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Articles    H4'ed 6/10/10

The Self-Transforming Brain; Excerpt from Buddha's Brain; The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom

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Mindfulness involves the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds. Since your brain learns mainly from what you attend to, mindfulness is the doorway to taking in good experiences and making them a part of yourself (we'll discuss how to do this in chapter 4). We'll explore ways to activate the brain states that promote mindfulness, including to the point of deep meditative absorption, in chapters 11 and 12.

Wisdom is applied common sense, which you acquire in two steps. First, you come to understand what hurts and what helps-- in other words, the causes of suffering and the path to its end (the focus of chapters 2 and 3).

Then, based on this understanding, you let go of those things that hurt and strengthen those that help (chapters 6 and 7). As a result, over time you'll feel more connected with everything, more serene about how all things change and end, and more able to meet pleasure and pain without grasping after the one and struggling with the other. Finally, chapter 13 addresses what is perhaps the most seductive and subtle challenge to wisdom: the sense of being a self who is separate from and vulnerable to the world.

Regulation, Learning, and Selection

Virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom are supported by the three fundamental functions of the brain: regulation, learning, and selection. Your brain regulates itself--and other bodily systems--through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory activity: green lights and red lights. It learns through forming new circuits and strengthening or weakening existing ones. And it selects whatever experience has taught it to value; for example, even an earthworm can be trained to pick a particular path to avoid an electric shock.

These three functions--regulation, learning, and selection--operate at all levels of the nervous system, from the intricate molecular dance at the tip of a synapse to the whole-brain integration of control, competence, and discernment. All three functions are involved in any important mental activity.

Nonetheless, each pillar of practice corresponds quite closely to one of the three fundamental neural functions. Virtue relies heavily on regulation, both to excite positive inclinations and to inhibit negative ones. Mindfulness leads to new learning--since attention shapes neural circuits--and draws upon past learning to develop a steadier and more concentrated awareness. Wisdom is a matter of making choices, such as letting go of lesser pleasures for the sake of greater ones. Consequently, developing virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom in your mind depends on improving regulation, learning, and selection in your brain. Strengthening the three neural functions-- which you'll learn to do in the pages ahead--thus buttresses the pillars of practice.

Inclining the Mind

When you set out on the path of awakening, you begin wherever you are. Then--with time, effort, and skillful means--virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom gradually strengthen and you feel happier and more loving. Some traditions describe this process as an uncovering of the true nature that was always present; others frame it as a transformation of your mind and body. Of course, these two aspects of the path of awakening support each other.

On the one hand, your true nature is both a refuge and a resource for the sometimes difficult work of psychological growth and spiritual practice. It's a remarkable fact that the people who have gone the very deepest into the mind--the sages and saints of every religious tradition--all say essentially the same thing: your fundamental nature is pure, conscious, peaceful, radiant, loving, and wise, and it is joined in mysterious ways with the ultimate underpinnings of reality, by whatever name we give That. Although your true nature may be hidden momentarily by stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still continues to exist. Knowing this can be a great comfort.

On the other hand, working with the mind and body to encourage the development of what's wholesome--and the uprooting of what's not--is central to every path of psychological and spiritual development. Even if practice is a matter of "removing the obscurations" to true nature--to borrow a phrase from Tibetan Buddhism--the clearing of these is a progressive process of training, purification, and transformation. Paradoxically, it takes time to become what we already are.

In either case, these changes in the mind--uncovering inherent purity and cultivating wholesome qualities--reflect changes in the brain. By understanding better how the brain works and changes-- how it gets emotionally hijacked or settles into calm virtue; how it creates distractibility or fosters mindful attention; how it makes harmful choices or wise ones--you can take more control of your brain, and therefore your mind. This will make your development of greater well-being, lovingness, and insight easier and more fruitful, and help you go as far as you possibly can on your own path of awakening.

Being on Your Own Side

It's a general moral principle that the more power you have over someone, the greater your duty is to use that power benevolently. Well, who is the one person in the world you have the greatest power over? It's your future self. You hold that life in your hands, and what it will be depends on how you care for it.

One of the central experiences of my life occurred one evening around Thanksgiving, when I was about six years old. I remember standing across the street from our house, on the edge of cornfields in Illinois, seeing ruts in the dark soil filled with water from a recent rain. On the distant hills, tiny lights twinkled. I felt quiet and clear inside, and sad about the unhappiness that night in my home. Then it came to me very powerfully: it was up to me, and no one else, to find my way over time toward those faraway lights and the possibility of happiness they represented.

That moment has stayed with me because of what it taught me about what is and isn't within our control. 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'll 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 prolong feelings of happiness as this will increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which will help your attention stay focused.

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Buddha's Brain has been among the top 100 non-fiction books on Amazon for more than half the time it's been published and is ranked as the number one book for some Amazon categories. There's a good reason. It's brilliant. Rick Hanson (more...)
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