Still in pursuit of my publicly declared goal (why didn’t I just keep quiet?) of deepening my understanding of interconnectedness, at least in part by reading about and practising mindfulness, I discovered a gem of a book – The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain. It pulls together psychology evidence to shed light on the way that Buddhist processes achieve their efficacy.
I may have been subliminally steered towards the book after moving onto Williams and Penman’s Befriending meditation (page 195), which warmly reminded me of my early days of meditating. I learnt how to follow the breath at the Buddhist Centre in Eccleston Square, London, in the early 80s. At the end of each meditation, as I read at the time, you finished by bowing and wishing that the fruits of your meditation be of benefit to all living beings – a very similar process.
Whatever it was that primed me, as soon as I saw this book on the shelf I had to buy it, and I’m glad I did.
Mind and Brain
The avowed aim of Hanson and Mendius’s book (page 10) is to explore ‘the relationship between the mind and brain, especially regarding conscious experience.’ They feel that this question is as important as what caused the big bang or what the unified theory integrating quantum mechanics and general relativity will look like. I’m inclined to agree with them, but then I’m biased.
They begin by clarifying the exact nature of their debt to Buddhism, which does not extend as far as accepting the existence of a transcendental realm as part of their model (page 11):
. . . with a deep bow to the transcendental, we will stay within the frame of Western science and see what modern neuropsychology, informed by contemplative practice, offers in the way of effective methods for experiencing greater happiness, love and wisdom.
Their loss, sadly, but what they do manage to achieve is well worth reading, as it explores accessibly but in reasonable detail what happens in the brain that accounts for the powerful effects of meditation.
In this post I don’t plan to mention every example of that as there are other issues I wish to focus on. However, it is worth sharing their summary to give the flavour of what they do in this respect (page 16):
It’s impossible to change the past or the present: you can only accept all that as it is. But you can tend to the causes of a better future. Most of the ways you do this are small and humble. To use examples from later in this book, you could take a very full inhalation in a tense meeting to force a long exhalation, thus activating the calming parasympathetic nervous system. (PNS). Or, when remembering an upsetting experience, recall the feeling of being with someone who loves you – which will gradually infuse the upsetting memory with a positive feeling. Or, to steady the mind, deliberately prolonging feelings of happiness as this will increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which will help your attention stay focused.
The Negativity Bias
What I want to focus on now are one or two of the valuable insights they convey as they go along. The first, concerning our evolutionary heritage, helps to clarify why meditation is both so valuable and yet so difficult for most of us. I will also deal with their treatment of a pet theme of mine later.
The first of these insights is derived from our evolutionary history (page 26):
. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom.
They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates (pages 40-41):
. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.
The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):
. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).
Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly (pages 44-45):
[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.
Effectively they are asserting the same insight as is attributed to Montaigne and Mark Twain: ‘There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.’
They describe a kind of three-legged stool upon which we can sit to remain grounded, but doing so is by no means easy as it entails going against the flow of our evolutionary heritage (page 46 – my italics pick out the legs of the stool):
Virtue restrains emotional reactions that worked well on the Serengeti, mindfulness decreases external vigilance, and wisdom cuts through beliefs that once helped us survive. It goes against the evolutionary template to undo the causes of suffering, to feel one with all things, to flow with the changing moment, and to remain unmoved by pleasant and unpleasant like.
The effects of this negative bias upon memory are particularly debilitating (page 68):
. . . even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. Then the background feeling that what it feels like to be you can become undeservedly glum and pessimistic.
To gradually replace negative implicit memories with positive ones, just make the positive aspects of your experience prominent and relatively intense in the foreground of your awareness while simultaneously placing the negative material in the background. . . . . Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.
The Wolf of Love
Readers of this blog will know that I have explored the importance of our widening our compass of compassion if the problems currently confronting humanity are to have any hope of being resolved. It will therefore come as no surprise to them that one of the strong appeals of this book is precisely because of the emphasis the authors place on this very point, but in their own very telling fashion (page 122):
I heard a story once about a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so 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.”
They spell out the implications (page 131):
The wolf of love sees a vast horizon, with all beings included in the circle of “us.” That circle shrinks down for the wolf of hate, so that only the nation, or tribe, or friends and family – or, in the extreme, only the individual self – is held as “us,” surrounded by threatening masses of “them.”
As soon as you place anyone outside of the circle of “us,” the mind/brain automatically begins to devalue that person and justify poor treatment of him.
And then the music to my ears, in terms of my immediate aims of the moment. They assert (page 169):
…[that] everything is connected to everything else, that “us” is the whole wide world – that, in a deep sense, the entire planet is your home and the people on it are your extended family.
Their concept of self, which they move on to discuss, is worthy of consideration also, but I’ll keep that for a separate post probably next week.
What about their practice?
I’ve only really tried one of their exercises but it has proved interesting.
I recorded a guided meditation concerning how to become aware of awareness in itself based on the suggestions below.
The very first time I used it, and only to test it rather than seriously, I ended up with tingles down the spine every time I heard my recorded self speak of focusing on being aware of awareness itself. And, even though I still find it hard to achieve that kind of consciousness with any consistency, there is still the same kind of energy circulating when I use this exercise at those same points, so something is happening.
I am hoping to use it for a while on a daily basis to see if I can stabilise my connection with this kind of consciousness. It will be a major breakthrough if I can.
If all their other exercises in this book prove equally fruitful, I could be drawing on it for a long time, even though it refuses to be drawn into a deeper consideration of the transcendent.
Just to close on something else important, what I have already found really useful is their page (184) of suggestions to help me hold mindfulness more effectively in mind.