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. Continue reading “This is the happiness of the Buddha”→
“Disbelieving and hostile” is how Herbert Benson describes the reaction of fellow cardiologists at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s when they learned he was studying the physiological effects of transcendental meditation. They thought he’d sold out to the hippies. “I had to conduct two careers at that time,” the 80-year-old told me over the phone from Boston. “One as a cardiologist and the other as ‘my crazy thing’.” At one point there was a real possibility he could be thrown out of Harvard. Continue reading “Meditation research: from “career suicide” to mainstream science”→
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.
As I recall, that morning the nuns’ and monks’ chant in the Meditation Hall of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery actually moved me to tears, though it’s hard to recapture that emotion – or where exactly it came from – when you’re sat at your computer keyboard back at home. So I simply wrote that, far from finding the chant maudlin (“Birth is dukkha [suffering]; Ageing is dukkha; Death is dukkha; Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha…”) I was strangely moved by its honesty.
We have social taboos about admitting publicly all the types of suffering that are inherent in the day-to-day experience of having a body and a mind. Perhaps this serves a purpose, I don’t know, but for me at that moment and in that special place, speaking the words out loud felt immensely liberating. It somehow opened the floodgates, and out came tears of relief and happiness.
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Dylan Thomas
“How do individuals emotionally cope with the imminent real-world salience of mortality?” wonder psychologists in a recent paper. Or in everyday language, how do people manage when they come face to face with death? The psychologists’ research suggests that, even under the most challenging circumstances, most people manage surprisingly well.
Sarah Hirschmüller and Boris Egloff from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany analysed the last words of people you might expect to bemoan bitterly their fate and “rage, rage against the dying of the light”: prisoners on death row just seconds away from execution. But in fact, more than 80% used a greater number of positive emotional words in their final spoken statements than negative emotional words. Continue reading “Go gentle into that good night”→
There was good news last week about the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for easing anxiety, depression and pain. Mail Online reported that a study had found “meditation ‘works just as well as anti-depressants’: half an hour a day offers as much relief as tablets”, while The Boston Globe said those who took mindfulness classes experienced improvement in mood after eight weeks “on par with the effect seen with prescription medications”.
This was all perfectly true. A review published in JAMA Internal Medicine had looked at all the best studies to date and concluded that there was “moderate evidence” of improved anxiety, depression and pain among patients. The effect on mild depression was indeed equal to that achieved with anti-depressants.