Brain Awareness Week

Brain Awareness Week: James Austin’s Achievement

Welcome to Brain Awareness Week! We’re happy to be part of the Dana Foundation’s global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.  Brain research is something that we know about, having published dozens of books in cognitive science, neuroscience, and related disciplines that all aim to uncover just how the human brain works so miraculously. Over the next week we’ll have several posts relating to different aspects of our books in this area. To start, here’s a synoptic view of the work of one of our longest-tenured authors: Jim Austin.

It was during a sabbatical in Japan back in 1974 that neurologist James H. Austin made the acquaintance of Roshi Kobori Nanrei Sohaku, a Zen master who would introduce Austin to the practice of meditation. Meditation, of course, long ago lost its exotic trappings and is practiced by people the world over, as a way of alleviating stress, cultivating mindfulness, even aiding recovery from injury and illness.

Austin’s encounter with Zen practice, though, would transform the entire trajectory of his academic work. Before learning to meditate in Japan, Austin didn’t believe it possible or particularly desirable to lose all of one’s awareness of self, even for brief periods of time. As it turned out, though, that experience that meditation can provide – where one’s sense of psychic and physical self simply drops away, and another horizon opens – provided offered an unexpected opening for a wide-ranging exploration of consciousness. After all, if meditation leads to the state of enlightenment known as “satori” or “kensho,” it makes sense to ask what kinds of physiological change in the brain cause and accompany that state.

This meeting point – between the subjective and the clinical, the mystical and the physiological – was the subject matter that Austin began to explore in Zen and the Brain (1998), his first book for us and a landmark work in this emergent field. A fusion of explanatory neurology and personal account, Zen and the Brain (winner of the Scientific and Medical Network Book Prize) laid the groundwork for establishing how brain function translates into Zen experience, and vice versa. Not incidentally, it was also quite a feat for an author in his early 70s.

Austin has continued to mine this fruitful area in the series of books that has followed. Zen-Brain Reflections (2006) explored the cumulative effects of long-term meditation on the mind and asked whether neuroscientific imaging techniques could locate the areas in the brain where our notions of self originate. Selfless Insight (2009) extended the inquiry to mindfulness, showing how meditation retrains our brain’s attentiveness and leads to greater mindfulness. Meditating Selflessly (2011) gave the research a more a practical cast, explaining how particular styles of meditation lead to new forms of awareness. That applied, hands-on accent extended through Zen-Brain Horizons (2014) and Living Zen Remindfully (2016), which delved into the topic of mindfulness with the blend of scientific accuracy and gentle wisdom that is, by now, familiar in Austin’s writing.

Austin’s achievement seems especially significant when looked at this way, six books published over 18 years that open up new subject matter for exploration. Yet as anyone who’s dealt with Jim will tell you, his scientific accomplishments have always been accompanied by a demeanor of humility and graciousness. Which is why we’d likely be remiss if we didn’t end by quoting the Japanese poet Basho, a touchstone for Austin’s work on how states of meditation can open the self far wider than our conscious minds might ever have imagined. See if you can sense the opening for yourself.

An old pond;
The frog jumps in:
The sound of the water.