Can Buddha’s brain give us any insight to help empower South Africa’s youth?
In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom (2014), Dr. Rick Hanson explores the contemplative practices of Buddhism through the lens of modern psychology and neuroscience to answer two questions: “What brain states underlie the mental states of happiness, love, and wisdom?” and “How can you use your mind to stimulate and strengthen these positive brain states?” If we can correlate states of the brain with desirable mental qualities (David Chalmers’ “easy problem”), then it’s fruitful to consider what practices to pursue to bring about those states while minimising undesirable ones.
Thankfully, most will go through life and never actually see a brain, but have faith that it’s there humming along, doing its thinking thing: you. Learning more about that squishy grey stuff between our ears is revealing new ways modern minds can come to ‘know themselves.’ Peace is possible through practice and knowledge, we’re are told, and the neuroscience behind it is compelling.
There are many insightful gems to be mined in Buddha’s Brain, so I would recommend it to all, but here I wanted to highlight the gist of one chapter in particular I think simply and powerfully conveys an idea that could help empower young hearts and minds.
In Chapter 8 of Dr. Hanson’s book, “Two Wolves in the Heart,” the author relays an anecdotal story that packs a punch (the following version of the tale can be found on First People):
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Dr. Hanson also argues—by pointing to specific evolutionary pressures, “the village it takes to raise a child” (as the African proverb goes), and the resultant circuits of human empathy—that, yes, feed the wolf of love, but know there’s “no killing the wolf of hate, and denying it just lets it grow in the shadows.”
By being mindful throughout your day about how you’re reacting to events in your life (good, bad, neutral), you can, quite literally, change your brain in such a way as to cultivate control over your own states of mind (which reminds me of a quote from Oscar Wilde: “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it”).
This idea is captured in the phrase, “neurons that fire together, wire together”; in other words, the way you think moment-to-moment helps determine how your brain will respond in the future. When any given constellation of neurons fire in your brain, it’s easier for that same pattern or state to fire in the future. So being mindful of positive and negative thoughts is the first step to knowing who to feed: the wolf of love or the wolf of hate? As Dr. Hanson writes, “When you practice kindness, you tame the wolf of hate and nurture the wolf of love.”
The late, great Nelson Mandela touched on the same principle in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Madiba spent twenty-seven years in prison; we know which wolf went hungry.
You can read more about Dr. Hanson’s description of these two forces pulling at our heartstrings on his website (Feed the Wolf of Love and The Wolf of Hate), and if you’re intrigued by the ideas shared here, you may want to explore other books like Mind Wide Open, Buddhism as Philosophy, Waking Up, Buddhism Without Beliefs, The Ego Trick, and Mindfulness in Plain English.
The School of Life (“Developing Emotional Intelligence”) also has this short animation that introduces some of the key tenets of the Buddha’s teachings:
I think sharing this imagery with young hearts and minds (along with the science of mindfulness) could help them cultivate peace, love, and compassion from within. Diminishing the effects and frequency of violence (against oneself and others) through knowledge and practice is an invaluable and empowering pursuit. Students can also make it personal and have some fun by imagining their own ‘spirit’ animal (I personally try feed the fox of love), but the point is to become more mindful of the tensions within us all, and, naturally, to choose wisely.
Who will you feed today?
19 September 2016
- Wired: “Buddha on the Brain”
- The New Social Worker: “Mindfulness: 10 Lessons in Self-Care for Social Workers”
- The Guardian: “Self care for social workers: how mindfulness can help”
- Community Care: “How mindfulness is helping me handle the stress of social work”
- Social Work and Society International Online Journal: “Mindful Social Work?”
- Social Work Today: “Mindfulness & Acceptance in Social Work: Evidence-Based Interventions & Emerging Applications”
- The Institute for Mindfulness South Africa: Training in Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs)
[IMAGE SOURCE: Alpha Coders]
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