A message of hope

What am I reading now? Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley (Ballantine Books, 2007). Although this title might sound like one of those self-improvement guides that offers to trim the thighs or make you a cool million in a weekend, it is actually a really deep piece of scientific writing. Begley, whom I used to know decades ago when she worked for Newsweek, is the science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She has tapped into a fascinating story of pioneering research by neuroscientists and psychologists about what we understand as the human brain. But she also joins this narrative with the strange marriage with Buddhism as personified by the Dalai Lama. The nerds meet the holy man.

The sanctuary of this union is a place called the Mind and Life Institute, which actually holds the copyright on the book — so Begley is part of a larger enterprise. It’s also curious why the scientists who need to draw the Dalai Lama into the discussion. But I haven’t really gotten that far in the book.

This whole groundswell of enthusiasm for Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation is sweeping into the business of tending to the mind. If Freud once laid down the law for understanding the contradictions of the human mind, now it’s a spiritual practice without a supreme being. I’ve mentioned before that I like the idea that Buddha developed a sophisticated set of psychological protocols for relieving with human suffering.

What got me started into the book is that the transformation of human spirit can be manifested by remolding mental habits, but also actually alterations of physical manifestations, like spawning neurons and a thriving hippocampus. As someone who has felt the undertow of depression and literally sensed the physical change that it brought on me, the idea that I can take action to heal myself is an uplifting lesson at this stage of my life.