The following has been taken from discussions between Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama. Read more in their book Emotional Awareness.
Ekman: What I have been able to distill from our discussion is that there are three different things that we need to achieve to make for a better emotional balance, and there are three different possible benefits to be achieved from them.
The hardest one is increasing the gap between the impulse and the action of emotion or increasing your awareness that an impulse has arisen and you are about to become emotional. Matthieu Ricard told me that sometimes when an emotion arises, he recognizes it simply as a cloud that passes by and does not engage it. I use a visual image. When I see anger arise–sometimes, though not always, unfortunately–I envision it as a rolling ball of cactus. I simply step to the side and let it go past me so it does not seize me. With such awareness, you have a choice to be emotional or not emotional, to say, “I am not going to respond.” Or when you are aware of the impulse arising you can choose to be emotional but guide how you are going to be emotional.
There are two different approaches to achieving the awareness of an emotional impulse arising. One approach is to develop an awareness of your experience at that moment through meditation exercises, such as focusing on the breath. Another, very different approach is to develop acute knowledge of the triggers that lead you to become emotional, that lead you to superimpose a script from your past life that does not apply and instead distorts reality. This second approach is, in my opinion, more knowledge-based than skill-based, but the two can work together. Another variation on this recognition of the triggers that lead to regrettable emotional episodes is to try to avoid such situations when possible.
In a more knowledge-based approach, I encourage people to keep a diary of regrettable emotional episodes. Keep the diary for a month or two months, and then look at the common themes that underlie it. With that knowledge and with the greater awareness of this automatic process, you will be able to have a choice. By this means, you aim to bring into your awareness choices that you have, so that you can select the one that is most beneficial to you and others.
Separate from the need to be aware of the impulse to become emotional–which is very hard to achieve–is what to do when you begin to act emotionally. The goal is to become aware that you are behaving emotionally and to shorten the refractory period, that period when you cannot get new information from outside events or from your own memories and knowledge, or from seeing an alternative explanation of what is occurring. When this refractory period is over, and hopefully it will only be a second or two, you can reevaluate what triggered the emotion. You can see that it is not a snake, it is a rope; you can see that it was not meant as an insult, it was meant to be helpful.
There are multiple techniques for trying to achieve emotional balance, including:
- Heightening your awareness of the other person’s emotion reaction: you can learn that you are becoming emotional if you are sensitive to how someone else is reacting to you and the other person becomes a source for awakening your awareness of how you are behaving.
- Practicing exercises that teach you to be more aware of the sensations in your body that happen when an emotion occurs: these can include mindfulness and meditative practices as well as breathing techniques.
Dalai Lama: In the Buddhist psychology, there is an understanding that every emotional episode will have a preparatory stage–we call it “preliminary”–and then the actual event and its consequence or outcome– or “concluding event,” as it is sometimes called. Some of the techniques that you mentioned earlier seem to be dealing with the preliminary stage.
For the techniques dealing with the actual events themselves, one practice that is recommended in the Buddhist texts is awareness of the rising of emotions. The problem is that when an emotion arises in you, at that instant, your entire being becomes that emotion. You are completely overtaken by that emotion. There is no separation between you and the emotion. The goal of this kind of awareness practice is trying to recognize that the emotion is arising in you, and to immediately bring the separation.
It really is a matter of habit. Because the more habituated you are to this awareness of the rising of emotion, the awareness in itself creates a separation between you and the emotion, and that reduces the emotion immediately. This creates room for choice for how we respond.
You can learn more about the friendship and collaboration between Dr. Ekman and Dalai Lama here. You can also find more information about the training program focused on developing emotional awareness and choice, developed by Dr. Ekman and other emotions experts, called Cultivating Emotional Balance.