His name is Matthieu Picard (no relation to the starship captain), and he’s so freaking happy, he could bring peace to Syria with a well-timed wink.
The monk, molecular geneticist and confidant of the Dalai Lama, is passionately setting out why meditation can alter the brain and improve people’s happiness in the same way that lifting weights puts on muscle.
“It’s a wonderful area of research because it shows that meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree but it completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are,” the Frenchman told AFP.
Ricard, a globe-trotting polymath who left everything behind to become a Tibetan Buddhist in a Himalayan hermitage, says anyone can be happy if they only train their brain.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson wired up Ricard’s skull with 256 sensors at the University of Wisconsin four years ago as part of research on hundreds of advanced practitioners of meditation.
The scans showed that when meditating on compassion, Ricard’s brain produces a level of gamma waves — those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory — “never reported before in the neuroscience literature”, Davidson said.
The scans also showed excessive activity in his brain’s left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, giving him an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity towards negativity, researchers believe.
For those of you who are interested, I came in No. 5,479,659,212 on the Happiness Index, only slightly higher than political prisoners in Ecuador and BBC news readers.
I do wonder how far Mr. Picard’s happiness levels drop when not meditating on compassion but instead meditating on how many Buddhist monks the Chinese government has killed in Tibet. But that’s such a Western way of looking at things. (Yet I do wonder if this kind of deep meditation and being in a coma is a distinction without a difference.)
Don’t mind me. You know how I get. I only wish I had a “happy place” to which I could retreat and experience that gamma-wave high. But I’m from Queens. We don’t have a happy place. We have dental insurance.
Science certainly seems fascinated by Buddhist meditation. The webzine Seed says Buddhism gets right certain essentials about the neuroscience of the brain.
Both Buddhism and neuroscience converge on a similar point of view: The way it feels isn’t how it is. There is no permanent, constant soul in the background. Even our language about ourselves is to be distrusted (requiring the tortured negation of anatta). In the broadest strokes then, neuroscience and Buddhism agree.
How did Buddhism get so much right? I speak here as an outsider, but it seems to me that Buddhism started with a bit of empiricism. Perhaps the founders of Buddhism were pre-scientific, but they did use empirical data. They noted the natural world: the sun sets, the wind blows into a field, one insect eats another. There is constant change, shifting parts, and impermanence. They called this impermanence anicca, and it forms a central dogma of Buddhism.
This seems appropriate as far as the natural world is concerned. Buddhists don’t apply this notion to mathematical truths or moral certainties, but sometimes, cleverly, apply it to their own dogmas. Buddhism has had millennia to work out seeming contradictions, and it is only someone who was not indoctrinated who finds any of it strange. (Or at least any stranger than, say, believing God literally breathed a soul into the first human.)
Early on, Buddhism grasped the nature of worldly change and divided parts, and then applied it to the human mind. The key step was overcoming egocentrism and recognizing the connection between the world and humans. We are part of the natural world; its processes apply themselves equally to rocks, trees, insects, and humans. Perhaps building on its heritage, early Buddhism simply did not allow room for human exceptionalism.
Exactly. If we insist on believing that there’s an abiding self that’s essentially distinct from a fibrous drupe (think coconut), we invite all kinds of misery, like opposite side of the street parking and a Monkees reunion.
[Michael Marder] continues, “the commendable desire to ameliorate the condition of animals, currently treated as though they were meat-generating machines, does not justify strategic argumentation in favor of the indiscriminate consumption of plants. The same logic ultimately submits to total instrumentalization the bodies of plants, animals and humans by setting them over and against an abstract and rational mind.” Therefore, he concludes, “the struggles for the emancipation of all instrumentalized living beings should be fought on a common front.” In other words, what is good for the goose is good for the gooseberry.
I couldn’t agree more. Until all humans begin to see themselves as animals, they may as well be vegetables. And as vegetables go, you could do worse than chard.