I can imagine reading this book at some other life juncture and thinking "ah, that's nice" and moving on. That is, I can imagine reading it and not taking it seriously, and not getting very much out of it. But a number of things have come together just at this point in my life to cause me to pay special attention to this idea. It's very scientific and it's very simple.
1. Brains are quite plastic. Just as we might completely rewire the brain/nerve/finger connection by practicing guitar for 10,000 hours, just as a chess master greatly expands the chess/logic/strategy capacities of her brain by playing chess against tough opponents for 10,000 hours, we can completely overhaul our brain's skills in coping with sadness, stress, anger, impatience, envy and everyday unpleasant emotions by steady consistent practice.
2. But even more than that, we can transform our experience of the world in positive ways, we can learn to get ever so much more from everyday life, from each passing moment, than we may ever have imagined possible. In fact, the experience of enlightenment in the Buddhist sense consists in exactly that. This book, then, describes the science of enlightenment.
3. It's important not just to people who are struggling with depression or other mental illness, not just to those who have significant trauma in their past or abuse from which they'd like to recover, but to all of us who live in this world day by day, to all who want the world to be a better place, who want to spread happiness and joy to those around them, who wish for strength with which to confront adversity and for triumph over the ills of mortal existence. This is it. This is the real thing.
4. Chapter by chapter Ricard lays out his thesis. Happiness matters. Compassion matters. The emotions that foster well-being and flourishing in humans are compassion, loving kindness, respect, appreciation, thoughtfulness, humility, mindfulness, etc. The emotions that foster misery are anger, jealousy, addictive desire, pride, contempt, strong grasping, and so on. We can through practice train our minds to engender the former and let go of the latter so consistently that the tendency for the latter even to arise becomes insignificant, and the habit of the former becomes the very texture and landscape of our lives.
5. Studies of EEGs of trained meditators (for meditation is simply mind-training) show positive brain responses far outside the normal bell-curve of ordinary subjects. Not only can we change from a normally melancholy or splenetic personality to a normally happy one, but we can become extraordinarily way-outside-the-bell-curve happy, serene, joyful, patient, respectful, kind, loving, and well.
6. Is such a thing even desirable? Yes it is, and there are chapters laying out the reasons why.
7. Coming from a scientific perspective, there's nothing mysterious here. Just as I can become a better piano player by practice, so I can become a better person, a better moral agent, by practice as well.
8. Coming from a religious perspective, this is the transformation we seek that's available through Christ's atonement. When we clear the hurdles to begin, when we feel the desire to pursue this and are willing to devote our efforts to it, when we're convinced that it's worthwhile and it matters, which convincing comes through grace, then are we remade as new beings through God's grace and our best efforts.
9. Coming from a specifically LDS perspective, this is eternal progression, this I believe is our divine nature, that by exercising our agency in any direction we consistently choose, we can become not just good humans, but we can go completely beyond normal human experience and become someone with strength and spiritual power beyond ordinary human abilities. We can become as gods. The scientific way to express our potential godhood, then, is "brain plasticity". We all knew these were plain and precious truths. We all knew that they were factually true in the real world, not some crazy mythological dream, you know? I mean, through Christ is myth made real, and each of us is made a hero, a priest, a being of enormous potential and potency, a god.
10. The question arises, why if we have such potency do we even need Christ? The answer I see to that question is we need him to show us in which direction to head, what aspects of ourselves to develop and which to let go of. It doesn't matter so very much having the answer to any question if you don't know what questions to ask. Christ, then, points us to the right questions.
11. But isn't this just more selfishness, to want such happiness for ourselves, such power and peace? The answer I see to that is that we ache for the world, we suffer because of the world's hurts, and we wish to heal the world of its wrongs. But until we heal ourselves what do we have to offer the world? Unless we're made whole, how can we bring wholeness to others? Part and parcel of the wish to be a better person is the desire to help everyone who hurts, to have strength and joy from which to give to others to help empower them to become who they truly are.
Our ability to help others is severely limited by our own hurts. By freeing ourselves we also touch all those around us with freedom, and we're given strength to mourn with those who mourn, joy to share with those in need of comfort, and abundance for those who lack. In fact, the only person we have direct power to free is our own selves. So then this is our life's work, to do that.
Along with developing our own compassion and independence, part of that very process is aiding and empowering others. As Ricard points out, the weak and injured person is mainly concerned with her own emotional reaction to the suffering of others. We're too concerned with our own suffering to have the ability to relieve that of others. How often in my life have I shied away from tackling seemingly intractable problems like slavery or street children because the very idea is too painful for me to contemplate for long?
12. So this book is to me one of the most important books I've ever read. The work is still all to be done, of course. Now it's time for me to begin training in earnest. Everything so far has been preparation, what I needed in order to get me to the point that I could recognize the importance of this and choose to start working on it. From here forward it's all new territory, dripping with promise like dew on a spring morning, bursting with life like a dogwood blossom on Easter. =)