The practical neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain: happiness, love & wisdom (2009)
by Rick Hanson, PhD & Richard Mendius, MD
Whenever someone makes a reference to any religion, faith, or some divine power, I start looking for a way out of that conversation. So I would not have gone out of my way to pick Buddha’s Brains, if a yoga instructor reading this book hadn’t used a term that piqued my curiosity. She said to practice equanimity as we were trying to hold a challenging pose for five breaths. In the one second I diverted my attention from the pose to decide whether I had just heard a macroeconomics term or a Sanskrit one, I lost my balance. “Equanimity is a state of unshakable focus that cannot be distracted by pain or pleasure”, she said.
It was very appropriate for the pose we were holding, but also for my PhD thesis I was trying to write back then. The thesis was competing -and losing- for my time and undivided attention with daily street protests, scandalous wiretaps and dictatorial bans on social media in Turkey (which, ironically, could only be followed reliably from Twitter), so I thought it would be in my best interest to learn more about equanimity.
I will say first, what no other normal person would include in a book review, because this is not a normal person’s book review. While the first half of the book had me engaged and nodding in approval, halfway throughout I lost respect for the author because of his perception of dandelions (yes, those green leafy things that grow here and there and make a flower which very kid in North America has a photo blowing).
In the section titled “Pulling weeds and planting flowers”, the author uses his “traumatic” childhood experience of having to weed dandelions in his front yard, which “would always grow back if [he] didn’t pull out the entire root” to describe how to deal with upsets and negative emotions. I, of course, not having learned to become equanimous this far into the book, became furious, because where I come from, weeds that emerge from the ground in the springtime are highly cherished, and when you go picking, you never pull out the roots – NEVER. Dandelions in particular are indispensable because of their bitter taste, which makes them pair unexpectedly well with red lentils, beets etc.
Now for the rest of it. I skipped most of the neuroscience but it’s good information for people who want it and there’s an evolutionary explanation given to all the feelings the book attempts to have us control. Here are some quotes and takeaways without spoiling the entire book (in no particular order):
Life throws us first darts, unavoidable physical and mental discomforts, but most of our suffering comes from second darts– the darts we throw at ourselves.
Stages of growth:
1. Stage one: you’re caught in a second-dart reaction, and don’t even realize it. Your partner forgets to bring home milk, and you complain angrily without seeing that your reaction is over the top.
2. Stage two: you realize you’ve been hijacked by greed or hatred, but cannot help yourself; internally you are squirming, but you can’t stop grumbling bitterly about the milk.
3. Stage three: some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don’t act it out; you feel irritated but remind yourself that your partner does a lot for you already and getting cranky will just make things worse.
4. Stage four: the reaction doesn’t even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue: you understand that there’s no milk, and you calmly figure out what to do now with your partner.
Everything changes. There’s no end to disturbed equilibria as long as we live.
Ajahn Chah: If getting upset about something unpleasant is like being bitten by a snake, grasping for what’s pleasant is like grabbing the snake’s tail; sooner or later, it will still bite you.
Your brain is like velcro for negative experiences, and teflon for positive ones.
The combination of aliveness and centeredness is the essence of the peak performance zone recognized by athletes, business people, artists, lovers and meditators.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
Craving leads to suffering.
Strength has two primary aspects: energy and determination.
With equanimity, what passes through your mind is held with spaciousness so you stay even-kneeled and aren’t thrown off balance.
With equanimity, you see into the transient and imperfect nature of experience, and your aim is to remain disenchanted – free of the spells cast by pleasure and pain. Disenchanted doesn’t mean you are disappointed or dissatisfied with life, you simply see through its apparent charms and alarms and are not knocked off center by either.
Equanimity means not reacting to your reactions, whatever they are. Not coldness, indifference or apathy. You are present in the world but not upset by it.
Physical pain and social pain are based on overlapping neural systems: quite literally, rejection hurts.
Empathy is neither agreement nor approval. you can empathize with someone you wish would act differently. Empathy doesn’t mean you’re waiving your rights.
The sense of self grows when you separate from the world. Therefore, deepening the sense of connection with the world will reduce the sense of self.