Interview With Authors Daniel Goleman & Richard Davidson

Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. As a science journalist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, was on The New York Times bestseller list for a year-and-a-half, with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages, and has been a best seller in many countries. Apart from his books on emotional intelligence, Dr. Goleman has written books on topics including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, eco-literacy, and the ecological crisis.

Richard Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds. He is best known for his groundbreaking work studying emotion and the brain. A friend and confidante of the Dalai Lama, he is a highly sought-after expert and speaker, leading conversations on well-being on international stages such as the World Economic Forum, where he serves on the Global Council on Mental Health. Time Magazine named Dr. Davidson one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2006.

Their new book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available in bookstores everywhere now. And please be sure to join Dan and Richie on social media and share how meditation has benefited your life with the hashtag #whyimeditate.

What are 3 things or experiences that bring you the greatest sense of fulfillment in life?

DG: 1) Loved ones. 2) Kindness 3) Meditation

RD: Serving others; Practicing meditation; Being with family.

What are the small things you do every day to be happy/fulfilled?

DG: Hug my wife, meditate, write.

RD: I reflect on the extraordinary opportunity we are being given to do this work at the Center for Healthy Minds and reflect on the people I have the honor and privilege to work with. I think a lot about how amazing our team is and feel a lot of gratitude for them – many times a day, every day.

People often find they don’t have enough time. How do you make time for those?  

DG: It’s not the time we have, but how we prioritize. I try to make these must-dos daily.

RD: The biggest obstacle for all of us is we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves. Take meditation for instance, where a common misconception is that you have to be on a cushion for several minutes or hours at a time. It’s not realistic. I tell people to start with modest goals that may not include formal practice but rather a commitment that when they brush their teeth in the morning, they do it with awareness. I’m a strong believer in spending a few minutes a day intentionally cultivating awareness and setting yourself up for success rather than failure.

What health habits do you stick to no matter what?

DG: Avoid eating lots of carbs and fats, try to exercise five times a week, and meditate daily.

RD: For me, the habit I stick with is my formal meditation practice. I also have made a habit of informal meditation, recognizing awareness in any context, many, many times a day when I’m engaged in total busyness. It’s quite remarkable how bringing awareness to just one moment can shift your point of view.

What’s your best relationship tip?  

DG: Empathize before you speak.

RD: Listen deeply.

You seem to balance both happiness and success. What’s your secret to being happy and productive?

DG: Do what you love. Then, you can be happy while you get things done.

RD: I would say that my secret is taking care of my mind and body. I care for my mind with my meditation practice, and I care for my body by doing physical exercise (yoga, Pilates) and eating well.

What – in your opinion – is the best way to spread happiness and fulfillment to others?

RD: The best way to spread happiness and fulfillment is to exude and embody these qualities yourself. Doing that will inevitably impact those around you.

What is a quote you live by?

DG: “If you can change things, why worry?

If you can’t change things, why worry?”

— From a Tibetan sage

RD: “As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world.”

— Shantideva, 8th century Buddhist philosopher

An exclusive excerpt from Dr. Daniel Goleman and Dr. Richard Davidson’s newest publication, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body:

Dalhousie nestles in the lower reaches of the Dhauladhar range, a branch of the Himalayas that stretches into India’s Punjab and Himachal Pradesh states. Established in the mid-nineteenth century as a “hill station” where the bureaucrats of the British Raj could escape the summer heat of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, Dalhousie was chosen for its gorgeous setting. With its picturesque bungalows left over from colonial days, this hill station has long been a tourist attraction.

But it wasn’t the setting that brought Richie and Susan to Dalhousie that summer of 1973. They had come for a ten-day retreat – their first deep dive – with S. N. Goenka, the same teacher Dan had done successive retreats within Bodh Gaya a few years before while on his first sojourn in India for his predoctoral traveling fellowship. Richie and Susan had just visited Dan in Kandy, Sri Lanka, where he was living on a postdoctoral fellowship during this second trip to Asia.

Dan encouraged the couple to take a course with Goenka as a doorway into intensive meditation. The course was a bit disorienting from the start. For one, Richie slept in a large tent for the men, Susan in one for the women. And the imposition of “noble silence” from day one meant that Richie never really knew who else shared that tent – his vague impression was that they were mostly Europeans.

In the meditation hall, Richie found the floor scattered with round zafus, Zen-style cushions, to sit on. The zafu would be Richie’s perch through the twelve or so hours of sitting in meditation the daily schedule called for.

Settling onto his zafu in his usual half lotus, Richie noticed a twinge of pain in his right knee, which had always been the weak one. As the hours of sitting progressed day by day, that twinge morphed into a low howl of discomfort and spread not just to the other knee but to his lower back as well—common hurt zones for Western bodies unaccustomed to sitting still for hours supported by nothing but a pillow on the floor.

Richie’s mental task for the whole day was to tune in to the sensations of breathing at his nostrils. The most vivid sense impression wasn’t his breath – it was the continual intense physical pain in his knees and back. By the end of the first day, he was thinking, I can’t believe I have nine more days of this.

But on the third day came a major shift with Goenka’s instruction to “sweep” with a careful, observing attention head to toe, toe to head, through all the many and varied sensations in his body. Though Richie found his focus returning again and again to the throbbing pain in that knee, he also started to glimpse a sense of equanimity and well-being.

Soon, Richie found himself entering a state of total absorption that, toward the end of the retreat, allowed him to sit for up to four hours at a go. At lights-out time, he’d go to the empty meditation hall and meditate on his body’s sensations steadily, sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.

The retreat was a high for Richie. He came away with a deep conviction that there were methods that could transform our minds to produce a profound well-being. We did not have to be controlled by the mind, with its random associations, sudden fears and anger, and all the rest — We could take back the helm.

For days after the retreat ended, Richie still felt he was on a high. Richie’s mind kept soaring while he and Susan stayed on in Dalhousie. The high rode with him on the bus down the mountains via roads wending through fields and villages with mud-walled, thatch-roofed houses, onto the busier cities of the plains, and finally through the throbbing, packed roads of Delhi.

There, Richie felt that high begin to wane as he and Susan spent a few days in the bare-bones guesthouse they could afford on their grad student budget, venturing out to Delhi’s cacophonous and crowded streets to have a tailor make some clothes and buy souvenirs.

Perhaps the biggest force in the decline of that meditation state was the traveler’s stomach they both had come down with. That malady plagued them through a change of planes in Frankfurt on the cheap flight from Delhi to Kennedy Airport. After a full day spent in travel, they landed in New York, where they were greeted by both sets of parents, eager to see them after this summer away in Asia.

As Susan and Richie exited Customs – sick, tired, and dressed in the Indian style of the day – their families greeted them with looks of horrified shock. Instead of enveloping them in love, they yelled in alarm, “What have you done to yourselves? You look terrible!”

By the time they all arrived at the upstate New York country house of Susan’s family, the half-life of that high had reached the bottom of its slope, and Richie felt as terrible as he’d looked walking off the plane.

Richie tried to revive the state he had reached at the Dalhousie course, but it had vanished. It reminded him of a psychedelic trip in that way: he had vivid memories of the retreat, but they were not embodied, not a lasting transformation. They were just memories.

That sobering experience fed into what was to become a burning scientific question: How long do state effects – like Richie’s meditative highs – last? At what point can they be considered enduring traits? What allows such a transformation of being to become embodied in a lasting way instead of fading into the mists of memory?

And just where in the mind’s terrain had Richie been?

Reprinted from ALTERED TRAITS by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

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