First, a “buddha brain” is simply one that knows how to be truly happy in the face of life’s inescapable ups and downs. (I don’t capitalize the word “buddha” here to focus on the original nature of the word – which is “to know, to see clearly” – to distinguish my general meaning from the specific historical individual known as The Buddha.) The possibility of this kind of brain is inherent in the human brain that we all share; any human brain can become a buddha brain. Therefore, a buddha brain is for everyone, whatever their religious orientation (including none at all).
Second, we all must begin the path wherever we are – whether that’s everyday stress and frustration, mental illness, anxiety, sorrow and loss, or depression. In any moment when we step back from our experience and hold it in mindful awareness, or when we begin to let go of negative feelings and factors, or when we gradually turn toward and cultivate positive feelings and factors we are taking a step toward developing a buddha brain. Each small step matters. It was usually lots of small steps that took a person to a bad place, and it will be lots of small steps that take him or her to a better one.
Third, mental anguish or dysfunction can help us grow. They teach us a lot about how the mind works, they can deepen compassion for the troubles and sorrows of others, and, frankly, they can be very motivating.
Personally, the times in my life when I have been most intent on taking my own steps toward a buddha brain have been either when I was really feeling blue – and needed to figure out how to get out of the hole I was in – or when I was feeling really good, and could still sense that there had to be more to life than this, and more profound possibilities for awakening.
For me one of the central teachings of the Buddha is paraphrased as “wisdom is choosing a greater happiness over a lesser one.” In our overarching vows and in our specific choices, there could be a turning away from what is a hindrance, a “poison,” etc., but there also needs to be mainly a turning toward that which is happier for ourselves and often others. So emphasizing the turning toward—feeling the goodness of it, anticipating the (understandable and appropriate) rewards of it, being given over to it like a current drawing you along—is really important . . . and this aspect can be undervalued, especially in monastic settings that can be a little, ah, grim.
For all these reasons, the ACC is super and worth training . . . . but long-term I think happier and more sustainable motivation comes from a psychology of giving over to the greater happiness and letting it live us, and from a neurology that emphasizes reward systems in the subcortex.
In terms of the ACC, the whole brain works together to motivate us. In this context, the ACC flags divergences from goals (e.g., vows, choices). So it tends to be involved in top-down “sour” alarms about what we are turning away from rather than bottom-up “sweet” rewards in what we are turning toward. Plus there is “willpower fatigue” when we emphasize top-down forms of motivation.
In Neurodharma, I approach steadiness, lovingness, fullness, wholeness, nowness, allness, and oneness as 7 aspects of awakening, 7 ways of being that are developed in awakening (thus in effect “steps” of awakening) and which when cultivated foster awakening.
In the last sense they are “factors” of awakening, but I tend to avoid that term in order to:
Gratitude supports spiritual practices – or related secular ones, such as everyday mindfulness – in a variety of ways. It draws our awareness to a sense of fullness, of having enough, and this reduces the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm towards oneself and others. It is a doorway to awe and wonder at the stunning fact that the universe exists at all. It helps you appreciate the extraordinary gift of being alive and of having a human life, so you want to make the most of it and don’t want to waste it. And for some, gratitude draws them toward an appreciation for God – however they experience or conceive of that.
Of course, each of these benefits also gently and gradually shapes one’s own brain in an increasingly positive direction.
Depression is a mind state like any other, and it possesses the classic three characteristics: it’s impermanent, interdependently arising (and thus empty of absolute self-existence), and generative of suffering if one engages it with craving/clinging (e.g., resists it, gets angry or ashamed for being depressed). Many notable teachers (e.g., Mingyur Rinpoche, Dipa Ma), have a history of depression. It’s the pits for sure. But it’s just another mind state. So deal with it as best you can – “ardent, diligent, resolute, and mindful” – from working on your circumstances to improving your biochemistry to trying to release it (e.g., cognitive methods, imagery, venting) to replacing it with lots of taking in the good. While remembering that you have it, it doesn’t have you. Equanimity is a good thing.
About suicide: I am not aware of any quote from the Buddha himself on the subject. It is clear, though, in the Buddhist meta-model, that we always inherit the results of our actions, for better or worse – in this life, mainly, and in other ones, too. My personal opinion is that killing oneself out of kindness (e.g., euthanasia at the end of life in terminal, hopeless, excruciating pain) is one thing, but killing oneself because of inherently transient conditions such as depression is profoundly unkind to the one person in the universe we have the highest duty to, the one we have the most power over: your future self.
Keep going! Don’t give up. You are an excellent person, and will certainly inherit the good results of your good intentions, good actions, and good heart.
First, I share your concerns about hurting other beings for one’s own pleasure.
Second, in a sense you are speaking about trauma in general and how to clear it from the mind. This is a big topic, and I’ll just say here a few things that might help:
Experiences exist in some sense, but they are transient, insubstantial, made of parts, and arise due to causes, and therefore they are “empty” of absolute self-existence. In a sense, they are like clouds, not bricks.
There has been a lot of research on how spirituality supports physical and mental health. For starters, it usually reduces stress and increases positive emotions and social support; while other activities also do one or more of these things (e.g., talking with friends, exercising), spiritual practice pulls them together in one powerful bundle. Further, the focus on ultimate, transcendental matters in much spirituality gives life meaning, puts death and other difficulties in perspective, and draws one’s mind toward the infinite. If spirituality could be patented by pharmaceutical companies, we’d see ads for it hourly on TV!
My super short answer is I don’t know.
Slightly longer: My personal view is that ordinary awareness – the awareness of cats, dogs, monkeys, whales, and humans (and probably that of lizards, worms, and fruit flies) – is likely fully explainable by the operations of the nervous system, embedded in the body, nature, and in “higher” animals, including us, by culture. I think we are a century or two from this full explanation – it’s that complex and subtle a topic – but that such an explanation of ordinary awareness entirely in terms of the natural frame will eventually be developed.
And – my personal view is also that material reality includes, entails, requires, and depends upon some sort of currently mysterious consciousness, woven into the fabric of reality itself. For quantum potentiality to emerge into quantum actuality at the emerging edge of now – always and eternally – I think there must be some kind of consciousness . . . a kind of consciousness that we can barely if at all imagine . . . another word for which is God.
These two views of mine make me deeply grateful for the gifts of evolution and life, in terms of my ordinary awareness, and make me deeply awestruck and humbled by the prospect of and by the sense of each emerging moment of my life and the universe altogether being a passing manifestation of the underlying Divine nature of this other person, this breath, this experience, this word.
People define enlightenment differently. I like the expression: sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening . . . in a lovely circle, or spiral, with no point of beginning or ending. Or the traditional phrase: moments of enlightenment, many times a day.
In early Buddhism, enlightenment is conceived of in four stages, starting with stream entry and ending as an arahant. I like the way enlightenment is operationalized for an arahant: irrevocably (which gets to your query about losing enlightenment), greed, hatred, and delusion (broadly defined) no longer arise in the mind at all, or perhaps arise subtly and occasionally but can find no hold. That’s a psychologically meaningful definition I can relate to.
In effect, we are already enlightened (in the sense of always already having Buddhanature; it’s just obscured by the usual crud) and we have moments of awakening that inspire and purify us. . Over time and with practice, those jewel-like moments become deeper, longer, and more stable, gradually stitching together at the highest levels into a seamless necklace of unconditional love and inner peace. Pretty good news!
I believe that all this is really happening. Deimos is indeed circling Mars, the Big did Bang, two atoms of hydrogen are happening together with an atom of oxygen in each molecule of water, genes in DNA happen, neurons are actually firing, iron at the center of the Earth is really, really hot and its rotation is producing our magnetic field, etc.
The Buddha never denied materiality, nor Nagarjuna. What’s happening may be empty in the technical sense, but it is still existent. The existence of karma (in this life for sure, and maybe across lifetimes) is central to Buddhadharma, for example. Our descriptions of reality are inherently limited – but so what? The pictures on the menu may not match the meal, but the hamburger still tastes pretty good. It may be a useful practice to regard experience as like a dream – but that is not the same as the ontological stance that immaterial experience and its material neural/biological underpinnings do not exist, which is an absurd and in my view ultimately arrogant position. Materiality was here long before humans, nervous systems, or life altogether.
The wonderfully freeing truth is that life happens. Things happen for 10,000 reasons, most of which have nothing to do with us. Yes we do produce causes, especially through our intentions, but we are also an effect of many other causes. Even if some causes travel across lifetimes, they are not the whole set of what’s determinative in any single life.
All content is empty and impermanent. Place your faith in what endures, in what is still amidst the changes: the nature of things, the unconditioned, the consciousness and love that is inherently entwined in the emergent edge of everything for it to be at all.
“Religious” covers a lot of ground. Double-check me, but I think it’s true that the majority of Americans engage spiritual practices (e.g., yoga, mindfulness meditations, mystical connection with nature, sense of the Divine as the Ground of everything rather than an omniscient and omnipotent personality) outside the conventional Judeo-Christian frame, or are agnostic or atheist. It would be helpful at the outset to be clear what we mean by this word.
While the average religious person may be happier than the average non-religious person, that’s just about averages. Lots of religious people are unhappy, and lots of non-religious people are happy.
There is tons of science about how all people, religious or not, can affect their happiness. Basically, we can become happier by taking action in the world (e.g., doing crafts with your hands, giving to charity, planting a tree, getting a less stressful job, finding a loving partner), the body (e.g., losing weight, getting exercise, healing an illness, getting enough iron), or the mind.
While I can speak with authority on ways to boost happiness through action in the world or body, my expertise is the mind. In the mind, major factors that increase happiness include controlling negative emotions, controlling stress, savoring positive experiences (which defeats the negativity bias of the brain that makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones), focusing on what one can do (how you’re like a hammer instead of a nail), positive self-talk instead of anxious or self-critical rumination, developing interpersonal skills that produce healthier relationships, gratitude, feeling connected with others, and feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
Because of experience-dependent neuroplasticity – a mouthful that simply means that what we think and feel and want changes our brains – the mental factors and activities just above gradually build up strengths in the brain, much like building a muscle. The classic saying in brain science is: neurons that fire together, wire together.
The last three factors just above – gratitude, feeling connected to others, and purpose and meaning – are strong in most religious people, though of course they don’t have a monopoly on them. Your question hits the bullseye: what are the unique contributions of being religious to happiness?
A way to frame this could be, what can non-religious people learn from religious people about happiness? With a point made about how this learning can change the brain for the better.
Religious practice often involves a specific mental activity – focused attention on prayer or meditation: in other words, some kind of contemplative practice – that has good research on how it changes the brain. For example, Christian nuns recalling a profound spiritual experience and thus momentarily lighting up parts of their brains that control attention, tune into oneself, and feel rewarded. Or how the brains of long-time mindfulness meditators are changed in lasting ways, also building up layers of neural tissue in parts of the brain that control attention and tune into oneself. Non-religious people could also take up some kind of contemplative practice, even if they don’t think of it as religious or spiritual, such as meditation on the breath or really focusing on the body while doing Pilates, etc.
There is a lot of research coming out about the benefits of mindfulness training – outside a religious context – for controlling attention, improving response to medical treatment, and increasing happiness.
As a religious person myself – a Buddhist who believes in the Divine – I think there are certain aspects of religious life that you have to be, er, religious to benefit from, such as a sense of a personal relationship with God (by whatever name). I don’t know of any specific studies on this unique factor – though there may be some – but I can speak personally about it and report what others say, which is that it brings a sense of peace and joy.
I’m not sure there is any evidence, in a scientific sense, in the natural world for God (a term I use broadly). I think a lot of sterile arguments are between atheists and believers about whether there is evidence in the natural world for God; many atheists seem eager, even aggressively so, to pounce on any claim from the theist camp that there is naturalistic evidence for God (or the supernatural in general). I try to stay out of these kind of arguments since as I wrote in my essay on God and the Brain, I think they are intellectually fruitless (and personally frustrating).
I think there either is God or there isn’t. If there is, that seems quite extraordinary and important to me, in my value systems, so it is a priority for me to discern the divine if it in fact exists. As to how I pursue that discernment, it is through both reason and experience.
Reason suggests to me:
Experience intimates to me a personal sense of something benevolent, conscious, sacred, and profound that is beyond my reason.
You are very wisely raising a key question that is actually quite controversial.
When taken by itself, there is considerable research evidence for the benefits of MBSR in particular and of related secular trainings in mindfulness (defined as sustained present moment awareness, typically combined with qualities of self-acceptance and curiosity). This research is credible and a sound basis for applications in the settings you work in. So, from a secular perspective, things seem clear. MBSR is not Buddhist any more than self-awareness, attention training, self-acceptance, or meta-cognition are Buddhist. If someone says, “We can’t teach mindfulness since that is Buddhist,” I politely tell them that this is mistaken: the Buddha in particular and Buddhism in general has no monopoly on mindfulness, compassion, taking personal responsibility, insight, or kindness even though these are central elements of Buddhism.
But, from a Buddhist perspective, some people (such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and other respected teachers) think it is fine to extract elements of Buddhist practice (e.g., mindfulness) and then apply them outside of that Buddhist context, while other respected teachers think that this is wrong to do. Myself, I side with Jon on this question.
As context, I was raised a Methodist, and my father was a deacon in our local church most of his life. He was a sincere Christian, and I was fortunate to be able to hear him pray very touchingly during his last days.
My dad also worked in the fish and game departments of several states and eventually became a zoologist and a professor at Cal State LA. Throughout his scientific career he remained a Christian. He had great curiosity and wonder and gratitude for the vast universe that God had created. He was very aware of the long sweep of time, and amazed and thankful about being able to be alive during this remarkable period in our world’s history.
In all this, two things remained very true for him: his faith in God, and his humble respect for facts: the breeding of different kinds of dogs over time, how long it took to carve the Grand Canyon, the vast diversity in Nature, how DNA works, the extremely careful dating of the geological layers of the earth and the fossil records within them, and the enormous body of evidence for the very slow and gradual shaping of life on our planet over several billion years. In all this, my dad’s faith never wavered. For him, the development of beautiful birds and plants and people and other living things was a sign of God’s grace. And he drew upon what he knew about how life had been shaped over time at the level of organs, cells, and even molecules to be skillful in his work, effective in advocating for his medical care, and at peace in his final days.
I, too, have faith in and a sense of God. And in understanding any physical system such as the brain, it can be useful to consider it in terms of how it was developed over time. If that frame of reference is not helpful to you, truly you can just ignore it and simply do the guided meditations in the audio program. They are the most important part of the program. And you can set aside everything else.
If you’d rather not do this, you might like programs related to what is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a simple form of meditation that does not refer to biology and has a great deal of research support. You might also be interested in Christian forms of contemplative practice, such as Centering Prayer; that practice has been meaningful for me personally, as well as reading a short lovely book: The Practice of the Presence of God. There are also excellent books about mindfulness with children, such as Everyday Blessings.
I appreciated the comment, and I agree that one needs to be thoughtful about exploiting or “riding the wave” of subjects or traditions.
In this context, I’d like to offer that the subtitle for my column at Psychology Today – “practical insights into happiness, love, and wisdom from psychology, neuroscience, and Buddhism” – is a general statement about the territory of my writings here. It doesn’t mean that each post will contain explicit references to each one of these: happiness, love, wisdom, psychology, neuroscience, and Buddhism.
Also, while Buddhism has no monopoly on encouraging love, the deliberate cultivation of compassion, lovingkindness, happiness at the welfare of others, generosity, non-harming, wise speech, and other ways to feed the wolf of love are absolutely central to Buddhist practice. My posts, and those of others, may lack an explicit reference to psychology, neuroscience, or Buddhism while still very much drawing upon those deep roots.
Last, as someone who does teach *about* Buddhism, my personal opinion is that it is also OK to draw *from* Buddhism, explicitly or implicitly, without getting into an exposition of the dharma as a whole. Much of the time that exposition would be off-topic or inappropriate given a particular setting; I think this is generally true about blogs on Psychology Today, including my own. As long as one doesn’t represent some explicit or implicit aspect of Buddhism as the whole of the path, then whatever is conveyed – in this case, the benefits of nurturing love, broadly defined – should be judged on its own merits, and not whether it teaches people about Buddhism altogether.
Thank you for this question. You have zeroed in on a big matter that I tried to describe in one small sentence!
What I was trying to say is that the contents of mind – anger, worry, pleasure, thoughts, perceptions, sensations, desires, etc. – are a part of the mind that may be troubled (even horribly so), but mind as a whole – including the awareness aspects of mind – is usually operating just fine.
So shifting awareness from the contents of mind to mind itself (as a whole) – put differently, shifting awareness to experience as a whole, including its awareness elements – can disengage us from upsetting thoughts and feelings and ground us in a reassuring sense of mind as a whole.
Try this experientially and see what you find. The sense of mind as a whole can be hard to sustain, but keep at it and it will get more stable. Also note that as soon as we (naturally) create a concept of mind-as-a-whole, that conceptualizing is a part of mind-as-a-whole and draws us out of it as a whole. Conceptualizing is OK, but keep letting go of it to open into again and again mind-as-a-whole.
To use the language of Buddhism there is a place for Right Mindfulness, but also a place for Right Effort. Mindfulness is the doorway to equanimity, which is gradually developed as virtue, concentration and wisdom deepen. Along this path, we also need to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of the mind: Right Effort, in other words. Cultivating wholesome states and factors of mind – by activating them, installing them through taking in the good, and then reactivating and reinstalling them again and again on life’s path, in a wonderful positive cycle – is a kindness to oneself and others.
With time, the fruits of this process of cultivation become increasingly second nature, woven into the fabric of the brain, the body, and them mind. Then conscious cultivation – Right Effort – gradually falls away and we abide without effort in spacious balanced peaceful beautiful equanimity.
This is a relatively common response. It is resolved through the framework I teach of the three major ways to engage the mind: let be, let go, let in . . . with mindfulness present in all three ways.
I find that many people who work within the MBSR framework are confused about what mindfulness actually is, and think it is only equivalent to choiceless witnessing of the stream of consciousness. That is a wonderful stance to take sometimes with the mind, especially in meditation – the epitome of letting be –- but it is not the ONLY way to practice! And it is not the only way to be mindful.
In terms of practice, as the Buddha and others have taught, we also need to make wise efforts with the mind, essentially consisting of letting go and letting in. For example, pretty much all of the elements in the Noble Eightfold Path – from a major fan of mindfulness, the Buddha himself – involve either letting go or letting in. In terms of mindfulness, we should be mindful while being standing up to injustice, releasing and uprooting unwholesome tendencies in ourselves, and cultivating inner strengths like compassion, happiness, resilience, and mindfulness itself.
To practice and to live, we need to make distinctions and have values. There is no way around this. To avoid making distinctions requires making a distinction, and to avoid values is itself a value. So we use language to label these distinctions and values. I have no problem with saying that feeding children is “positive” and “better” compared to leaving them hungry which is “negative” and “worse.” Nor a problem with aiming to release craving and clinging and ill will and addiction and trauma . . . and describing these kinds of letting go with the metaphor of “pulling weeds.”
We can have a wide open mindful awareness of both the inner and outer world . . . while accepting things as they are . . . while recognizing the limitations of language and other labels . . . and while also recognizing what would be more skillful and helpful and making efforts to manifest that.
Stepping back, what is particularly curious is the righteous dogmatism one sometimes encounters from MBSR or non-dual people – about the horrors of words like “positive” and “negative”, and the terrible pitfalls in actually making deliberate intentional efforts inside one’s own mind. It’s frankly weird, and a problem that mindfulness has become mistakenly reduced to only a passive and inert relationship with the world and the mind, so that anything other than this passivity is claimed to be “not mindful.” For perspective, this is definitely not what the Buddha taught.
When you are already everything, already partaking of the unconditioned, and always – in terms of phenomenology, the experience of the constructed world – and feeling the floor of it drop away from beneath your feet even as it is endlessly renewed, well, that is the waking from ignorance and thus the undoing of suffering.
You raise a deep and wonderful question, and its answer depends on how you define “Self.” I use that word to refer to the central “I” that’s presumed in Western psychology and philosophy (and everyday usage) to be the owner of experiences and agent of actions, and which is defined and constituted by three attributes:
The fact is that these three attributes that constitute an “I” – unification, permanence, and independence – cannot be found in one’s own experience, nor in the neural processes that underlie I-related activations or representations in the brain. The actual experience of “I” is made up of parts (not unified), continually changing (not enduring), and affected by many factors (not independent). This has been seen in neuroimaging studies.
To use the language of Buddhism, the apparent “I” is empty: without substantial, essential nature. Both phenomenologically and ontologically, the presumed “me, myself, and I” is empty. If you like, check out my book, Buddha’s Brain, whose last chapter is about this subject.
In general I think that we can have and value all sorts of experiences of witnessing, integration, beingness, spacious awareness, etc. – experiences of the “self” – while also recognizing that these experiences (and their dynamic neural substrates) are compounded, transient, and dependently arising . . . and thus empty of essence.
Like many others, I’m leery of reifying or substantiating dynamic and insubstantial processes – even vital ones, such as the executive functions, subjectivity (ipseity), or the encompassing awareness that remains when the “parts” step back – into an entity, a being, a self. Trouble and suffering begins when we identify with and try to protect and glorify such an entity.
For me, the essence of practicing with self-ing (it’s a process, not an entity) is contained in this pithy comment from a monk whose name escapes me: “Love yourself. Just don’t love your self.” Be kind to the person you are, while not identifying with the self-referential processes occurring in the mind.
I have found personally that if I treat myself well – as well as I would treat a good friend – then cravings actually decrease, and my addictive tendencies are more manageable.
Dr. Hanson began meditating and studying the contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism, in 1974. Since then he has sat numerous retreats and received a variety of trainings and mentorings, mainly in the Theravadan strand of Buddhism, from leading teachers in that tradition. He has served on the Board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years, and has also been on the Board of Tricycle Magazine. Dr. Hanson has taught at a number of major Buddhist centers or organizations, including Spirit Rock, Samye Ling (in Scotland), Sydney Insight Meditation Society, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Nyima Tashi (in Auckland), Southern Insight Meditation, the Australian Association of Buddhist Counselors and Psychotherapists, London Insight, and the Hong Kong University Centre of Buddhist Studies. Dr. Hanson’s books have been endorsed by numerous scholars and teachers in the Buddhist traditions, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Tara Brach, Joseph Goldstein, Susan Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Christina Feldman, Mark Williams, and Paul Gilbert.
Regarding neuropsychology, I feel I do have some professional expertise, but regarding phenomena such as what you describe, I have only my personal opinions.
That said, since you asked, my personal opinion is that there is much evidence that certain things exist that are not yet explained by science as natural phenomena or perhaps not even explainable at all since they exist outside of the natural frame (i.e., they are supernatural or transcendental).
The tiny orbs of light seen by your tour mates sound like such a thing. Personally, it makes me happy that mysteries remain. And meanwhile, of course, the opportunity for practice and service remains in down-to-earth ways, whatever is also true about these others, wondrous phenomena!
If the question is, do I think that everything in the Pali Canon is true, my answer would be no. This said, I do think that the Buddha’s overall analysis of the human mind – as expressed in the Pali Canon – is deeply accurate, wise, and useful. Additionally, I believe and experience that what the Buddha taught about the “Unconditioned” is accurate in fact and important in personal practice.
As to whether there is the supernatural process of reincarnation, I am not sure but think it could be true in the general sense described in the Canon.
This said, I do not believe that reincarnation is a necessary condition for caring about cause and effect – karma – during the period of a single human life. Clearly, without reference to reincarnation, one can see suffering as it is, one can see that craving in its subtle and gross forms causes much suffering, one can see that as craving diminishes so does suffering, and one can see that wise effort, speech, concentration, and other elements of the Eightfold Path reduce craving and suffering. Whether or not there is actually reincarnation, I observe and experience that the Four Noble Truths are profoundly relevant for my own life and that of others.
I offer all this with respect, as my personal opinion and practice. Others may have different views!
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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
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