Tag Archives: emotions

Emotions: The Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman in Conversation

So how do I justify bringing the Dalai Lama into my blog? Simple. He  and the Buddhist tradition delve deeply into the nature of the emotions. And in this instance, the inquiry is deepened by conversing with American psychologist Paul Ekman, the expert on the facial expression of emotions and on emotions in general. “Okay”, you may say, “but what’s this to do with persuasion or lawyering?” Well, why there are times and places where you may benefit from having a Spock or Sherlock as your lawyer, but most often you’ll want to keep that person holed-up in the back office because they don’t deal well with people. And a good deal of lawyering isn’t about the clever, it’s about the effective. All the IQ in the world only goes so far without EQ.  The ability to understand and monitor the emotions of ourselves and others is a key component of EQ. Frankly, I don’t think that lawyers (or anyone) can get enough of this. Will it ruin the stereotype of lawyers as sharks? No, some will continue that line of conduct. Will it make us all into compliant pacifists?  I don’t think so: EQ can also involve the strategic use of anger or disgust as emotions to exhibit in appropriate circumstances. The question becomes whether we control the emotion or the emotion controls us. Think about this in any persuasive situation, which, knowing your Aristotle, you realize includes pathos.

This is a fascinating book. I recommend it to anyone for its conversational format, relaxed and personal tone, and its intriguing insights into this aspect of our humanity.

Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama & Paul Ekman

  • by Stephen N. Greenleaf
  • 3 min read
  • original

Leading psychologist Paul Ekman received an invitation to a Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama in 2000. He went because he knew it would it please his daughter, an admirer of the Dalai Lama. Ekman himself had no great knowledge of Buddhism and no religious beliefs or practices of his own. What happened as a result of this initial encounter changed Ekman’s life, both personally and professionally. He hit it off with the Dalai Lama, experiencing a warmth and openness that affected him emotionally and that puzzled him as a scientist. And he learned things about the Buddhist tradition that triggered new perspectives and research agendas from him about the emotions and how we humans can learn to better cultivate them. This book records conversations held between Ekman and the Dalai Lama over several years. These transcripts and sidebars become a treasure-trove of insight into this most basic human (and animal) phenomenon that Buddhism has explored more than two millennia via introspection (meditation). Now science is taking a closer look at, especially with the advances in neuroscience and other techniques that provide us new ways of viewing and testing emotions. This book allows any reader can come away with a better understanding of how we live our emotional lives, and how we can cultivate those emotions for our own good and the good of those with whom we live. No small accomplishment.

The first two of the Four Noble Truths espoused by the Buddha state his assessment of the human condition. The First Noble Truth: Life is unsatisfactory. (More often, we see the original Sanskrit or Pali translated as “suffering”, but I agree that this word is perhaps too aggressive in its portrayal of the original insight.) The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering [or unsatisfactoriness] is attachment. Attachment, as you learn, can mean craving for something (greed), craving to escape something (aversion, hatred), or ignorance of the situation (delusion). So what has this to do with emotions? Via natural selection, mammals, and especially humans, developed emotions that refined our ability to approach or avoid. Mixed with our hyper-sociability (Jon Haidt), we developed a wide variety of emotions that attract or repel us from various perceived situations. Natural selection armed us over millions of years with these mind tools, but with the advent of civilization (living in cities instead of small hunter-gatherer groups), our array of emotions, such as anger and hatred, for instance, could lead us astray. Robert Wright argues in his course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology (now offered on Coursera) that Buddhism is an antidote to some aspects human behavior instilled in us by natural selection. Instead of acting on our feelings of attachment (“Yum, doughnuts! Let’s feast”) or aversion (“Your rotten SOB”), we learn to get between our emotions—developed for quick perceptions and responses—and our actions. This is a fundamental insight shared between HHDL and Ekman, each coming at the issue from their different traditions but finding a lot of agreement. Ekman calls a pause in our reactions a “refractory period”, which may be micro-moment, or—with cultivation—something much longer.

After spending time defining emotions—different from moods, we should note—the two discuss how we might learn to tame them (and not, as some think Buddhism suggests, eliminate them). Here we learn of the benefits of meditation as a mechanism for developing awareness, a meta-awareness (B. Alan Wallace) that allows us to observe the development of an emotion within us and thereby make a conscious decision about how we shall (or shan’t) act in response to the impulse. This ability, along with the conscious cultivation of compassion, allows us to take ourselves in happier and more sociable directions than the naturally selected traits of our emotions might push us.

The above is just a taste of what the book covers. In addition to insights into basic and ongoing Western scientific research about the emotions and the Buddhist insights cultivated over 2000 years, we learn about the participants, especially Ekman. Ekman’s insight that he changes over the course of these conversations (estimated at about 39 hours) is really moving. Ekman grew-up with a very difficult father, and Ekman shares insights he gains about himself and that relationship. Ekman’s growth of insight and appreciation gives the book an emotional (in a very good way!) valence that adds spice to the wonderful scientific and Buddhist knowledge and wisdom that we garner through it.

The emotions are an endlessly fascinating topic. The quality of our lives is a function of our emotions. Much of morality and ethics revolve around our emotions and how we handle them. Indeed, not just Buddhism, but all of the Axial religions and philosophies—later Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Socratic philosophy and its progeny, especially Stoicism, Confucianism, and aspects of Taoism and Hinduism—are efforts to re-direct human conduct from older, more atavistic (and now less well-adapted) traits vested in humans via natural selection. These religions and philosophies (philosophy, that is, “as a way of life”, in the words of Pierre Hadot) developed in response to a very different environment (civilization) than that of the hunter-gatherers from whom we descended. The challenge to us is to use the wisdom of these traditions and refine them (no more required, I suspect) to best fit our contemporary needs. This book goes a long way in forwarding that project. We must thank Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama for their courage in reaching across traditions to help us find our way.

P.S. This is a second take on this book. Indeed, blog 5/682 (i.e., near the beginning of my blogging) addresses my listening to this as an audio book. It was definitely worth a second take!

The Importance of Empathy (Lawyers Ed.)

While Oscar Wilde makes us think of the importance of being earnest in his comedy of manners, Brene Brown goes beyond earnest to the much greater challenge of being empathic. It’s not easy.

What relevance has this for lawyers? We lawyers have to work with people. If the truth be told, for all our vaunted ability to reason and write, it’s our people skills, our ability to convince by persuasion, which sets outstanding lawyers apart. And the deepest connections come through empathy. But there’s a catch: in order to act empathetically, we have to remain vulnerable, exposed. Ay, there’s the rub. For what self-respecting lawyer, especially one engaged in the slings and arrows of litigation, wants to reveal vulnerability and all that it entails?

What we often opt for instead is sympathy, which is quite different from empathy. Sympathy, according to Brown, disconnects us from the Other, while empathy draws us together with a person. Empathy is fellow feeling; sympathy is “That’s too bad. Now please take it away.” Empathy requires commitment and revelation; sympathy does not.

I can immediately think of two areas where we lawyers should practice empathy. First, with our clients. Think of the husband or wife who has to come in about a divorce, the parent of a child hauled into juvenile court, or the family that’s lost a loved one because of an act of negligence. How to we respond to them? It’s tough. Most clients want someone to serve as their champion, not a shoulder to cry upon. Yet, at least after a while, I think that they like to know that a human being and not a litigating cyborg represents them. (Corporations, however, may prefer litigating cyborgs.) For instance, if a client becomes involved in some form of litigation, the bad news won’t end soon. (Just the thought of a lawsuit is bad enough). Questions and doubts, hard decisions, fears and anxieties, all are likely to surface and require attention. The lawyer must balance empathy while not losing the professional judgment and demeanor that will merit a reasonable (but not absolute) degree of client confidence. It’s a fine line to walk.

The other arena in which lawyers can apply empathy is with our fellow practitioners. Let me ask this: Is there a more shitty feeling than having lost a jury trial that you know you should have and could have won? I have a hard time thinking of worse times, and I’ve suffered through more of these than I care to remember. (Adverse written decisions aren’t much better, but they seem just a bit less of a punch in the gut.) I’ve greatly appreciated calls from colleagues after a loss, those who’ve suffered similar fates at times in their careers. It doesn’t make it all better, but you do have a sense of a bit less loneliness in your misery, which certainly helps. Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat none. But at least you can have some who can mourn with you over your failure.

Without further ado, here’s the website for the Brene Brown piece. She’s a very engaging speaker, and I must also recommend this site to you. Brain Pickings blog, from which this post is taken (recommended reading)  provides high quality and consistent content on a number of topics that lawyers and others will find interesting.