Exploring Destructive Emotions: An interview with Dr. Wendy Hasenkamp
Neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp discusses how meditation and other contemplative practices help us understand and process our emotions, especially difficult ones. Mindfulness, acceptance and compassion are essential skills to deal with uncertainty and anxiety in times of crisis. The dialogue between science and contemplative traditions has an important role to play in this process, and scientists can greatly benefit from engaging in contemplative practice.
Dr. Wendy Hasenkamp currently serves as Science Director at the Mind & Life Institute. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience from Emory University, where her graduate and early postdoctoral training centred around understanding the pathology of schizophrenia. Wendy is the editor of The Monastery and the Microscope, a book detailing the 2013 Mind & Life dialogue with the Dalai Lama about mind, matter, and the nature of reality.
“Contemplative practices are extremely valuable in learning to see what’s happening underneath the initial experience of emotion”
What are destructive emotions? Can you give an example of how they affect our well-being?
I think that whether an emotion is disruptive or not depends on the context and the behaviour associated with it. Emotions, in general, are telling us something about our bodily state in a given situation, with aspects of a narrative woven in. One useful metric is whether an emotion (and associated behavior) causes harm to oneself or others.
One clear example is hatred, which feels subjectively like an all-encompassing negative regard for another, a group of others, or even oneself. Aversion and disgust are often woven in here, along with a deep state of disconnection from the hated person(s). Hatred is one of the strongest emotions that leads to harm. Examples abound today, unfortunately, as in the case of white supremacist groups in the US (we have seen this first-hand in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live).
How does our perception of reality influence our emotions? Could you give an example that draws upon a contemporary problem?
Some negative emotions may be appropriate in certain circumstances (e.g., fear in a situation involving real danger, or anger in the case of injustice). These would be based on accurate perceptions of reality. However, the example above of hatred based on a false narrative of threat coming from a certain source (e.g., a group of people who can be categorized as ‘other’) — as opposed to larger structural issues and massive-scale change and complex socio-cultural-economic factors — would be distorted.
In this case, one would be failing to see the larger picture, which involves interdependence and holism. One would also feel completely disconnected from the hated ‘other’, which is also a distorted perception counter to the reality of interdependence. Examples abound, sadly, such as racism, sexism, nationalism, white supremacy, anti-immigrant sentiment, etc.
“Mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion are essential for recognizing reality, and healing it”
How could contemplative practices help us tackle destructive emotions, and develop a positive vision of reality to face challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic?
I think contemplative practices are extremely valuable in learning to see what’s happening behind, or underneath, the initial experience of emotion. For example, one may experience frustration or anger, but if you sit with it for a while and accept it, not pushing it away or acting out quickly to make the emotion go away, one often finds that underneath the anger is fear, or a kind of wounding. The skills of mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion are essential for recognizing this reality (and also healing it).
The COVID pandemic has revealed the fundamental uncertainty that is always with us, though we tend to avoid it through superficial structures like jobs, relationships, routines, etc. All of these have been disrupted through COVID, and we are left to look uncertainty in the face, and wrestle with the anxiety that comes along with that. Contemplative practice can help us build resilience by learning to calm and ground our bodies in the face of stress, and to become more comfortable looking directly at what we often avoid. Practice can also bring clarity about the best course of action when facing tough decisions, once the emotional reality can be seen more clearly.
“Researchers should work closely with contemplatives, and also practice themselves, in order to understand the nuance of how these practices can transform our minds.”
What do you consider to be the role of a dialogue between science and contemplative traditions when it comes to promoting social, emotional and ethical learning? Could you give one concrete example of how to do this most effectively, in your view?
Science (especially psychology/cognitive science) and contemplative traditions are primarily concerned with understanding the human mind, and use different and complementary methodologies to explore this terrain. Both approaches lift up the key role of interconnection and strong social bonds in individual and communal well-being. Relational connection is also the core of ethics (e.g., how do we treat our fellow human beings?), and forms a strong base of trust that can be tremendously positive in terms of emotional health.
To summarise, these two ways of knowing have much to say on these topics — and since they use complementary methods, they can inform each other in terms of the knowledge gained. From the scientific perspective, researchers should work closely with contemplatives, and also practice themselves, in order to understand the nuance of how these practices can transform our minds.
“Hatred emerges from a distorted perception of reality and the nature of the self.”
What are the most pressing issues related to destructive emotions and distorted perceptions? Which obstacles would science and contemplative traditions need to overcome in order to tackle them?
As mentioned above, I feel that othering and hatred will be our biggest issues to overcome in the next decade. These emotional experiences emerge from a distorted perception of reality and the nature of self, which are further fueled by a narrowing worldview made possible by self-selecting the information we consume (e.g. ‘echo chambers’).
I think the biggest obstacles to tackling this are not within each or both domains, but rather related to ‘breaking through’ existing entrenched mindsets and cultural trajectories. The value of things like social connection and compassion, and the reality of our shared humanity, are already quite clear within these traditions (although of course more science can be done).
So the question is, why are these values not being embraced widely in society? This relates to larger sociocultural and political realities like power structures, wealth inequality, and long-perpetuated mindsets emerging from fear, scarcity, and intergenerational trauma.
How would you describe the following terms, in just one sentence?
Science: A system of seeking to understand ourselves and the world that is based on repeated observation, (sometimes) experimentation, group consensus, and narrative interpretation.
Wisdom: Applying knowledge that’s accumulated over time (in a person or in a culture) in a skillful way in a given situation, often being able to derive meaning from the context.
Meditation/Mindfulness: Meditation is a broader term encompassing practices that allow a person to become more familiar with their own mind (thoughts, emotions, patterns, etc.) and develop certain attentional and/or emotional capacities. Mindfulness is a particular skill or approach, which can be learned cultivated through meditation, that involves becoming aware of your own internal states in the moment.
Ethical learning: A process of reflection on and greater understanding of how a person should engage in skillful action that minimizes harm, and leads to harmonious relationships and a connected society.
Emotional education: Learning about one’s own (and generalized, to the extent it’s possible) emotions — where they come from, what they mean, how they’re interpreted, and how we can work with them in healthy ways.