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Daily Connect: The Power of Negative Thinking and Buddha's Brain

This seems like a good quote for the holidays, which is one of the worst crisis times of the year, and a time of difficulty and depression for many people. If our survival instinct has actually wired us to view the world in a negative light, it creates ever more clarity around the reasons for doing meditation practices that try to open the doorway to more positive thought and attitude in relative life situations, such as Lovingkindness.

Is being negative and cynical really a matter of survival? And all the work we do to systematically train in positive thinking: is that really just a pair of rose-colored glasses, or are we wiping the slate clean of our inappropriately heavy mode of cynicism. Interesting question for meditators.

Sticks are Stronger than Carrots

"...It's the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on [our] survival.

"Negative events generally have more impact than positive ones. For example, it's easy to acquire feelings of helplessness from a few failures, but hard to undo those feelings, even with many successes. People will do more to avoid a loss than to acquire a comparable gain....Bad information about a person carries more weight than good information, and in relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one.

"Even if you've unlearned a negative experience, it still leaves an indelible trace in your brain....

"...Your brain has a built-in 'negativity bias' that primes you for avoidance....The negativity bias fosters or intensifies unpleasant emotions such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and it exaggerates future obstacles."

-from Buddha's Brain
by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

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Great book. Although, it would also be interesting to see if he could incorporate a bit more of the ultimate truth (emptiness, beyond causes and conditions, etc...) into the presentation. At times, it does seem to flirt with that neuroplasticity, scientific materialism, only focus on relative truth perspective.

Which brings up the question: can a scientifically minded Buddhist even talk about the space beyond causes and conditions, the space where mind is not reducible to the brain at all? That's what the Zen and Tibetan masters talk about.

Brain Food For Thought. I highly recommend this book for sure.

Buddhist Geeks

Glad you brought this up.  I bought Hanson's book several months ago, and it has been sitting on my bookshelf patiently, waiting to be read (several books in line in front of it).

However, I have listened numerous times to his Buddhist Geeks 3-part podcast, and highly recommend folks to download and listen to those -- maybe even before checking out the book. They are episodes 149-151, titled "A Crash Course in Applied Neurodharma" (149), "Self Is a Network Phenomenon" (150), and "Eddies in the Stream" (151).  I have listened to them repeatedly, maybe four or five times now, and continue to learn new stuff from them each time.

In those interviews, Hanson does get a bit into the Buddhist teachings on selflessness, and he talks at length about what might be going on inside the brain in the run-up to nibbana (Hanson's practice background seems to be mostly Theravadan, judging from the terminology he uses).

He also mentions at one point, rather in passing, that he is among those neuroscientists who believe there is some transcendental "X" factor underlying consciousness/mind, which is not entirely reducible to the brain.

But it seems like the really interesting thing about Hanson's approach is that he's trying to do something pragmatic with the fusion of neuroscience and meditation -- i.e., using what we have learned about the brain to our advantage in order to maximize the power of our meditations. That's what he calls "applied neurodharma."

Nothing wrong with

Nothing wrong with "scientific materialism" (loaded term).  Nature provides the hardware;  Buddhism provides better software.  Interesting book, my impression is that it provides tools and skill to basically hack your own brain.  It's going on my reading list.

This is very interesting.  I

This is very interesting.  I haven't read his book or have any facts to support this but I think his scientific take has a lot of merit.  I also think whether following his method (if he proposes one) or we simply establish a consistent practice of meditation, it all leads to the same thing... enlightenment.  Whether we clear that path through scientific methods or spiritual practice, emptiness and the ultimate truth reveals itself in the same way.

It would even more interesting to hear a scientific explanation of an enlightenment.  I don't suspect it would sound scientific at all. 

Geeks again

Menard, I mentioned this in my other comment responding to Ethan, but check out Hanson's Buddhist Geeks podcasts (episodes 149-151).  He does make a pretty convincing attempt at explaining enlightenment (or, at least, enlightenment according to Theravadan Buddhology) from a neurological and scientific point of view.  It's pretty interesting stuff.

Great questions, Ethan. I

Great questions, Ethan. I would submit that a scientifically-minded Buddhist may have trouble articulating such concepts...but enough time on the cushion and dedication to practice begins to make the non-conceptual "bubble up" into his daily life in a way that's hard to ignore. (speaking only for myself, of course)

While on a Soto Zen retreat last spring, the many hours a day of staring at a wall began to yield some interesting things. I'd go back and forth between being "me" viewing the world from the space behind my eyes..to being simply present, and having a hard time figuring out where I end and everything else begins. Does that make any sense? :-P

One of my favorites...

Just writing in to give my positive thoughts about this book and the author(s). Being a guy who went through engineering school and can't help but be a bit science-oriented, this book really helped to make my practice "gel". Somehow Thich Nhat Hanh's  "as you breathe in, calm your mind and your body, as you breathe out, smile" made sense in a logical way that I could embrace after finishing the book.

Highly recommended!

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