Book Review:
Zen and the Brain, by James H. Austin, M.D.

reviewed by Gregory Ellison


A number of books in recent years have attempted to show how advances in modern science are breaking down the barriers between “materialistic” science and spirituality. Books like The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters, for example, explain how quantum physics describes a universe in which human consciousness plays an active role in creating reality.

In this regard, Zen and the Brain takes a radically different approach to the relation between science and spirituality. Rather than demonstrating that cognitive neuroscience and Zen meditation reach the same conclusions about reality, it demonstrates how specific neurological changes in brain activity during meditation can facilitate the direct experience of higher states of conscious awareness.

Why is this important? Because it is practical information that shows one how to change one’s state of consciousness, rather than simply understanding or believing a metaphysical concept of such spiritual states. As both a Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado and a longtime Zen practitioner who has personally attained the state of kensho (or “enlightenment”), James Austin is uniquely qualified to discuss the topic, and this 844-page volume is both scientifically rigorous and deeply spiritual.

The Spirit of Zen

Zen meditationZen is often considered the sparsest form of Buddhism, focusing almost entirely on the practice of meditation, with little emphasis on dogma, ritual or belief. In accordance with Buddha’s teachings, Zen seeks the experience of enlightenment but has little to say about its metaphysical reality. Metaphysical speculations and beliefs, it holds, are invariably the product of the intellect and are thus inherently divisive and limiting. Only the direct experience of enlightenment is the reality, and that reality is beyond words and concepts.

There are, however, some things that can be said about the state of enlightenment, and Austin does a remarkable job of expressing its essence. He characterizes the state as non-dual, non-conceptual, wordless, providing ultimate and authentic meaning, deconditioning inappropriate learned responses and expectations, and destroying all fear. All of these qualities derive from the perception of “suchness,” reality as it is directly experienced without presuppositions or interference from our analytic thought processes. As he describes it, the chief characteristic seems to be a loss of the sense of “self” that is central to human identity, and a corresponding feeling of union with the outer world, including humanity as a whole and the living planet that sustains us all.

At first blush, this may sound like a frightening proposition. After all, with no sense of “self,” we would be unable to survive in the physical world … we could not even feed ourselves or tie our own shoelaces if we were unaware of an “I” that needed to be fed or shod! Further along, however, Austin clarifies this dilemma by explaining that the ego-awareness of “I” is not truly lost, but rather that our identification with it falls away. We do not lose our analytical intelligence and its related abilities, but no longer identify with the illusion that we ARE this limited “self.” These faculties instead become tools that we can use to make our way in the world, rather than the reality of who we are.

Brain and Mind

From a scientific viewpoint, the great contribution of Zen and the Brain is in relating alternate states of reality to specific changes in the neurological activity of the brain. Ever since the pioneering work of William James, science has been aware that experiences of various “altered states of consciousness” can and do occur naturally. Indeed, some such altered states are so common that we take them for granted, such as sleep, dreaming, conditioning, and emotional states such as euphoria or pain and suffering. In all of these states, as well as the more exotic states of religious visions or spiritual enlightenment, our basic perceptions of reality and our relation to the world around us differ from the perceptions of so-called “rational” or “objective” consciousness, sometimes radically so.

In meticulous and fascinating detail, Austin describes what we know of the changes in brain activity associated with such altered states. In so doing, he arrives at the crucial insight that the brain is not “hard wired” for ANY particular state of consciousness. Rather, the “ordinary” state of waking consciousness is simply one pattern of brain activity out of many possible configurations … one that is largely “learned” by social conditioning and reinforcement during the process of growing up in a social structure that enforces a “consensus” reality. The important point he makes is that states other than our ordinary waking one are not altered forms of consciousness but rather reflect alternate, but equally valid, networking configurations of the brain.

Dedicated meditative discipline simply alters the habitual configuration of the brain from one that focuses on the “I, me, mine” pattern of so-called “objective” ego-centered consciousness, to one that identifies with the whole of life rather than making “me” the center of the universe.

Such a state of consciousness confers many benefits on the paractitioner — and, it might also be inferred, on the world as a whole in which we participate. In fact, kensho or Zen enlightenment creates the capacity to be effectively involved in the world rather than withdrawn from it. One who has attained such enlightenment, or is pursuing it in a disciplined manner, has significantly improved powers of concentration, able to focus on any task without distractions. The meditator is far better able to gracefully accept what he cannot change, and becomes psychologically flexible, tolerant, better able to adapt to changing circumstances and to compassionately identify with others. She unlearns inappropriate responses, and is no longer subject to the conditioned responses and beliefs of the “herd mentality” that is so pervasively forced upon us by advertising, propaganda, institutional norms and other forms of social “behavioral conditioning.” Perhaps most important from a global perspective, the meditator’s priorities shift from “what’s in it for me” to “what is good for humanity and life as a whole.”

In this latter respect, the conscious and deliberate change of brain organization, to allow this more holistic and life-centered perspective to emerge as a basis for the conduct of daily life, can truly be called conscious evolution in its most practical, profound and far-reaching sense.

In summary, Zen and the Brain is a profound and original examination of both the subjective experience of Zen meditation and the neurological foundations of the physical brain that allow this unique experience to emerge. Although more scholarly and detailed in its presentation of brain function and neuroscience than will appeal to many, the book holds great rewards for those prepared to wade through the science: it presents a practical and comprehensible method of attaining transcendental states of awareness that requires the acceptance of no dogma or belief system, merely dedicated practice along clearly defined lines.