Why 'Mindfulness and the Brain'

Mindfulness and the Brain:  Why you may be interested.

If you are a Buddhist practitioner,it may not be clear why you should be interested in what the brain is doing during worry and after mindfulness practice, so here are some thoughts to tempt you:

It’s simpler than Buddhism

While Buddhism does offer a complete package of teachings, most members of local sanghas know only a small part.  Very few are confident to talk about the detail of the theories.  We get bogged down in the differences and meanings of dukha, samsara, nirvana, suyata, smirti, samadhi, sila, prajna, bodhisattva, and other technical/jargon terms used by the theory.  However, we are much more familiar with a model of our bodies which explain illness in terms of bones, blood, germs etc.  We will find a brain-based explanation, using plain language, much easier to understand.

Buddhists are aware that worry etc takes place in the brain, but the models used by the Buddha and later Buddhists  were ‘educated guesswork’.  This is because there was, until recently, no way to ‘look’ at the brain while it is thinking, worrying etc; no way to see the changes that take place after mindfulness practice.  This all changed in the mid 1990s with the invention of scanners which show brain activity.  Knowing what is happening in the brain enables us to make the first new advances since the Mahayana times.

There is less of a barrier than Buddhism

There are millions of people who suffer from stress, anxiety etc (and many 1000s with serious symptoms) who would benefit from mindfulness practice, but who are put off by Buddhist language or what they see as ‘religion’.  Several Buddhist teachers have shown how the practice can be secular.  Using brain-based explanations is just the next logical step.

Buddhism provides a theory to explain ‘suffering’, and a path that leads to the end of suffering.  This theory does not easily fit with wider ideas about the brain, learning, mental illness etc.  By studying the brain we can put Buddhism into a modern framework and so make it more accessible to non-Buddhists.  It is likely that 10x as many people will be receptive to this approach as compared with Buddhism.

It helps develop our compassion

When we see someone in a wheelchair, we do not expect them to stand and walk.  We know, without asking, that saying things like: “Pull yourself together and walk” would not be appropriate.  However, when we meet someone who is suffering mentally, we cannot see the problem directly.  Brain-imaging and neuroscience help us to see that the brain of someone suffering is behaving differently from the happier person.  It also lets us see the changes which meditation brings.  This ‘window on the mind’ can elicit the same compassionate response in us as seeing a physical disability.

It’s the next big step forward.

The Buddha did a great job.  Later Buddhists made improvements.  Buddhist teachers have translated these insights into Western-friendly language.Now we can take the next step forward, doing away with guesswork.  Already knowledge of the brain is suggesting alternative, more effective activities to deal with suffering.

These are some reasons you should be interested in the brain.


Mike Bell