/Over half a million people signed up for this free Princeton course on the science behind Buddhist meditation practices. I took it and came away with a better understanding of myself.

Over half a million people signed up for this free Princeton course on the science behind Buddhist meditation practices. I took it and came away with a better understanding of myself.


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  • Robert Wright, a lecturer at Princeton, teaches Buddhism and Modern Psychology on Coursera.
  • The class explores how Buddhist practices like meditation can scientifically improve mental health and wellbeing.
  • I signed up and learned how mindfulness and meditating can make me a happier and healthier person.

One of the biggest aspects of Buddhism is

meditation
, a

mindfulness
practice that promotes awareness in the present moment. The purpose of meditation is to control your state of mind so your thoughts become more focused and peaceful, and the benefits of incorporating meditation into your daily life range from stress and pain reduction to higher self-esteem.

This popular course examines the most well-known Buddhist practices such as meditation through the lens of science and psychology, aiming to illustrate why mindfulness can make us happier people.

But how does meditation actually work, and why is it so effective? That’s what Coursera’s Buddhism and Modern Psychology class, which has over 520,000 enrollments, aims to explore. Focusing on the science behind the mindfulness practices of Buddhism (rather than the overall religion), the course is taught by Robert Wright, a journalist and visiting lecturer in Princeton University’s religion department and their Center for Human Values. Wright also wrote “The New York Times” bestseller “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment,” which combines evolutionary psychology and neuroscience to uphold Buddhist philosophy about the human mind. 

This “New York Times” bestselling book explores why popular concepts of Buddhism such as meditation have such positive and enduring mental health benefits, citing psychological research, philosophical theories, and Wright’s own experiences at silent retreats.

As someone who has taken yoga and meditation courses (including one in India), this course really drew my attention with its focus on Buddhist principles through a philosophical and scientific lens.  To see firsthand why so many people are so drawn to this course, I decided to sign up.

The course covers the following topics in six weekly installments: 

  • The Buddhist Diagnosis
  • The Buddhist Prescription
  • Does Your Self Exist?
  • A New Model of the Mind
  • Mental Modules and Meditation
  • What is Enlightenment? 

Included in the coursework are short lectures, readings, and pre-recorded office hour videos where Wright answers common questions about the course directly from students. It officially takes six weeks to complete the course, but just like most of Coursera’s courses, you can learn at your own pace and time. 

The class makes more abstract concepts very digestible. It organizes material into weekly installments and further organizes sub-topics of those installments into short lecture videos that take about 10-30 minutes to watch. After each lecture video, there are a few short multiple-choice questions to instantly apply your knowledge. In the first week, you go from understanding the Buddhist perspective on existence and suffering to learning how enlightenment in Buddhism is supported by modern psychology.  

The course only requires a commitment of a couple of hours per week for a total of six weeks, but you could also finish it in one week. There is absolutely no required reading or note-taking, but there are two essays: one during the middle of the course and one during the end of the course. The assignments have a specific rubric and are graded by other students taking the course, which makes the process very interactive. Not only will you get to review three other students’ essays, but also gain feedback on your own to see how you did.

Sign up for free here, or keep reading to learn about my experience.

Wright makes the course easy to follow, perfect for a beginner who is not familiar with the content. I was initially hesitant to take the course as it discusses a variety of philosophical abstract concepts, which I do not have prior knowledge of. However, Wright uses a lot of relatable examples that break down complex concepts with simpler terms and analogies. He also includes graphics or video clips of speaking to other experts in his lectures to emphasize or expand on a key idea. 

The course centers on how natural selection has distorted our perception of reality, making us see things not the way they actually are. With that in mind, Wright emphasizes how a mindful attitude can be valuable because it can help you pick up subtle feelings that you may otherwise miss. 

Can Our Feelings Be Trusted



Coursera


One example he gives is that every time something bad comes to mind, you do not feel rage – your feelings can be subtler than that and it’s important to understand them before resorting to drastic measures. This idea really resonated with me and I learned how mindfulness meditation can be a helpful tool in being aware of what’s really going on in my mind, not what I think is going on. I now try to incorporate meditative practices in my daily routine, especially if I’m stressed (or just having a bad day). 

Wright also provides insightful information about the benefits of meditation and other mindfulness practices to live happier and healthier lives. He doesn’t give many suggestions for actionable steps to apply to your life as much as provides a broader framework to help guide you towards healthier decisions. For example, he iterates how meditation can help drive self control by weakening desire, aligning with the scientific idea of operant conditioning to reinforce positive behavior. 

Meditation cultivates a still mind, allowing us to enter a realm of consciousness and awareness. Wright highlights that when our mind is calm, we have the power to choose which thoughts are helpful, which ones are going to serve us, and which ones we can let go of. With this in mind, I strive to meditate when I feel upset or fixated on a certain outcome so I can detach myself and make decisions that aren’t based on impulsivity.  

  1. While watching the lecture videos, I felt like I was in a live classroom. Wright engages in a lot of storytelling, especially while explaining Buddhist thought that originated from the discourse that the Buddha gave to his disciples. Wright also uses a chalkboard to organize concepts and reference them during his lectures, which makes the content easy to follow.

    What Did The Buddha Mean_



    Coursera


  2. The course is not live, so you cannot directly chat with the lecturer. However, I really enjoy listening to Wright’s recorded office hours, where he provides additional insight and reviews material from each installment. He also shares analogies that students in the course made. One student described viewing thoughts as semi-independent actors in your brain, which you can listen to objectively and allow or dismiss, just as you may allow or dismiss the spoken thoughts coming from your neighbor. 
  3. One aspect of the course that was really interactive was being able to communicate with other students through the discussion forum. It was really interesting to chat about course content and see different viewpoints on the material. Additionally, I was able to explore additional resources and articles suggested by others to expand my knowledge on the power of meditation. 
  4. As with most Coursera classes, I enjoyed how I was able to take this course at my own pace and time. This course, in particular, did not have many assessments to showcase mastery of content, which made it stress-free and manageable. I did appreciate the creative aspect of the mid-term and final essays, where we could articulate information in whichever way we wanted, as long as we were hitting the points on the rubric for a passing grade. 

By the end of the class, you learn how meditative practices can transform how your mind operates and may be inspired to start a mindfulness meditation regimen of your own. Personally, I’ve ingrained more mindfulness practices in my life – such as meditating right before taking an exam or interview so I don’t let my nervousness affect my thoughts. I also meditate when I have any intense feelings I need to manage, such as disappointment or grief, to help me calm down or relax. Ultimately, this course not only teaches you how Buddhist thought and psychology are intertwined, but also how these time-tested principles can help us lead more fulfilling lives. 

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