Emotions unite and divide the worlds, both personal and global, in which we live, motivating the best and the worst of our actions. Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.

Bringing different perspectives to bear—Eastern and Western, spiritual and scientific, Buddhist and psychological—the Dalai Lama and I came together in conversation and sought to clarify these contradictions, in hopes of illuminating paths to a balanced emotional life and a feeling of compassion that can reach across the globe.

As the leader of a millennia-old spiritual tradition as well as a nation in exile, the Dalai Lama holds something resembling divine status among his fellow Tibetans. He is the world’s principal living advocate of nonviolence and the winner, in 1989, of the Nobel Peace Prize and, in 2007, of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award given to a civilian by the United States government. He is denounced and at times publicly despised by the leaders of the
People’s Republic of China, which has occupied Tibet since 1950.

© Steven Dewall
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Yet he is also more than a religious and political leader: In the Western world his celebrity approaches that of a rock star. He has authored several bestselling books and is nearly always traveling, speaking, and inspiring audiences that number in the thousands. He is also strongly interested in integrating the findings of modern science into the Buddhist worldview.

I first met the Dalai Lama in 2000, when I attended a small conference on destructive emotions organized by the Mind and Life Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. Whether through a shared sense of playful and probing curiosity, our commitment to reducing human suffering, or a conviction that we were likely to learn from each other, the Dalai Lama and I immediately found an unexpectedly strong rapport across the wide gulf of the intellectual heritages we each represent.

During the weekend of April 22–23, 2006, the Dalai Lama and I sat down for the first of three dialogues, which were to total 39 hours of intimate exchange over a period of 15 months. In the following dialogue, adapted from our book, Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama and I explore the nature and prospects of global compassion.

Our discussion, excerpted from a much longer one, focuses on new possibilities, arising from Buddhist practices and Western techniques, for cultivating emotional balance and compassion. To the Dalai Lama’s right sat my ally in this endeavor, Thupten Jinpa, who served as the translator for the meeting. —Paul Ekman

The problem of our time

Ekman: The problem of our time, of our century, is to achieve a global compassion; otherwise we run the risk that we will destroy ourselves. We are talking about influencing all the people in the world, who are, to a large extent, brought up in exactly the opposite way, with a national—or even worse, a tribal concern—and nothing beyond that. We are not starting on neutral territory; we start with a need to counter tribal-bound compassion. How do we do this? What are the first steps?

Dalai Lama: (Translated.) The first step is to be able to educate people to see the downside of a completely individualistic rather than a global concern, to recognize the pros and cons, the benefits and the disadvantages, of compassion for all living beings.(Switching to English.) Here, the narrow-mindedness to think of one’s own nation, one’s own country, one’s own tract. Or [to think of] only the West—America and Europe—not thinking about Africa, Latin America, Middle East, or Asia. And the Asians say, “Oh, we’re Asia”; there is a sense of rivalry with the West. So, what is the benefit of that? For us to think globally is a positive benefit: The economy, the environment, and also the political system. I think with politics, there is, how do you say?

Jinpa: Rivalry.

Dalai Lama: Rivalry, based on the national feeling, policy commitments, and concern about power. (Translated.) The first step is to appreciate really and deeply the pros and cons, the benefits and the disadvantages of narrow-mindedness, nationalism, tribalism, provincialism, whatever it is, as opposed to a global consciousness, a unity of humanity. How do we do this on a global scale? Here it becomes very important to reflect deeply upon the interconnected nature of the modern economy, and how environmentally our fates are all intertwined.

This reality, I think, is totally different than the reality of the 19th century, 18th century, 17th century. At that time, the Western nations had more advanced technology than other people, and so they exploited some other countries. The reality was “we” and “them”—this was the basis. Today, the reality is much different. Everything is heavily interdependent.

Ekman: So it would appear that the world has been changing in the last century to better fit a Buddhist view. In the 16th century, the Buddhists had the same view as they do today, but the world did not fit it. You could live your life without much regard for how other people on the planet were living their lives. Now it is a fact of life that what one person does has effects on others; we are all interdependent.

Dalai Lama: A new reality. (Translated.) But the problem is that the politicians are not able to follow that trend. No.

Ekman: I see what you are pointing to. There are two destructive forces to contend with.
One of them is historically-grounded resentment. In areas like the Balkans, the hatred goes back for centuries; it is living your life now in terms of what happened to your father or your uncle. But facing realities today is not so easy to achieve. Much is based on equalizing the score for past resentments. Resentment—a long-term, harbored sense of injustice and unfairness—is a real obstacle.

Another obstacle is a concern with the short-term rather than the long-term. Politicians generally are only concerned with what happens in the short-term, because that is what is going to affect them.

Dalai Lama: Yes. (Translated.) On a global level, we need to have a deeper appreciation of how many of the conflicts and problems that we face today are really the consequence of an inadequate appreciation of the global dimension, and that this is the result of narrow-mindedness, of one form or another.

More than a century ago, Darwin had already pointed out the need for this kind of global sentiment. [Earlier in their conversation, Ekman had described Darwin’s views on the origin of compassion, which were remarkably similar to the Buddhist view. —Ed.] Even on the individual level, it may be helpful to bring to people’s attention the health dimensions of the more positive emotions, like compassion. How thinking more globally, thinking about others, provides an outlook within which the individual may no longer get caught up in the petty issues and problems that often become stumbling blocks.

To give an analogy, there is an admonition in the Buddhist texts to appreciate that basic existence itself is subject to personal dissatisfaction. This natural “unsatisfactoriness” is a fundamental condition of existence. This is like global awareness. When you have a better appreciation of global awareness, then, with relation to specific instances of pain (whether it is physical pain or emotional pain), you have a greater ability to deal with it. Whereas, if your understanding of suffering is confined to a specific instance of the pain in the present, if you keep thinking about it and thinking about it, it could actually make you feel hopeless and helpless.

Ekman: Yes. There is always some dissatisfaction with the nature of life. It is fundamental to life. It is not all honey and sweetness; there is difficulty.

Cultivating compassion

Ekman: Should the effort to generate global compassion be focused on an antidote to narrow-mindedness or on an intervention to bring about more compassion? To get one, you do have to get rid of the other.

Dalai Lama: (Translated.) My approach is to bring light, powerfully, onto the downside of narrow-mindedness, which then provides a powerful rationale for having a more broad-minded, global perspective and concern for others. So they are related, a kind of a premise. (Claps hands together.)

In Buddhist meditation practice, there is something analogous, where in order to practice compassion, first you reflect deeply upon the downside of narrow-minded self-centeredness. Then you reflect upon the positive consequences and the potential of more other-centered perspectives. On the basis of these reflections, you cultivate compassion. Otherwise, if you simply admonish others to cultivate compassion, and if you do not give them the resources—particularly the rationale for its need—it is just wishful thinking. Whereas, if you explain from the point of view of self-interest—it is for your own interest and well-being; it is essential—it makes a difference.

There are two kinds of self interest. (Switching to English.) Without self-interest, generally speaking, there is no basis for development of determination. But extreme self-centeredness is foolish, selfish interest.

Ekman: If we put two advertisements in the newspaper, one stating that we are holding a weekend workshop, free of charge, to develop compassion, and the other that we are going to have a weekend workshop, free of charge, to reduce your narrow-mindedness, I think the compassion advertisement would draw more people than the narrow-mindedness ad. Coming to a “narrow-mindedness workshop” requires you to acknowledge that you are narrow-minded, which most people would be reluctant to do.

Dalai Lama: (Translated.) Compassion is what we are aspiring for. The whole notion of narrow-mindedness, the downside of being narrow-minded, is part of the argument for the need for compassion.

When you advertise, if you talk about “dealing with narrow-mindedness,” people might think, “What is it for?” Whereas, if you say, “cultivation of compassion,” people can relate to it. But the problem is that, though most people may share the idea that it is a very valuable thing, a precious thing, sometimes people have a rather naive understanding of what compassion is. But people might also feel that it is a noble idea and it is a noble value. We need to give people a deeper understanding of compassion, grounded in a real appreciation of its need and value.

Ekman: But there is the serious challenge of scale: How do we do this on a global level? For instance, we have to address the disproportionate use of the world’s resources. Americans are not the majority of the world’s population, but in terms of the world’s oil consumption, they consume a disproportionate amount.

Dalai Lama: (Translated.) It is partly because America has quite a large land mass, so you have to drive long distances. (Ekman laughs.) If it were a smaller country, there would be less scope for consumption.

Ekman: We eat a lot of beef, which requires an enormous amount of energy to produce compared to diets that are more common in other parts of the world. If we were to make things more equitable worldwide, in order for the poorest to not be so poor, the richest might not be able to live as luxuriously as they now live.

Some economists argue that is not true. But some argue that it is very true, that people do not want to give up either their individualist aspirations, or the fact that they can drive huge cars, go wherever they want, and eat steaks every night. “And you are telling me I have to maybe only have steak once a week? Or I have to drive a smaller car? Is that what compassion requires?”

I say this with a bit of a smile, but I think it is a serious problem to confront, how we share the world’s resources equitably when we have an inequitable situation to begin with, and a very powerful nation that is benefiting from the inequity. This may be a very large obstacle to achieving global compassion.

Dalai Lama: (Translated.) One of the things that people can consider or have brought to their attention is the question of the sustainability of their current lifestyle. If we were to continue on this path of consumption, at this current level, how long could this last?

Ekman: Some might think, “As long as it lasts for me and my children, why should I be concerned?” That is the problem, as I see it.

Dalai Lama: Oh.

Ekman: Matters are getting to the point where people are beginning to worry: “Maybe my children will have a burden if we do not change things now.” For example, America is mortgaging itself with a deficit that may be a burden to our children. I believe that we should recognize this as bad selfishness.

Dalai Lama: Mm-hmm.

Ekman: As a parent with children, I realize that if I give up a little bit of my standard of living, it will be better for my children and grandchildren. It will not benefit me, but if I make some reductions, it will benefit them. From a Buddhist view, giving up attachment—to material comfort or lifestyle or whatever—is accomplished freely, not begrudgingly. There will be psychological benefits in the state of the person’s mind as a consequence of this compassionate act.

Dalai Lama: Yes.

Ekman: So, it is the built-in compassion we have for our offspring that may help to save the world. It may be difficult to care about the children in Darfur, but worrying about my own children and grandchildren is easy. I better start reducing the inequity, for my own children’s sake. So, it is building on what is already there.

Dalai Lama: Yes. That is how we start: family level. (Translated.) Part of the tension here may be arising from a fairly standard Western attitude for dealing with problems that you want to solve. The world has many problems, and the idea that all the problems can be solved is probably not very realistic. There were great teachers in the past, across many cultures, who have taught certain ways of being, but if you look carefully, it seems that none of these teachers premised their teaching on the assumption that everyone is going to listen or going to change themselves and follow them.

Similarly, Darwin expressed very powerful sentiments [about the need for the welfare of all sentient beings]. He probably did not expect that they would be achieved. (Ekman laughs.) He probably did not write them on the assumption that everybody was going to listen to him.

The same applies to us. Our responsibility is to try our best and do what we can. Then that will be a part of things that we may achieve. Ten people follow a practice—good. One hundred—better. A thousand—still better. Not all six billion.

Ekman: Maybe over time.

Dalai Lama: (Switching to English.) If the work is something that is worthwhile, then, regardless whether we can achieve it or not, make attempt. That is, I think, important. Courageous.

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