“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well …”

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

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“Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson

Want to be happier? “Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom” has practical advice on how to do so, based on both neuroscience and Buddhism. Which is one of two reasons why I love it.

The other reason is the cool brain science stuff explained in plain English.

First take-away point: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” You stimulate pathways in your brain often enough (the neurons firing), and after a time they decide to grow closer together (the wiring) so they can communicate more quickly. Result: You think happy thoughts, it gets easier to think happy thoughts.

Second take-away point: We create most of own suffering. “Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present. We get frustrated when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer. We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about waking up sad yet another day. This kind of suffering – which encompasses most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction – is constructed by the brain.”

Anyone else seeing the first two Noble Truths here?

Third take-away point: “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones – even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.” And why is this? Because negative experiences may be dangerous, and you need to learn from them: the stove may be hot, don’t drive too fast, etc. Remembering last night’s sunset is not a survival imperative. No wonder we can be so unhappy so much of the time! It’s what we remember.

Fourth take-away point: Taking in the Good. “[C]onsciously look for and take in positive experiences. There are three simple steps: turn positive facts into positive experiences, savor these experiences, and sense them sinking in.” In other words, take time to smell the daisies.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the good stuff in this book. Hanson also has several guided meditation series, including “Meditations for Happiness: Rewire Your Brain for Lasting Contentment and Peace.”

I highly recommend anything with Hanson’s name on it. He melds the scientific and the spiritual in a way few others have dared, and with great clarity.

Have you read this book? Listened to these meditations? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

~ Rev. Jăbō

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My Current Daily Practice

My spiritual practice has taken many forms over the years.  One thing I’ve learned is that the line between “spiritual” practice and other practices is purely imaginary.  Here are the things I’m doing now which I consider parts of my spiritual journey:

  • Sitting and enjoying a cup of green tea while reading inspiring works.  My tea is part of my new cancer-prevention regimen, so is also part of my physical practice or self-care.
  • Reading inspirational literature (while enjoying my green tea.)  I spend about 20-30 minutes reading from a variety of daily readers in several different traditions.  Five of them are Buddhist.  Seven of them are not.  This practice also helps to keep me mentally sharp.
  • Giving myself an all-over Reiki treatment.  Reiki is a Japanese energy technique used for relaxation and healing.  I spend about 15 minutes on this.  Reiki, like my tea, also falls under the category of physical health.
  • Meditating.  Yes, I do a traditional sit-and-still-the-mind practice.  I’m currently doing 40-45 minutes per day.  I’m participating in the Winter Feast for the Soul, which I highly recommend, even starting “late.”  Of all the meditations offered, I’m doing the Tibetan one, which includes some chanting.

It all adds up to 90 minutes per day.  I could never do it if I saw these things as tasks or chores.  Luckily, I enjoy each part of my routine, even mindfully brewing my tea.  And it sure beats watching television.  At the end of my life, I may wish that I had meditated more, but I doubt I’ll wish that I had watched more television.

The Most Important Thing

There’s but little breath left

on the boundary of this life and the next.

Now knowing if I’ll here next morning,

why try to trick death

with life-schemes for a permanent future?

 

~ Milarepa, Drinking the Mountain Stream

 

This passage really spoke to me when I read it today.  I’m currently in treatment for breast cancer, and though my prognosis is good, I’m constantly reminded that I don’t know how long I have left.

Of course, I didn’t know how long I had left before my diagnosis, either.

Still, according to this quote by Milarepa, should I plan for retirement?  It’s like the old argument new meditation students often bring up when learning to focus on the present moment.  “But if I live in the present, I’ll have nothing in the future!”  The solution is simply that sometimes the present moment is the correct time to plan for the future.  “What am I doing in this moment?  I’m reviewing my 401K.”

More to the point, should I plan for a life after cancer?  If so, how far into the future?  I think what Milarepa is pointing to is that nothing is permanent, so planning for a permanent future is futile.  As they say in the movie Fight Club, “Given a long enough time line, everyone’s survivability drops to zero.”

So I bought a house.  The house is already older than I am, and it will outlive me.  I think that’s kind of cool.  I like the idea that I’m merely one of a series of occupants in the house over the course of its existence.  I don’t plan to own the house forever, just as long as I live.  That’s impermanence.

I’ll close with this question from Pema Chodron: “Since death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what’s the most important thing?”

The Week in Review through 10/19/08

Meditation:

Demon Feeding:  7
Prajna Paramita Practice:  2
Vipassana (periods):  0
Zazen (periods):  0

Chanting: 1

Teachings:

Talks attended:  0
Talks given:  0
Interviews received:  0

Retreats (days): 0

Books Finished: 1

“Feeding Your Demons” by Tsultrim Allione

Notes:

My practice this week involved rescuing my husband, who was broken down by the side of the freeway, rather than going to the Zen Center.  Hard training.  🙂