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Reasonings About Neuroscience

The following considerations are based on my reading of Buddha’s Brain, a book by neuroscientists Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.

The book Buddha’s Brain adds much flesh to the bones of Epicurean notions of a science of happiness. It teaches how to scientifically and methodically cultivate a happy and healthy brain. It also substantiates and helps to understand the neuroscientific theories behind the practices that early Epicureans used to engage in (repetition, memorization, gratitude, etc.) as part of their regimen of abiding pleasures. These practices create and strengthen healthy neural connections in the tissue of our brain that are experienced, over the long term, as happiness.

The book also reminds us constantly of the physicality of the soul and all soul phenomena, of how each and every soul experience is rooted in some way in hormonal changes, bodily organs, neurons, etc. This is one of the crucial, central insights of our materialist philosophy, and the main reason why we utilize medicinal language when referring to the health of the soul just as mainstream culture does with the body. Like our own wisdom tradition, this book demonstrates a strong tendency to make applied, therapeutic philosophy tangible and concrete.

The Hedonic Tone

One of the first things the book does is to give us a theory, and new words, by which we may refer to the important knowledge being imparted. Much of the beginning portion of the book consists of establishing this framework.

The feeling tone, or hedonic tone, is defined as the quality of whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The hedonic tone is produced by the amygdala.

On the Importance of Mindfulness

As with all therapy, contemplation and meditation help us to identify suffering in its initial stages and to see how it arises in the mind. With this insight, we can stop the suffering process and lead the mind in a new direction.

People given to frivolous mental exercises might have a habit of avoiding mindfulness and attention, aware (or maybe unaware?) of the fact that once you observe pleasant activities, you burst the bubble and they cease being enjoyable. It is important to challenge this habit of mindlessness. Without attention and patient, non-judgemental mindfulness, it’s impossible to bring into awareness the issues that we must work through in order to cultivate a progressively happier mind.

There are many references to Buddhist teachings and techniques to educate the mind. The book frequently goes back to the first and second darts, a reference to the things outside of ourselves that generate suffering (loss of a loved one, insult, loss of a job, accidentally hurting ourselves, etc.), which constitute examples of the first dart, versus our REACTIONS to these things (anger, hatred, obsession with vengeance, vindictiveness, annoyance, etc) which are examples of the second dart. As you probably imagine, we have control usually only over the second dart, and so a great part of the training that we must undertake if we make a resolution to be happy, is to avoid throwing the second dart.

The authors speak of a progression from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and later on to conscious competence, and finally to unconscious competence. In the first stage, we are easily annoyed and affected by things with no conscious acknowledgement of it. In the second stage, we become aware of our reaction to events and how these reactions generate suffering, but we have not yet developed the wherewithal to discipline ourselves with prudence. The third stage is the beginning of discipline: we begin making conscious efforts to avoid throwing the second dart, and finally when we reach the fourth stage, we have become wise enough and gained enough insight to understand that our serenity, our ataraxia and tranquility, is worth too much to be sacrificed at the altar of vindictiveness, anger, or annoyance.

Implicit Memory

Notice that mindfulness, resolution, and discipline are all necessary in the cultivation of a steady, happy mind that habitually abides in pleasure.

The authors speak of implicit memory. It consists of the unconscious expectations, outlook, values, emotional states, relationships that are built around our experiences and result in our sense of self, our very identity, “what it feels like to be you”.

Going back to the learning process mentioned previously, the idea is to generate sufficient momentum for the happy and wholesome memories and experiences to become unconsciously competent. It is here that the daily practice of gratitude and other Epicurean disciplines of abiding (katastemic) pleasure gain a theoretical foundation in neurology.

Some piles of these implicit memories harm us, others help us, and so the idea is to increase the ones that help us. Part of the task of a good Epicurean has to do with wholesome memory-building. We are reminded of our sages’ advise to practice reminiscing about the good times frequently. The Epicurean Garden was provided as a place where practitioners built fond memories of virtuous friendship and affection. By allowing good times to settle into our memory banks as implicit memory and to become part of our very identities, we are nurturing a habitually happy, blessed state of being.

Dan Gilbert speaks about how happy memories are formed, insisting that his research leads to the understanding that people do not derive happiness from things. They derive happiness from experiences and relationships. Fond memories come from living, not having or thinking. Elsewhere in the book, the authors argue that we must turn happy facts into happy experiences.

It’s clear that happiness and abiding pleasure do not take place at the level of the intellect so much as at the level of being, of existing; that the entire being must be turned over to the experience of the good.

We buy things which give us some pleasure (clothes, cars, art, etc.), but we quickly forget the newness of these things. However, a night out with friends, weekly dinners with family, vacations with one’s partner, these are the things that fond memories are built from. They are experienced, they are lived.

Negativity Bias of the Brain

Since during our evolutionary history so much of our chances of survival depended on whether we were able to identify and avoid or confront dangers and threats in our environment, humans (like all animals) have a fairly developed fight-or-flight system of instincts which is coordinated, to a great extent, by the SNS (sympathetic nervous system).

In this way, we can understand how normal levels of anxiety and of threat response are natural and necessary, helping us to be more vigilant and pay attention. However, the necessity of the fight-or-flight instinct produces a brain that has a strong tendency to pay attention to the negative stimuli in our environment, those that are not particularly pleasant. Our brain is good at reminding us of what to avoid, and in this manner it believes that it’s constantly doing something good and important for us, for which we should be grateful.

The Cool-Head and the Hot-Head

The SNS produces instances where one must be hot-headed: angry, alert, ready for battle, impervious to pain. In contrast to this system, we also have the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system), which balances the fight-or-flight tendencies with tendencies that the authors of Buddha’s Brain call the rest and digest reflex.

This rest and digest reflex is the cooling, steadying tendency of the mind that we associate with ataraxia (imperturbability) and with abiding pleasure, which facilitates practices of gratitude and contemplation. It is here that (as in the case of Dan Gilbert’s science of happiness discourse) we begin to clearly see Epicurean theory by another name, even delving into the canon. In our tradition, we refer to these two tendencies as the pleasure and aversion principles.

Considering the fact that Epicureanism often gets called a philosophy of the stomach, it’s curious that the authors chose to include digestion into their notion of steady, cooling states of being, or the rest and digest reflex.

Buddha’s Brain refers frequently to notions of heat / hot-headedness and coolness. The book also makes mention of how awareness of the body suppresses chatter when one is attempting to meditate because chatter and body-awareness are tackled by two different hemispheres of the brain. This is all reminiscent to Yoruba lore and other traditional African wisdom traditions with their references to the physicality of the soul, which refer to the heat or coolness of the head and which were explored a bit in the piece On the Importance of Protecting One’s Head.

“Taking In the Good” and the Practice of Abiding Pleasure

The above is the framework within we can understand the importance of internalizing the good, the pleasant, of gratitude and of reminiscing about fond experiences. But what are the best techniques for this art of living, this art of abiding in pleasure?

In addition to the traditional Epicurean techniques known from our sources, there is in Buddhism the technique of taking refuge. Buddhist liturgy tells people to take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (or teaching) and the Sangha (the brotherhood of people who seek enlightenment).

Philodemus, on the other hand, accentuated the importance of personal choice in his oath where he spoke of “choosing to live according to Epicurus”. Many humanists today have difficulty with the idea of allegiance to a sage or Master, and when I wrote Tending the Epicurean Garden, my book editor encouraged me instead to articulate a modern version of Philodemus’ oath where we choose to live according to Epicureanism (the teaching) instead of according to Epicurus.

Perhaps a modern evolution of this refuge-taking remedy for abiding pleasure might be a simple liturgy along the lines of this one:

I choose to think good and wholesome thoughts
I choose to speak good and wholesome words
I choose to engage in good and wholesome activities
I choose good and wholesome association

In this manner, we choose the good actively rather than taking refuge in the good, which is a more passive choice. I am not saying refuge-taking is wrong or useless as a practice, merely offering an alternative liturgy for humanists and Epicureans to carry out experiments in their practice of abiding pleasure. In fact, Buddha’s Brain also speaks in an active voice with regards to how we must build our refuge through nurturing wholesome memories; and how this is not a denial of the bad or a mask for the prosaic. We must see it as a place within our very identity and experience where we can always go for safety. We must choose our anchors for refuge.

The notion of building our refuge, and the insights behind it, also vindicate the way in which our sages encouraged the development of an Epicurean identity rather than just allegiance to the teachings or concordance with the doctrine. An identity is a more visceral thing than an ideology and it is strengthened through association, through affiliation.

The above liturgy may be recited together with and prior to our daily practice of gratitude, which is required to have the disposition that is necessary for the practice Epicureanism. Our sages, in unison, teach that it’s impossible for an ungrateful person to be a true Epicurean.

A Natural Measure of Self

Among many life-denying faiths, the term ego has acquired a negative connotation. For that reason, I will stick to the use of the word self here in lieu of ego, but I wish to make a note of the fact that we have learned to speak of ego either as a bastion of weakness and vulnerability or as a crest of arrogance, almost invariably attaching a negative tone to any reference to ego and never considering that there is a natural measure of self that it is healthy to recognize and respect.

Buddha’s Brain draws from the wisdom tradition of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and assumes many of its doctrines. One key distinction between Buddhism and Epicureanism is the doctrine of anatta, or no-self, which is one the the three marks of existence in Buddhism. Gautama Buddha believed that, because all beings are transitory and impermanent, they therefore do not exist as atman in the way Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas believe them to exist (as eternal beings composed of soul).

Buddha further argues that suffering arises because of our illusion about the existence of a self. The “me” is hurt, the “me” is betrayed, the “me” suffers injustice, the “me” lacks basic needs and suffers misfortunes.

In the book, at one point the authors go as far as to compare the self to a unicorn because it’s nowhere to be seen, only to later admit that the self is useful. But usefulness does not go far enough in explaining the phenomena that appear as the self, even if it’s an accurate assertion.

The self is not just useful: it’s necessary and natural. Need breeds invention, and the varieties of experience tied to this body which appear as self are all inventions of nature that arise from the needs of the natural beings.

If we are perplexed by the varieties of experience that we think of as self (memory, personal historical narratives, possession of things and of people, jealousy, self as subject and object of perception, etc.) and which do not appear to be composed of atoms, and if we are perplexed by the fact that the self appears to be hidden from view and immaterial, then perhaps we can use terms that many English-speaking Buddhists use such as presence, or maybe mindstreams, to refer to the chain or currents of thoughts, memories and experiences that characterize each living being. All of these minstreams are impermanent, but they compose unique expressions of collective and individual self which is experienced as very real.

Do I form a desire, or does a desire form an I? – Buddha’s Brain

In Epicureanism, we do acknowledge that there is no self that is separate from the body and the conditional experiences of the natural being, and we do recognize the impermanence of it, but we do not deny the existence of self.

We also acknowledge that the self carries within it the potential for suffering, but we consider it madness to attempt to escape our natural condition into fantasies about selflessness. Self is context. We cannot operate efficiently in the world selflessly, and in fact the recognition of the self and of the self in another being is the very foundation of ethics and of compassion, kindness, and a plethora of other virtues which become unnecessary and make no sense without the self.

Many central concepts in our ethics require individual selves. Natural justice, for instance, is based on the social contract: an agreement that can only be entered into by independent agents who exhibit volition.

And so there is a way in which we exist as natural beings: a natural and necessary self which is anchored in the material experience of the human body.

If we fail to acknowledge the natural needs of the self, we risk generating even more suffering than when we attach ourselves obsessively to the self. We must, therefore, find a happy and healthy medium where we respect the self.

New Verbiage:

Hedonic Tone
Implicit memory
Natural measure of self
Refuge (-building)
Rest and digest reflex

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