Buddha’s Brain Book Summary, by Rick Hanson

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1-Page Summary of Buddha’s Brain

Overview

The Art of Happiness is based on interviews with the Dalai Lama. The book combines Tibetan Buddhist spiritual tradition and Western therapeutic methods to address how we can be happier in everyday life. After reading this book, you’ll be a more positive person who will stop making things worse for yourself by dwelling on misfortunes, become a more compassionate and loving person who has empathy for others, and form better relationships with people because you’re less self-absorbed.

Big Idea #1: Our minds can change the structure of our brains, which affects how we feel.

Our feelings are the result of our brain and mind interacting. But what exactly distinguishes the two? Our minds include our thoughts, wishes, and feelings. In contrast, brains are bundles of synapses that are physical in nature.

For example, the brain contains chemicals that cause us to feel emotions.

However, our conscious experience is the result of a close interaction between brain and mind. In other words, they form an integrated system. For example, let’s say that you get a promotion at work and your brain releases dopamine to keep you happy. However, whether this will cause you to feel happy or anxious depends on your mind interpreting that flood of dopamine.

The mind can change the brain’s structure. Whenever you experience or feel something, this causes neurons to fire and interact with each other. Over time, these connections become stronger as they create physical links between them. This is Hebb’s Rule: “neurons that fire together wire together.” An example of this process is laughing with friends; doing so will establish new links in the brain between your memory of that moment and feelings of joy – proof that our mental processes can alter the structure of our brains. Another example is London cab drivers who have to memorize complex maps and routes for work; because they do this all day long, their hippocampus – a key area in the brain involved in mapping out locations – becomes larger than average.

The power of words has been proven by science!

Big Idea #2: By reflecting on ourselves, we can lead happier lives.

Many people feel like victims of their circumstances. They don’t realize that they can change the way they think and feel, which will make them happier and more prosperous. To do this, we must reflect on our thoughts and emotions to gain better control over them.

When we think about what makes us happy, we should also think about the changes that occur in our brains. When you look at your own life, you can see how positive self-reflection will result in positive structural changes to your brain.

For example, a young man named Siddhartha reflected on the sources of his happiness and suffering. He realized that he could embrace happiness by focusing on positive aspects of life.

If we focus on positive things, the brain will develop and adapt to that. If we focus on negative things, it’ll do the same thing. Therefore, if we want to teach our brains positive things, then it’s best to focus on those types of things and not so much on negative ones.

Some people think that being self-reflective is a waste of time. However, it’s not true. By reflecting on your own life and actions you can become a better person for yourself as well as others around you. If you work to improve yourself, then you’ll become more friendly and positive in general.

For example, if you become more positive and less stressed out, your relationship with others will improve. If you aren’t always worrying about the future or fretting about things that haven’t happened yet, your relationships will be better. So, how can we do this? The following key points explain how to become a happier person who is free from suffering.

Big Idea #3: Suffering is a product of evolution. It helps us to survive today and affects our daily lives.

We suffer from a useful evolutionary trait that warns us of danger. In our modern world, however, we sometimes don’t know what dangers are lurking around the corner.

Suffering is a term that describes all the feelings in life that we don’t like and would rather not experience. It can be as simple as missing your bus, to losing a loved one.

Let’s look at the role of suffering in more detail. In essence, it is Mother Nature’s way of keeping us alive by avoiding things that could harm us and seeking out things that help us survive. These feelings are informative because they tell us what we should avoid or seek out for survival purposes. Positive feelings arise from parts of the brain which we share with our evolutionary ancestors who had to decide whether to approach something or avoid it, such as a snake or banana tree respectively.

In addition, our brains are biased toward avoiding pain. They’re designed to remember bad experiences and forget good ones, so that we don’t repeat mistakes.

We are still influenced by approach and avoidance behaviors, but now we have to decide whether to approach or avoid abstract mental states. We avoid embarrassment and shame just like we avoid snakes, and we pursue self-worth in the same way as we pursue bananas. However, both approaches can cause us suffering because not everything that is pursued is attained.

For instance, eating a big dessert after a large meal might make you feel better in the moment, but it can lead to greater suffering later.

Big Idea #4: Some mild physical discomfort is normal, but we often make it worse.

Even though pain is inevitable, suffering can be avoided by understanding that our reactions to pain cause most of the suffering.

We usually experience discomfort in two different ways. The first way is similar to being struck by a dart, as when we accidentally touch something hot or get rejected romantically.

Although most of our suffering comes from a painful event, we also make it worse by reacting to it. This is the second level of pain.

For example, stubbing one’s toe on a table leg would be an unfortunate event. The next step would be to feel pain and anger because of it. Then, there is the impulse to blame someone for moving that chair (the second dart).

The true suffering we feel is a result of our reaction to the first dart.

However, some people don’t need a first dart to suffer. This is because their bodies react strongly when they’re in pain or have been hurt, which causes more discomfort.

How? When we suffer, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into overdrive and floods us with adrenalin. This causes discomfort like a root canal.

The second-dart reaction is when a person feels depressed, and they make an effort to do more things on social media. This makes them even more depressed because of the constant stimulation.

Anxiety can linger for a long time. For example, if you’re anxious about an upcoming speech, that feeling of anxiety can remain even after the speech is over and the source of the first dart has vanished.

Big Idea #5: Certain ways of thinking lead to happiness.

Did you know that each of us has the ability to promote our own well-being? We can do this by learning a few new ways of thinking.

The first strategy is to be mindful. Mindfulness can be achieved through meditation, which increases awareness and helps you focus your attention. This leads to better concentration in yoga classes and even more gray matter in the brain’s attention centers.

So, how does mindfulness promote well-being? It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. When we’re mindful, it helps us feel calm and relaxed. This helps make us happier as a result of feeling more at ease.

The second approach is to think about wholesome intentions, which result in positive neurological effects.

Intentions can be used as a kind of desire. For instance, if you use self-affirmations to think that you’re strong or powerful, it will trigger certain brain regions and release neurotransmitters that make you feel good. In addition, composure helps us control our emotions and reduces unhealthy desires by severing the link between feeling good because of something specific and having an endless craving for it.

Composure is the ability to separate your emotions from what you want and desire. For example, success makes us feel good, but if we constantly crave it, then we’ll be unhappy because we can’t have it all the time. Composure allows us to recognize that our happiness isn’t dependent on having more of something or being a certain way.

Big Idea #6: When you meditate, you can gain a lot of knowledge about yourself and become wiser.

So far we’ve seen that meditation involves focused concentration. However, this very concentration is the driving force behind generating important insights. Such insights about ourselves and our world are fundamental to gaining wisdom, which is defined as having good judgment. While meditating, our attention is intensely focused; it cuts through all the noise in our lives and illuminates what’s truly important to us. This leads to insight.

We spend most of our lives in a state of ignorance. We can learn about ourselves and the world around us by meditating, which helps us to focus on one thing at a time. The more we practice meditation, the sharper that focus becomes. When we’re focused enough on one thing, our senses become unified and all distractions are forgotten. This allows us to experience deep immersion into whatever it is we’re focusing on.

Studies have shown that people who meditate are more aware of their surroundings, and they experience a higher level of mental acuity. This is because the brains of experienced meditators exhibit high-frequency gamma waves, which are associated with greater awareness and mental clarity. Therefore, meditation can help us to become wiser.

To gain the benefits of a single-minded mind, you could try yoga.

Big Idea #7: Meditation can help you calm down and relax.

Our sense of self is what we believe makes us who we are. Unfortunately, it also leads to feelings of suffering because our sense of self isn’t always right or accurate.

We suffer when we are too attached to ourselves and our own needs. For example, if we need approval from others in order to feel good about ourselves or be happy, then we’re likely going to be unhappy a lot of the time. Also, a strong sense of self is useful because it helps us distinguish between our experiences and those of other people.

Sometimes, we may identify with things so much that we no longer see them as separate from ourselves. For example, if you think of your laptop as an extension of yourself and it gets stolen or destroyed, then you will suffer because you have lost something that is a part of yourself. This happens often when people become too attached to their beliefs in things such as religion or politics.

As a result, our sense of self can be harmful. For example, we shouldn’t rely on ourselves when we meditate. We should try to think without using personal pronouns. Instead of saying “I am thinking about birds,” for instance, you could say “thoughts of birds are arising.” By doing this, you’ll avoid the suffering that comes with having a strong sense of self and instead focus on wisdom and happiness. Now that’s what I call an enlightened approach!

Big Idea #8: Our beings are programmed for affection.

Have you ever wondered why we love? It’s because our DNA and brains have developed to facilitate social relationships. For instance, primates’ brain size is related to the sociability of their species; the more social, the larger their brains. Furthermore, human brains tripled in size over three million years ago, and much of that growth was devoted to facilitating good interpersonal relationships. The brain has powerful neurochemistry for bonding among humans—including oxytocin, a neuromodulator that promotes caring. All this suggests that our capacity for love has been fundamental to human survival.

For example, we can find romantic love in all human cultures. This shows that it’s a deep-seated trait and part of our biological makeup. It’s also evident that feelings of love help us trust each other and form partnerships for sexual reproduction. Therefore, feelings of love are crucial to helping humans reproduce effectively.

Moreover, as our brains got bigger and more complex, childhoods became longer. Because of that, it took longer for babies to fully develop after birth.

Because of this, parents developed bonds with their children to ensure their survival.

Big Idea #9: If you can develop a greater sense of empathy, you’ll be more compassionate and loving.

Have you ever wondered how to be more compassionate towards your friends and family? Have you thought about the benefits of being empathetic to those around you?

Compassion and empathy are closely related. To be compassionate means caring deeply about others. When we empathize with someone, we gain insight into what they’re feeling. For example, when you care for your friends’ feelings, you’ll reassure them more often. On the other hand, if there’s a lack of empathy in a relationship, it can cause problems later on. For instance: children who grow up around caregivers who aren’t empathetic tend to have trouble forming relationships as adults; this leads to prejudice and exploitation by those children as adults—they may become absent parents themselves when they have their own kids (and so on).

Empathy is often associated with compassion, but it can also be useful in building a relationship with others. This happens when someone criticizes you and you show them empathy. It’s likely that they will appreciate your empathic approach and thus have a more positive attitude towards you.

Additionally, empathy helps to eradicate any caution we may feel when it comes to being close to others. It’s a fact that most psychological pain occurs in close relationships and during our childhood years because the prefrontal cortex is least active during these times.

As adults, we can regain our ability to connect with people because of the empathy that we’ve learned.

Full Summary of Buddha’s Brain

Overview

Buddha’s Brain is a book that combines the wisdom of Buddha with neuroscience. It provides practical advice for readers who want to reduce stress and increase happiness in their lives.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change over time. This research shows that directed mental activity, such as meditation and other practices, can help people be happier and more positive in their relationships. Evolution has made it so we have certain tendencies toward negative behaviors; however, awareness of these tendencies allows us to stop them from happening or at least minimize their impact on our lives.

Siddhartha, who later became known as the Buddha, spent years practicing how to control his mind. He then taught three principles that he learned from this practice: virtue (being helpful to others), mindfulness (remaining aware of one’s environment and oneself), and wisdom (understanding suffering and what leads to it).

The three traits of character (virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom) are linked to the functions of the brain. These three functions can be trained through advanced scientific research on how our brains work.

To end suffering, you must understand why people suffer. Then you can take action to increase your well-being and learn how to have happy relationships with others.

Maintaining a positive attitude helps to calm the nervous system and stimulate peaceful feelings. The human brain is predisposed toward negativity, so this must be done conscientiously. We can do that by practicing gratitude and actively focusing on positive thoughts. Another way to maintain a positive outlook is through detachment or maintaining balance in times of stress regardless of what’s happening around you. It also requires an inclusive perspective where you recognize all people are connected in some way; cultivating mindfulness expands your ability to assimilate information into peace and calmness.

With an understanding of how the latest in neuroscience correlates to the Buddha’s teachings, individuals can experience greater well being. This is marked by enhanced happiness and a sharpened focus on what really matters. Also, they’ll be better able to relate with others more positively.

Key Point 1: The mind and the brain are part of a single system. Changing the mind will result in changing the brain.

Scientists have discovered that the brains of London taxi drivers are different from those of other people. In a study, they found that the hippocampus region in London taxi drivers was larger than average. This is because this part of the brain houses visual and spatial memories.

Engaging in activities like meditation heightens cognitive acuity over time. The brain also benefits from exercise in other parts of the body. A 2016 study reported that older people who exercised performed better than those who didn’t, especially with regards to memory and processing speed.

Key Point 2: Practicing meditation, self-awareness, and self-compassion will reduce suffering.

Throughout our evolution, we’ve been forced to use three main survival tactics: separation from the outside world (to protect ourselves), stability of internal systems (to control them), and seeking pleasure while avoiding pain. These tactics have helped us survive but now cause more harm than good. The best way to avoid this harm is by practicing self-compassion, or an attitude of generosity toward oneself.

Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, leading researchers in self-compassion, define it as “being touched by one’s own suffering and not avoiding or disconnecting from it. It also means generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering with kindness.” Self-compassion can help people feel less alienated and more connected to themselves as well as to others.

In a 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review, Germer argued that self-compassion is an antidote to failure because it can help limit the shame that comes with having underperformed or failed outright. He likens self-compassion to the understanding and empathy that people readily give to others who have experienced setbacks, and observes that many people fail to offer that same generous attitude to themselves.

Key Point 3: For evolutionary reasons, the brain is wired to be attentive to negativity.

Our emotions are primarily generated by the amygdala. We use them to decide what experiences we want and which ones we don’t. Negative experiences have more staying power than positive ones, so it’s important to seek out positive experiences to balance things out.

In a recent article, Margie Warrell shares an experience from her life. Her daughter Maddy still remembers the time that she showed up late to her dance recital even though it was fourteen years ago. This memory is one of many examples of how people remember negative experiences more than positive ones.

Rather than being natural pessimists, it is possible for people to alter their negativity bias and be more successful. Gratitude can help shift the focus from negative to positive. Praising others instead of criticizing them will likely increase workplace success.

Key Point 4: The Buddha called the suffering that is unavoidable the first dart of existence. The reaction to that suffering, which is avoidable, is the second dart of existence.

No one is immune to suffering. In fact, it’s a shared characteristic among all people. However, how we respond to our suffering can either make things worse or better for us. When we’re stressed out and unable to cope with the situation, there are ways of reducing that stress by learning not to add more suffering onto what has already happened.

Take the example of two sisters, Elizabeth and Dana. Elizabeth is older than her sister by one year. She has recently been rejected from a dream job in the beauty industry. This would be painful enough on its own, but she was hoping that this job would alleviate her stress about entering the workforce and other problems of young adulthood. She takes this rejection personally, telling herself I’ll never figure things out or have success like my sister does. These are examples of second darts of existence—making matters worse because she reacts poorly to her sister’s recent huge achievement: a prestigious internship in a scholarly field. Elizabeth layers on even more second darts when reacting to her sister’s success with thoughts such as “She’s better than me” and “I bet she’ll get her dream job.”

Dana and Elizabeth’s situation illustrates how second darts can make things worse for yourself. You might not realize that you’re making it harder on yourself by thinking negatively, but if you become mindful of what you’re doing, then you can start to change your thoughts to more positive ones. For example, instead of saying “I lost this job because I’m not good enough,” try thinking “It’s okay that I didn’t get the job; there are other jobs out there. There is something else that I will be better at.” Once you know about second darts and how they affect people’s lives, then you’ll do better in the future.

Key Point 5: Understanding the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system can help people achieve calm and improve their well being.

When people are under threat, their sympathetic nervous system activates. This creates a sense of heightened alertness known as fight-or-flight. The autonomic nervous system is made up of the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. When danger recedes, the parasympathetic nervous system will restore balance by relaxing you with techniques like deep breathing or sighing to release built up tension.

Saul David Raye says that overstimulation in the media and consumer culture is causing people to live in a constant state of fight-or-flight. This makes it especially important for people to focus on nurturing their parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When stimulated, the PNS generates a feeling of ease. He suggests activities like yoga or meditation as ways to support the PNS and calm one’s mind. He observes that peace can only be achieved when we experience it within ourselves first. These comments reflect basic Buddhist teachings about how change effected within has a positive ripple effect outward.

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Key Point 6: Mindful intentions are useful for retaining motivation.

To advance along the path of awakening, one must be focused. For example, a man might set an intention to be more kind and compassionate. If he focuses on that goal too much, though, it will make him feel bad because his actions won’t match up with his intentions. However, having positive goals is important in life.

In his podcast, The Bodhisattva and the Power of Intention, Jack Kornfield distinguishes between short-term and long-term intentions. As he tells his listeners, “Focusing on the long term is important in order to set our hearts’ compass in a positive direction. After a spiritual retreat, it’s crucial to focus on our path beyond the moment.” If an intention is meant to unfold over a longer period of time then expectations for bringing that intention to fruition must be tempered with patience.

Key Point 7: Compassion and assertion are necessary for maintaining healthy and vital relationships.

If you sympathize with people, it will strengthen your relationship. However, you don’t have to sacrifice honesty for that. If someone is assertive and clear about his needs, he can be compassionate toward others without feeling resentful or sacrificing his own honesty.

In Women Who Love Too Much (1985), Robin Norwood discusses the plight of women who care for others with no regard to their own needs. These women are so compassionate that they don’t know how to assert themselves and therefore, may not even know what their needs are. According to Norwood, this can lead to unhealthy relationships where people lose themselves in another person. In order to fix these problems, one must focus on oneself and whatever trauma or traumas they’ve been suppressing.

Key Point 8: An inclusive perspective, wherein all humankind is connected and part of one large community, cultivates goodwill.

Love and hate are in all of us. We can choose to nurture the loving side or the hateful side. When we act from a place of love, we see others as good people and feel connected to them. If we act from a place of hate, we’re more likely to be negative toward others. Acting with love is an important part of self-improvement, even if those you’re acting against have hurt you in some way.

In an article published in October 2016, Suzanne Guillette describes a personal experience that led her to feel connected with the world. She felt angered and repulsed by a violent act committed against someone she knew personally, so she hid from those feelings by turning back to the book she was reading. The book described tonglen meditation, which involves sending love and compassion towards others when you come across something negative or upsetting. According to Guillette, “Tonglen ties into the idea that when we hurt others, we’re really hurting ourselves.” A few hours later, she had a brief moment of identifying with perpetrators of violence because she felt what it might be like for them if they were in their situation. This is one example of what it means to find compassion in your heart for people who commit violent acts—and one depiction of how you can consider yourself as part of humanity at large.

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Key Point 9: Meditation helps increase mindfulness, which is a prerequisite to wisdom.

Meditation improves concentration. Buddhism teaches five ways to calm the mind, including rapture, which is when a person feels compelled to study something and singleness of mind, which is an extreme awareness of the present moment. When people are in deep concentration they naturally become aware of suffering and how to cultivate well-being.

Meditation doesn’t require a belief in metaphysical principles. It is also not limited to those who fit the stereotypical mold of a meditation teacher. Bob Roth, one of the world’s most renowned meditation teachers, explains that he is skeptical by nature and likes things to be simple, practical and logical. By positioning himself this way, he makes meditation more available to diverse approaches and mentalities so it becomes less intimidating for those with different beliefs.

Roth got interested in Transcendental Meditation when he was having problems with energy, sleep and concentration. He went to a seminar on TM and instantly became a believer because the results were tangible. He became an instructor of TM and learned that it helps people to “transcend” or reach deep stillness within themselves. In his experience as a teacher of meditation, Roth has seen how stress can impair cognition and stifle learning.

Key Point 10: Keeping the ego in check helps people feel happier and engaged in life.

It’s important to relax and let go of personal attachments. Being engaged with the present moment causes people to feel more at ease and able to enjoy their role in the larger cosmos. Poet Mary Oliver captures this idea perfectly, especially through her book Blue Pastures (1995), which is about nature and writing. She compares old poetry with new poetry by saying that when a first-person reference appears in contemporary poetry, it represents the experiences of an author whereas in old poetry, “I” was not a knowable person but instead was a conduit between myself and divine timelessness of the poem; if it really were Shelley who stood and listened to skylark then he wasn’t Shelley himself but rather someone else entirely. The Romantic poets she cites are heavily invested in transcendental experiences while finding solitude in nature—just like those on path of awakening do.

Book Structure

The authors of Buddha’s Brain lay out their thesis in the introduction. They explain that we can achieve a state of mind similar to one achieved by Buddha if we follow a few simple steps. The book is organized into four sections, each explaining how we can achieve happiness and wisdom through neuroscience.

Throughout the book, the authors use metaphors to explain brain functioning. They also use charts and other visual aids to make concepts more accessible. Additionally, they draw upon various modes of storytelling, including parables and personal experiences.

Hanson and Mendius talk about the Buddha, as well as Buddhist concepts like the Four Noble Truths. They also include scientific information on the brain, including basic facts about how much it weighs and how various regions correlate to experience. They cite studies that are decades old.

There are several practices in the book that help to enhance neural function. For example, one of them is appreciating positive experiences as a way to counteract negative bias.

About the Author

Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius are dedicated to sharing insights about ancient contemplative practices, such as meditation. They believe that if people learn how to harness their brain power, they can have a positive effect on the world. The book is meant to be useful and readers should feel free to focus on the sections that appeal to them—meaning if someone isn’t science-inclined it’s okay not to read parts of the book.

The authors point out that everyone is different and has their own needs. Therefore, readers should feel free to change the advice in this book according to their unique situations.

Buddha’s Brain Book Summary, by Rick Hanson
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