Buddhism and Modern Psychology

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.

 

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PC projects: Keeping Connected and Staying Motivated

When things at site get slow during bpit-term (summer vacation), it’s healthy to remember that our service isn’t just about serving our Thai communities, but additionally about supporting our Peace Corps community.

PC projects I am currently a part of:

  • Sticky Rice magazine contributor
  • Curriculum Team member

Keeping connected: Sticky Rice magazine

  • Now, I will be a consistent contributing book reviewer (already doing that on Goodreads – just have to edit and add for my PC audience). First review is Siddhartha – being published at the end of the month. Banner below made by the magical PCV Michael.

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Staying motivated: Curriculum Team

  • Gives me deadlines and large-scale projects to focus on: calling fellow PCVs to compile their successes and challenges in the classroom, creating and recording a Pronunciation training (soon to be released), organizing and re-imagining best teaching practices and content.
  • Allows me to have Skype calls with 2 of the most motivated, skilled, and happy volunteers in group 129: KC and Clarence – as someone who does not reach out often to fellow volunteers on my own, these scheduled calls are all the more meaningful

 

I know that being apart of these smaller circles of influence help me stay connected and motivated to my commitment of service. Cheers to 1 more year! Su su!

Gains and Losses

My high school water polo coach used to say (as the Varsity team said good-bye to the seniors at the end of the season) that we weren’t losing key players – we were gaining new players.

Of course, we were losing some of our best players AND we were gaining potentially great new ones, yet the philosophy is one that has stuck with me:

Focus on what there is to gain instead of brooding over what has been lost. The past has passed; time to look forward.

Looking back on this past year of gains and losses, of novelty and routine, of highs and lows, I think reflecting on past losses give more meaning to future gains and the experience as a whole, because those losses were key players in my journey and growth.

In this post I will focus on the human connections that have had a large impact on me.

Although I have lost the physical proximity to some of the PCVs from group 129, who have left Thailand ending their service early for one reason or another, I have also gained lifelong friends.

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Danielle was my neighbor, co-teacher and closest friend during PST.
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Cheri was in the province above me and we were great travel and swim partners.
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 Jessica and I shared long philosophical discussions and hours of language training together.
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Liz and Libby were and still are my loves of light. Luke and Ben were the first volunteers I ever met after arriving in San Francisco to begin my Peace Corps service. 

 

I’ve lost one host family, only to gain another, and I will be forever connected and grateful to both.

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Singburi family
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Singburi kids
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Surat Thani family
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Surat Thani brother

 

I’ve been so lucky to have gained and lost so many visitors – their brief glimpses into my life, have served to rejuvenate me again and again.

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Kevin was my first visitor – we lost our worries and gained our SCUBA certifications.
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My adventurous aunts and cousin visited for a great start to the New Year.
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Kalina was a surprise visit; knew her as a friend of a friend, yet she truly is a kindred spirit.

I have gained loads more supportive people at my school, hundreds of sweet students and various members in my surrounding community, not to mention all the Peace Corps staff and volunteers still with me; however, I will not physically lose them for another year, so there will be another blog post to commemorate them when the time comes…