By Jackie, guest writer,
Buddhism is a set of religious and spiritual concepts dating back to the Sixth Century BCE. Despite being one of the more ancient of current mainstream religions, it has a following of around half a billion due to ideas strong enough to hold the test of time. Not only is it one of the most popular faiths, it also has some of the strongest backings by cutting-edge neuroscientific research. It is a mystery how one of the most ancient practices on Earth had ideas that could be directly backed up by modern science, but it seems that deep truths can be learnt through the simple act of contemplative introspection.
Where is the Self?
Anatta is Buddhist concept which highlights its distinction from Hinduism. While Hindus believe that in the core of every human being lives an essential, unchanging self, Anatta argues against this. Instead, Buddhists believe that the sense of self is illusionary and the cause of suffering. Overcoming this idea of the self can be achieved through meditation and will lead to a state of Nirvana or Enlightenment.
While Siddhartha Gautama realised this in the Sixth Century BCE, it has only been confirmed by science since the 1980s, when MRI scans were first used. Through mapping the brain, it is clear that there is nowhere for the soul to reside. The entire body, including the brain, are constantly changing, suggesting that there can be no immutable soul.
The ‘80s was also the decade in which the Dalai Lama and a team of scientists set up the Mind and Life Institute to study these ancient beliefs using the scientific method. Their research revealed a mind that is constantly changing, rewiring itself and replacing old cells with new ones. This doesn’t mean there’s no “you” (depending on how that word is defined) but that there is no single, unchanging self. Just as was noticed subjectively by the most ancient societies and backed up objectively by modern science.
On Becoming Present
Mindfulness is another key component of Buddhist philosophy and is used to destroy this illusion of self in an attempt to overcome suffering. The science behind mindfulness meditation is in its infancy, but appears promising. It is commonly used as a technique in behavioral therapy to help people find comfort and deal with emotional pain. It has even been shown to have an effect of physical pain, helping a person to notice the subjective experience of pain as something simulated and exaggerated by the brain. Scientific observation has revealed how meditating on the present moment shrinks the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for fear and anxiety. That is, mindfulness reduces the suffering that comes with being human.
Throughout history, the West has been responsible for much scientific advancement. However, it is the East which has claimed the upper hand when it comes to spirituality. Now, these two worlds are converging as the concepts laid out by the earliest Buddhist gurus is confirmed by neuroscientific research into the brain.
By Jackie, guest writer,