We have probably learned more about the brain in the past twenty years than in all of recorded history. --Alan Leshner
Anything less than a contemplative perspective on life is an almost certain program for unhappiness.--Father Thomas Keating
Imagine each of these disciplines--psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice--as a circle (figure 1). The discoveries being made at that intersection are only just starting to show their promise, but scientists, clinicians, and contemplatives have already learned a great deal about the brain states that underlie wholesome mental states and how to activate those brain states. These important discoveries give you a great ability to influence your own mind. You can use that ability to reduce any distress or dysfunction, increase well-being, and support spiritual practice; these are the central activities of what could be called the path of awakening, and our aim is to use brain science to help you travel far and well upon it. No book can give you the brain of a Buddha, but by better understanding the mind and brain of people who've gone a long way down this path, you can develop more of their joyful, caring, and insightful qualities within your own mind and brain as well.
The Awakening Brain
Richard and I both believe that something transcendental is involved with the mind, consciousness, and the path of awakening--call it God, Spirit, Buddha-nature, the Ground, or by no name at all. Whatever it is, by definition it's beyond the physical universe. Since it cannot be proven one way or another, it is important--and consistent with the spirit of science--to respect it as a possibility.
That said, more and more studies are showing how greatly the mind depends on the brain. For example, as the brain develops in childhood, so does the mind; if the brain is ever damaged, so is the mind. Subtle shifts in brain chemistry will alter mood, concentration, and memory (Meyer and Quenzer 2004). Using powerful magnets to suppress the emotion-processing limbic system changes how people make moral judgments (Knoch et al. 2006). Even some spiritual experiences correlate with neural activities (Vaitl et al. 2005).
The history of science is rich in the example of the fruitfulness of bringing two sets of techniques, two sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with one another.
--J. Robert Oppenheimer
Any aspect of the mind that is not transcendental must rely upon the physical processes of the brain. Mental activity, whether conscious or unconscious, maps to neural activity, much like a picture of a sunset on your computer screen maps to a pattern of magnetic charges on your hard drive. Apart from potential transcendental factors, the brain is the necessary and proximally sufficient condition for the mind; it's only proximally sufficient because the brain is nested in a larger network of biological and cultural causes and conditions, and is affected itself by the mind.
Of course, no one yet knows exactly how the brain makes the mind, or how--as Dan Siegel puts it--the mind uses the brain to make the mind. It's sometimes said that the greatest remaining scientific questions are:
What caused the Big Bang? What is the grand unified theory that integrates quantum mechanics and general relativity? And what is the relationship between the mind and the brain, especially regarding conscious experience? The last question is up there with the other two because it is as difficult to answer, and as important.
To use an analogy, after Copernicus, most educated people accepted that the earth revolved around the sun. But no one knew how that actually happened. Roughly 150 years later, Isaac Newton developed the laws of gravity, which began to explain how the earth went about the sun. Then, after 200 more years, Einstein refined Newton's explanation through the theory of general relativity. It could be 350 years, and maybe longer, before we completely understand the relationship between the brain and the mind. But meanwhile, a reasonable working hypothesis is that the mind is what the brain does.
Therefore, an awakening mind means an awakening brain. Throughout history, unsung men and women and great teachers alike have cultivated remarkable mental states by generating remarkable brain states. For instance, when experienced Tibetan practitioners go deep into meditation, they produce uncommonly powerful and pervasive gamma brainwaves of electrical activity, in which unusually large regions of neural real estate pulse in synchrony 3080 times a second (Lutz et al. 2004), integrating and unifying large territories of the mind. So, with a deep bow to the transcendental, we will stay within the frame of Western science and see what modern neuropsychology, informed by contemplative practice, offers in the way of effective methods for experiencing greater happiness, love, and wisdom.
To be sure: these methods will not replace traditional spiritual practices. You don't need an EEG or a Ph.D. in neuroscience to observe your experience and the world, and become a happier and kinder person. But understanding how to affect your own brain can be very helpful, especially for people who do not have time for intensive practice, such as the 24/7 grinding and polishing of monastic life.
The Causes of Suffering