Friday, March 27, 2009
Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness
Aldous Huxley called humankind's basic trend toward spiritual growth the "perennial philosophy." According to James Austin, the trend implies a "perennial psychophysiology"--for awakening, or enlightenment, occurs only because the human brain undergoes substantial changes. What are the peak experiences of enlightenment? How could they profoundly enhance, and yet simplify, the workings of the brain? Zen and the Brain summarizes the latest evidence.
The book uses Zen Buddhism as the opening wedge for an extraordinarily wide-ranging exploration of consciousness. In order to understand the brain mechanisms that produce Zen states, one needs some understanding of the anatomy, physiology, and chemistry of the brain. Austin, a neuroscientist and Zen practitioner, interweaves his teachings of the brain with his teachings/personal narrative of Zen. The science, which contains the latest relevant developments in brain research, is both inclusive and rigorous; the Zen sections are clear and evocative. Along the way, Austin covers such topics as similar states in other disciplines and religions, sleep and dreams, mental illness, consciousness-altering drugs, and the social consequences of advanced stages of enlightenment.