#14: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius, MD

BuddhasBrainMECH.inddWhen I’m not being judgmental, cold, cynical, sarcastic, fatalistic, angry, or hopeless, I try to be a better person.  Have a positive attitude, practice active kindness, find beauty and good in the world and all that crap.

My therapist recommended Buddha’s Brain to me after I tried to explain that I sort of understood that my brain was telling me things that weren’t necessarily true.  I understand on a logical level that my brain is trying to keep me alive and to fear change, even though in the long run these changes will be better than what I’m currently doing.

Buddha’s Brain is an incredible resource.  It starts with the neuroscience of what happens in our bodies when we react to situations.  Without being textbook boring, Hanson looks at current (2009) advances in neuroscience and what science is continually learning about the brain.  It’s fascinating and helped me understand how biological reactions immediately become emotional responses.

Hanson takes his time exploring the brain and giving solid examples of how this biological response becomes emotional response.  Even in the heaviest parts of science, he still includes emotional examples.  I often found myself thinking “Oh… OK, that’s happened to me.  This makes sense.”  Logically I understand how emotions can trick me into thinking something is dangerous, but having a neuroscience explanation made me slow down and really think about what my brain was doing to my entire body and how that was then affecting my emotions and behavior.

It’s really fascinating and I think people who are turned off by hippie-crunchy dirt worshiping drum circles of healing will respond to the facts and explanation of what is happening in your brain, why evolution has caused this to happen and how it then affects how your body feels.


A big part, if not the biggest part, of changing my attitude and behavior and not letting the cycle of panic and spinning thoughts take me over is practicing mindfulness.  And yes, here’s where the people who hate hippie-crunchy dirt worshiping drum circles of healing will cringe.  Please trust me when I say that you don’t have to participate in the drum circle.  It’s not required.

I balked when I was first learning how to be mindful.  It felt like a waste of time.  Why sit with my thoughts when I already know how I feel?  And I don’t WANT to pay attention to how I feel because I feel anxious, panicked, sad and hopeless.  Yeah, this sounds like a great idea.

However, I slowly came to understand how it works and how it helps.  It took me months before my emotional brain shut up for five seconds so my logical brain could process that no, this wasn’t going to kill me.  I fought it because I really thought it was a waste of time and energy.

But once I let myself just sit, I realized it was actually helpful.  Taking time to just sit in the moment and not do anything was OK and usually it was better than OK.  I realized that the things I was dwelling on were things I couldn’t do anything about in that moment, so why not pause that out of control voice and just sit and let my mind slow down and only pay attention to what’s happening right now.

When I finally understood this, holy shit you guys, it was like taking a huge breath of air after being underwater for a bit too long.  I realized my body was in this crazy tense state where my shoulders were pretty much level with my ears, my teeth were clenched, my stomach was tight, my hands were in fists and my brows were furrowed.  I didn’t even know I was doing this.  I wasn’t even particularly freaked out about anything.  I had trained my body to stay in this default setting so I’d be ready when my emotional brain started doing the dance of insanity.  Letting my muscles slowly loosen, I was astounded at how tired I felt.  I was spending all this energy ready to freak the fuck out, and in this moment of mindfulness I was giving myself permission to calm the fuck down.  There was no pressure though.  I just sat and breathed and didn’t really think about much other than sitting and breathing.

It was awesome.

Buddha’s Brain is all about these moments.  As Hanson explains the science of our brains he also gives practical examples and guided instructions on how to change what you’re doing and be mindful.  There are instructions for many different exercises and you can pick and choose what you want to work on.

I hesitate to use the word “instruction” because it sounds like you have to do it a specific way that someone else has come up with, but it’s not like that.  This is a framework that you adjust to what works for you.  There are parts that push you to go into a different direction, but mindfulness isn’t about having to do it This Way and where everyone does the exact same thing.

One thing I really liked about this book is that you can jump around.  If you’re not really interested in a part you can skim through it.  If it comes up later, Hanson refers you back to that part so if you’re confused, you can go back.  If there are practices or guidance for your behavior and thoughts that you’re not interested in, don’t do them.  There were a few that made me roll my eyes, but several times I realized that I knew I wasn’t there yet.  It’s so much easier to judge and dismiss something that acknowledge that it’s actually helpful but is going to take some work.

One of the things I like about mindfulness is that it’s not about being perfect or doing it all the time or following a certain set of rules or having to do it exactly like someone tells you to.  You get to figure out for yourself what is working.  After awhile you can branch out and try new things.  You learn to trust yourself and take those moments to just be.  What you’re doing in this moment is enough.  If you’re making dinner, why spend extra energy thinking of all the things that need to get done?  You’re not going to do them right now, so take a breath and pay attention to how it feels to simply stand at the counter and chop shit up.  Take just 60 seconds to think about how that food looks, the feeling of the bowl in your hand, the sounds of the knife against the cutting board, your breath filling  your lungs…  Yes, you do need to get a bunch of stuff done before going to bed, but right now you’re making dinner and that’s enough.  Let it be enough and let yourself just be in that moment.

It’s quite amazing.

It takes time and practice (which is another reason I fought against it.  I want immediate results!) and there are plenty of times where I’m not actively practicing happiness, love and wisdom.  Using this book will help you retrain your brain without having to play Hacky Sack, grow dreadlocks and buying a drum for the drum circle.  If that’s what you want to do, of course, then let your dreadlocks fly.  Please don’t use patchouli though.  No one needs to smell that.

Get this book.  Tag the pages that are interesting to you.  (Mine is filled with little sticky flags.)  Pick something that seems simple and start doing it.  When you feel like you need a little nudge to get back into a better mindset, pick an exercise and practice it.  If you feel like you are currently the mindfulness champion of the fucking world, flip through and see if there’s something you haven’t tried yet.

It’s an amazing book and I want to buy a copy for pretty much everyone I know. Even if you just flip through it, flip through it.  Maybe you’ll get some ideas about how to let yourself quiet those thoughts that never seem to go away.

Also, if you have to pick a spiritual leader to guide you, don’t you want to hang out with a fat and happy guy?

Happy Buddha

Seriously.  The dude knows how to have a good time.


One response to “#14: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius, MD

  1. Pingback: pyrajane’s review #14: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius, MD | Cannonball Read V

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