Although life has many pleasures and joys, it also contains considerable discomfort and sorrow--the unfortunate side effect of three strategies that evolved to help animals, including us, pass on their genes. For sheer survival, these strategies work great, but they also lead to suffering (as we'll explore in depth in the two next chapters). To summarize, whenever a strategy runs into trouble, uncomfortable-- sometimes even agonizing--alarm signals pulse through the nervous system to set the animal back on track. But trouble comes all the time, since each strategy contains inherent contradictions, as the animal tries to:
Separate what is actually connected, in order to create a boundary between itself and the world
Stabilize what keeps changing, in order to maintain its internal systems within tight ranges
Hold onto fleeting pleasures and escape inevitable pains, in order to approach opportunities and avoid threats
Most animals don't have nervous systems complex enough to allow these strategies' alarms to grow into significant distress. But our vastly more developed brain is fertile ground for a harvest of suffering. Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present. We get frustrated when we can't have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer. We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about waking up sad yet another day. This kind of suffering--which encompasses most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction-- is constructed by the brain. It is made up. Which is ironic, poignant--and supremely hopeful.
For if the brain is the cause of suffering, it can also be its cure.
Virtue, Mindfulness, and Wisdom
More than two thousand years ago, a young man named Siddhartha-- not yet enlightened, not yet called the Buddha--spent many years training his mind and thus his brain. On the night of his awakening, he looked deep inside his mind (which reflected and revealed the underlying activities of his brain) and saw there both the causes of suffering and the path to freedom from suffering. Then, for forty years, he wandered northern India, teaching all who would listen how to:
Cool the fires of greed and hatred to live with integrity
Steady and concentrate the mind to see through its confusions
Develop liberating insight
In short, he taught virtue, mindfulness (also called concentration), and wisdom. These are the three pillars of Buddhist practice, as well as the wellsprings of everyday well-being, psychological growth, and spiritual realization.
Virtue simply involves regulating your actions, words, and thoughts to create benefits rather than harms for yourself and others. In your brain, virtue draws on top-down direction from the prefrontal cortex (PFC); "prefrontal" means the most forward parts of the brain, just behind and above the forehead, and your "cortex" is the outer layer of the brain (its Latin root means "bark").
Virtue also relies on bottom-up calming from the parasympathetic nervous system and positive emotions from the limbic system. You'll learn how to work with the circuitry of these systems in chapter 5. Further on, we'll explore virtue in relationships, since that's where it's often most challenged, and then build on that foundation to nurture the brain states of empathy, kindness, and love (see chapters 8, 9, and 10).
Mindfulness involves the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds. Since your brain learns mainly from what you attend to, mindfulness is the doorway to taking in good experiences and making them a part of yourself (we'll discuss how to do this in chapter 4). We'll explore ways to activate the brain states that promote mindfulness, including to the point of deep meditative absorption, in chapters 11 and 12.