Virtue, Mindfulness, and Wisdom

Excerpts from Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom written by Rick Hanson with neurologist Richard Mendius.

More than two thousand years ago, a young man named Siddhartha—not yet enlightened, not yet called the Buddha—spent many years training his mind and thus his brain. On the night of his awakening, he looked deep inside his mind (which reflected and revealed the underlying activities of his brain) and saw there both the causes of suffering and the path to freedom from suffering. Then, for forty years, he wandered northern India, teaching all who would listen how to:

•     Cool the fires of greed and hatred to live with integrity

•     Steady and concentrate the mind to see through its confusions

•     Develop liberating insight

In short, he taught virtue, mindfulness (also called concentration), and wisdom. These are the three pillars of Buddhist practice, as well as the wellsprings of everyday well-being, psychological growth, and spiritual realization.

Virtue simply involves regulating your actions, words, and thoughts to create benefits rather than harms for yourself and others. In your brain, virtue draws on top-down direction from the prefrontal cortex (PFC);“prefrontal” means the most forward parts of the brain, just behind and above the forehead, and your “cortex” is the outer layer of the brain (its Latin root means “bark”). Virtue also relies on bottom-up calming from the parasympathetic nervous system and positive emotions from the limbic system.

Mindfulness involves the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds. Since your brain learns mainly from what you attend to, mindfulness is the doorway to taking in good experiences and making them a part of yourself.

Wisdom is applied common sense, which you acquire in two steps. First, you come to understand what hurts and what helps—in other words, the causes of suffering and the path to its end. Then, based on this understanding, you let go of those things that hurt and strengthen those that help. As a result, over time you’ll feel more connected with everything, more serene about how all things change and end, and more able to meet pleasure and pain without grasping after the one and struggling with the other.

Virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom are supported by the three fundamental functions of the brain: regulation, learning, and selection. Your brain regulates itself—and other bodily systems—through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory activity: green lights and red lights. It learns through forming new circuits and strengthening or weakening existing ones. And it selects whatever experience has taught it to value; for example, even an earthworm can be trained to pick a particular path to avoid an electric shock.

These three functions—regulation, learning, and selection—operate at all levels of the nervous system, from the intricate molecular dance at the tip of a synapse to the whole-brain integration of control, competence, and discernment. All three functions are involved in any important mental activity.

Nonetheless, each pillar of practice corresponds quite closely to one of the three fundamental neural functions. Virtue relies heavily on regulation, both to excite positive inclinations and to inhibit negative ones. Mindfulness leads to new learning—since attention shapes neural circuits—and draws upon past learning to develop a steadier and more concentrated awareness. Wisdom is a matter of making choices, such as letting go of lesser pleasures for the sake of greater ones. Consequently, developing virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom in your mind depends on improving regulation, learning, and selection in your brain.

When you set out on the path of awakening, you begin wherever you are. Then—with time, effort, and skillful means—virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom gradually strengthen and you feel happier and more loving. Some traditions describe this process as an uncovering of the true nature that was always present; others frame it as a transformation of your mind and body. Of course, these two aspects of the path of awakening support each other.

works and changes—how it gets emotionally hijacked or settles into calm virtue; how it creates distractibility or fosters mindful attention; how it makes harmful choices or wise ones—you can take more control of your brain, and therefore your mind. This will make your development of greater well-being, lovingness, and insight easier and more fruitful, and help you go as far as you possibly can on your own path of awakening.

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