist theories to teach people with depression to reconceptualize their ideas of self in ways that promote mental health.

Davidson agrees. Indeed, he says interdisciplinary understanding between Western psychology and Tibetan Buddhism--not just borrowing concepts--can be beneficial to both traditions.

He adds that he hopes psychologists' work with Tibetan Buddhist monks and scholars can serve as a model for future discourse between scientists and other contemplative religions--conversations that could lead to a sharpened understanding of cognition, emotion and even consciousness. "There is a lot we can learn from these traditions," says Davidson. "The time is right for collaboration."

Further Reading

  • Davidson, R.J. & Harrington, A. (Eds.). (2001). Visions of compassion: Western scientists and Tibetan Buddhists examine human nature. Oxford: Oxford Press.

  • Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Times Books.

  • Houshmand, Z., Livingston, R.B., & Wallace, A.B. (Eds.) Consciousness at the crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on brain science and Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.