All the same, there remains a certain wariness of meditation. One common misunderstanding, which inspired my cynical joke that morning at the monastery, is that it transforms people into creatures who have had all their desires, ambitions, and personality excised—zombies, if you will. When I played back the recording of my interview with Ajahn Amaro, I was relieved to discover that it was he who first brought up the subject. I had suggested to him that Buddhism, with its emphasis on cultivating “selflessness,” went against the grain of Western culture, with its emphasis on endless striving for self-advancement. It’s what gets us out of bed in the mornings and pays our bills. He disagreed. “People think that in Buddhist practice you’re meant to be free from desire and so then we shouldn’t want anything. They take it to mean that we’re supposed to be totally passive, or endeavoring to be a kind of zombie that isn’t doing anything. It’s a radical misunderstanding, because a) work does not mean suffering, and b) peace does not mean inactivity. When we think ‘I want to be peaceful’ we think of zoning out at the beach, but you can be completely at peace and working hard at the same time. They are not antithetical to each other.”

If anything, this book will argue that the evidence from neuroscience suggests that meditation can make people less zombie-like, by giving them more control over their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Siddha¯rtha’s Brain is about the science of mindfulness and the quest for spiritual enlightenment—or, to express the same thing in less loaded terms, the search for optimum psychological well-being. Enlightenment has distinct religious overtones, though what Buddhists mean by the word is simply the full realization of the way things truly are—free of any kind of delusion. This is not so different from what scientists are trying to achieve when they investigate the chemistry, physics, and biology of our world. But what of that other slippery word, spiritual? As I have looked deeper into mindfulness and Buddhism, the dividing line between the spiritual guidance provided by teachers such as Ajahn Amaro and the mindfulness courses provided by mental health practitioners has started to look less and less clear-cut. In the past decade, thousands of studies have been published that tested the efficacy of secular forms of mindfulness meditation for treating drug addiction, depression, anxiety, and many other afflictions of the mind. Whether you believe this approach is seeking to improve people’s “spiritual health” or their “mental well-being” is a matter of perspective. Your choice of words will depend on whether mindfulness training is delivered in a monastery or a clinic. Ajahn Amaro, in common with many other Buddhist teachers, sees himself as much as a mental health counselor as a spiritual adviser. Every day people share their anxieties, their problems, and hang-ups with him. He listens and offers advice about possible courses of action. When it comes down to it, there’s not that much difference between his role and that of a secular expert in mindfulness therapy.

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