The Enlightened Brain: The Neuroscience of Awakening
“The Enlightened Brain is beneficial for anyone who feels stuck in a forest of imbalance and wants to ‘cut a path to a better place,’ as Dr. Hanson says. It’s recommended for individuals and leaders of meditation who want to understand how their practices work in the brain and to become more effective and happy in life.”
When someone is loving, happy, and wise, what’s happening in the brain? How do they do it? Their lives are busy. How do some people keep that deep sense of well being, that unshakable peace and happiness?
These are the questions that Dr. Rick Hanson answers in The Enlightened Brain: The Neuroscience of Awakening. His talks occur at the intersection of contemporary neuroscience, Western psychology, contemplative practice inspired primarily by Buddhism, and the modern personal-growth movement.
In seven sessions, Dr. Hanson offers technical discussion of brain structure and function, personal examples, and 19 guided practices that range in duration from 2–40 minutes. His pronunciation is pleasant and well-paced for engaging listeners with technical information while allowing enough time for the practices to be done comfortably.
Most of the practices in The Enlightened Brain are done seated; one encourages moving/walking around, and one can also be used as a journaling exercise. Dr. Hanson’s style is informal, his definition of terms is careful, and his meditation instructions are consistent and easy to follow. Listeners learn why and how to change their brains and improve their lives.
Dr. Hanson notes that with regular meditation, the brain does not exhibit the cortical thinning and cognitive decline that normally occur during aging. As the mind changes, so does the brain. The Enlightened Brain helps listeners take action on their own behalf by employing self-directed neuroplasticity through thought—using the mind to change the brain.
This can be helpful in dealing with difficult material, by bringing awareness to what’s there, and more importantly, releasing what is difficult and replacing it with more positive content. By deliberately “taking in the good,” we are better able to move on, rather than digging more deeply into difficulty. According to Dr. Hanson, when good news is held in awareness long enough, it transfers from short term to long term emotional memory. Parents can even practice “taking in the good” with their children.
The brain evolved to avoid harm, to approach rewards, and to attach to “us,” or community. The Enlightened Brain provides practices for returning to a state where the brain is calm, content, and caring. Listeners can personalize their practice according to their needs or goals, for example: cultivating calm when feeling threatened, contentment when frustrated, caring when feeling excluded. By engaging and strengthening the memory of good experiences, we have a “known” feeling, a resource that can be recognized and recalled when we need it.
According to Dr. Hanson, it only takes 10–30 seconds of such “savoring” for neurons to fire and wire the structure into the brain. The practice of holding the awareness of a good experience is not his invention; however, he “unpacks” the steps and then puts them together in a way that makes the process easily accessible to beginners without being boring to those who have more experience with meditation.
By learning how the memory of experiences works, we can understand how during a certain stage, memory is vulnerable to intervention such as positive material, and that helps in gradually healing old pain. The practices in The Enlightened Brain can be used to enhance Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or other therapies, although some may not be beneficial for people who experience traumatic or severe depression or who tend to dissociate.
The neuroscience of mindfulness and the psychology underlying Buddhism come together in The Enlightened Brain. Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha laid out a map that leads to non-ordinary states of awareness by stating, “The mind is steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness and concentrated.” Dr. Hanson discusses these four Jhanas in terms of what happens in the brain, the challenges to mindfulness, the means for stimulating neural substrates for deep profound steadiness of mind, and four common characteristics of matter and mind.
Dr. Hanson explores what happens in the brain in the mysterious state of nirvana. In the Buddhist model of the nature of awakened being, one moves through eight states which correspond to the gradual quieting of the brain. Eventually only the barest sense of personal consciousness remains, and one is utterly present with the nature of matter and mind. After such a transformational experience, a person knows and sees everything in a new way.
Equanimity is a key in this process. Dr. Hanson presents it as the circuit-breaker of suffering (being off-center). Being engaged in the world, untroubled by circumstances, keeping a steady balance by not reacting with clinging or anxiety to experiences we deem to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, we can develop equanimity to prevent stress, trauma, and dis-ease. The Enlightened Brain provides steps to create equanimity in the brain and practices to track the feeling tones which accompany pleasant/unpleasant experiences, without reacting. Living in equanimity feels good. It simplifies things, helps us deal with others well, and promotes a growing sense of wisdom.
The program concludes with a look at the western psychological notion of self and a practice to explore the experience of self. The Enlightened Brain is beneficial for anyone who feels stuck in a forest of imbalance and wants to “cut a path to a better place,” as Dr. Hanson says. It’s recommended for individuals and leaders of meditation who want to understand how their practices work in the brain and to become more effective and happy in life.