Neuroscience and Buddhism come together

Neurodharma (Rider) by Rick Hanson, reviewed by Dr Marilyn Aitkenhead.

Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and Buddhist, ably brings together current understandings of brain functioning with ideas for improving the mind honed over centuries. He maps a journey up a mountain towards his version of increasing enlightenment. For Hanson, that’s a calm, steady mind, filled with warmth and compassion towards self and others (both turning towards suffering and with a desire to alleviate it; but note this definition does not include taking action to alleviate suffering), with an inclusive sense of 'us'. The enlightened mind, according to Hanson, also understands its place in the world/universe, is imbued with a sense of wholeness, interconnectedness and timelessness, is released from personal craving, and is reflective and enquiring.

Hanson’s seven stage journey includes meditation practices to support the embodiment of concepts and their expression in our daily lives. He outlines a Buddhist-derived ethical framework of not harming others: wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood. The promise, or at least the implication, is that these practices will lead to a happier life. All of this is wrapped up in a writing style that is encouraging, authentic, vibrant and open.

 The meditative practices seem to me, an experienced meditator, pretty advanced. Consider this: ‘Have I been allowing others or my own habits to take precious time, attention or energy from me, against my true wishes?’ (p. 80). If, like me, you answered 'yes', there is little guidance on how to change your unhelpful habit. Moreover, there is little discussion of the context, which might be very relevant. Perhaps I indulge in a habit against my true wishes because I don't consider my true wishes to be the most important criterion. I agree though, that it might be good to become more aware of this through reflection.

Those of us lucky enough to be householders – Hanson’s intended audience – are provided many excellent tips for increasing our happiness. However, there are various unexamined uncertainties, typical of this approach in the compassion arena. The main one is how helpful an individualised approach is in reducing extensive suffering and huge inequalities. We are in an existential crisis, largely created by our own actions (e.g. with regard to global warming, species elimination and habitat destruction). A calm, steady, warm-hearted, compassionate mind can help with problem-solving, but how might it impact our wider systems and decrease suffering? What are the mechanisms? How do such minds intervene effectively in businesses, governments, communities and nations? How do such minds use power? And how can we encourage people in positions of power to adopt these enlightened practices?

Take, for example, Hanson’s suggestion that meditation could develop a more inclusive, expanded sense of ‘us’ – hopefully (research is limited) enabling a greater desire to address inequalities or at least reduce suffering. But that requires skill and discernment and is likely to be enabled by collective action. Yet collective action is not addressed.

Take craving as a further example. We could ground craving as an individual experience to meditate and reflect upon. Perhaps we could learn to discern useful from unuseful craving and act accordingly. Additionally, we could ground it in socially constructed ideas of security/insecurity – knowing that basic needs will be met through societal structures and incentives, such as taxes, free education, decent wages, pensions and free health care. If we feel psychologically secure, collectively,  with enough resources, then we may have more reflective capacity to investigate and control our cravings.

So Hanson’s exploration of action is hugely undeveloped. What does it mean to ‘do no harm’? How do we know if we are doing good or creating harm? Can we simply rely on our own understanding? If not, what sorts of social processes, institutions and arrangements will support this sustainably? It would be so helpful to have this discussion, as potentially there are many steps between an internal experience of, say, warm-heartedness and positive intention, and resultant action (and often unknown, unexamined consequences).

I love this book for the explanations of key concepts, Hanson’s generosity of approach, the practical exercises, the clear exposition of Buddhist concepts, and as a guide for a journey of personal development and mind training. But insights and guidance regarding practical action, especially collective action or leadership action, are not found here. The book lacks an elaboration of social context and how we can foster wellbeing beyond ourselves. The approach is individualised and assumes a degree of personal security.

Without this collective community elaboration, one risk, I believe, is of an increased narcissistic preoccupation with our own minds, our own happiness, and our own understanding. Or, even worse, of the powerful leveraging power even more, rather than sharing it. I would love to have seen more on how all this beautiful personal wellbeing can help us collectively identify and manage our resources better, and tackle some of our oppressive and existential crises. I would also love to have seen greater acknowledgement of, and engagement with, oppression, disadvantage, inequality and othering.

- Reviewed by Dr Marilyn Aitkenhead, CPsychol (Occ), AFBPS, occupational psychologist focussing on coaching and consulting work, with extensive training and practice in psychological therapies. She was a co-founder of the Woman in Psychology section, former editor of the social section newsletter, and has recently joined the Occupational Psychology Section Committee for Scotland. Her research interests are exploring the concept of enough, and contextual factors in resilience.

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