About a year ago, I took this course Buddhism and Modern Psychology free on Coursera. It was a great way to fill my free time, it taught me concrete mental health techniques, and it served as a cultural exploration of my new home.
I highly recommend the course to any curious minds – next session starts April 16th.
I’m posting my final essay below:
Buddhism and Modern Science are In Sync
The fascinating element of Buddhism as a spirituality, is that Buddhism correlates so closely with modern psychology’s studies about human nature and the human mind. From quantum physics to neuroscience, the scientific community is discovering many of the naturalistic Buddhist teachings and practices (concentrating mostly on how the mind works, meditation, and leaving out ideas like reincarnation and rituals) are supported by modern science’s findings.
Buddhism’s main ideas about the human mind are about the impermanence of everything, how attachment to something that is impermanent creates suffering, and that there is no self, at least not in the way lay-people understand the self as a permanent, reliable entity. When the Buddha talks about impermanence of physical objects, he also talks about the impermanence of thoughts; what we are thinking one moment, can quickly change in the next moment as our “transient mindstate arises and passes away.” This quote is by a Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Buddhist monk interviewed on the youtube channel The Wright Show as he discusses the idea that “thoughts that arise are conditioned phenomena” meaning form, sensations, impulses, perceptions and thoughts arise from causes and conditions, are all subject to change and have no essential self-nature. Due to this phenomena, a Buddhist believes in the doctrine that life is suffering; to be more nuanced, Bodhi explains that “dukha” which is roughly translated as suffering, actually refers to the unsatisfactoriness of experiencing sensations of pain, the dissatisfaction in pleasant experiences that are vulnerable to change, and the inadequacy of impermanence.
Buddhism does offer a prescription to relieve these persistent sufferings, to practice non-attachment by following the eightfold path. One can use meditation as a tool for this journey along the path, because meditation allows the mind to non-attach itself from thoughts, observe them as unattached to the five aggregates (physical form, mental formations, feelings, perceptions and consciousness) that make up the “self” and slowly let go of the ownership or clinging. One point that Bodhi emphasizes, through his experiences is that Buddhism does not essentially rid one of all sensational pleasures, it instead allows one to observe the innocent pleasures more objectively and therefore more vividly of their true essences without the muddling of our self-identifying lenses.
Modern science, especially through the lens of an evolutionary psychologist, supports the Buddha’s ancient teachings on all levels. Impermanence can be seen in everyday life with the life and death of of everything; impermanence of the mind and especially our thoughts have been studied by scientists like Paul Bloom who wrote “How Pleasure Works.” He explains how seeking pleasure evolved in the brain as an adaptively beneficial mechanism that causes organisms to seek pleasures, and yet purposely lasts so little time so that our species is motivated to seek more, to survive and ultimately pass on its genes to the next generation. In one lecture, Dr. Wright talked about the neurotransmitter dopamine which is biologically triggered to give us a burst of pleasure and then dissipate. This impermanence creates the suffering, or dissatisfaction, that drives us forward in an evolutionary sense.
The modular view of the brain creates a premise to view the brain and understand how thoughts are generated, how thoughts want to attach and strengthen and are therefore unreliable narrators and how this view of the brain supports the non-self that the Buddha speaks of. Michael Gazzaniga describes this modular brain framework as a system where “all these modules are not reporting to a department head – it is a free for all, self-organizing system.” This system is not controlled then by our self, an overarching CEO or President people tend to think of as the “self.” Each brain module is most highly activated by information in the environment and this determines which module becomes dominant. Meditation works to relax this uncontrollable system by practicing how to observe stimuli coming in from our environments objectively and disempower thoughts by not giving them attention. Essentially, these thoughts, powered by the emotions unconsciously triggered in our brains, will grow weaker as they are not given attention, allowing thoughts to arise and pass like clouds in the sky. This premise gives strong evidence for proving the impermanence of everything, the suffering that can come out of an attachment to a thought or object and clear non-self.
A modular view of the brain gives evidence for the compartmentalized state of our brains, that is highly subjective to outside stimuli and to the evolutionary circuits activated to get our genes into the next generation. Modern science continues its research that more than ever is in sync with the ancient teachings of the Buddha.