Can Enlightenment Be Found Online? We Tried the Dalai Lama's New Website
Like most humans, I feel a lot of things a lot of the time.
Sadness, elation, jealousy, anger, confusion, disgust – these emotions rush through me, sometimes expected and sometimes not, throughout the day, informing my behavior. If I snap at a coworker or smile at a coworker or pretend to be looking at my phone as I pass a coworker in the hallway, these actions are rooted in emotions, emotions that are as mystical to me as 5th century Buddhist teachings or Jennifer Lopez‘s inability to age.
The Dalai Lama, a.k.a. His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, is trying to demystify emotion with his new website, The Atlas of Emotions, a collaboration between him and psychologist Paul Ekman built by Stamen Design to help people more fully understand the complex workings of their emotions – and how this informs their behavior.
“Having choice about when to experience an emotion, and how to experience it requires introducing a foreign element into the onset of an emotion awareness,” the site’s About page reads. “Skills must be developed if that awareness is to become possible, if we are to exercise choice about when we experience which emotion, and how we experience it. The Atlas of Emotions was created to illuminate it.”
While the site doesn’t offer the skills (or a how-to guide) for dealing with your emotions, it promotes finding awareness. The implication is that awareness empowers us to change how we perceive, experience, and act on our emotions. The idea is that we get back a little control over our own selves, by virtue of mapping out our feelings, which may feel super complex in our head, but are actually quite quantifiable. (In other words: They don’t have as much scary, vague power over us as we think they do. They are mappable. They follow patterns.)
The Atlas of Emotions maps out how emotions arrive at you: There’s the trigger (“oh hey free cake I’ll get myself a slice!”), the perception (“uhoh I’m fat!”), and the response (“I need to run 46 miles to burn this off.”) I provided this hypothetical, which may or may not have gone through my mind today.
Would mapping out an emotion – its origin, a trigger, and its destination, an action, – help me get control of it?
My verdict: Yes. Sort of. Over the course of three days, I tried to be more mindful of my emotions and their trajectories, thinking about what caused them and how they caused me to behave. (“The emotions are our response to triggers. They arise automatically and result in emotional actions.”) And even if I didn’t achieve enlightenment in the process, I certainly felt less powerless to the whims of my triggers: Cookies. Not getting an immediate text response from someone. Another person shot in the news. Seeing someone with a cuter outfit than me. Etc.
A heightened awareness did, in fact, soften the hold my emotions had on me.
I have this nervous habit where I pick at the skin on my lip – disgusting, I know. But on the train this morning, as I was picking away and listening to “Hold Up” (best song on Lemonade) for the 5,463,421th time, I paused to think about why I was picking so aggressively. I put my hand on my lap, and took a moment, retracing the events of the morning; waking up, making myself oatmeal, scrolling through Instagram, doing some squats to work on my butt. I couldn’t find the trigger, as I’d hoped. But as I sat with this nervousness – and tried to map it – I realized, twenty minutes later as the subway pulled into my station, that I hadn’t been picking at my lip. I hadn’t yet reached enlightenment, but I counted this as a victory.
Ekman and the Dalai Lama’s thesis is that emotion is a process, like a sweaty morning commute. All five “continents of emotions” – disgust, fear, sadness, enjoyment and anger – can be broken down into their simplest parts. And even if you struggle to break them down fully, or figure out why, all of a sudden, you are furious and you don’t know why, the process of attempting to break them down is therapeutic in itself.