Could transforming our mental states create a better world? This audacious proposition lay at the heart of the Science & Wisdom of Emotions Summit presented by Mind & Life and The Awake Network Foundation on May 2-5. Reflecting growing interest in the cultivation of emotional well-being, more than 100,000 people in 140 countries gathered for the free, online event.
Drawing from a rapidly developing body of scientific research, contemplative wisdom, and indigenous traditions, the Summit’s 30+ speakers made clear that the benefits of emotional awareness extend well beyond the individual, with the ability to address collective challenges from racial injustice to the climate crisis.
The Summit honored the 20th anniversary of the Mind & Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, entitled “Destructive Emotions,” which was summarized in the best-selling book by Daniel Goleman. Presenters included scientists and scholars from the original dialogue and a new generation of inspiring thinkers and teachers. Among them were Daniela Labra Cardero, Richard Davidson, Eve Ekman, Thupten Jinpa, Kaira Jewel Lingo, Mingyar Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Sebene Selassie, Michelle Shiota, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and many more.
Echoed throughout the four-day event were the benefits that come with shifting one’s focus from “me” to “we.” Our preoccupation with ourselves is the root of much unhappiness, emphasized the Dalai Lama. “The more we are able to think about others, the more we lay the foundations for our own personal happiness.”
“The more we are able to think about others,
the more we lay the foundations for our own personal happiness.”
The Dalai Lama
In response to rising rates of loneliness, anxiety, and depression in many parts of the globe, presentations reinforced a powerful message: the mind can be trained. “Happiness is related to our emotions,” the Dalai Lama told viewers. “Through training, destructive emotions can be reduced and constructive emotions increased.” He went on to share practices he himself follows for cultivating an “awakened mind.”
Speakers made clear that both positive and negative emotions are essential to the human experience. “I don’t think of any emotions as inherently good or bad,” said Michelle “Lani” Shiota, Associate Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. “It’s how we use emotions, how we deal with them, and how emotions are experienced… that can either be helpful or problematic.”
Through guided practice sessions, presenters shared insights into how to harness the power of our emotions to foster personal well-being and create a more interconnected and compassionate world. In a session entitled “Befriending Our Beautiful Monsters,” Tsokyni Rinpoche offered principles and practices for being present with difficult emotions. “Don’t suppress. Don’t ignore. Don’t try to change,” he said, but rather stay in the moment. With a grounded body and open heart, clarity can emerge.
Buddhist meditation teacher Kaira Jewel Lingo shared how in Buddhist psychology emotions are like seeds. “When a seed is watered, it rises up and manifests as an active mental state,” capable of impacting our actions and physiology, she said. She then demonstrated the RAIN practice for recognizing, accepting, investigating, and nurturing difficult emotions like shame, ignorance, anger, and greed.
When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace pointed to a convergence among the world’s great sages and wisdom traditions. The ancient Greeks, he shared, pointed to two sources of happiness: hedonia, or the satisfaction people experience in response to pleasurable experiences, and eudaimonia, the profound well-being that emerges through leading an ethical life of compassion and service. Much of the environmental degradation in today’s world stems from an over-emphasis on hedonism and materialism, he asserted. “If we continue along this paradigm, human civilization as we know it, will no longer exist.”
Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, also spoke to the trappings of materialism. “Young people are struggling because they’ve been misguided on the path to happiness. They’re told it comes through materialism and being self-focused.” By contrast, happiness is found through emotions such as compassion, awe, and gratitude, he said, and “by casting aside the illusion that we are a separate self.”
Laurie Santos, who teaches a course called “The Good Life” at Yale University, also cited social connection and helping others as potent contributors to individual happiness, which she likened to a leaky tire in need of conscious care. By cultivating our emotional well-being, we can positively impact others, she said, adding: “Our emotions are contagious.”
“Our emotions are contagious.”
If individuals and societies are to heal from the grave injustices of the past—and present—well-being must be understood as a whole-body process, affirmed Resmaa Menakem, author of the best-selling book My Grandmother’s Hands. Menakem cautioned against cognition as the arbiter of all that is true and real, calling for what he terms “somatic abolitionism” in pursuit of a truly embodied anti-racist culture. For true healing to happen, we need to address the experience of trauma in the body, he affirmed.
The role of art in eliciting the emotions needed to bring about a more equitable and sustainable future was also highlighted. Social sculptor Ana Teresa Fernandez, shared how “art becomes a lens in which we allow ourselves to feel things that we otherwise would not.” Fernandez, whose performance-oriented work explores issues from immigration to climate change, spoke to the power of evoking emotions such as empathy, awe, and wonder in helping people to adopt fresh perspectives and take steps toward positive change.
What can be done to ensure an emerging generation of young people develop the skills needed to exercise emotional awareness? Day two of the Summit highlighted the tremendous strides made in social emotional learning (SEL) over the past two decades, and recent advancements in teaching students about interdependence, and how to foster a sense of belonging and inclusiveness within schools and communities.
The stakes of not taking steps to ensure people of all ages develop the skills needed to manage complex emotions could not be higher, reinforced meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn on the final day of the Summit. “This is a moment,” he said, referencing the pandemic and other urgent global crises, “where mindfulness, wisdom, emotional clarity, compassion, and profound regard for the humanity of others is not a luxury. We have to learn to be mindful before it’s too late for us as a species.”
The 100,000 people who signed on for the Summit offer hope and inspiration that change is possible. Wrote one participant from South Africa, “Most meaningful for me is the feeling of connectedness and the inspiration for each of us to aspire to work together for the good of all.”
For those who missed the Summit or would like to revisit the content, you can purchase the full event recordings on a sliding scale, with generosity-based pricing options.
Recordings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama are available indefinitely, free-of-charge. Visit: A Short Buddhist Teaching: Emptiness and Compassion as Antidotes to Destructive Emotions and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Richard Davidson, PhD, and Daniel Goleman, PhD: Culminating Keynote Dialogue.