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BOOK REVIEW: Siddhartha’s Brain by James Kingsland

Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of EnlightenmentSiddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment by James Kingsland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Kingsland builds his niche by connecting the dots between the teachings of the Buddha and scientific discoveries about meditation and mindfulness. There are many books that tell the life story of Siddhartha Gautama from various perspectives (e.g. famously the books by Hermann Hesse and Karen Armstrong.) There are also a number of books reporting the science of meditation (e.g. Herbert Benson and Sat Bir Singh Khalsa.) However, it’s not so common for the subjects to be overlapped.

There’s a reason that this middle path hasn’t been more widely studied. While Buddhism is arguably the most science-friendly of the major world religions, there’s always a gulf between spiritual and scientific thinking. The writer has to figure out how to chart a course through rocky waters. Books appealing to spiritual seekers are likely to come across as insubstantial fluff to the scientifically minded reader, and books appealing to skeptics are likely to feel materialistic and cold (and, perhaps, naive) to the spiritualist. The Buddha’s teachings about the need for the practice to be experiential, rather than faith-based, offers a unique opportunity to tread this tightrope. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama’s willingness to facilitate a dialogue between science and Buddhism has been crucial as well. One can easily set aside controversial issues like reincarnation and karmic law as they aren’t essential to the value of mindfulness.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The chapters generally begin with a story or teaching from the life of Buddha, and then go on to investigate the relevant lesson in more detail with particular emphasis on any relevant scientific discoveries that support said teachings.

The story of Buddha begins in a wealthy, high-caste household with young Siddhartha Gautama being kept from seeing the effects of aging, illness, and death. When the young Siddartha, nonetheless, sees these things, it is a powerful introduction to the concepts of impermanence and suffering that will play a central role in his future teachings. Chapter 1 starts this introduction and also offers an overview of the book. Chapter two continues it. In Chapter three, Kingsland describes a little of the known history of meditation, though its origins are lost to time.

Chapter 4 is entitled “The Second Dart” and it discusses the Buddha’s teaching of the same name—the second dart being one’s mental reaction to an event (i.e. the initial dart.) Chapter 5 investigates the question of whether there is a self—and, if so, of what manner. A core idea within Buddhism is that the self is illusory.

Chapter 6 gets to the heart of the matter by explaining the mechanism of mindfulness meditation and what has come to be known as MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy)—a secular approach to the use of mindfulness to improve well-being. The next chapter tells the story of how a group of fire worshippers came to follow the Buddha after he made clear that everything (their senses, thoughts, and emotions) were aflame with craving, hatred, and delusion, and that springboards into a discussion of how mindfulness is used to reduce craving and addiction.

Chapter 8 tells the story of an attempt to kill the Buddha via an angry, drunk elephant, and the Buddha’s thwarting of the plot by way of calm and compassion. As one might have guessed, the chapter is about moderating emotions, just as the Buddha controlled his fear before the elephant.

Chapter 9 takes a jaunt into evolutionary biology to question how the mismatch between what humans evolved to do and what we do in the modern world causes mental illnesses and how mindfulness can help mitigate the problem. Chapter 10 is about metacognition, or the ability to observe and reflect upon our own mental experience—i.e. thinking about thoughts. Chapter 11 is about cognition and decision-making, and the role that meditation can play in improving our performance in this domain. The last chapter discusses the Buddhist conception of death and enlightenment. It isn’t until this point that there’s a major divergence between the Buddhist and scientific viewpoints. There is a discussion of the Buddha’s teachings emphasizing that belief in ideas from on high is not so important as experience.

Six of the chapters (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, & 11) are concluded with guided meditations to offer the reader an introduction into the basics of mindfulness. These are simple practices that many readers will already be familiar with in some variant or another. (e.g. breath awareness, bodily awareness, and mindful eating.)

There are only a few graphics (e.g. maps and diagrams—mostly of the brain) but there is no need for additional graphics. The book has references annotated.

I found this book interesting and thought-provoking. It uses the stories of Buddha as well as some stories from the present day to make the reading more engaging and approachable. The discussion of scientific research is easy for a neuroscience neophyte to follow.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about the science behind Buddhist practices.

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