Friday, June 24, 2011

The Science of Happiness

Stumbling upon everyday teachers thrill and exhilarate me. They are like fresh, vibrant, sweet watermelons exploding with color and taste in a hot summer afternoon like this. More and more, I am discovering teachers whose backgrounds are a fascinating intersection of science (usually neuroscience, psychology, some quantum physics) and spirituality (typically Buddhism). I used to be turned off by Buddhism. I found it very frou-frou lacking in any really deep substance you can truly sink your teeth in. It incessantly talks about happiness in a way that was if not unappealing, just lacked resonance.

Until I met the scientists, the psychologists, and the philosophers.

My doubts were eased, albeit slowly, by intelligent, logical scientists who, with research and scientific, replicable data, substantiate the claims of Buddhism about happiness, calmness and equanimity. Meet the people who bring the art AND science of happiness in one digestible, practical, human package.

There is Dr. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist, Buddhist meditation teacher and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. The basic premise of the book is that our brains possess plasticity and malleability and that we can alter our physiology through contemplative practices such as meditation. The book is pretty interesting because it talks about the physiology of the brain, illustrates it in very scientific (but digestible) way, and demonstrates evidence of how what we feed the brain (good, bad or indifferent) alters it.

Through American Public Media’s On Being, I also discovered Sylvia Boorstein, Psychologist and Buddhist Meditation Teacher (and also author), and James Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and take this, “founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.” James Kabat-Zinn particularly appeals to me because I applaud him for his efforts in bringing mindfulness practice into mainstream medicine.

And then there is Matthieu Ricard, a French-born son of a philosopher and artist with a PhD in cell genetics, turned Tibetan Buddhist monk who is allegedly dubbed the Happiest Man on Earth based on the brain waves studied by neuroscientists. He is one of them "olympic meditators" and of course denies that there is any scientific evidence that solidifies this claim. Indeed an empiricist. I love this man. What I hear when I listen to this guy is a man who has obviously debated and philosophized so many million times ideas such as God and its existence, consciousness, and happiness (they way Tibetan monks are trained), but who have also experienced all these phenomenon first-hand. Here is a clip of him being interviewed by Krista Tippet:

Being: Video: Live Conversation with Matthieu Ricard | The "Happiest" Man in the World — Meeting Matthieu Ricard

These scientists are on to something. I will be stupid not to listen and pay attention.

But why do I even write about this? Because the teachings are so compelling and moving to me that I have to share it with people who might find value in it (yeah, yeah, sort of like a Mary Kay sales rep… LOL). Because I have watched my life change before my very eyes because of what I have learned from these teachers. Because I’m happier. Because in this world of economic recessions, wars, poverty, catastrophes, global warming, I can still taste the equianimity and appreciate the wholeness of the big picture, that I can still find it in me to be okay with the world (even the ugly parts).


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