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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  • What to expect from the class
  • My experience taking the class
  • Here’s what I liked about the course: 
  • The bottom line:
  • 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.

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My experience taking the class

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. 

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.  

Here’s what I liked about the course: 

  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.
    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. 

The bottom line:

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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