Lama in the Lab – where Buddhism met neuroscience on the road to happiness

Light ceremony

What we attend to becomes our reality, and what we don’t attend to, fades out of our reality – William James

It’s been quite a turbulent journey over the past nine months since graduation from INSEAD. My blog has been pretty quiet, as I have tried to make sense of it all.

Firstly, the adaptation back to life after the MBA was quite a challenging adjustment. It was followed by reaching the peaks of absolute joy and love from an unexpected marriage proposal, replaced by a toss into a dark place of failure.

What recently hit me was the defeat of not being capable of preventing one of the portfolio companies I am advising from the brink of liquidation.

The guilt and shame that absorbed me, from having to stare straight in the unforgiving eyes of failure, felt like dark smoke poisoning my abilities to believe in myself and my ability to feel happy.

With destructive emotions raging in my body, anger and humiliation, easily recognisable from previous painful scars, I made a commitment to myself to this time not fall victim for my own emotions.

How could I, as my mentor so beautifully described it, learn to embrace this experience as valuable lesson and see it as falling upwards rather than to let the hardship bring me down?

Having spent hours with behavioural therapists during previous difficult times, I decided this time to go deeper to understand the core of my emotions and how and why they occur. This way, I figured, I could attempt to short-circuit them at their origin to relieve my pain and also prevent future agony.

I so stumbled across a new world, the world of brain intelligence researching how our cognition is linked to our emotional experience, neuroscience. To me, this was news.

Here I learned about dopamine, the hormone in our body that rewards us for completing a task or reaching a goal, that keeps us on our toes, focused on achieving, performing, outperforming. We all know the satisfaction from reaching the finishing line of a race or submitting that final version of a report that we worked so hard to complete.

It makes us go and get what we want, but it is also quite addictive, since it doesn’t provide a long-lasting feeling of happiness. It gives us a quick boost, and then leaves our bodies and mind with a desire for more.

You recognise the sensation of dopamine, from when you have alcohol, cigarettes, or that chocolate cake. Succumbing to the pleasure, it makes us feel happy for the moment. Surprisingly, it also takes less obvious addictive shapes, such as the sense of pleasure we feel from the number of likes on Facebook we get. As soon as we hear that familiar ping from our phones or computers, we get a rush of dopamine. Somebody acknowledges through Internet that they see us and this boosts our ego. Is is followed by a sense of emptiness and loneliness, and a craving for more pleasure.

What I realised is that all this noise caused by social media and my nature of interacting with world, conditionally depending on others to feel happy, had really put me on this emotional roller coaster. It had affected my ability to control my mood and develop a sound and unconditional sense of happiness.

With this knowledge, what could I do about it?

The encouraging news from the neuroscience field is that your body (until old age) produces new neurons, brain cells, which stimulate growth in the areas of the brain that you mostly focus on. So if you focus on positive emotions, such as love, generosity and compassion, you can train these neurons to activate these areas, and release the antidote to dopamine – oxytocin, which make us truly happy in a sustained way.

Thus, it seemed plausible that if I only could train my mind to think more positive thoughts, I could get my body to release more oxytocin.

In order to get there, it meant I had to change my habits and the way I think.

So how could I step away from it all, seek a path to cut out the addictive noise and develop a clear and conscious mind, freed from negative hormonal slavery and focused on generating positive emotions?

Inspired and encouraged by my fiancé, I decided to take refuge in a simple meditation centre for Buddhist philosophy located on the hillside of the Himalayas in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama and his people live in exile from Tibet. I travelled there to experience a 10-day silent retreat, with a gong at 06.00 every morning waking you up to a new day of meditation, introspection and teachings on Buddhist philosophy.

Tushita meditation gompa

It turned out to be a profoundly life-changing experience.

The Buddhist way of looking at life and happiness was quite an eye-opening experience. In our society, the focus is on developing oneself, finding meaning and purpose for the individual, building lean bodies and taking beauty treatments to make our egos happy. As a result, we think, we will be rewarded with blissful happiness.

The Buddhist way speaks of the opposite in the pursuit of true happiness. In Buddhism, the selfish ego, or the “I”, is nothing but an illusion that exists under certain conditions, like the rainbow. When we feel ashamed or treated unfairly, we feel something inside, triggered by the situation. We believe this is our ego crying out to us in despair to take care of it, where in fact, this is our mind, having trained us to react in certain ways based on our previous experiences.

Similarly, when things are going really well for us and we feel that self-cherishing notion, almost like we were immortals on top of the world, again, this is a state of mind linked to an emotion, that we associate with the “I”. This labelling “ego” is a delusion, created by our own minds and propelled by society.

The Buddhists ask this question: if you would search for the ego carefully deep inside, it is really something there?

The delusion of the ego pulls us by the nose like a rope tied around the cow’s neck, telling us to satisfy it with material objects or other sources of pleasure, like food or entertainment. Even though these objects or activities might give us short-term pleasure (a dopamine release) they are incapable of sustaining long-term happiness, simply because the sense of pleasure is impermanent. It wears off. How many times have you bought a new gadget, say the latest iPhone, or a new pair of shoes, feeling that quick burst of satisfaction? Just to experience the feeling gradually wearing off in a matter of hours or days? Then we move on to the next thing to consume, to have, to feel. All in order to satisfy our desire for pleasure, or feeds our righteous egos.

Money is a simple example. The more you have, the more scared you become of losing it, the less pleasure you gain from it, the larger the craving for more. So does money actually make you happy or not? Still, we all negotiate for higher salaries and packages when starting new jobs. Why? To please our egos.

So if accumulating material wealth isn’t the way to go, they how do we achieve happiness?

According to Buddhism, the way to become truly happy is through cultivating love and compassion for oneself and others, but not in the way we tend to think about it. Buddhism talks about a way that is based on generosity, without expectations from the ego to receive something in return for your actions.

The gratifying feeling of helping others will reward you with enough oxytocin to make you feel good for a lifetime.

This doesn’t mean you have to give up your sense of self or give away all your money to charity. It just means realizing that everybody else, who walks around on this earth is similar to you in that they all strive for happiness, and are thus equal to us. We all aspire to the same goal and we all, equally, deserve to be happy.

By thinking in terms of generosity rather than putting oneself above others, we automatically think more compassionate thoughts, which subdues the cry of our ego and make us feel happier.

Neuroscience has proven this pragmatic philosophy by observing the increased production of oxytocin, the happiness hormone, being released into our veins when we perform acts of kindness. The hormone is also contagious, it spreads.

For example, if you help an old lady across the street, you get a boost of oxytocin, the old lady gets a boost, and people who observe the event also feel happier.

The good news about oxytocin is that the reserves built up in your body remains there for an extended period of time. This, in contrast to the temporary dopamine, can make us feel truly happy in a long-lasting way, also making us more resistant to the swings caused by the high and low dopamine levels.

For me, the question remained, how can one practice love and kindness towards others in a way that is practical? We all live busy lives and don’t have the time to help old ladies across the street all the time, even though in an ideal world we want to.

The Buddhist method of meditation provides one simple solution.

Meditation is not sitting on a cushion zooming out from the world; it is very focused introspective mind training. This was news to me. It is a tool to train the mind to generate positive feelings and in addition, you can meditate wherever you are.

For example, you are on the train to work. It’s crammed with people, the air is getting warmer and you start to feel rather uncomfortable, frustratingly wishing that all the other people on the train could disappear. Then somebody next to you sneezes, really loudly. Our wired response in many cases is to feel disgust towards that person. “If only I don’t get sick now, I don’t have time to get ill, I am too busy saving the world”, is how I used to think.

Now, try the following experiment; how about you instead tell yourself; “This person is suffering from a cold, I know how terrible it feels, I really wish that he or she will feel better soon”.

It might not feel natural in the beginning to think compassionate thoughts about a stranger, but with time, it will. I was surprised to realise how good I felt from replacing that destructive emotion, that one of frustration, with a positive feeling of compassion. Oxytocin is flowing in the blood.

Practicing these ways of thinking can over time change your brain, and thus, change your emotional responses to other, more significant events.

Fascinating studies have been done on Buddhist monks, who after decades of meditation practice are almost incapable of feeling certain destructive emotions, despite being thoroughly provoked. It was like they have developed a strong immune system protecting them against destructive emotions.

Just like that, inspired by pragmatic Buddhist philosophy in coherence with the logic of science, I had a way of taking control of my emotions. I had found a method to start planting seeds of true happiness. Knowing that I can change, that I don’t have to be pulled down into the deepest of darkness when I am faced with a difficult situation, felt like a wonderful relief.

When it comes to my future career path after this “professional failure”, I feel less nervousness about finding my passion or the meaning with my life. There is no such thing as the one career that will carry me on this wave of happiness to the end of time. Life is there, just in front of me, and has been all along. Life is about people. The meaning of life is to care for people. It’s not about me and it has never been.

As I leave the meditation center Tushita, I can feel the illusion of the ego, the mirage, fading. The sun has burnt the rainbow away. All that is left is the clear sky as the clouds start to disappear from my mind, slowly being freed from the burden of ego or victimized by destructive emotions.

Tushita meditation center

True happiness is possible, and it starts with cultivating a strong mind, and a generous heart.

I will use this lifetime to practice this philosophy. So the challenge begins.

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