I recently stayed at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery at Great Gaddesden in Hertfordshire, enjoying not only the quiet, reflective atmosphere of this sanctuary of calm in the Chiltern Hills but also many interesting conversations with fellow guests and staff. One of the things that came up was the unease that many Buddhists feel about the spread of mindfulness training in recent years from contemplative and clinical settings into business and finance, and even the military. Mindfulness training is now being used not just to help people cope with the stresses, anxieties and pains of everyday life – and perhaps to become a little more enlightened – but to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace and on the battlefield.
Mindfulness training courses and books will usually recommend everyday activities such as taking a shower or doing the washing-up as opportunities to exercise your powers of concentration. The idea is that by focusing on these simple, routine tasks – paying attention to what your body is doing and what your senses are telling you – you can calm the wayward thoughts that for the rest of the day chase each other through the corridors of your mind like overexcited children.
Humdrum activities that don’t require much brainpower, such as washing the dishes and showering, are perfectly good ways to practise your mind-taming skills, but their very ordinariness can make them a challenge. It’s a struggle to stay focused.
I know, that’s the idea – to be mindful even of the mundane – but for a novice like me, how much easier it would be to apply mindfulness to an everyday task that involves a more stimulating visual scene, loud noises, physical exertion and the ever present threat of injury? Continue reading “Mindful cycling: staying alert, staying alive”→
How we love our celebrities, even those of us who profess to be aloof from all that sort of thing. Special guests are often invited to morning conference at the newspaper where I work. These newsworthy people say whatever is on their mind and answer questions – all off-the-record. We’ve had some big names, heroes to many of us – Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, Russell Brand, Jesse Jackson – and on these occasions the meeting room overflows with discretely adoring fans.
The Dalai Lama wants every cognitive scientist to learn how to meditate. He believes this will give them insights into the mind and consciousness that plastering electrodes on scalps or scanning brains with powerful magnetic fields never could.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama keeps a plastic brain with detachable labelled components on the desk in his office in Dharamsala, India. It was a gift from his friend the late Robert Livingstone, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, whom he credits with opening his eyes to the findings of modern biology. Livingstone founded the world’s first department of neuroscience at UCSD in 1965 and dedicated his career to linking the anatomy of the brain to the workings of the mind.
That, in a nutshell, is why I’ve called my new blog Plastic Brain. For me, the model brain sitting on the Dalai Lama’s desk symbolises the way ancient contemplative practices and science have come together over the past three decades as the gulf between the intangible mind and the inscrutable brain has narrowed. These are exciting times for neuroscience and psychology. Continue reading “Introducing Plastic Brain”→