First up in this year long series of retreats was the Cultivating Emotional Balance Teacher Training Led by Eve Ekman ( The Daughter of Paul Ekman ) and Alan Wallace. The original reason i wanted to do this training was mostly to spend some time with Alan Wallace personally. For those of you who are not familiar with him , i highly recommend you check him out. He has written many books on practical meditation practice with a deep appreciation of modern science, as well as criticizing views in modern science that are not based on fact and harmful to society. Such as the stand point of scientific materialism, which claims the only things that are real and important are physical and quantifiable, reducing the enormous capacity and mystery of the mind to complex configurations of brain activity. I’ll be writing much of his framework here, but if i could recommend one book that was the basis of this training it would be “Genuine Happiness”. In addition to Alan, I was interested in receiving a credible training and certification to teach a complex framework of meditation in a secular fashion, that would be beneficial across many areas. What i actually experienced from this training was far more than i would have anticipated and I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of it.

From the CEB Web site:

“Cultivating Emotional Balance is a research project, which arose from a dialogue between biobehavioral scientists studying emotion and the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks, and scholars at the Mind and Life Institute in Dharamsala, India in March of 2000. This meeting was one in a series sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute to foster an interchange between Buddhist tradition and Western science.

At this meeting, the Dalai Lama asked scientists if they could conduct research to determine whether or not secularized Buddhist practices would be helpful to Westerners dealing with “destructive” emotional experiences. In response to this request, Dr. Paul Ekman and Dr. B. Alan Wallace, developed a training program that integrated Buddhist contemplative practices with Western techniques for dealing with negative emotional experiences. The training’s purpose is to reduce emotional responses that are destructive to self and others and enhance compassion and empathy. This research project, “Cultivating Emotional Balance In Challenging Times” (CEB), is the result of that interchange.”

The training was broken down into two parts. For the first two weeks we would spend time with Eve Ekman Learning emotional skills based on the framework of her father Paul Ekman. The last 3 weeks would be a retreat led by Alan focusing on attentional balance (shamatha meditation), cognitive balance (the four applications of mindfulness) and conative / emotional balance (the four immeasurables).

I’ll start with a summary of the emotional skills which is the western psychological portion of the training. If your interested in learning more most of the material can be found in the book “Emotions Revealed” by Paul Ekman.

The idea of emotional balance is not to get rid of our emotions. Emotions are necessary aspects of our conscious experience. Not only is it not possible to turn them off I’m not sure anyone would really want to. There are obviously the emotions that we enjoy, and then ones we don’t and sometimes wish they would go away. There isn’t a problem with the constructive ones, but its the destructive ones we would like to have better control over. Among the seven major families of emotions ( Anger, Fear, Sadness, Disgust, Contempt, Surprise  Happiness) any one of them can be experienced in a constructive or destructive way.  Constructive emotions furthers cooperation/collaboration between you and the other person(s) in a way that will benefit humanity, or at least not be harmful to the other person or to others who are not present. Destructive emotions create conflict and separation and may led to regrettable episodes.

Cultivating Emotional Balance means creating choice:
• Whether to engage emotionally
• If you do engage, to have a choice over how to engage
• Have your emotions work for you not against you
• Have your experience of emotions be constructive not destructive

One of the most surprising things i learned about emotions is what the they actually are ! They are short (ones that tend to linger are actually re triggering of the same emotion or may turn into a mood), they have a quick onset, they are unbidden and happen to us not by us, they involve a quick automatic appraisal, they have universal triggers, they produce a refractory period that filters and focuses what information is available to us, they contain physical and psychological components. Emotions are so complex it difficult to really define them , but easier to list characteristics of them, this list above is not the whole picture but some of the more interesting aspects. The take away for me is that for the most part the onset of emotions are mostly out of our control, they happen to us quickly in response to triggers from the environment, once they arise they filter our experience such that we only see the world through the lens of that emotion. From a psychological perspective we cant really do much about the arising of emotions, what we can do is notice that we have been caught in their grip as quickly as possible and then choose if we wish to act in response to them. That is where the meditative component can make a big difference (more on that later).

To briefly give an overview of emotions ill describe whats called the emotional episode timeline. As we experience the world around us we are automatically appraising the appearances to our senses. Information from our environment is being checked against our emotional alert database, which is the stored collection of our triggered experiences from the past as well as universal triggers for emotions. Triggers are those things that set us off emotionally, some of them are biologically ingrained and universal while others are learned. When something we experience matches a trigger in our database the process has begun. The affect program takes effect and we begin to experience preset and learned changes in our physiology. Shortly after that begins the refractory period where we are caught in the grip of the emotion and our cognitive frame of reference filters our experience in a way that reinforces the emotion. We then act either physically or mentally, in a reactive way if we are unaware of the emotion or in a mindful way if we can bring in some awareness.

This process happens very quickly, and may happen again and again as we spin in emotion. Once we understand that this is going on what can we do about it ? The most important is to see if we can be aware of the spark before the flame, increase the gap between impulse and action. If we can, through self reflection, become aware of what our triggers are ? What sets us off ? What are the common themes to our emotional reactions. We can prepare for situations that we know have a high likely hood to cause an emotional response. At the time we are triggered, when the very first signs of an emotion arises, if through developing our awareness skills we can recognize that an emotion has arisen we can stop the onset of the refractory period and have greater freedom in our choice of action.

In the training we went through each of the 7 emotional families to understand, what are our own triggers, what are the universal facial and physical responses to these emotions. Through various exercises of recalling memories, role playing, creating facial expressions we would gain greater awareness of each emotion to be able to recognize it as soon as it is present.

Understanding this much alone is a great basis for beginning to develop some freedom from your destructive emotions. Although coupled with the contemplative components of developing greater awareness, attentional control, seeing what reality is presenting and what you are superimposing on reality and cultivating qualities of the heart some real changes can occur.

More on the contemplative part coming soon.