The Buddhist sage, Thich Nhat Hanh, died this week. Arthur Brooks wrote a moving tribute to him in the Washington Post on January 23, 2022 focused on his contributions to bringing mindfulness to our largely sound asleep Western world. I have excerpted a number of paragraphs from Brooks’s article because they contain extroordinary clear connections to McGilchrist’s divided-brain-model. Mindfulness corresponds to moments when the right hemisphere is connecting us to the real world or, as Hanh writes, to the “present moment.” The opposite situation, where the left hemisphere is in command, is captured in the references to “exist[ing] outside the present moment.” Further, if you read “happiness” as equivalent to my concept of “flourishing,” this excerpt also shows the synonymy of “authenticity” to its dimension of personal wholeness.
Hanh’s greatest contribution to Western thinking was to inject the idea of mindfulness: to be fully conscious in the current moment. He believed mindfulness was the secret not just to happiness but to being authentically alive.
Humans have a remarkable ability to exist outside the present moment. Indeed, the quintessential humanness of the mind is the ability to re-run past events and pre-run future scenarios. This is a great blessing, of course, as it allows us to learn maximally from our experiences and effectively practice for the future.
But it is also a curse. Hanh explains this in his 1975 book “The Miracle of Mindfulness”: “While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.” Why? If we are thinking about the past or future, “we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.” We are either reliving a past that is dead or “sucked away into the future” that exists merely in concept. Only to be mindful, therefore, is to be truly alive.
So simple — but, of course, devilishly hard, as any beginning meditator can attest. The trick, Hanh taught, is practice in everyday activities, such as, well, washing the dishes. But it also requires mastery of a second concept that, like mindfulness, was also mostly unfamiliar to Westerners before Hanh’s work: non-attachment.
Our attachments distract us from being truly present in our lives. Attachments to what? Most obviously, to possessions. In “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” (1999), Hanh tells the story of the Buddha and a group of monks “eating lunch mindfully together,” when a local farmer bursts in and agitatedly asks them if they have seen his cows, which have run away. He adds that this has added to his misfortune because his sesame crop has just been devoured by insects. After the farmer leaves, the Buddha turns to his monks and says, “Dear friends, do you know you are the happiest people on Earth? You have no cows or sesame plants to lose.”
But attachment goes deeper than mere possessions. In an observation particularly trenchant to the current moment in America, he wrote, “Humankind suffers very much from attachment to views.” A dedication to being right distracts from attention to others in the present moment. Similarly, Hanh talked of attachment to anger and anxiety, noting that holding on to these emotions is entirely voluntary. Let them go; after all, they are merely phantasms from the past or future.
Brooks highlights the centrality of the idea of “non-attachment” in Hanh’s teachings, as was this concept to the Buddha, himself. “Attachment” goes to the essence of the divided-brain-model. Our possessions—material and intellectual (our views)—are held as part of the world of the left-brain. Much of the time we are awake, we act in that world and have to make it work for us to flourish as human beings. Flourish’s second dimension of social coherence requires fitting into the web of all the rules that hold a society together. Our possessions are the means by which we do that. The Buddha’s lesson is that it is wrong to believe that our possessions are part of what makes us who we are, rather than merely the material and intellectual objects we use to make our diurnal life coherent.
Who we are, authentically, shows up only when the right hemisphere is in charge. When that happens, our actions reflect the moment and the context of the immediate world. Our actions may involve everything that was part of past, our possessions in the metaphor Hanh and the Buddha use, but they show up only as means to whatever ends our authentic selves have decided to care about. There is no reason, a left-brain process, to suffer should any of those possessions be affected. To factor in the consequences of those effects in the way they are to be used, yes, but to suffer as if part of the self is damaged, no.
These Buddhist ideas have always been difficult for Western cultures to accept. The primary reason, I believe, is that we have been stuck with the wrong model of how the brain works. If we believe, as we do, that we have a single conscious mind that always acts rationally, the ideas of mindfulness and attachment appear strange. When the divided-brain-model is used to explain these ideas and other seemingly paradoxical or confounding features of our minds, the opacity disappears. Our authentic selves are manifest in the actions of the right hemisphere. Our social selves, the ones we see in action in the institutional frameworks that constitute our societies, are guided primarily by the hemispheres. I often use the metaphor of fraternal twins to make this distinction.
McGilchrist emphatically tells us that both hemispheres are always involved, but it is possible to observe the proportionality between dominance of the right and left sides in the nature of the actions of an individual or a society, over time. Ironically, the term, mindfulness, sends the wrong message about the brain. The divided-brain-model works just fine without ever invoking the notion of “mind.” Reference to the processes occurring in the neuronal structures of the brain and nervous system is sufficient. But if one continues to refer to a mind, mindfulness would mean that one of the minds, that of the left hemisphere, has been quieted down sufficiently to allow the mind of the right side to connect to the present world, including the state of the body. As long as that balance holds, the actions will reflect the authentic, right-hemisphere-centered self.
The lasting powers of the ideas coming from the Buddha can be attributed to his uncanny ability to understand the way the human brain works, even in the absence of any scientific evidence. The difficulty in introducing his ideas to the West can be, in large part, attributed to our stubborn hold on the Cartesian model of the mind. McGilchrist points to many similar cases of scholarly work that fits the model in his book, The Master and His Emissary, that show a similar intuitive sense of the bi-hemispheric brain.