Like me, you might find yourself asking whether traditional strategies for self-improvement really work. For example, does meditation really improve your mental clarity? Can it truly change you in substantial ways? Or take other spiritual disciplines and practices, like yoga, prayer, journaling, or simply taking daily time to sit on a park bench and just be. Do these practices of deliberation and intentionality really make us better people? Or is it just some sort of retreat from reality? Something we do to make us feel better about ourselves, for a brief time, before real life swallows us up again.
Hansen is a neuropsychologist. In Buddha’s Brain, he approaches spiritual disciplines and practice from the perspective of neuropsychology. He puts traditional methods of spiritual self-improvement (particularly from Buddhism) in dialog with modern neuroscience to demonstrate that regular spiritual practices change and re-wire our brains.
For various reasons, our habitual mental patterns do not always serve us well. We may have developed unhealthy responses in our brain as a result of coping with childhood trauma, or we may be wired for fear and anxiety in a Darwinian world of survival. Whatever the reason, we find ourselves burdened with responses of fear, anger, or pride. We are quick to be critical, we have difficulty being attentive, we can’t say “no,” we are easily stressed, we are beset with anger issues. These habitual responses can be changed.
Change isn’t easy, nor is Hansen’s book an attempt to suggest that traditional spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness will fix any and all problems. However, for many of us, we can change the way our brain functions to increase our attentiveness, make ourselves more serene and more grounded, and to develop greater equanimity.
For many, spiritual practices are adopted by some manner of faith. We find a spiritual discipline and it sort of resonates with us. Then we find a teacher, or we read and study on the tradition of that practice. And then we just do it, and hope to God that we are doing the right thing! But Buddha’s Brain and other studies of neuropsychology are increasingly demonstrating that there is hard evidence that supports the fact that regular spiritual practice changes us on a chemical and molecular level.
I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science and spirituality, but I would particularly like to see skeptics of spirituality take a crack at it. For me, personally, Buddha’s Brain helped to add a different dimension to my spiritual practices. Yes, I still have faith, but it’s nice to know that when I sit in silence for 15 or 30 minutes that I’m not just wasting my time. I’m changing my brain. And I’m changing it in ways that will help me to live life in a way that is more full and rich.
Note: Rick Hansen has several very good YouTube videos, if you would like to hear more about him before investing in any of his writings. See particularly: http://www.youtube.com/user/BuddhasBrain