Buddhist monks have sophisticated brains

A Buddha's Brain - The Science of Awakening

There are countless tips aimed at a healthy psyche, relaxation and a harmonious togetherness in the family circle. But which methods really help? So far it has been more of a question of faith. Or you tried a meditation, a relaxation exercise and then made a picture. Today we can determine more precisely what helps us: through the findings of brain research. "We have probably learned more about the brain in the last twenty years than in all of history so far," says the American psychologist Alan Lesher. These advances mean for us the unprecedented chance to strengthen happiness, balance, compassion and wisdom in our lives - even without time-consuming detours. By Roland Rottenfusser.


The mind-brain system

Rick Hanson was a shy kid and younger than most of his classmates. "That's why I grew up feeling like an outsider, which occurs in many situations." Unfortunately, that didn't stop there as Rick got older. “As an adult, whenever I joined a new group (e.g. a team at work), I always expected to be an outsider again and to feel uncomfortable with it - even though the other people in the group gave me a completely friendly welcome.

Almost everyone has to deal with negative and annoying imprints of this kind. The bad thing is that you can't get it under control simply by deciding to be a self-confident, well-loved person from now on. The negative patterns are, as it were, buried deep in the brain. Without a deep understanding of how our brains work, it is difficult to remedy this. In any case, we cannot simply delete tormenting experiences like we press a "del" key. Rather, they have to be superimposed and gradually displaced by positive imprints. Little Rick became a renowned neuropsychologist and meditation teacher. In order to help other people to develop more balance and joie de vivre, Rick Hanson wrote the book "The Brain of a Budda" together with Richard Medius.

Hanson speaks of a co-dependent "mind / brain system". The material and the spiritual aspects cannot be precisely separated from one another. “What flows through your mind shapes your brain. Hence, you can use your mind to improve your brain. " The assumption that there is a transcendent aspect of the mind - whether we call it God, the reason for being or the Buddha-nature - is possible, but not necessary, in order to positively influence one's own brain. "The mind is what the brain does"says Hanson. "Consequently, an awakening mind also means an awakening brain." The spiritual masters of the past knew this even without being neuropsychologically up to date. Tibetan meditators, for example, generate altered brain states that can be measured by scientists, extremely strong gamma brain waves.


How the brain creates suffering

Unfortunately, precisely because of its complexity, our brain is also a source of constant suffering. In the case of animals, this is still limited. “Our much more developed brain, however, is fertile ground for a harvest of suffering. Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past and reproach ourselves about the present. " Most of our suffering, according to Hansen, is constructed by our brain. It's made up. One can see consolation in this, but also painful irony. The fact is that this "fate" is changeable if we better understand how the brain-mind continuum works.

The reasons for our continued suffering to ourselves are explained at length by Rick Hanson. Over millions of years of evolution, our ancestors developed three strategies for survival: They learned

  1. to perceive oneself as separate from others and from nature.
  2. to keep their physical and mental systems in a stable balance.
  3. Seizing opportunities and avoiding threats.

    Unfortunately, these strategies are regularly thwarted by life itself because

  1. everything is connected with everything.
  2. everything is constantly changing
  3. Opportunities remain unfulfilled or lose their shine over time and threats (such as old age and death) are inevitable.

Suffering and pain that are generated by certain neural networks are originally quite useful to warn us of errors and to force us to take life-enhancing measures. In many ways, however, we suffer from being human: incurable. This has nothing to do with the fact that you or I are particularly bad luck. "Everything that begins has to end. Everything that comes together must also disperse. Experiences are consequently incapable of being entirely satisfactory. They are an unreliable basis for true happiness ". In addition, we are naturally made to react more strongly to threats than to opportunities. If primitive man overlooked a berry that grew on the forest floor, he might later have the opportunity to eat one: if, on the other hand, he overlooked the eyes of a predator in the bushes, this misjudgment could have been his last.


Our virtual reality

In addition to the real dangers, there are also “simulations” due to the way the brain works. Small films that we play internally in order to anticipate possible unpleasant situations in the future or to recapitulate tormenting experiences from the past in an endless loop. Rick Hanson gives a frightening number on this: Only about 20 percent of the impulses that reach our occipital lobe come directly from the outside world; the rest comes from memory or is based on the processing of impressions. "Your brain simulates the world - each of us lives in a virtual reality that is sufficiently similar to the real one to prevent us from running into furniture". However, these simulations increase our suffering and torpedo the joie de vivre. “It is in the nature of the simulator that it tears you out of the present moment. (...) However, we only find true happiness, true love or wisdom in the present moment. "

We not only suffer directly (e.g. by painfully bumping into the edge of a chair), but also indirectly, in that we suffer from our suffering. For example, we think: “Which idiot put the chair there like that?” Or: “It's typical for me again that I behave like a fool.” The second, indirect type of suffering takes up a much larger space in our lives a. The Buddha's first “noble truth” - life in the cycle of existence is painful - is impressively confirmed by brain research. "Suffering cascades through your body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system." If you find the medical part of Hanson's book too difficult, you can read it sideways, because the basic findings are easy to understand.

In our full throttle society, the stimulating (sympathetic) nervous system is constantly running at full speed, i.e. the system that helps us to tense up in danger and switch to fight or flight. This can lead to the fact that we develop "fear of qualities", that is, fear that is always there and, in contrast to the situation-related "fear of states", becomes part of our character structure. A lively and at the same time relaxed state of mind, which we perceive as pleasant, is the result of a harmonious interplay of “accelerator and brake”, i.e. the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Just as an over-acidic organism needs basic food, our overexcited nervous system must be supplied with "braking" (parasympathetic) impulses.


Strengthening the pleasant instead of fighting the unpleasant

Here we are with the solutions. Rick Hanson names three healing processes:

  1. Being with what arises
  2. Working with the tendencies of the mind to transform the ascending
  3. Seeking refuge in the ground of being.

These three "strategies" help to nourish the states of being happiness, love and wisdom. Instead of fighting uncomfortable feelings, we can first stay with them mindfully. At the same time, we should consciously perceive pleasant experiences, strengthen and cultivate them. Let's assume that our loved one gently strokes our hair while we are working on the computer. We see wonderful crocuses rise in the sun between melting snow. We help a stranger with the parking machine with a few cents, and he thanks them. We can now quickly block out these pleasant experiences by moving on to “more important things”. Or we linger in this feeling as long as possible, even after hours still occasionally think about it with an inner smile, remembering a lot of similar positive experiences from the past, so that in the end we feel like true children of happiness.

Unfortunately, it is like this: The pleasant needs conscious encouragement, while the unpleasant imposes itself completely by itself. "Imagine that the positive contents of your awareness penetrate old wounds, soothe sore and injured areas like a warm, golden ointment, fill cavities, slowly replace negative feelings and beliefs with positive ones." This has nothing to do with the rather flat forms of "positive thinking" or with the denial of the dark side of life. "It's about nourishing well-being, contentment and peace within, havens from which you always come and to which you can return at any time."

Hanson calls another technique “cooling the fire”. It is about the conscious activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. There are a number of methods for this that many readers should already be familiar with: meditation and relaxation techniques. Anyone who regularly sits in a quiet place, breathes in and out deeply and imagines that the breath flows in and out through the heart has already taken a small step towards building the “brain of a Buddha”. Deep feelings of peace, gratitude, and love can come with this simple meditation. We can seek refuge in places that were safe in the past. These can be external places such as churches or our favorite bank on the torrent. It can be spiritual masters who stand for the values ​​we trust: Jesus, Buddha or a teacher we know personally. It can also be an inner district in our own heart. Going for refuge helps reduce fears and cultivate a basic sense of security.


The indifferent witness

It is important to develop equanimity. The indifferent brain creates a buffer between you and the stream of consciousness of your experience. You take on the position of a witness who no longer fully identifies with joy and sorrow. "Equanimity means that you don't react to your reactions." Rather, these appear as clouds of different colors in the sky of consciousness and then disappear again without the sky itself being touched. “The space of awareness allows any mind content, to be or not to be, to come and go. Thoughts are just thoughts, noises are just noises, situations are just situations and people are just themselves. " Other sections of Hanson's book explain in detail how to develop and strengthen the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness in oneself.

The concept of mindfulness, which is very important in Buddhism, is also being nourished by modern brain research. “What flows through your attention shapes your brain. Therefore, controlling your attention is possibly the most effective way to shape your brain and, consequently, your mind. (...) Mindfulness is well-controlled attention. " If we take daily measures that strengthen virtue, mindfulness and wisdom in our life, we can, as it were, expand the area of ​​the good and wholesome - without denying the painful and, by fighting it, always giving it more energy. In doing so, we should deliberately use a policy of many small steps. "A single raindrop doesn't do much, but if you have enough drops and enough time, you can wash out a Grand Canyon."


Happiness increases when "I" decrease

One of the most mysterious and hardest to accept Buddhist insights is the thesis that our feeling of a separate self is an illusion. But this is also confirmed by brain research. In this light, our identity appears almost like a perfect simulation in the brain. If we step out of this “matrix”, there is no threat of being lost or disoriented. On the contrary: "Paradoxically, the less your 'I' is there, the happier you are." This realization is significant, especially since many counselors have made strengthening the ego their goal. “When you take things personally, identify with things that inevitably end, or try to own them, or when you isolate yourself from all things, you suffer. But when you loosen the sense of self and flow with life, you feel happy and satisfied. "

The path of awakening is not to add something new to our being; rather, it is about exposing our "fundamental nature." Hanson claims: “Even if your true nature is currently hidden behind stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still exists. Knowing this can be a great comfort. " And he adds: "Paradoxically, it takes time to become what we already are."


Related articles

The heart - our second brain



Buddha image: Eric Pouhier, cc-by-sa


A Buddha's brain

The applied neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom

Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius

312 pages
Arbor Publishing House

ISBN-13: 978-3867810258





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6 responses

  1. Birgitta Kowsky
    Is the truth in the middle?

    Hello Mrs. Grill and oaktown,
    can it be that the truth lies 'in the middle'? Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, laments in his autobiographical book 'The Scent of Palm Leaves' the lack of moral courage of the local Buddhist monks in times of political persecution, censorship and hardship in Vietnam. As a result, he created what is known as 'committed Buddhism' in which he strives for a compromise between real changes in society based on the foundations of Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha. I also believe that Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy. And undesirable phenomena like prostitution ect. make me speechless too, but are probably more a consequence of cultural traditions than of Buddhism. You, Ms. Grill, complain about the consequences of frozen structures in Buddhism (keyword> institutionalization that has nothing in common with spirituality) and rightly so, but in my opinion that does not change the deep wisdom that is inherent in Buddhism.
    In addition, I think it's straightforward, Ms. Grill, to write her opinion and to sign it with your own name, as opposed to writing something and no longer being recognizable behind the username.
    Thank you for this dialogue.
    Birgitta Kowsky

  2. Hannelore Grill

    Compassion in Buddhism is not real compassion. It should be understood more as if the Buddhist is sitting in a bubble and looking at the world within his own bubble. Compassion is therefore more likely to be described as pity. Compassion in Buddhism means: "You poor person, you are not yet enlightened and freed from your desires and feelings and therefore still have to suffer." Buddhists call this 'compassion'. But I would rather call it contempt.

    Indeed, religion seeks to avoid feelings, desires and actions. Love, too, is a feeling for Buddhists that leads to confusion and should be avoided. All feelings have an opposite (love - hate) and generate karma and thereby lead to rebirth. The goal is to go into "NOTHING" where nothing should be felt. The Buddhist monk strives to give up his “self” and “I” through meditation in order to attain nirvana. Nirvana means "nothing". Only in this way can rebirth be avoided.

    Gauthama (Buddha) himself ruthlessly left his child and wife to meditate, to concentrate on himself, to give up on himself.

    The Buddhist monks proclaim a modest life but live themselves, even if mostly (but not always (!)) Modestly, from work and from the food that their fellow men produce. The Buddhist monks do not create added value in society but rather parasitize in a "modest" way the work of others in order to give up on themselves in order to achieve nirvana.

    Buddhism is an irrational, egoistic, contradicting and ruthless religion, which - although it wants to avoid egoism, ruthlessness and contradictions by giving up the "self" and "I", still only starts from one's own "I". If you were born poor and sick, you generated too much bad karma in your previous life. So it's your own fault.
    In Buddhism, "being happy" means not feeling anything.

    Despite all the countless writings, the dogma is basically nothing other than "Hello Ax Griff". But maybe you need many countless contradicting scriptures to confuse and distract you from the core, namely - life means suffering. In order to suffer as little as possible, live your life as if you were dead.

    This outlook, along with passivity, lead to a ruthless “let it be” society. In countries where Buddhism prevails, injustice, prostitution and ruthlessness are also very noticeable. In my opinion, the teaching proclaims a psychopathic lifestyle.

    Meditation is also relaxing for the brain. However, meditation should not be associated with Buddhism. People meditated long before the Buddha.

    Even my grandmother, who was Catholic, meditated in her own way by chanting "Our Father" 40 times in a row in front of her.

    However, it is true that no people have as much time to meditate as Buddhist monks, because they do not provide any benefit to society, but benefit from the work of other people, especially women. 80 percent of what monks eat comes from women even though they despise women very much - again one of those many contradictions.

    • oaktown
      Mrs. Grill is wrong .....

      Dear Mrs. Grill,
      Unfortunately, you did not understand at all what Buddhism is about ... .. What a shame!

      All !!! Their claims, such as Buddhism is a religion, Buddhist monks are parasites, Buddhism leads to prostitution and so on, are untrue, polemical and superficial.

      It appears that you did not inform yourself adequately or perhaps you just wanted to accept the information that fits your views. Which is much easier, faster and more pleasant than forming an unbiased opinion.

      It was 2014 when you gave your opinion. I hope that perhaps something has happened in the meantime that brought you closer to the Dharma and that as a result, love and understanding for all living beings began to develop in you.

    • Bradvica Jadranka
      Warning of Buddhism

      You are a very, very dissatisfied person. Who gives you the right to talk about Buddhism. You don't know what Buddhism, Nirvana means. Everything negative in your brain is in truth your negative mind. What do you know about monks and theirs Knowing spiritually.NOT.Whoever talks so negatively about others without knowing him will soon die. I'm sorry for you, you don't know what you did to yourself with your ignorant comment. I don't want to put your skin in your skin now To designate a Buddha as a parasite means to be born a parasite himself in the next life. Nobody, nobody can and is law to escape karma.

  3. kwest

    3 quotes from Kodo Sawaki (Zen master):

    “All these years you went shopping with your feelings, fell on your face, were jealous and threw your hands and feet about yourself. Now just sit down here. How long did you wander around until you finally got to that point? Now the desperate search is finally over: Herein lies the peace and serenity that zazen gives us. "

    “Everyone complains about being so busy that they run out of time. But why are they so busy? It's just their illusions that keep them busy. Those who practice zazen, on the other hand, have time. Those who practice zazen have to try to have more time than anyone else. "

    “Everyone talks about their opinion, but who cares? Just shut up! "

  4. Pleja

    Yes, because the physiological aspects of being human are well described with the consciousness-relevant knowledge of the SPIRIT.
    The paradox: letting go of the ego, non-identification in order to reduce suffering and still develop a strong ego that has all potential options for action available to respond adequately to challenging life situations ...
    was unfortunately not taken into account here.
    Without an ego (repertoire of possibilities for action), no ego-conscious reflexive (through CONSCIOUSNESS) acting in the outer WORLD, created by both the brain and our mental patterns.