Meditation can be pleasurable, even ecstatic
I’m sitting on a blue plastic, wipe-down mattress with my back to a wooden pillar. Within arm’s reach on the floor is a small torch to light my way to the toilet during the night, on the other side an orange plastic bucket to puke into. As the light fades my four companions, each with his or her own plastic mattress and bucket, disappear from view while on every side the barks, croaks, growls and cries of jungle life grow louder. Twenty minutes ago I gulped down a draught of the bitter psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca and I have convinced myself that I can feel its hot, unstoppable progress through my body, from my seething guts into my veins and onwards to my brain.
This is hardly a recreational drug experience, what with the nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, not to mention the possibility of a truly terrifying trip, yet thousands now beat a path to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil every year to drink ayahuasca. Some are just looking for an exotic thrill, but others hope for enlightenment and healing from this ancient plant medicine. In the past few years, many of them have been war veterans desperate to escape the nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Last weekend, a few months after the publication of Siddhartha’s Brain in Dutch, I gave a lecture about the science of mindfulness to a very polite, attentive audience at the wonderful Brainwash Festival in Amsterdam. Here’s a transcript.
Ladies and gentlemen, each and every one of us here will face two key problems in our lives. The first problem is that as creatures of biology, particularly when we’re young, we spend lots of time and energy pursuing the pleasures of sex, money, social status. And as biological creatures we also invest a lot of energy trying to avoid pain and unpleasantness.
For most people, this is what they mean when they talk about the pursuit of happiness. But pleasures never last and sooner or later, as we get older, we’re all going to experience the pain and unpleasantness of ill health and ageing. It’s just a fact of life.
So that’s our first problem, and I’m sure none of this is news to you.
The second problem is much more surprising and counterintuitive, but is just as important. The second problem is that we think way too much. Every second that we’re awake, our lives are dominated by what’s going through our minds. (more…)
My new book Siddhartha’s Brain was published as a paperback in the UK on Thursday. The book is all about what meditation and mindfulness do to your brain, what it might mean to be “enlightened”, and why mindfulness-based therapies have been showing such promise as treatments for anxiety, depression and addiction.
I also explore the mystery of why human beings are so prone to mental illness. A potential answer may be found on the African savannah millions of years ago during the slow evolution of our ancestors into the most highly sociable apes on the planet.
Ed Halliwell – a former editor at FHM magazine and now a renowned mindfulness instructor – has suffered from debilitating bouts of anxiety and depression for much of his adult life. Published in the UK on the same day as Siddhartha’s Brain, Into the Heart of Mindfulness provides moving, first-hand testimony of how mindfulness can help people with mental illness get their lives back on track – and provides a perfect complement to my own book.
The story of the spiritual journey of Siddhartha Gautama, from spoilt prince to perfectly enlightened Buddha, is my backdrop – though it goes without saying you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practise mindfulness and improve your own wellbeing. All you need is a standard-issue human brain and a little dedication.
If you’re interested, read the extract published in last weekend’s Observer Magazine, find out more about my motivation for writing the book on a recent blogpost to mark its publication in the US, or listen to a short extract from the audiobook, read by the wonderful Steven Crossley.
My new book about the mind-blowing new “science of enlightenment” – which is stuffed with neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology, but also some wonderful Buddhist stories and guided mindfulness meditations – will be published on 26 April in the US and 2 June in the UK. I received my personal copy through the post yesterday, so I couldn’t resist sharing a few quick thoughts.
One of my principal inspirations for writing the book was a long conversation I had in 2014 with a charming Buddhist monk called Ajahn Amaro, the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the little village of Great Missenden near Hemel Hempstead in the UK. Before his ordination into the Thai Forest tradition he trained as a scientist at the University of London in the 1970s, earning a degree in physiology and psychology. As we chatted it became clear he sees Buddhism as a kind of internalised cognitive psychology formulated in Ancient India by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – thousands of years before “science” had been invented. He believes that the role of his monastery is to carry on that tradition.
“We don’t run labs and such,” the abbot told me, “but our way of practicing and teaching meditation is very experientially based – it’s what actually helps people. We are working with the mind to understand it better and train it to be more malleable and function in a more balanced way.” He even went so far as to say we are “all mentally ill”. According to Buddhist philosophy, only perfectly enlightened beings can be considered 100% sane. Such people see the world as it truly is, stripped of the greed, aversion and delusion that clouds the untrained minds of more ordinary folk like you and me.
I followed up my conversation with Ajahn Amaro by interviewing many of the leading scientists investigating the neuroscience and potential benefits of meditation, including the two inspirational people who brought this whole new field into existence in the 1980s, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Herbert Benson. The more I learned about Buddhism and meditation, the more at home I felt with them, both as a sceptical (even cynical) science journalist, and as someone with a cranky human mind. I began to meditate myself and attend retreats.
Famously, Siddhartha told his followers:
“Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher’. When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering,’ then you should abandon them.”
In other words, “Take no one’s word for it” or Nullius in verba in Latin, which is the motto of the Royal Society. Stripped of its cultural baggage (there’s plenty of that, of course, after two and half millennia) Buddhism is the anti-dogma religion. You’re not expected to believe in a creator god or follow a creed, just investigate your own experience, carefully, objectively, with an open mind.
Siddhartha’s Brain brings together this ancient philosophy with the discoveries of rigorous, hi-tech modern science. I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
There’s something weird going on in the field of meditation and mindfulness research. On the one hand there are voices warning that meditation can cause psychosis – leading people to lose touch with reality and experience symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and disturbing thoughts – on the other there are equally persuasive voices claiming that it … Continue reading Meditation and psychosis
When the Dalai Lama began a dialogue with cognitive scientists in 1987 to explore how the insights gained by Buddhist contemplatives could be used to inform research and find new ways to promote human wellbeing, he could not have imagined that businesses and even the US military would one day want to harness some of those insights. (more…)