Book Review: Siddhartha’s Brain by James Kingsland

sid-brainSiddhartha’s Brain, written by science journalist James Kingsland, opens with what would be a somewhat shocking quote from Ajahn Amaro, a Buddhist monastic in the UK.

We are all mentally ill.

While this should not quite raise the eyebrows of mental health professionals, it is a rather bald (apologies to Ajahn Amaro!) statement to make in public. However, it does set the tone of Kingsland’s book which takes, by turns, an unflinching look at the state of the mindfulness industry today and the roots of its conception in Buddhist teachings. Kingsland presents his work imaginatively. Using the development of the Buddha, Siddhartha, from pampered and protected prince to a teacher of the Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering, he weaves what we know of Siddhartha’s quest and practice into what we know of the results of our current pursuit of liberation through mindfulness. And, it begins with acknowledging that we are all mentally ill.

In this insightful book interlacing the current findings of brain function, mental states, and mental health with the teachings of Buddhist psychology, Kingsland is a craftsman in making neuroscience accessible and presenting it through the lens of contemplative practices. Using the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s own journey to enlightenment, he draws a rich landscape of the merging of Eastern contemplative practice, Western psychology, and contemporary mindfulness.

As a device to introduce us to the roots of contemporary mindfulness and place the history and progress of the Western approach to knowing the mind in that historical context, Kingsland has done a much better job than most writers. Siddhartha’s Brain doesn’t fall into a polemic of modern science or a contemplative holier-than-thou pit; that is refreshing. The writing is crisp and clear, quiet and confident. It invites examination of concepts not by attempting to convince but by introducing perspectives that are easily testable by the reader. Of course, that is in essence the basic teaching of the Buddha: ehi passiko – come and see (for yourself).

Kingsland makes the important point – as have many Buddhist teachers – that one does not have to be Buddhist to meditate or benefit from the practice. In fact, one of the enjoyable aspects of Siddhartha’s Brain is a broader bandwidth than just a Buddhist social and political transmission of wisdom. Kingsland draws from evolution science, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, weaving them together  with ease. Most poignant for me was his examination of the early beginnings of meditation through the stories of Herbert Benson and the Transcendental Meditation practitioners of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Benson’s downfall in the community of psychology is a sad part of our collective history and Kingsland’s insight into Benson’s work – that the foundation of all meditation is the evocation of the relaxation response – is a validation of Benson’s valuable work.

I particularly recommend Chapters Three and Four for their lucid descriptions of the roots (The Cloud of Unknowing) and rationale (The Second Dart) for meditation and practice (and a more universal presentation than just a Buddhist one). It’s a bit more of a slog in Chapter Five (The Man Who Disappeared) only because the idea of a “self” that is not fixed in any one definition or role is still alien to our Western senses. Even in psychology today the discussion of identity is a confounding mess with terms like self-esteem, self-image, existential self, categorical self – all of which rests on a concept of a separate(d), individuated entity. Chapter Five will challenge your notions of these variegated and rarefied selves but also introduce you to the social neuroscience that actually supports the observation that there is no fixed unity called a “Self”. As Kingsland puts it:

Thus, from moment to moment, each of us is no more than a unique blend of spices, a homemade garam masala. (p. 101)

My favourite part of the book is the running theme of the Default Mode Network (DMN), a concept gaining much traction in the neuroscience of mindfulness to explain the fluid state of connection/disconnection that can lead to rumination as well as creativity. Kingsland’s description of how the DMN plays a role as our “Self app” that “(posts) repetitive messages of a personal nature on the screen” is a brilliant image of what happens when we wander down those “dark neighbourhoods” noted by the writer Anne Lamott as places she “never goes alone”.

Kingsland continues in Chapter Ten (Wonderful and Marvelous):

The marvel is that we can learn to control at will the signals that determine which track we take at any particular moment. By honing our powers of attention and emotion regulation through mindfulness practice, we can, if we wish, restrict the time we spend in self-focused, narrative mode of thinking that can lead to anxiety and depression. We can choose to take the scenic route, favouring a more experiential mode of being in which we are not held captive by our thoughts but rather treat them as transient mental events. (p. 235)

Now, I do have two quibbles – not with the book itself but the information offered from two sources. First, (p. 249) when inquiring into the frequently made claim that meditation can trigger unstable mind states, researcher Britta Hölzel is quoted as saying (somewhat flat-footedly) that “I (Hölzel) have never seen any major problems like that in our classes.” This is a common statement I hear from researchers and teachers of various mindfulness-based programs, which while true evades the question itself. In fact, we have, at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, had many applicants to our program who want to learn mindfulness and are fearful because previous experiences have resulted in intense mental distress, including dissociation, depersonalization, and profound anxiety. Whereas it is quite likely that in Hölzel’s experience there have not been such occurrences, it does not therefore mean this is not an area to be sensitive about as clinicians and to investigate further as researchers. Ottawa psychologist Nicola Wright and colleagues have written about adapting mindfulness for vulnerable populations and it does behoove us to acknowledge this as a necessary direction for future research and definitely for caution.

Second, Ajhan Amaro, who seems to have been a delightful guide and teacher for Kingsland, wrote an important response to our target article in Mindfulness (journal). He calls for a need to include ethics explicitly as a core component of mindfulness programs. I do respect the stance taken by MBSR developers that the cultivation of ethical action is inherent in its programming (see discussion on p. 269 of Siddhartha’s Brain). However, a statement of presumed fact is not a substantiated fact nor does it address whether the outcome is in the desired direction. Given that no therapeutic intervention is values-neutral, the examination of how mindfulness can become weaponized (see my earlier blog post) is important. After all, we are collectively responsible to examine if mindfulness training does give rise to skillful action and ultimately compassion for ourselves and all others.

Kingsland has done well in this book to translate complex concepts into accessible knowledge and convey ancient wisdom with a gentle, inviting voice. If you are at all fascinated by how and why our brains and being are the way they are, read this book. If you are curious about how meditation and mindfulness practices can help with the everyday struggles of just being human, read this book.

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