Daniel Goleman first became aware of spiritual energy three decades ago in Asia. The author of the best-selling Emotional Intelligence, Goleman was a Harvard graduate studying meditation in India when he noticed that most seasoned practitioners exuded what he calls "a special quality, magnetic in a quiet sense." Contrary to stereotype, these spiritual types did not seem otherworldly at all. "They were lively and engaged," he says, "extremely present, involved in the moment, often funny, yet profoundly at peace—equanimous in disturbing situations." What's more, it seemed to him that this quality was communicable: "You always felt better than before you'd spent time with them, and this feeling lasted."

Goleman discovered that the components of spiritual energy are as carefully quantified in ancient traditions as waves and particles are in physics. "One of the words used to describe this magnetic state is sukha," he says, a Pali expression denoting a sense of "repleteness, contentment, delight—a calm, abiding joy regardless of external circumstances." Sukha is selfless in nature and connected to a greater purpose—which is why it increases through service to others.

Traditional cultures recognize that spending time with individuals who radiate this quality is nourishing in itself. In the Hindu custom known as darshan ("presence"), people "tune in to someone who is already in that magnificent internal space," Goleman says, "catching it, so to speak, and carrying it out to others."

Such transmission is more palpable than a skeptic might expect, as I found with the Daskalos, and as San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman saw after spending a week in Dharmsala with the Dalai Lama. "At the airport afterward, my wife looked at me and said, 'You're not the man I married!'" Ekman says with a laugh. "I was acting like somebody who's in love." The foremost authority on the physiology of emotion, Ekman—who is not a Buddhist—had been invited to engage in a cross-cultural dialogue between Western scientists and His Holiness, along with several monks. Ekman left the meeting deeply moved. "These monks were unlike any human beings I had encountered before," he says. "They were joyous in a way I had never seen, except, perhaps, in my daughter at two or three years old."

Ekman detected four characteristics common to people with this energy: a "palpable goodness," first of all, that went far beyond some "warm and fuzzy aura" and seemed to arise from genuine integrity. Next, an impression of selflessness—a lack of concern with status, fame, and ego—a "transparency between their personal and public lives that set them apart from those with charisma, who are often one thing on the outside, another when you look under the surface." Third, Ekman noticed that this expansive, compassionate energy nurtured others. Finally, he was struck by the "amazing powers of attentiveness" displayed by these individuals, and the feeling he had of being seen in the round, wholly acknowledged, and embraced by someone with open eyes.

If these qualities were unique to masters, they wouldn't be half as compelling. What inspired Ekman-the-scientist was witnessing that transformation is possible for the rest of us. "It wasn't luck or culture or genes that created this qualitative difference," he insists. "These people have resculpted their brains through practice." Contrary to the old hardwiring theory that posited the human brain as fixed from birth, the emerging theory of neuroplasticity has revealed that our minds are reshaped through repeated experience.

In his book, Destructive Emotions, Goleman cites a recent study involving a monk being monitored in a laboratory while he meditates on compassion. Among other findings, scientists saw a dramatic increase in gamma energy (sparked in the part of the brain associated with positive emotions), proving that through concern for others we can create measurably greater well-being in ourselves.

Next: How to tap into your spiritual side


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