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by Kristi Miller, MA, MFTI

Buddha's Brain: The Pracitcal Neuroscience of Happiness Love and Wisdom
By Rick Hanson, PH.D and Richard Mendius, MD

In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom, Dr. Hanson allows his readers to explore how the previously parallel topics of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice can convene to increase happiness and eventually permanently and positively alter brain states.

As a neuropsychologist, Dr. Hanson has practiced Buddhist Mindful Meditation for many years and draws from his extensive personal experiences and his scientific research to teach his readers the a-b-c’s of the human brain and asserts that everyone has the capacity to effectively deal with difficult states of mind, including stress, low mood, distractibility, anxiety and anger. He has broken his book into four parts: The causes of suffering, Happiness, Love and Wisdom. Each section carefully and scientifically supports his whole premise that, “you can use your mind to change your brain for the better,” which, Dr. Hanson believes, “will benefit your whole being, and every other person whose life you touch.” There are useful key points at the end of every chapter to help the lay-person understand the sometimes “heady” topics. He devotes the entire book to teaching specific concepts and techniques to activate certain positive brain states, thus strengthening them a bit each time, to eventually arrive at a restructured and happier brain.

Dr. Hanson is thorough in his description of much of America’s citizens: many, if not most of us, are in a relatively constant state of suffering. Suffering, in and of itself is inevitable. The emotional reactions and resulting hormonal fluctuations from the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of the endocrine system are what throw our bodies into this constant and heightened state of arousal. Hanson briefly details the physical and mental consequences of living a life on a biochemical slow-simmer: ulcers, decreased immune function, hardening of the arteries heart attacks, diabetes,depression, anxiety disorders, and unhappiness. He outlines the importance of activating the parasympathetic nervous system in order to regain equilibrium, quiet the mind and foster tranquility.

In Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Hanson not only helps us understand how our brain works, he also dedicates much of his book to teaching us the “how to’s” of relaxing the body and mind and consistently activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Relaxation, breathing, mindfulness, imagery and meditation are all ways to “cool the fires” of the sympathetic nervous system. Cultivating a daily practice of quiet time, and developing mindfulness is, according to Hanson, is the panacea to living a healthier and happier life. According to Dr. Hanson, meditation increases the gray matter in brain regions that have to do with attention, compassion and empathy as well as alleviates a variety of medical and psychological conditions.

Dr. Hanson creates a useful guide to rewiring our brains by understanding how to react to our emotions and stimuli in a more grounded and positive manner, at the same time practicing meditation and mindfulness. This combination will allow us to activate the unused potential of our brain to benefit from a greater sense of well-being, peace and happiness.

Using this book for the adults in the world has the potential to create a happier, or at the very least, a calmer group. What is even more exciting, is thinking about how to tailor this information to the parenting community. The idea of helping children to understand how to manage their reactions to stress, thus lowering anxiety, increasing self-love and happiness has immense implications not only for the children themselves, but eventually for the increased health and happiness of our world.

Buddha’s Brain can be used as a tool to teach parents how to first manage their own stress, and then apply these same techniques to teach their children how to do the same. Hanson’s belief that moment-by-moment mindfulness, or placing your attention wherever you want and keep it there, is “like a spotlight, and what it illuminates streams into your mind and shapes your brain.” As a result, you benefit from greater control over your attention and get to reshape your brain in the process.

In our culture, children are constantly running from school to extra-curricular events to homework to volunteer to work to eat to sleep, without a moment to spare. They are over-worked, under-rested and unfocused. As a result, many of these kids are being labeled with attention deficit disorders and medicated so they can maintain this focus. If, as a parental generation, we had the strength to put our collective foot down and instead of medicating our children to get them to focus, we could teach them from the very beginning how to manage stress through whole-body breathing, progressive relaxation, daily meditation and mindfulness. Then, we would have spent their childhoods plumping up their grey matter, teaching them how to be compassionate, and how to keep their attention focused, all with a balanced and healthy endocrine system. This all lends to availing their minds and bodies to be present and open to thrive. Thus, allowing for a more peaceful and happier generation of children. In theory, they would be able to teach their children’s generations the same, and so on and so on.

Both adults and children alike can cultivate greater happiness, love and wisdom. Hanson’s “practical neuroscience,” has the potential to positively rewire the brains of generations of readers and practitioners to come, and is a worthy addition to bookshelves everywhere.

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