We are joined today by the internationally renowned psychologist, author and science journalist Daniel Goleman. For twelve years, he wrote for The New York Times, reporting on the brain and behavioural sciences. His 1995 book Emotional Intelligence was on The New York Times Best Seller list for a year-and-a-half as well as being a best-seller in many countries, and is in print worldwide in 40 languages. He’s the author of many other books on a wide array of topics including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy and the ecological crisis and he recently collaborated with the Dalai Lama on the book ‘A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Humanity’. He’s here to talk to us today about his latest book which he co-wrote with his long –time friend and collaborator Richard J Davidson entitled ‘Altered Traits: Science Reveals how Meditation changes your Mind, Brain and Body.
It’s just over a year since we decided to live in France, my wife and I. We hadn’t planned to when we bought the house, but having moved in we decided to stay, instead of using it just for holidays. The decision sort of made itself. Perhaps the journeys back and forth were too exhausting, and there were other reasonable justifications we both agreed on.
We haven’t regretted it so far, although there have been challenges for us both; some we saw coming, some we didn’t, but none were overwhelming and most gave us sense of achievement as we tackled them together. I’ve taken up new pursuits and my wife is enjoying a much-deserved freedom from the tyranny of round-the-clock shifts as a hospital nurse in a collapsing NHS.
But I’ve been challenged by not being able to speak or understand anything other than simple French. I learned French at school over sixty years ago and learned it well, without ever being required to speak a word or listen to native speaker. I read 19th century French literature (Moliere’s ‘Le Misanthrope’) and more – at that time – modern novels (Alain Fournier’s “Le Grand Meaulnes” – a kind of French ‘Catcher in the Rye’): about three stuttering pages per 40 minute lesson. Yet though I passed my written exams well enough, I could hardly utter or understand a spoken word.
So since arriving here I’ve had to start the linguistic journey again from scratch, and from a different starting point: person-to-person communication. One of my first efforts at making sense was in a local shop selling electrical items. I had practised asking (in French) “Do you sell the things that allow a British plug to be inserted into a French socket?” In the shop, the meaning was somehow totally derailed, either because I’d used the wrong word for plug, or socket, or allowed, or inserted; or all of them; or because my accent was unintelligible; or because I was awkward and self-conscious; or because I’d neglected to say the customary polite “Bonjour” on entering the shop. I left without an adaptor, the shop assistant indicated somehow that they hadn’t got what she thought I wanted, and my feelings of hurt pride were soothed by her saying in English (and looking) “Sorry” , as I left.
Listening to spoken French is even more of a struggle. We have a next door neighbour whom we met when we first went to look over the house and its untended overgrown jungle of a garden. The estate agent had told him I spoke good French, and he followed us round keeping up a running commentary in almost unintelligible Norman dialect, from which I managed to catch an occasional familiar word, but hardly any sense whatever. But his friendliness was infectious and, on parting, I felt in fine good humour and was able to thank him for his kind welcome which, I stammered in schoolboy French, had “touched our hearts”.
Reflecting on this later, I felt I had perhaps over-done the emotional loading in delivering this phrase in an unfamiliar language to a stranger. The whole experience felt surreal, as I had no idea if he had understood what I said, or what impression it had made on him. I felt uncomfortably ‘disarmed’. It’s no co-incidence that, in using that particular word, I admit to having lost my ‘weapon’, language, or ‘weapons’, there being many others at my disposal. On further reflection, it dawned on me that I always speak to impress or, as that is too much of a generalisation, attempting to impress is often a feature of what I say (and write). What impression am I trying to create in others? It’s a daunting question, and so important to me that I get to the bottom if it, that I shan’t try to answer it here, maybe another time.
The surreal quality of living in France where I have a very diminished capacity for communicating using the comfortable conversational language of everyday life, the ‘vernacular’, has gradually faded, but is still around. For one thing, now my ear is a little better attuned to French voices, and I’ve started to notice that, as far as my understanding goes, everyday French is much more straightforward and simply constructed than the French I learned at school. People talk about the weather (I thought this was just a particularly English trait), and exchange ‘small talk’ (some of which escapes my understanding), involving nods, smiles, sighs, tuts, sympathetic shrugs and head shakes of the familiar “Oh dear!” kind.
All this might seem blindingly obvious, but to me it’s a revelation, and it’s almost as if I’m learning how to communicate with my fellows from scratch. For one thing, I’m having to give thought to what I want to say before I open my mouth. Time and again, I realise that my default position is to impress, instead of to communicate a need or to respond to someone else’s. This just doesn’t work. If, as I suspect, I am trying to impress the other with my presumed superiority, communication becomes a battle of strength: either I prevail and ‘conquer’, or I submit and ‘grovel’. Sometimes, I think, I do both!
So, I’m learning, communication seems to work much better from a position of parity of esteem, not a battle of wills. So far, so (provisionally) good as a working theory and as a daily practice……..(more to follow on this)
Make a one-day Middle Way Philosophy workshop happen in your locality!
Now of all times, it becomes more and more urgent to address the underlying conditions of conflict, prejudice, and fragmentation in our minds and the world. A one-day workshop should give you an overall understanding of the theory and practice that can be a starting point for developing your engagement with the Middle Way. We are now seeking people to register their wish for a one-day workshop on Middle Way Philosophy to be held in their area, and we will simply respond to demand rather than trying to guess it in advance. You just need to fill in a few questions on a Google form to help make it a reality! Please go to this page.
Closure of moralobjectivity.net
Moralobjectivity.net, the first website I produced devoted to Middle Way Philosophy, has remained working in parallel with this site for a transitional period of three years. It does contain some resources that are not on this site, such as the complete text of three of my earlier books: ‘A Theory of Moral Objectivity’, ‘The Trouble with Buddhism’, and ‘A New Buddhist Ethics’. However, it is used very little, has a very basic design, and is increasingly out of date. So I have decided not to renew the domain after it expires on 17th September this year. If you want to make any use of it, your time is thus limited! My other earlier Wordpress blog site, middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com is still up, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Robert M Ellis
What is it like to be a drug addict and recover? What is going on in your brain as you do so? Please go to this page for a new review of Marc Lewis’s gripping book.