Navigation Link

Review of "Destructive Emotions"

By Daniel Goleman
Bantam, 2004
Review by Brent Dean Robbins, Ph.D. on Jun 21st 2004
Destructive Emotions

Every once in a while, I have the fortunate opportunity to read a book that invigorates and rekindles my hope in the future of psychology. By the time I had completed Goleman's Destructive Emotions, I realized this was one of those books Nevertheless, an inspirational book need not necessarily be a great book or even a well-executed text. Destructive Emotions has its flaws.

Destructive Emotions is written in a narrative form, primarily as a document of an event. The event predominantly transpired between March 20th and 24th, 2000, in Dharamsala, India. The event consisted of a small gathering of minds, including some of the most widely respected psychological scientists and philosophers of our day. All participants engage in productive dialogue with a number of eminent Buddhist scholars, most notably His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who is clearly at center stage during the proceedings.

The events in Dharamsala are book-ended in the text by accounts of various activities of the participants, all inspired by the gathering in India. The book opens with an account of a scientific investigation that transpired at the E. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at University of Wisconsin—Madison. We witness a story of Lama Oser, a man with decades of training as a Tibetan monk in the Himalayas, who is submitted to a variety of psychological assessments. The findings included a variety of unprecedented discoveries. For example, Oser was found to possess the unheard of ability to prevent his own startle reflex. This and other findings seem to strongly support the Buddhist tenet that meditation has the power to nurture optimal states of well-being far beyond the norm. My interest was piqued and the chapters that follow take the reader on a journey into a productive exchange of ideas between Western science and Buddhist philosophy of mind. Goleman expends great energy attempting to capture the awe-inspiring energy generated by the meetings.

At the close of the book, Goleman narrates the various consequences of the conference, including all the projects to which it gave birth. Of the more innovative and pragmatic of the projects, Ekman is spearheading the development and testing of a new mind-training program for adults, Cultivating Emotional Balance. It seems clear that, among the participants, Ekman was the most profoundly transformed as a professional. In his case, the conference seemed not only to inspire him; it sparked a genuine metanoia experience.

The most touching of the personal narratives is the story of Francesco Varela. Many of you will be familiar with Varela as the Chilean neuroscientist who, with Humberto Maturana, pioneered the theory of autopoiesis, the emergence of self-producing and self-regulating systems, which became an innovative means of conceptualizing the emergence of consciousness from the material substrate of the nervous system. Over a decade later, after having fled Chile to France, Varela pioneered the field of neurophenomenology, the introduction of first-person observational methods into neuroscience, which is only just beginning to catch fire here in the United States.

Being a Buddhist himself, Varela can be thanked for giving birth to the Mind and Life Institute, which initiated the discussions between the Dalai Lama and Western science. The first event of its kind was held in October of 1987, and three years later the Mind and Life Institute was formed with the help of U.S. attorney R. Adam Engle. Since then, the Institute has hosted no less than eleven events with the Dalai Lama, and, in each case, the discussions have included some of the most well-respected scholars in their respective fields. We have Varela to thank for making these dialogues possible. So, it is with deep melancholy that we learn of Varela's death shortly after the 2000 meeting in Dharamsala.

By the time of the Dharamsala meeting, Varela was very sick, and he was forced to present his lecture from Paris via teleconferencing. Varela, who suffered from liver cancer as a consequence of hepatitis C, had recently undergone a liver transplant, which kept him alive just long enough to receive a thank you from the other conference presenters before he passed on. Remarkably, we learn that Varela would have passed up the opportunity for the transplant if it had not been for the Dalai Lama, who had encouraged Varela to take all necessary measures to prolong his life. During his presentation, the discussion between Varela and His Holiness is filled with mutual gratitude and a love so palpable, it drips like syrup from the pages of their dialogue. On the edge of tears, undoubtedly both tears of joy and mourning, Varela addressed His Holiness:

It seems to me wondrous that I am here with you once more. It is a truly amazing thing that we have been able to keep up over the years. This time, even more so, it seems like a gift of life that I can be back here to have this opportunity to talk to you. Your support and kindness through difficult times was very, very essential to for me. (p. 310)

Such is one of a variety of moments in the book that stir the soul.

Another inspiring moment is the exchange between His Holiness and Paul Ekman, who had brought his daughter, an activist of the Tibetan cause, to the meeting. In these exchanges, Ekman is remarkably candid about his own personal struggles to cope with destructive emotions. In particular, he describes in intimate detail his difficulties with anger, which he attributes to being the target of abuse by his violent father, as well as being abandoned by his mother when he was a pre-teen. He also shares a personal story of irrational rage, when his wife failed to call him while she was away at a conference. Most remarkably, he testifies to his own healing as a result of meeting the Dalai Lama. Such moments stir the soul.

Goleman has a talent for spinning a good story. He has an uncanny knack for observing those interpersonal and emotional dynamics that often go unnoticed. Of course, he's done a lot of work in this area, which he calls "emotional intelligence," so we shouldn't be surprised. The strength of Destructive Emotions lies in Goleman's ability to connect the reader to the human lives behind the science. By the end of the book, his characters are flesh and blood actors who command our sympathies and embody our hopes for an extraordinary psychology about extraordinary people by extraordinary scholars and researchers.

Goleman's strength, however, is also his weakness. The book, unfortunately, is weighed down by the narrative of events and biographical details of the characters in his tale. The details become so dense and the story so tediously descriptive that I found it difficult at times to stick with the text. I found myself sitting it down and forgetting to pick it up for days and even weeks at a time. With a book close to 400 pages in length, the book is in desperate need of pruning.

Part of the problem with Goleman's approach is that he hasn't seemed to define his audience. Is the book for scientists, philosophers or Buddhists? For lay people or for professionals? It's clear that Goleman attempts to appeal to each of these demographics, and so, as a result, the book will both appeal and equally frustrate each group of readers. Those who are interested in learning about the fine-grained theoretical differences between Buddhist and Western concepts of emotion will have to be satisfied with the nuggets of juicy tidbits scattered throughout the text. They will be annoyed by the decided lack of detail in these discussions, and they will likely be frustrated by the necessity of combing through pages and pages of narrative only to arrive at relatively brief accounts of the debate and discussion. Psychologists will not learn much new about emotion. The accounts are quite conventional and well known. However, those scholars who are unfamiliar with Buddhism are given an accessible and psychology-friendly introduction. Likewise, lay readers and Buddhists will find an accessible introduction to some of the major themes in emotion research, but they will find the Buddhist scholarship to be fairly rudimentary.

In final analysis, the book is a narrative account of an event. The scholarly details are secondary to the story. The story is inspiring, but it is little more than a gateway into a new vision of psychology, one that should give hope to those, such as myself, who have long been frustrated by psychology's loss of soul. These exchanges between Western scientists and the Dalai Lama give hope that a science of optimal human living is a promise that can actually be realized. If you are looking for a scholarly text, Goleman will point the way to the scholarly projects inspired by the book, but you will only catch glimpses of these insights in the pages of Destructive Emotions. For scholars, the book serves less as information for the head than a springboard for the heart.


© 2004 Brent Dean Robbins


Brent Dean Robbins received his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Duquesne University. He is currently serving as Assistant Professor of Psychology at Daemen College in Buffalo, NY. He also teaches on-line courses as an adjunct instructor for Massey University. His areas of interest include the psychology of emotion, psychopathology, positive psychology, philosophical psychology and qualitative research methods. He is Editor-in-Chief of Janus Head: An Interdisciplinary Journal ( and a Board Member of the International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy. His newest project includes the establishment of a new non-profit organization, the Institute for Cultural Therapeutics (ICT), dedicated to applied research in positive psychology. The first ICT project is the development and testing of a program to increase strengths and virtues in children and adolescents. 

Share This