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June 2010


Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom


by Rick Hanson (New Harbinger Publications, 2009)


What are the big take-aways?


I devoured this book and I know I will return to it repeatedly, as its messages and its pragmatic utility are virtually limitless. The main point of the book is that cutting-edge scientific evidence of how the human brain functions clearly supports the teachings of Buddhism: that is, if you engage in certain mindful and behavioral practices you can transform your own brain’s structure and chemistry to lessen your suffering and expand your positive experience of life.


At the outset Hanson quotes Marvin L. Minsky: “The principal activities of brains are making changes in themselves.” The author then introduces his thesis on pages 5 and 6:


When your mind changes, your brain changes, too. In the saying from the work of the psychologist Donald Hebb: when neurons fire together, they wire together – mental activity actually creates new neural structures (Hebb 1949; LeDoux 2003). As a result, even fleeting thoughts and feelings can leave lasting marks on your brain, much like a spring shower can leave little trails on a hillside….This book aims to show you how [you can use your mind to change your brain for the better]. You’ll learn what the brain is doing when the mind is happy, loving, and wise. And you’ll learn many ways to activate these brain states, strengthening them a bit each time. This will give you the ability to gradually rewire your own brain – from the inside out – for greater well-being, fulfillment in your relationships, and inner peace.


Ultimately, Buddha’s Brain presents information and supports to the engaged reader who wishes to enhance self-awareness, confidence, inner and outer resonance (to use a word from my previous book review) and mind expansion.


Why did I like it?


I learned so much my first time through, and yet I am aware that I could read it many times and still learn more in terms of direct content. Also, the practices suggested by the author are so many, rich and challenging that – if I chose – they could probably serve me for the rest of my life. In this sense, the book is not only fascinating but a great investment.


There is enough hard-core neuro-biology in it for readers who already have some knowledge in this area, and there is also enough material on understanding and managing emotion to satisfy self-explorers looking to make particular changes. While Buddhism is the foundation - or perhaps more accurately the inspiration – for the book, as a spiritual orientation it is actually not central to Hanson’s argument. The tenets of Buddhism primarily provide the scaffolding around which Hanson constructs his deep explanations.


The book is extremely versatile; it’ll appeal in some way or other to any reader who’s curious about how brains work, and it is navigable either in the order the topics are presented or by the mind-state changes the reader may be seeking. The “Key Points” reviews at the end of each chapter are genuinely helpful. Perhaps most valuable are the well-explained exercises, practices and guided meditations that the author provides throughout.


In what situations would this be useful?


Any leader, in any stage of development, would do well to attend to enhancing the positive states of mind upon which this book focuses, as they all expand capacity for the critical leadership competencies of self-awareness, concentration, creativity, managing complexity, and building strong relationships (starting with the relationship to self).


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


In reviewing Resonant Leadership last month, I recommended Buddha’s Brain, and I’ll make it reciprocal suggestion. Reading Resonant Leadership with this book will help a leader take the learning from Buddha’s Brain and apply it to business situations, and remain motivated to keep doing so.


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