‘I couldn’t believe it! Just one second after!’ Sonia smiles at me, amused, while she is telling me about Martina, her 15 months old daughter. ‘She was literally screaming like I was torturing her. Real tears. Then, as soon as I gave her her favorite puppet, she changed immediately. She was joy in flesh and bones. She was smiling … and all that fuss in few seconds just disappeared – I couldn’t believe my eyes.’
Children are tough teachers; they can show so much about life, if we know how to observe them. The episode Sonia told me is not extraordinary; everyone knows that babies can change their emotional state, often without a comprehensible reason – at least for the adults around them. A baby can go from desperate pain, or even rage, to carefree joy in no time at all. And certainly we do not appreciate this aspect: Dealing with this emotional instability can be really challenging.
Actually, gaining good emotional regulation is a stage of development, which should be accomplished at the end of our adolescence. As teenagers we were prone to impulses, emotions and thought which were really hard to put together in a coherent and sometimes meaningful way. Then, all of a sudden, at about the age of 22 or 23, we gain a new equilibrium in our lives. We became young women and men. At a closer view, though, this developmental process doesn’t stop at that age; emotional regulation is a never-ending path of maturation. The steady and patient practice of mindfulness meditation can give us the present of emotional regulation, the light and wise art of managing our heart-mind, making it our best ally. How is it possible? To answer this question, I invite you to follow me in a wide panoramic tour thorough emotions, intelligence and brain, and the Buddhist philosophical tradition and practice. We are going to start in a way sweeter than we might expect …
Soft, sweet, intelligent
It’s sweet. It’s soft. And it’s very close, right there on the plate. He stares at the object of his desire. His hands, small, soft, rest on the light table, right over left. The index finger rises, then the middle finger, but they immediately fall against the back of the hand, while he closes his big eyes for a moment, as if he were trying to swallow the impulse to grab that prize, white and tasty in front of him. Now the big eyes of the child look away, or at least try; they stare at the colored walls and the games around him. Some minutes ago, the kind lady told him that if he wants to he can eat it, but if he waits for her to come back, she will give him two! Two marshmallows if he doesn’t eat what is in front of him. But it is so difficult! And he is only 4. And the lady doesn’t come back: will he make it?
At first glance, one could say that putting a little candy in front of a child, and asking him not to eat it, seems to be a sort of sadistic mistreatment. But, actually, what I described was a famous psychological test, devised in 1972 by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. What was the point of leaving alone such a young boy or girl (to be exact, between three and a half and five and eight months) in a room with such a temptation on one side and their self- control on the other? Well, this was exactly the point: studying self-control. The results of the research were of the deepest interest because they revealed a series of activities that children put in practice to manage frustration: distraction, speaking loudly to themselves, singing songs or even putting their heads on the table, closing their eyes and falling asleep!
The ability to delay gratification in view of a purpose – in this case, seeing it doubled – is strictly linked with the so-called executive functions. It matures and improves with age. But the most interesting result of this research came 16 years later. In 19881 , the academic results of the ‘marshmallow children’ were measured. Those children who had been able to wait had achieved better results and were described by their parents as competent and balanced adolescents. A second study, in 19902, confirmed that the same subjects were still better students than the ones who didn’t manage ‘temptations’. And that’s not all! Many following studies, such as that of the English psychologist Terrie Moffitt3 in 2011, confirmed that the self-regulation capacity of girls and boys in the marshmallow test was a factor which contributed up to 50% of their academic and work successes years later; it influenced even their psycho-physical health. Was therefore Linus right, waiting every year for the arrival of the Great Watermelon? Yes and no. In fact, it is not just a matter of waiting, but of being able to manage and regulate one’s emotions. Or, in other and more technical words, it is a matter of Emotional Intelligence (henceforth simply EI). What is it about?
What is emotional intelligence?
The American psychologist Edward Thorndike was the first to consider the importance of the intelligent management of one’s emotions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he defined the capacity to understand and manage one’s own and others’ feelings, emotions and behaviors as ‘social ability’. Over the years, the idea of an intelligence of emotions had mixed fortunes, being mostly a specialist topic. We must wait until 1990, when the American psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer published the article ‘Emotional Intelligence’. In this work, they described the ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions, and to use this information to guide thought and action. The idea was discussed only in academic debates until 1995, when Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ was published and became a best seller. The concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) then became immensely popular. In 25 years, Goleman’s work was translated into over 40 languages, and sold more than 5 million copies. It is nowadays a basic resource used in corporate training and leadership courses.
According to Goleman, EI is a complex and multifaceted skill that encompasses four broad areas: self-awareness, self-mastery, social awareness, and relationship management (and if you’re starting to notice some connection with meditative practice, it’s definitely not casual…). For each of these areas, we can identify different skills, such as emotional balance, empathy, conflict management or awareness of emotions. Each of these skills can be trained and developed. Not exactly a piece of cake for a child struggling with the temptation of a marshmallow …
At the heart of EI there is the assumption that rationality and emotions are not separate domains: emotions are complex assessments of the world and our relationship with it. This is the reason why we can reflect on them, in order to act more effectively, competently and wisely. So-called ‘cold’ reason is actually, and always has been, warm and emotional. As well as our brain.
An emotional brain
While Goleman, Meyer and Salovey were reflecting on the value of emotions for our psychological life, neuroscientists investigated our brain, discovering the areas that preside over fear, disgust, anger or affection. As their research proceeded, emotions and feelings took on a new meaning: they begun to be recognized as fundamental processes of our psyche.
During the same year when Goleman published his essay on EI, the famous neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio published his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, illustrating the complex relationships between body, emotions and brain functioning. According to Damasio, the error of Descartes, the philosopher of clear and distinct ideas, was to believe that emotions prevented the proper functioning of the mind. This broke our existence into two conflicting areas: the body, full of irrational passions, and the mind, called to logical and abstract reasoning. On the contrary, by reaffirming the close unity between body and mind, Damasio highlighted how emotions are a source of information about us and the world, and how thought depends on our ability to feel emotions.
Dealing with our marshmallow problem, our little friends (and we like them) are called to build a whole world of meanings, made up of choices, thoughts, and actions. A delicate balance, supported, as we grow, by the awareness of our sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This awareness, of course, can grow ‘by itself’, with experience and age. But we can also actively cultivate it: according to the Buddhist philosophical tradition, this is the virtue of equanimity (in Pali, upekkhā) or as I prefer to call it, of emotional balance.
Being a buddha: the dance between emotional balance and reactivity
Well done! So far, we have dealt with a lot of notions and concepts, and I hope I didn’t lose you along this marathon. The good news – or the bad, as always depends on how we look at it – is that we reached the second stage of our tour: what is equanimity and how does it develop with the practice of mindfulness meditation?
Let’s start from a simple definition: we can call reactivity the set of automatic reactions (desires, aversions, doubts, agitation, worries, confusion …). Now, following Stephen Batchelor’s interpretation, we can better translate the Pali word tanha, often rendered with the term thirst, as reactivity: the manifestation of our fragility as human beings. In fact, consulting the Pali Text Society Dictionary (probably the most famous and used dictionary of the Pali language) we can discover that the opposite of tanha is the peace and serenity of a particular state of mind, equanimity (upekkha) – the first characteristic of a Buddha: The one who is awakened is always equanimous.
Equanimity is the final stage of the maturational process of 7 skills, not surprisingly called the awakening factors: receptive awareness, understanding of experience, determined commitment, joy, tranquility, meditative recollection, and finally equanimity. They are an ordered path of development; starting with receptive awareness, each factor in the list is the base upon which the next one can blossom. They are all fulfilled and balanced in the last one: equanimity. This path is well described in the ‘Speech on Awareness of Breath’, or Anapanasati Sutta4, according to which equanimity arises from the cultivation of the first six skills: it brings peace to our mind-heart through the conscious, calm and accurate investigation of our experience.
Moreover, equanimity is the fourth of the ‘Divine Abodes’, the brahmaviharas: friendship or loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna) and altruistic joy (mudita). Emotional balance is the ability to balance these ‘mature’ emotional tones towards others, or better, it is what really makes them mature. Being equanimous means also recognizing the autonomy of others, their responsibility, that is, their radical freedom: According to a traditional formula, each one of us is ‘the fruit of his own actions (kamma), their heir, born of them, their relative, protected from them. Any deed, virtuous or evil, I will perform, I will be heir.’
The balance the word upekkha refers to has another important nuance, closely related to the regulation of emotions. In a very interesting part from an ancient discourse, entitled Worthy of Offerings5 , Gotama states: ‘The monk [worthy of offerings] is the one who, when he perceives something with his eyes, is neither happy nor sad. He remains fair, aware and awake.’ The terms ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, sumana and dummana in Pali, clearly refer to our emotional tone. When we encounter a pleasant or unpleasant experience, our emotions can undergo ups and downs, a roller coaster that produces suffering. The discourse considers all the experiences we can have with our senses, reaffirming for each one that the monk worthy of offerings – that is, realized – is the one who remains equanimous, and does not fall into the imbalance of emotions. Not surprisingly, the same terms, sumana and dumana, are also translated in another famous Pali dictionary, that of Rhys Davids’, with ‘euphoric’ and ‘depressed’.
In a game of similarities between images and meanings, the oscillation between joy and depression recalls the etymology of the word dukkha that we typically translate as ‘suffering’. This word comes from two very old Indo-European words, kha and duh. The first stands for space, crown and axial hole, that is, the hole in the center of a wheel through which the axis passes. The second means difficult or painful. The compound word alludes both to the painful lack that we feel at the center of our being, and to a wheel that is badly fixed to its axis; when it turns, it jumps up and down and makes the journey tiring and stressful. Imagine how it would have been like, thousands of years ago, moving in a cart pulled by horses or oxen, as the Indo-European nomadic peoples did, with a wheel that jumps continuously up and down, without balance. And how nice it was to travel smoothly with a wheel that runs well, that instead of being duh, is su, that is, good. For these reasons, the term for ‘happiness’, sukha, recalls the smooth and comfortable motion of a chariot that runs smoothly, or in a psychological sense, having a heart that does not swing between high and low.
How can we cultivate this emotional balance when we meditate? In fact, any practice on the Path points towards this result! Whether we sit to gather the mind, or to observe the impermanence of all experiences, or cultivate a friendly or compassionate mind – literally every practice tends towards equanimity. This, we believe, is the meaning of the path described by the Anapanasati sutta, when it deals with the 7 factors of awakening. In other words, all practice nurtures and develops our adult capacity to regulate our emotions.
However, in order to cultivate explicitly this capacity, we can start by training our attention on a primary object, such as the breath, and bring the mind into a state of balanced calm and alertness. Having achieved this clarity, we can choose to use this conscious clarity to open ourselves to our experience, investigate and cultivate upekkha, equanimity – thus becoming more and more like a buddha. We train and develop equanimity during every meditation exercise, every reflection, every dialogue about practice. Emotional regulation is the goal, or rather, the horizon which we have been walking to since the first mindful breath we took, while sitting in peace. It was there, it has always been there, visible, accessible, present, and within everyone’s reach.
A mysterious orchestra
Practicing mindfulness, we consciously experience reactivity, and in this way we develop balance. Open and equanimous, we observe sensations, memories, emotions and thoughts passing through our consciousness, as falling leaves from a tree branch in autumn. And so, one breath after the other, we realize that we are creatures ‘made of history’, built by our choices and actions, a dance of causes and effects, like everything around us.
The words of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa come to my mind: ‘My soul is a mysterious orchestra; I don’t know what instruments I play or screech within me: strings and harps, timpani and drums. I know myself as a symphony.’ When we free ourselves from reactivity, we can enjoy the sound of silence between the notes: this is equanimity, this is nirvana. We can feel it and find peace in every moment of our life.
(1)Mischel, W.; Shoda, Y.; Peake, P. K. (1988). The nature of adolescent competencies predicted by preschool delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54 (4): 687–696. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
(2) Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental psychology, 26(6), 978.
(3) Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., … & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693-2698.
(4) Majjhima Nikaya 118
(5) Paṭhamaāhuneyyasutta, Anguttara Nikaya 6:1
Stefano Ventura has been practicing the dharma for 28 years. He is a psychologist and a psychotherapist, as well as a mindfulness instructor.
Together with Massimo Paradiso, Stefano published in 2015 a meditation manual, Meditazione di Consapevolezza. With Stefano Bettera and Massimo Paradiso, he published in 2018 Karma Polis, a political reflection about the role of Buddhist teachings in the contemporary world.