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Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment Paperback – March 28, 2017
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“Fascinating. ... Whether you’re a skeptic or a true believer, exploring Siddhartha’s brain offers compelling insights and invites further questions about the potential of the human mind.” (Chicago Tribune)
“Impressive. ... Even readers well steeped in the sutras will likely come away having learned something new.” (Tricycle: The Buddhist Review)
“Reveals not only how mindfulness meditation can rewire the human brain and help us achieve a sense of spiritual fulfillment but also how we can easily integrate the practice into our daily lives.” (Scientific American)
“[A] fascinating exploration of the neuroscience behind meditation. ... Kingsland skillfully dives in and out of various subjects -- the neurological relaxation response to meditation, the difference between pain and suffering, emotional regulation -- and effectively paints a neurological picture of the mind without devaluing Buddhism’s spiritual image of cognition.” (Publishers Weekly)
“It’s a pleasure to read Siddhartha’s Brain. ... A smart, accessible balance of philosophical teachings and brain science and how meditation can relate to everything from addiction to Alzheimer’s disease.” (Associated Press)
“Brain science and Buddhist lore combine in this compelling treatise on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“Kingsland expertly weaves the story and teachings of the Buddha with clinical and scientific research to engage in a highly readable examination of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. ... A satisfying read.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“Fascinating. ... Masterfully connects core teachings of the Buddha to modern mental health concerns and emerging neuroscience findings.” (Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work)
From the Back Cover
By the longtime Guardian science journalist, a groundbreaking exploration of the science of enlightenment and mental wellness, illuminated by twin perspectives: the ancient spiritual wisdom of Siddhartha Gautama and the revelations of today’s scientists, who are confirming the Buddha’s profound insights into the human mind
In the fifth century BCE, in northern India, Siddhartha, the wandering sage who became the Buddha, developed a program, rooted in meditation and mindfulness, for mastering the mind and achieving lasting peace and contentment. Twenty-five centuries later, humans have transformed everything about our world—except our brains, which remain the same powerful yet flawed instruments possessed by our ancestors. What if the solution we seek to the psychological problems of life in the digital age—distraction, anxiety, addiction, loss of deep meaning—had already been worked out by the Buddha in ancient India? Veteran Guardian science journalist and practicing Buddhist James Kingsland reveals how scientists are now unlocking the remarkable secrets of Siddhartha’s brain.
Moving effortlessly between science and scripture, Kingsland charts Siddhartha’s spiritual journey and explains how new research by leading neuroscientists and clinical psychologists—many of whom are interviewed in these pages—suggests that mindfulness practice reconfigures our brains to make us sharper, smarter, healthier, and happier, and that it can help treat stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, hypertension, and substance abuse. There have even been hints that meditation can enhance immune function, slow cellular aging, and keep dementia at bay. Featuring six guided meditations, Siddhartha’s Brain is a practical and inspiring odyssey of mind and spirit.
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There’s a reason that this middle path hasn’t been more widely studied. While Buddhism is arguably the most science-friendly of the major world religions, there’s always a gulf between spiritual and scientific thinking. The writer has to figure out how to chart a course through rocky waters. Books appealing to spiritual seekers are likely to come across as insubstantial fluff to the scientifically minded reader, and books appealing to skeptics are likely to feel materialistic and cold (and, perhaps, naive) to the spiritualist. The Buddha’s teachings about the need for the practice to be experiential, rather than faith-based, offers a unique opportunity to tread this tightrope. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama’s willingness to facilitate a dialogue between science and Buddhism has been crucial as well. One can easily set aside controversial issues like reincarnation and karmic law as they aren’t essential to the value of mindfulness.
The book consists of twelve chapters. The chapters generally begin with a story or teaching from the life of Buddha, and then go on to investigate the relevant lesson in more detail with particular emphasis on any relevant scientific discoveries that support said teachings.
The story of Buddha begins in a wealthy, high-caste household with young Siddhartha Gautama being kept from seeing the effects of aging, illness, and death. When the young Siddartha, nonetheless, sees these things, it is a powerful introduction to the concepts of impermanence and suffering that will play a central role in his future teachings. Chapter 1 starts this introduction and also offers an overview of the book. Chapter two continues it. In Chapter three, Kingsland describes a little of the known history of meditation, though its origins are lost to time.
Chapter 4 is entitled “The Second Dart” and it discusses the Buddha’s teaching of the same name—the second dart being one’s mental reaction to an event (i.e. the initial dart.) Chapter 5 investigates the question of whether there is a self—and, if so, of what manner. A core idea within Buddhism is that the self is illusory.
Chapter 6 gets to the heart of the matter by explaining the mechanism of mindfulness meditation and what has come to be known as MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy)—a secular approach to the use of mindfulness to improve well-being. The next chapter tells the story of how a group of fire worshippers came to follow the Buddha after he made clear that everything (their senses, thoughts, and emotions) were aflame with craving, hatred, and delusion, and that springboards into a discussion of how mindfulness is used to reduce craving and addiction.
Chapter 8 tells the story of an attempt to kill the Buddha via an angry, drunk elephant, and the Buddha’s thwarting of the plot by way of calm and compassion. As one might have guessed, the chapter is about moderating emotions, just as the Buddha controlled his fear before the elephant.
Chapter 9 takes a jaunt into evolutionary biology to question how the mismatch between what humans evolved to do and what we do in the modern world causes mental illnesses and how mindfulness can help mitigate the problem. Chapter 10 is about metacognition, or the ability to observe and reflect upon our own mental experience—i.e. thinking about thoughts. Chapter 11 is about cognition and decision making, and the role that meditation can play in improving our performance in this domain. The last chapter discusses the Buddhist conception of death and enlightenment. It isn’t until this point that there’s a major divergence between the Buddhist and scientific viewpoints. There is a discussion of the Buddha’s teachings emphasizing that belief in ideas from on high is not so important as experience.
Six of the chapters (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, & 11) are concluded with guided meditations to offer the reader an introduction into the basics of mindfulness. These are simple practices that many readers will already be familiar with in some variant or another. (e.g. breath awareness, bodily awareness, and mindful eating.)
There are only a few graphics (e.g. maps and diagrams—mostly of the brain) but there is no need for additional graphics. The book has references annotated.
I found this book interesting and thought-provoking. It uses the stories of Buddha as well as some stories from the present day to make the reading more engaging and approachable. The discussion of scientific research is easy for a neuroscience neophyte to follow.
I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about the science behind Buddhist practices.