Buddha’s Brain – Rick Hanson & Richard Mendius

buddhas-brain-coverAfter reading Altered Perceptions and writing that somewhat personal review, delving into my own thoughts and issues with mental wellness, the topic of mental health and depression began to rise with increasing frequency in my everyday life. A few days after I wrote that review, my girlfriend (a strong advocate for therapy and medication in general,) came home from work, afire with excitement and a new book recommendation for me. Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom, by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, is that book.

It’s a tall order — happiness. It’s easy (and perhaps something of a cop out) to say that it’s relative and fleeting, or that it’s immutable and just beyond our grasp, or even that it’s simple and inside us all along. These grandiose statements, inspiring, comforting, or disheartening as they may be, aren’t very interesting to me.

The question of consciousness (one which I will not even pretend to answer here,) is one of supreme interest, however. Buddha’s Brain hangs on the knife-edge of that question, and decides to acknowledge its existence, while taking a hard scientific look at the brain (the supposed seat of consciousness,) and aligning current neuroscientific reasoning with traditional Buddhist teachings.

It’s all the rage right now — mindfulness has become a business buzzword among the startup world, and this nouveau approach to balancing the hectic rat race with an innate need for calm feels like a new, web 3.0 approach to the appropriation of “The Art of War.”

There’s a kernel of truth in it, though, as there’s a kernel in applying Sun Tzu’s tactical reasoning to business, if you want to absolutely annihilate the competition. Mindfulness, meditation, and grounding become increasingly important as we devote ourselves, wholly, to the job. If we allow the complications of work to get under our skin, to eat away at us, they’ll destroy us.

I’m getting off track.

Buddha’s Brain offers a fairly straightforward proposition: build a one-to-one between neurological, biophysical phenomena related to our emotional responses to the world around us, and Buddhist practices. Simple enough, right?

The book does an excellent job of condensing the very complex science of the brain, neurotransmitters, systems, and all, into digestible chunks. It provides clear metaphors that help laypeople (like myself) make sense of the whole shebang. Then, it introduces the idea that with effort, and conscious attention (mindfulness,) we can effectively master our instinctual responses to stimuli. It even goes into brief speculations regarding the sources of those impulses, which help tremendously in dealing with the big picture.

Buddha’s Brain can’t seem to decide what exactly it is, though. Sometimes it’s a basic textbook on the brain. Other times, it’s a guided meditation. Still other times, it’s a philosophical text. It makes sense for the book to wear many hats, but the transition from one mode to the other is jarring, and often feels ill-timed. For the first two-thirds of the book, I was completely on board, practicing deep breathing, taking note of my responses to the world around me, trying to remove my and self from myself as I went to and from work. (For what it’s worth, I think commuting on BART is the best way to practice equanimity.)

Then, unfortunately, the book started getting a bit preachy, and I found I couldn’t subscribe to it any longer. I have a hard time, these days, accepting any thing that claims to know the Truth. Too many times in my short life have I encountered intractable situations in which conflicting Truths have lead to catastrophic results. The book left me with an odd feeling. It was colorful joy of learning new things and challenging myself to become a better person, covered in a filmy, oily taint of being told that there’s only one Way.

For what it’s worth, I think that this is a rather good book, and a great foray into mindfulness meditation, neuroscience, and the practice of personal betterment. Be wary of the latter third, however, and keep your head on straight. Odds are very good that I’ll read the first two-thirds of Buddha’s Brain over and again, and dip my toes into the end only after I’ve done some meditating and soul-searching of my own, and feel stable enough for the barrage of teachings about the Way Things Are.

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