We’re not stuck with the brain we’re born with – in other words, we can achieve nirvana

Oct 4, 2019

It’s encouraging these days to hear scientists basically agreeing with what Buddha found from his own experience 2500-plus years ago: that we can change our minds. Neuroplasticity is “one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century” according to one psychiatrist, the Canadian Norman Doidge.

But I’d suggest that Buddha’s view is even more marvellous – and radical. He says that we can not only change our minds to some degree but can utterly rid them of the neuroses such as attachment, anger, fear and the rest. According to Buddhist psychology – which obviously stems from these findings of the Buddha himself – they’re adventitious: they’re not at the core of our being.

That’s a pretty outrageous statement to make: none of our contemporary models of the mind posit anything remotely like it. And it’s not our own experience, for sure. I think most of us feel instinctively that these emotions are central parts of our being; in fact, I think we so take them for granted that we’d probably think we’d be mentally ill if we didn’t have them!

But the ability to rid our mind of these states is the fundamental finding of the Buddha and the goal of those practicing his methods. It’s what’s known as nirvana, and it’s the potential of every one of us, just naturally. But don’t hold your breath: it can take a few lifetimes, it seems!

If you’re on the Mahayana path you’d add great compassion to the mix: even though you wouldn’t need to be reborn – you’ve quit samsara – you’d want to for the sake of others. You can’t stand the thought of all those suffering beings and you’d only want to help them, like a mother for her children.

Obviously we’re not talking about the brain here – I think Buddha and his contemporaries had never heard of a brain! What’s being discussed is the actual cognitive process itself.

First one accomplishes the psychological skill known as single-pointed concentration meditation, devised by the amazing Indian scholar-yogis who preceded the Buddha. This enables one to access levels of consciousness way beyond the sensory and the conceptual, states of mind not even posited in our contemporary models. Then one does the job of unpacking and unravelling the contents of one’s own consciousness, gradually ridding it of the subtle and deeply ingrained conceptual elaborations that underpin our neurotic emotions.

So, what would we be like if we’d achieved this? We’d be fearless, blissful, with extraordinary wisdom and fully developed in love, compassion, kindness, and the rest, which, for the Buddha, actually define us, are who we really are.

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