The New York Times today reported that the Dalai Lama commissioned a website that presents an Atlas of Emotions, aimed to help ordinary people understand their emotions better. He paid psychologist Paul Ekman — who helped advise on Pixar’s “Inside Out” and on the TV show, “Lie to Me” — “at least” $750,000 to develop the site.
You should be able to get a hell of a lot of website for three quarters of a million dollars, right?
I’ve been playing around a little with the Dalai Lama’s emotion website. It defines and describes different emotions, their sub-states, the actions they give rise to, their triggers, and the settled moods they give rise to when they become habitual.
It presents five primary emotions, which are portrayed as “continents,” following the atlas theme. These five emotions are fear, sadness, disgust, enjoyment, and anger.
I can see how this could be helpful in giving people a better vocabulary to understand and name their emotions.
However, I have grave reservations about the usefulness of this site. I haven’t see anything in the website about love or compassion, which is odd, given both their importance in life and the Dalai Lama’s (and Buddhism’s) emphasis on them. How can the primary emotions of Buddhism be missing? Where is gratitude? Where is reverence, awe, or admiration? These are all crucial spiritual emotions.
The atlas is meant to be a practical tool, and the site’s description emphasizes this: “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.”
“Understanding” is good, but it doesn’t necessarily transform us. There’s little practical information. We can learn what triggers particular states: for example losing a loved one or being rejected triggers sadness. But there’s no practical guidance about how to deal with loss or rejection in ways that will reduce suffering rather than increase it. Buddhist teachings show how we can do this, and it’s surprising that the whole field of working with emotions is missing from the atlas.
Two primary Buddhist tools for dealing with emotions are mindfulness and equanimity. There’s no guidance on how to develop these. Buddhism also teaches how to cultivate skillful emotions such as kindness, compassion, and appreciation. There’s no guidance on the website at all.
There’s one other thing about the Atlas of Emotions that bothers me. Down at the bottom left is a little stick figure icon pointing to the word “peg.” It’s not obvious what that’s about unless you click on it. Clicking on the icon in fact takes you to Paul Ekman’s site, where the emphasis is on selling his training courses on recognizing micro-emotions. I find this distasteful. He’s used $750,000 (how!) to create a website, and then is using that site to host advertising for his products. Perhaps he pays for this advertising. There’s no way of knowing.
This is disappointing, since I have a lot of respect for Dr. Ekman’s work.
But about that price tag! I’ve developed this website (Wildmind) on a shoestring. It’s not a systematic guide to emotions, as the Atlas of Emotions is, but it contains a wealth of tools for working with emotions. It offers not only practical articles, but also guided meditations to help people practically work with their emotions. It boggles the mind what $750,000 should be able to achieve in terms of relieving human suffering. The Atlas of Emotions is a series of pretty graphics and information about emotional states when it could have been a powerfully transformative tool to help people find relief from suffering.