Cultivating Emotional Balance

The Cultivating Emotional Balance research project arose from a dialogue between biobehavioral scientists studying emotion and the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks and scholars. This meeting, which took place in March 2000, in Dharamsala, India, was one in a series sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute to foster an interchange between the Buddhist tradition and Western science.

At this meeting, the Dalai Lama asked the scientists if they could conduct research to determine whether or not secularized Buddhist practices would be helpful to Westerners in dealing with "destructive" emotional experiences. In response to this request, a group of scientists, headed by Dr. Paul Ekman, developed a training program that integrated Buddhist contemplative practices with Western techniques for dealing with negative emotional experiences. The training’s purpose is to reduce emotional responses that are destructive to self and others and enhance compassion and empathy. This research project, "Cultivating Emotional Balance In Challenging Times" (CEB), is the result of that interchange.

Over centuries, Buddhism has refined meditation methods to probe the nature of the mind and to promote positive states of mind, including compassion. Decades of scientific research have been conducted on altruism, empathy, pro-social behavior and other concepts that relate directly to compassion. However, there are almost no studies in the scientific literature that have determined if any form of training or intervention can increase compassion. In fact, there is no agreed upon definition of compassion in the scientific literature.

In these challenging times, the development of methods for "cultivating emotional balance" and promoting compassion for others is a tremendously important scientific and humanitarian goal. By integrating the wisdom derived from two very different traditions, the CEB project investigators hope to contribute to this important goal.

Investigator Team


  • Margaret Kemeny, Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco, the Principal Investigator, is an internationally recognized expert in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, particularly the impact of cognitions and emotions on physiology and health.
  • Paul Ekman, Ph.D. University of California, San Francisco, is a renowned expert in the scientific study of emotion and facial expressions.
  • B. Alan Wallace, Ph.D., Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, an expert in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, oversees the meditation training component of this project.
  • Janine Giese-Davis, Ph.D., Stanford University, has extensive expertise in measuring emotional behavior in social interactions.
  • Jeanne Tsai, Ph.D., Stanford University, is an expert in cultural aspects of emotion and empathy. Advisory Council


Since the inception of the study, the process of integrating contemplative practices with Western psychological techniques and principles related to emotion has been facilitated by an Advisory Council consisting of leaders in the fields of emotion, psychosocial interventions, and contemplative practice.


  • Richard Davidson, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin [specialty: brain and emotion]
  • Mark Greenberg, Ph.D., Penn State University [specialty: social-emotional intervention in schools]
  • Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. [specialty: emotional intelligence]
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. [specialty: mindfulness-based stress reduction]
  • John Teasdale, Ph.D. [specialty: combining cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness]
  • Joseph Goldstein [specialty: Buddhist meditation]


Pilot Study

The Fetzer Foundation funded a CEB pilot study that took place from September 2002 to May 2003. An integrated 5-week training program was developed following a series of meetings with experts in emotion, psychotherapy and contemplative meditation. In addition, a number of behavioral evaluation measures were selected and modified to capture changes in emotional and interpersonal behavior, without relying exclusively on self-report.

The training and evaluation measures were then pilot-tested on a sample of 15 female schoolteachers. The training integrated lectures, discussions, and practices related to contemplative meditation with those derived from the scientific literature on the awareness and understanding of emotional experience. The format included a 3-hour introductory session, a 2 and 1/2-day retreat, a 3-hour follow-up session, and 3 full-day final sessions.

Participants found the integrated training experience quite meaningful. They reported a reduction in negative mood that they believe resulted from an increase in their ability to maintain a calm quality even in the face of adversity. They also reported an increase in awareness of their emotions, their thoughts, and their reactions to others that allowed them to respond in unique and constructive ways. Many participants reported an ability to interact with others in a more compassionate and forgiving way.

Evaluation procedure results supported the participants’ reports. Participants showed a highly significant decrease in depression, anxiety and hostility over the 5-week period. In addition, participants reported a significant increase in affection for others and demonstrated a significant improvement in their ability to detect subtle forms of emotional expression on the face.

All participants were exposed to a standardized "stress" task at both the pre-training session and the post-training session. At the post-test, participants showed a response pattern that suggested less emotional and physiological reactivity to the stress task compared to their reactivity prior to the training. In other words, the training appeared to protect them from the negative psychological and physiological effects of stress. The next phase of the project will determine whether these and other changes will continue to be observable when they are compared against any changes demonstrated by a control group that does not receive the training.

Clinical Trial


The next phase of the CEB project involved a randomized controlled clinical trial, comparing the integrated training to a control condition to determine the efficacy of the training and its impact over a 6-month follow-up period. The aims of the trial were to determine if the CEB training: reduces emotional experiences destructive to others, specifically, hostility, contempt and denigration; reduces emotional experiences destructive to self, specifically, shame, depression and anxiety; promotes empathy and compassion towards intimates and others; and promotes physiological health, as measured by changes in autonomic nervous system activity, neuroendocrine hormone levels, and immune function.


The CEB project recruited women schoolteachers, nurses, and other allied health professionals between the ages of 25 and 60 to participate in the study. Teachers and helping professionals were chosen for two reasons: 1) Their work situations are stressful and can be emotionally draining due to their care-giving roles. These individuals may therefore benefit from training that promotes emotional balance and compassion. 2) The training could have a variety of secondary benefits for the participants’ pupils or clients/patients.

Training Procedures

Training took place in a group setting over an 8-week period, including a retreat and some day-long sessions. The training procedures were modeled after those used in the pilot phase. Two trainers led the group sessions: Alan Wallace, co-investigator on the project and a Buddhist scholar and expert in meditation training, and Margaret Cullen, a Marriage and Family Therapist and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Instructor, who has expertise in group interventions including those using psychological and meditation techniques.

The CEB training involves the integration of secularized meditation practices with various techniques drawn from Western psychological science designed to promote the understanding and regulation of emotional life. Training focuses on the following components: attention (including concentration and mindfulness); awareness and understanding of emotions in self and others; skills to handle emotional conflict; empathy training; and compassion training.

Evaluation Procedures

All participants were evaluated using psychosocial and biological measures of emotion and social interaction at three points in time: immediately before, immediately after, and six months following the 8-week training period. The trial determined whether the integration of contemplative practice and western techniques for dealing with emotion can reduce destructive emotions and enhance compassion and empathy for others. While self-report measures were included, the project emphasizes quantitative measurement of emotional and interpersonal behavior. As of May 2009, all the data from this study have been analyzed, and the results are very encouraging, demonstrating multiple benefits of this training. A scientific paper detailing the results will be published soon.


Pre-Trial Measurement Studies (to further refine instruments) 9/03-6/04 Recruitment of Participants/Set-up 3/04-12/04 Trial Phase, Follow-up and Data Analysis 1/05-6/06

Further Information

Those would like to hear more about the study as information becomes available, or who would like to contribute to the study in some other way, please check this site again from time to time.

investigator team: