When I first heard the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be,” my heart sank. I’d always felt more like what writer Anne Lamott described: “My mind is a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone.” Like Lamott, I’d long tried to fill an internal void with “stuff,” including food/alcohol, shopping/clothes, and people/success/attention. I later came to understand that like many children, as a child, that hole was created by my having “taken on” as my responsibility an incorrect belief that it was my job to “get” ill-attuned caregivers to love me. (Let’s not even mention attempts as an adult to satisfy unrelenting unrealistic societal expectations concerning body type, career, relationships, and more).
Fast forward to 2015, when I was introduced to the concept of inner goodness, or Buddha nature. The idea is simply that there’s nothing wrong with me/you/us, that there never was, and that our conditioning and hardened beliefs create an ego or personality (and sometimes we create “bad” behavior) that we think of is our “self.” For example, that meant “I” was a television news anchor. A Harvard graduate. A poet. A writer. And while those things do describe some of what I’ve done, they don’t tell the deeper story of who I am (or am not, or why I’m really even here on the planet). Nor do they show anything about who I — in delusional thinking — thought myself to be, based on the aforementioned childhood conditioning: a bad person.
It is true that I’d made years of poor choices regarding career, relationships, and finances, and I assumed there was something wrong with me. Understanding inner goodness or Buddha nature, however, showed me that wasn’t the case. What’s more, being introduced to the new neuroscience behind human habits and brain structure — and the ways in which meditation and mindfulness help shift our actual ways of thinking from “fight or flight” reactions that most often contribute to an ongoing unhelpful life cycle, to skillful responses and actions — was truly liberating. I can now say with some conviction that there was an internal paradigm shift, and that I see things with a different set of eyes. Not that “unpleasant” things don’t still happen in life. But I’m more often able to handle situations that used to confound or upset me, with some wisdom and perhaps even grace. By having a newfound ability to create more space in terms of how I react to whatever is happening in my world, I’m able to limit further misunderstandings and potential problems.
It’s that personal awakening that sparked my interest in ancient Buddhist teachings. And it was those teachings — as well as the modern neuroscience research now being done that complements much of what the Buddha said was true of mindfulness and meditation practice — that are so compelling today: that possessing an ability to understand our own minds can ease suffering and create greater happiness for all. Who doesn’t want that?
Those teachings were celebrated this week at the Garrison Institute’s annual Insight and Impact gala in Manhattan. Hosted by actor and Buddhist Richard Gere, and honoring Tibetan incarnate lama Gelek Rinpoche and neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel, hundreds of people turned out on the Day of the Dead to support Garrison’s mission of “grounding social action in the wisdom of contemplation is (sic) essential to building a more compassionate and resilient future.” Several well-known meditation teachers were in attendance, including Sharon Salzberg, Lama Surya Das, Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, as well as kirtan singer & Grammy-nominated musician Krishna Das, and Buddhist scholar Professor Robert Thurman, among others.
You could say that the two honorees aptly represent today’s intersection of the Buddha’s 2500-year old teachings with modern neuroscience. The combination seems to be an attempt to showcase how secular Western scientific research now often supports the effectiveness of ancient Eastern mindfulness and meditation practices. Living proponents of the Buddha’s teachings, including Gelek Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, among others, have long invited people to practice mindfulness and meditation as a portal to happiness by learning a way to live with greater ease and harmony and act with compassion and wisdom towards all beings.
The trick is, it’s not an overnight pill: like a professional athlete’s commitment to working out, it takes practice over time, and even some training. The research Dr. Siegel (and others like him, including Dr. Rick Hanson, for example) has been conducting supports how with meditation, the brain’s structure does indeed shift from using parts geared towards more “fight or flight” reactions, to using more of the parts responsible for executive functioning, or considered, thoughtful response. As I mentioned earlier, learning how to do that was a turning point for me.
Host Richard Gere, who has practiced meditation for decades, had this to say about why this new research is important: “There's a language that's emerging and how different cultures can talk about these ideas. There’s a Western science language and there's an Eastern science language, which is yogic. But we're finding ways to communicate. It takes a lot of humility and courage, I think, to engage in this process which is really pioneering right now. We're just seeing the beginning.”
Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, the author of Radical Dharma, believes the science enables people to see Buddhist teachings as something beyond religion: “It allows people to cut through the perspective that Buddhism is a religion. I think the presence of science-based practitioners and advocates for meditation and mindfulness give people that have a particular spiritual or religious tradition an entryway into practice without having to focus on, ‘Is this appropriate to be engaged in another religion?’ So I actually think it's helpful, because frankly, if the outcome is kindness and more compassion — as Richard (Gere) said — I really don't care what it's called.”
Krishna Das, known for singing kirtan, (or what could be described as singing meditation) agrees: “Whether it’s scientific research into the way the mind works, whether it’s interior research or chanting, it’s all about breaking down the barriers of separateness. We are talking about a connection to the deeper parts of ourselves. The more you know about yourself and understand your own suffering and become aware of it — you also see other people are also suffering and they want a way out of it. That’s the emphasis with all these practices.”
Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, often heralded as one of the pioneers responsible for bringing meditation to the U.S. forty years ago, shared this story: “When the Buddha was meeting with his first group of sixty disciples, he basically said a lot about meditation, teaching kindness and the concern for people. And then the last thing he said was ‘Teach them the local idiom.’ And I think science is our local idiom. It's our way of understanding the world.”
Professor of Buddhist studies Bob Thurman put the relevance of work like Dr. Dan Siegel’s, bluntly: “Everything that goes on in mind is consciousness. And so he's the vanguard of western, modern sciences, in that he's bravely emphasizing the fact that, ‘Hello! Wake up!’ We have minds, not just the brains. The new frontier I see is what we call in India and Tibet “inner science” — science of mind. And meditation is only the part of that. The mind is what determines the quality of life. If you're in the best physical circumstances and you're insane, you’re going to have a have a horrible time. If you're sane and kind and calm and loving, even if things are not so perfect, you're going to be happy.”
Being happy. It seems so elusive to so many Westerners. And yet, that ability to see things as they actually are, and then train ourselves to act more skillfully, is at the heart of both the ancient wisdom and new modern neuroscience research. As I see it, the goal of the Garrison gala was to emphasize just that: that we can indeed transform our minds from a “bad neighborhood,” as Anne Lamott so famously wrote, into fertile soil where the flowers of wise action, and kindness and compassion, may grow, for the benefit of all beings.