Friday, August 30, 2013

#51 (2013/CBR5) "Buddha's Brain" by Rick Hanson

My initial interest in Buddhism was pretty recent, but my knowledge was non-existent. When I turned to Buddhism Plain & Simple to learn more, I was both intrigued and frustrated. On the one hand, the worldview that encourages compassion, understanding, letting go of the unimportant things, and finding your own way is very appealing. On the other hand, the teachings often felt counterintuitive and too vague to be useful. When another Cannonballer wrote a positive review of Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom (2009) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D, with Richard Mendius, MD., I figured it would be the perfect follow-up book for my western sensibilities.

I had mixed reactions to this book. There was some helpful information, but also, at just over 200 pages, the book felt awfully long and sometimes repetitive. I was counting the pages down by the end. It probably didn't help that even before I could get into the meat of it, I had to read a: Foreward, Preface, Acknowledgements, and an Introduction.

Since I am having a difficult (to say the least) time with my current boss, I was specifically hoping for some helpful hints in not taking it personally when he acts like a raging asshole. One interesting concept is to think of suffering as darts. The first dart is the initial action: someone hits you, hurts your feelings, you cut your hand, etc. There's nothing you can do about that dart. You'll feel pain, but it will pass. Most of the other darts come from you. You feel anger that someone hurt you, frustrated at yourself for letting it happen, annoyed by what others might think, etc. In essence, we are all just unnecessarily torturing ourselves and if we can get our brains to simply calm down, we'll all be happier. Buddha's Brain does a good job of explaining how our sometimes overzealous reactions stem from important evolutionary needs back when our lives were much more physically dangerous. One of the parables I like best is that of a man leisurely lying in a canoe in a river when two teens sneak up behind him and push his boat over. Now, think of the same man lying in the canoe, but this time a log bumps into his canoe and pushes it over. The damage to the man in each story is the same, but our reactions (at least mine) are drastically different.

Buddha's Brain quickly skims a number of issues I found rather fascinating and therefore frustrating. One sentence discusses the long lasting problems people have if they don't have stable relationships while children. There are a number of different kinds of childhood relationships and each has different consequences. The book recommended delving into your childhood to heal those wounds. While I was reading, I was very interested in figuring out what kind of relationships I'd had as a kid and how they affected me, but there wasn't any more information. Delving into childhood trauma felt like one of those issues that would require a bit more guidance--like intense and expert therapy--not just me thinking about my childhood.

This book was very consistent in recommending meditation. And various kinds of meditation, although they all seemed very similar when reading about them. These paragraphs were probably the hardest for me of the book. I like the idea of meditation and I'm definitely willing to give it a try, but I just couldn't keep it straight and I got tired of reading about it by the end.

Finally, sentences like the below were far from the clear and practical language that I prefer.

"[Self] developed over several million years, shaped by the twists and turns of evolution. Then at any moment today, it arises through neural activities that depend on other bodily systems, and those systems depend on a network of supporting factors ranging from grocery stores to the seemingly arbitrary but remarkably provident physical constants of this universe, which enable the conditions for life such as stars, planets, and water. The self has no inherent, unconditional, absolute existence apart from the network of causes it arises from, in, and as." (213)

I'm glad I read this book, and I definitely learned some things. Some parts were a little dry, but I'd still probably recommend it for those interested in the subject.

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