“Buddha’s Brain,” by Rick Hanson, sat on my bookshelf for years. I wish it had flagged me down somehow rather than sitting there so unassumingly. But then again, it is a Buddhist book. I wonder why after nearly two decades of studying meditation and 5 years as a Denver psychologist in private practice, I never read such a pivotal book.
Dr. Hanson, a neuropsychologist, psychotherapist, and meditation teacher, has the perfect combination of experience to deliver an applied approach to training your brain to be happier, more loving, and more wise. Neuroscientists call this ability neuroplasticity and the concept is all over the popular media these days. Scientists are captivated by the brain scans of Buddhist monks and marvel at the fascinating pictures of brain activity we now have thanks to new technology. Discovered in the 1970’s, neuroplasticity is the potential the brain has to change its structure and function. Or put another way, our potential to learn. This learning enables us to do everything from reciting the alphabet, to picking up a new song on the guitar, to becoming more patient. Hanson’s book, which is part science class, part user friendly explanation of mindfulness, and part meditation instruction, explains how to use this potential to be happier.
Buddha’s Brain is about what brain research and Buddhism can shake hands on. Hanson addresses the ubiquitous problem of chronic stress, the toll it takes on the body and mind, and how we can endeavor to turn the stress response off when we don’t need it (which is most of the time). It’s full of wonderful descriptions of how the mind and brain work, uncomplicated by neuroscientific or Buddhist jargon. For example, he describes the brain as Teflon for good experiences and Velcro for bad ones, a reference to the brain’s bias for paying more attention to negative events. The book explains why, because of this bias, we get so stressed and unhappy and it employs insights from both neuroscience and Buddhism in a range of practices, some of which you can complete in a few seconds. This is important because as readers we need a menu of options in order to discover practices that fit our unique lifestyle and frame of mind.
In these exciting but relatively early stages of neuroscience research, it can be very tempting to draw conclusions about the brain that are not truly backed up by the research yet. But Hanson resists. By blending neuroscientific findings with the wisdom of mindfulness, he keeps this book honest.
Mindfulness is very much about being with what is, thoughts, feelings, and so on. But as Hanson illustrates so well, it’s also about inclining our minds toward the mental states that support health and happiness. It’s about creating the conditions in our minds that foster calmer, clearer vision. To that end Hanson encourages us to practice feeling good, to savor pleasure, love, and accomplishments, among other things, and shows us how to “hard wire” these feelings. One such practice is to simply allow yourself to register when something good has happened. How many times have you received a compliment, finished an email, or unpacked a load of groceries and actually enjoyed the good feelings that these simple events can bring? Most of us miss many opportunities to feel good that present themselves throughout the day, especially when we are feeling down. We barely have the milk in the refrigerator and we are already focused on what’s next. The practice of savoring the good counteracts that bias for negative events that, as Hanson points out, evolved in humans to keep us safe, but has a hefty cost. There’s something about knowing that both mindfulness and neuroscience back up small actions, such as savoring, that makes me, and I suspect others too, so much more likely to make the effort.
I carried this book everywhere I went until I finished it, diving in with any spare time I had. I urgently wanted to know what Hansen had to say. Could the neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom change my life for the better? Could it be a source of relief from my own hang ups? As I read I noticed a wonderful, unabashed enthusiasm. Something in these pages really resonated with me. But I detected a subtle dark side in my excitement, a hint suggesting the pitfalls of a book like this. With any book on personal or spiritual growth comes what the Buddhist teacher, Chogyma Trungpa Rinpoche, called “spiritual materialism.” The term is meant o suggest that spiritual striving can actually cause problems when we are motivated by the desire to acquire yet another thing. Rather than a car or big salary though, spiritual materialism is the desire to be better or have more in a spiritual sense. Desires like these can have unintended consequences. They can strengthen craving, which shares a lot in common with stress, and is a force that Buddhism suggests is the fuel of human suffering. Hanson clearly has in mind that what he is teaching has the potential to lead to craving when he says, “The point is not to resist painful experiences or grasp at pleasant ones: that’s a kind of craving- and craving leads to suffering. The art is to find a balance in which you remain mindful, accepting, and curious regarding difficult experiences-while also taking in supportive feelings and thoughts (Hanson, 2009).” But I would have liked more about this caution woven throughout the book.
To introduce the chapter on love, Hanson recounts a story he heard about a Native American elder who was once asked how she had become so wise, happy, and respected. She answered, “In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.” I have to wonder what the world would be like if more people though this way. Perhaps the best thing about Buddha’s Brain is not what it says about our individual potential, but what it says about our potential collectively.
In Buddha’s Brain you will find neither pessimism nor optimism, but realism instead. The book, like Buddhism itself, takes the middle way. It suggests that we can fundamentally change who we are if we are willing to do the work.