Austin, J. H ‘Zen-Brain Horizons: Toward a Living Zen’ – Zen Brain Horizons

Zen-Brain Horizons: Toward a Living Zen by James H AustinZen-Brain Horizons: Toward a Living Zen by James H Austin

Reviewed by Peter Fenwick

I confess that I’ve been a little tardy in my review and I must apologise to Network readers for depriving them of the knowledge in another golden book by James Austin.  You may remember that at the end of my review of ‘Meditating Selflessly I felt that James had moved away from science to practice.  The practice that he described in that book was so comprehensive, clear, helpful and far-reaching that I felt there could be little more to say about meditation and the science of meditation.

But I was wrong.  Completely wrong.   His magnificent new book Zen Brain Horizons, Towards a Living Zen continues the thrust of Zen practice and science and how they are interlinked.  In a field which is burgeoning and expanding James has again put the finger of science on the growing point, to point to the ultimate truth that is manifest through Zen.

The book’s cover in many ways says it all.   A wonderful night sky, the dawn breaking with the morning star just above the horizon.  As James goes on to tell us, the visual horizon is enormously important in our understanding of the neuroscience of Zen and the practice of Zen sitting.  The book begins with a quote by Ralph Emerson (1803-1882). “It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself) by abandonment to the nature of things.”  In a personal introduction James reminds us of his own two experiences.  In the first, he was “astonished to discover how clear my awareness became after my intrusive word thoughts stopped.”  He then goes on to remind us of what he has already written about in Zen and the Brain and Zen Brain reflections, what happened when he entered a state of Kensho,  “My entire psychic sense of self suddenly dissolved while I was travelling to the second day of the retreat in London. “

It is important to note his indebtedness to William James and the Buddha Siddhartha.   He opens the book with two stories concerning two different old men who consult the Buddha.  In the first story the old man asks to be informed about the spiritual path and also, as he has not much time left, about the cosmos and the afterlife.  The Buddha refused to answer these latter points but did discuss the spiritual path, ‘just give up your attachments’.  On a second occasion the old man again asked the Buddha fundamental questions about the universe, indicating that he was still highly attached in his meditations.    The Buddha told him to give up all attachments; when he has done so he will then be beyond pain and bliss.    In the second story again an old man, long practised in Zen, asks the Buddha – at a very inconvenient time – to help him with knowledge of the path.  The Buddha is finally persuaded to give him almost the same message he gave to the first man.  Upon hearing this message the second man immediately awakens and drops all attachments.    His self disappears and he became beyond pain and bliss.  These two stories illustrate the need to bring attention back from the thought world again and again, to give up wanting, needing, trying, so that attachments drop away and the world is revealed in its pristine state to the unencumbered mind.

Neuroscience has defined two systems; the attentional system, which is mainly the ventral brain, and the default system, or that of the idling brain, which is the dorsal brain. These two systems oppose each other.  The default system is when the self becomes uppermost, when we chat to ourselves, think thoughts that are internalised.  It is when we tell ourselves stories, live in the past and the future, in fact anywhere but in the here and now.  The ventral brain, the allocortex, gathers information about the outside world and is not involved with the self and its ‘dreaming.’  What is immediately apparent from this description is that these two systems are polar opposites.  The ventral brain deals with the here and now, while the dorsal brain deals only with the past and future and is thus where our attachments, likes and dislikes, plans and hopes lie.    The way of Zen is to continually rebalance the moment so that the ventral brain takes precedence and we move steadily along the path of reprogramming ourselves to be what is rather than what we hope to be. We should note how important this chapter is, as it is right at the cutting edge of the current thrust of consciousness research into non-duality.    The non-dual person, usually after an awakening, has lost their narrative self (a much better word than ego) and is happy and free from suffering.  A small section on Buddhist botany brings the chapter to an end.

Chapter 5, A glimpse of ‘Just This’ in the Tang Dynasty,  looks at attention and awakening in Zen history, and gives a wonderful picture of  various moments of awakening in response to different circumstances.   The chapter ends by describing William James’s   huge contribution to elucidating the mind, streams of thought and religious experience: As James Austin says, “The 17 essays in ‘The Heart of William James’ still pulse with systolic prescience.  They exemplify a distinctive sensibility for today’s readers who seek authentic psychological insight and spiritual nourishment”.

James gives a comprehensive picture  (Chapter 8) of  recent research relating to attention, the self, and the effects of meditative states.  In Chapter 10 he looks more deeply into attention and awareness and relates these to awakenings, both superficial and deep.  He then goes on to give excellent case reports of the significance of elevating the gaze above the visual horizon, and hear we now see why the book is called Zen Brain Horizons.   He refers back to the pictures shown in his previous book (Meditating Selflessly) of the quadrants of the visual field.  The two upper allocentric quadrants relate to the distance and the ‘not-self’ whereas the two lower quadrants relate to the self and our egocentric processing.  In his two case reports he describes how raising the gaze while describing a traumatic event allows the pent-up emotion stored in the memory system to be dissipated.  These case reports show much the same results as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) which is the side-to-side scanning of the visual field while reciting the traumatic event, but James points out that he has not seen a report of EMDR which refers specifically to elevation rather than side to side.

Many of us will have read accounts of the siddhis, which, when they first develop are associated with colours being seen during meditation. As the meditator becomes more advanced, colours are seen surrounding people which have a personal meaning for the meditator.  James describes the soft greens that arise in the upper left quadrant when the person is thoroughly familiar with Zen meditation and is relaxed throughout.  The green colour eventually moves more centrally, changes to purple, and may arise in the same top left quadrant.   After examining fMRIs of meditators James decided that this is probably the result of allocentric processing activating the fusiform gyrus where colours are seen.

The book ends with a fascinating chapter about possible future directions of research and the consequence that this will have for our understanding of Zen, Kensho and enduring happiness.

Will James write another insightful book on Zen? This time I’m not going to predict that there is nothing more to be said.  I’m sure – and I hope – that there will be, so long as James continues actively to follow the current science and relates its revelations to the Zen process.  Perhaps we can sum up the story so far with a haiku.

Is ‘Just This’ really

All we need for happiness?

Yes, it would seem so!

Dr. Peter Fenwick is President of the Network.

Buy the book here