Although I have read a few chapters of Zen & the Brain today, it's mostly about the neuroscientist author's own introduction to zazen, so not as translatable into a blog summary (+ comment) as the earlier passages. Before I go back to the beginning of the book and summarize and comment upon them, I think I should explain my fascination with Buddhism - not just the Zen subset - and how a book combining Zen with neuroscience is a perfect fit for me, at this time.
I'm at a stage of my life where I feel both more hope and more despair than ever before. Age has brought wisdom, which says plenty of seemingly paradoxical things, e.g., life is full of joy and life is full of sorrow. Patterns start to form from formerly unconnected facts or phenomena (probably a good definition of wisdom in itself).
With many gloomy and challenging things ahead, such as the infirmities and deaths of loved ones, I want to maximize my cognitive and emotional strength, for my sake and theirs. The obvious refuge for many people in search of strength would be a religion, but I have a natural aversion to the organization of spirituality (and many other things). Buddhism is a way of looking, of living, not a religion, though it is often classified as one.
My studies in neuroscience have clarified many lifelong mysteries for me - and will continue to do so, no doubt! One thing is the serenity afforded by being present: quieting the distracted mind (which causes stress, a body-bruising force) and narrowing one's attention. We could all do with more serenity. In fact, many of our so-called vices are convoluted (futile) means of seeking the silence of the sacred grove - as we live in crowded cities, lead frantic lives, and can barely hear ourselves think.
I think discovering a permanent means of focus, attention, and serenity - through breathing exercises, and so on - would be a healthy, cost-free, and easily accessed alternative to eating, drinking, shopping, watching movies, and other stop-gap measures. (They are all fairly harmless in themselves - note I did not include illegal drug use - but if used instead of what really leads to the desired goal, they are empty.)
My desired goal is mindfulness. Distraction diffuses energy, wastes it. And I cannot be mindful or present or attentive unless I find a way of calming my monkey mind (what a great term), convincing it that everything will be all right.
A formidable task: "I" do not really believe this quite yet....