Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Still not sure about the whole spiritual-but-not-religious-thing?

Fuzzy on how someone can claim to have a transcendent worldview while insisting that organized religion is just not their bag?

Then this recent piece from The New York Times may be of help.

The story details a project backed by global Buddhism's unofficial exemplar, the Dalai Lama. The "simple monk" -- as the Tibetan Buddhist religious leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winner and all-around pop culture icon of inner-peace and outer-calm often refers to himself -- is the force behind the ambitious Atlas of Emotions.

The project is an attempt to explain the panoply of human emotions and their influence on human actions using the language of Western transpersonal psychology (Full disclosure: In the late 1970s I was a media liaison in India for the International Transpersonal Association.)

The Dali Lama's hope is "to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans," as the Times article put it.

Here's how the Atlas explains itself:

This Atlas was created to increase understanding of how emotions influence our lives, giving us choice, (at least some of the time) about which emotion we are experiencing, and how our emotions influence what we say and do. While emotions are central to our lives – providing the joy, alerting us to threats, a force for change, a warning against what is toxic, and calling to others for help – we don’t choose what to feel or when to feel it. The Atlas of Emotions was created to give us more awareness of our emotions, and sometimes even some choice about what we are feeling, through better understanding of how emotions work.

The combination of deep self-awareness, emotional self-management as an essential life skill, and compassionate action to a grok degree is as an encompassing definition of the spiritual-but-not-religious (hereafter SBNR) personal ideal as I've heard.

It's a big umbrella approach that may or may not have a theistic component; that's an individual choice. It may also be approached as a uniquely singular path or in a group setting, though it's always better, I think, to have some peer review -- no matter the human activity -- to keep self-delusion and narcissism in check. Think of it as spiritual home schooling.

And while the Atlas has a strong Buddhist tie in, SBNRs may draw their inspiration and personal approach from virtually any religious background, Eastern or Western, mainstream or otherwise.

The Atlas is a website, of course. And yes, it has a Hollywood connection (I'll explain below, but here's a hint: it's not Buddhist cinema heartthrob Richard Gere).

Additionally, it's Tibetan Buddhism at its most basic level -- that is, stripped entirely of its Central Asian cultural trappings that give traditional Tibetan -- or more accurately, Vajrayana -- Buddhism, it's exotic, high church, bells-and-whistles quality. (I'm referring to mandalas, oracles, ritualized pageantry and the like.)

It's easy to dismiss the Atlas's emphasis on the emotional realm as somehow being less authtentically sacred than the mainstream Abrahamic religions' insistence that their individual theologies align completely with God's perceived plan. But that would be misunderstanding the SBNR, who already have strong doubts about the claims of religious elders.

Ditto for dismissing the SBNR worldview as just so much "Sheilaism," as Robert Bellah and others labeled self-asserted spirituality in their classic 1985 book, "Habits of the Heart."

As a specie, humans have always been an insecure lot that's searched for inner security any way that came to mind -- from human and animal sacrifice to the gods, to the Jerusalem' crowd's shouting hosanna as Jesus passed by. For the SBNR, the quest for emotional stability and calm is no different.

Nor does being SBNR mean disengaging from societal concerns. On the contrary, it may mean more involvement as the SBNR feels a greater sense of connection and responsibility for their fellow beings.

This essay from The Atlantic notes how the SBNR may be viewed said to be a new sort of values voter.

OK, what about that Hollywood connection I mentioned above? For that, let's return to The Times story that prompted this post.

To create this “map of the mind,” as he called it, the Dalai Lama reached out to a source Hollywood had used to plumb the workings of the human psyche.
Specifically, he commissioned his good friend Paul Ekman — a psychologist who helped advise the creators of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an animated film set inside a girl’s head — to map out the range of human sentiments. Dr. Ekman later distilled them into the five basic emotions depicted in the movie, from anger to enjoyment.
Dr. Ekman’s daughter, Eve, a post-doctoral fellow in integrative medicine research, worked on the project as well, with the goal of producing a guide to human emotions that anyone with an Internet connection could study in a quest for self-understanding, calm and constructive action.
“We have, by nature or biologically, this destructive emotion, also constructive emotion,” the Dalai Lama said. “This innerness, people should pay more attention to, from kindergarten level up to university level. This is not just for knowledge, but in order to create a happy human being. Happy family, happy community and, finally, happy humanity.”

Quite a claim that -- a happy humanity. That means less interpersonal strife, less inter-communal conflict, more harmonious living. Can it be attained without joining a church, synagogue, temple or mosque? The SBNR crowd thinks so, at least for themselves.

Besides, it's pretty clear that the many centuries of joining established, mainstream religious bodies hasn't given us a peaceable kingdom.

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