Daniel Ekman is the world’s leading expert in “reading” emotions. His career as a psychologist has been devoted to defining them, understanding why they arise, what can prolong both those pleasant and unpleasant, and why they end. The Dalai Lama, in addition to being the leader of millions of Buddhist, is also a keen student of emotions and their control. Lucky for us that the two have also become friends, because their relationship has resulted in an uncommonly interesting book; Emotional Awareness.
Although not directed specifically at the teaching environment, the lessons learned here have a lot to say not just about mindfulness, but also focus and engagement; valuable considerations for all successful (or struggling!) teachers. The ideas put forth would also be of use for home schoolers: where is understanding emotions more important than when you are trying to teach your own children?
This review can only touch on a few of the points made during these two savants’ conversations. According to Ekman, the lead author, these took place over a number of months. At times they touched on revealing episodes in Ekman' past, which often were of a personal and revealing nature.
Perhaps most interesting for the whole child movement is the hypothesis put forth by Ekman that emotion filters mood. He writes, early on,
“… that moods are not useful to us; they filter what we see in the world…. We do not have access to everything we know, only to what fits our mood.” (p 13)
Mood is not, for Ekman, “useful.” And later on,
“It is in the nature of emotions to keep consciousness out. If we are going to become a balanced person, we are going to have to work to give ourselves what nature did not want us to have, which is a role for consciousness.” (p 39)
Or in pedagogic terms with which we might be more familiar, the executive function. Buddhist monks and nuns are great executives – they have spent years training themselves to be aware of their emotions, and to quickly recover their equanimity when “afflictive,” or unpleasant emotions arise. Ekman quotes another researcher, Clifford Saron:
“Awareness of intentions trains one to catch very subtle moments of experience as they evolve in elaborated behaviors.” (p 59)
These emotional experiences can be elaborated through emotional “scripts,” both good and bad, which can be replayed, repetitively, when we are exposed to similar stimuli. These scripts, too, can cause us to “misperceive the world.”
So we are lost in our emotions and their lens colors our perception of whatever is going around us. However, through meditation, and meditative practices, some of which can be quite physical, we get to discard these distorting glasses. We can become more attentive to how we are “feeling,” we can encourage “constructive” emotions such as sympathy and joy, and dampen “afflictive” ones such as contempt or anger. This attentiveness may not even exist on a level that we acquaint with consciousness; eventually through practice, the monitoring self can continue to monitor even below the conscious level, in support of a more balanced, composed life.
This all sounds great for those of us who are in the throes of afflictive emotions, and who is not, at times? The reader must realize that Emotional Awareness is not a how-to book on meditative techniques, on dealing with difficult people, or on the raising of healthy children. It is, instead, the musings of two experts on what emotions are, and how they can be recognized, monitored, and better controlled.
Finally, the book is optimistic. Emotional skills can be taught, and, according to both the Dalai Lama and Ekman, should be part of the curriculum of every school. Perhaps in the future they will be. Right now we should take comfort just in the belief that a life which is richer in equanimity, and compassion is not only possible, but according the Dalai Lama, available to us all. This alone should give us hope, and point us towards a healthier future for ourselves, and for the children that we teach.