Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A far more accurate title for this book would be Why Mindfulness Meditation is Good. For as Wright—who does not consider himself a Buddhist—admits, he is not really here to talk about any form of traditional Buddhism. He does not even present a strictly “orthodox” view of any secular, Western variety of Buddhism. Instead, this is a rather selective interpretation of some Buddhist doctrines in the light of evolutionary psychology.
Wright’s essential message is that the evolutionary process that shaped the human brain did not adequately program us for life in the modern world; and that mindfulness meditation can help to correct this bad programming.
The first of these claims is fairly uncontroversial. To give an obvious example, our love of salt, beneficial when sodium was hard to come by in natural products, has become maladaptive in the modern world where salt is cheap and plentiful. Our emotions, too, can misfire nowadays. Caring deeply that people have a high opinion of you makes sense when you are, say, living in a small village full of people you know and interact with daily; but it makes little sense when you are surrounded by strangers on a bus.
This mismatch between our emotional setup and the newly complex social world is one reason for rampant stress and anxiety. Something like a job interview—trying to impress a perfect stranger to earn a livelihood—simply didn’t exist for our ancestors. This can also explain of tribalism, which Wright sees as the most pressing danger of the modern world. It makes evolutionary sense to care deeply for oneself and one’s kin, with some close friends thrown in; and those who fall outside of this circle should, following evolutionary logic, be treated with suspicion—which explains why humans are so prone to dividing themselves into mutually antagonistic groups.
But how can mindfulness meditation help? Most obviously, it is a practice designed to give us some distance from our emotions. This is done by separating the feeling from its narrative. In daily life, for example, anger is never experienced “purely”; we always get angry about something; and the thought of this event is a huge component of its experience. But the meditator does her best to focus on the feeling itself, to examine its manifestation in her body and brain, while letting go of the corresponding narrative. Stripped of the provoking incident, the feeling itself ceases to be provocative; and the anger may even disappear completely.
Explained in this way, mindfulness meditation is the mirror image of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT the anger is attacked from the opposite side: by focusing on the narrative and subjecting it to logical criticism. In my experience, at least, the things one tells oneself while angry rarely stand up to cool analysis. And when one ceases to believe in the thought, the feeling disappears. The efficacy of both mindfulness meditation and CBT, then, is based on the interdependence of feeling and thought. If separated—either by focusing on the feeling during meditation, or the thought through analysis—the emotion disappears.
This, in a nutshell, is how mindfulness meditation can be therapeutic. But Wright wants to make a far more grandiose claim: that mindfulness meditation can reveal truths about the nature of mind, the world, and morality.
One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that of “emptiness”: that the enlightened meditator sees the world as empty of essential form. The first time I encountered this idea in a Buddhist text it made no sense to me; but Wright gives it an intriguing interpretation. Our brain, designed to survive, naturally assigns value to things in our environment based on how useful or harmful they are to us. These evaluations are, according to Wright’s theory, experienced as emotional reactions. I have quite warm and fuzzy feelings about my laptop, for example; and even the communal computers where I work evoke in me a comforting sense of familiarity and utility.
These emotions, which are sometimes very tiny indeed, are what give experiential reality a sense of essence. The emotions, in other words, help us to quickly identify and use objects: I don’t have to think too much about the computers, for example, since the micro-emotion brings its instrumental qualities quickly to my attention. The advantages of this are obvious to anyone in a hurry. Likewise, this emotional registering is equally advantageous in avoiding danger, since taking time to ponder a rattlesnake isn’t advisable.
But the downside is that we can look at the world quite narrowly, ignoring the sensuous qualities of objects in favor of an instrumental view. Visual art actively works against this tendency, I think, by creating images that thwart our normal registering system, thus prompting us into a sensuous examination of the work. Good paintings make us into children again, exploring the world without worrying about making use of things. Mindfulness meditation is supposed to engender this same attitude, not just with regards to a painting, but to everything. Stripped of these identifying emotional reactions, the world might indeed seem “empty”—empty of distinctions, though full of rich sensation.
With objects, it is hard to see why this state of emptiness would be very desirable. (Also it should be said that this idea of micro-emotions serving as registers of essential distinctions is Wright’s interpretation of the psychological data, and is rather speculative.) But with regards to humans, this mindset might have its advantages. Instead of attributing essential qualities of good and bad to somebody we might see that their behavior can vary quite a bit depending on circumstances, and this can make us less judgmental and more forgiving.
Wright also has a go at the traditional Buddhist idea that the self is a delusion. According to what we know about the brain, he says, there is no executive seat of consciousness. He cites the famous split-brain experiments, and others like it, to argue that consciousness is not the powerful decision-maker we once assumed, but is more like a publicity agent: making our actions seem more cogent to others.
This is necessary because, underneath the apparent unity of conscious experience, there are several domain-specific “modules”—such as for sexual jealousy, romantic wooing, and so on—that fight amongst themselves in the brain for power and attention. Each module governs our behavior in different ways; and environmental stimuli determine which module is in control. Our consciousness gives a sense of continuity and coherence to this shifting control, which makes us look better in the eyes of our peers—or that’s how the theory goes, which Wright says is well-supported.
In any case, the upshot of this theory still would not be that the self doesn’t exist; only that the self is more fragmented and less executive than we once supposed. Unfortunately, the book steeply declines in quality in the last few chapters—where Wright tackles the most mystical propositions of Buddhism—when the final stage of the no-self argument is given. This leads him into the following speculations:
If our thoughts are generated by a variety of modules, which use emotion to get our attention; and if we can learn to dissociate ourselves from these emotions and see the world as “empty”; if, in short, we can reach a certain level of detachment from our thoughts and emotions: then, perhaps, we can see sensations arising in our body as equivalent to sensations arising from without. And maybe, too, this state of detachment will allow us to experience other people’s emotions as equivalent to our own, like how we feel pain from seeing a loved one in pain. In this case, can we not be said to have seen the true oneness of reality and the corresponding unreality of personal identity?
These lofty considerations aside, when I am struck by a car they better not take the driver to the emergency room; and when Robert Wright gets a book deal he would be upset if they gave me the money. My point is that this experience of oneness in no way undermines the reality of distinct personal identity, without which we could hardly go a day. And this state of perfect detachment is arguably, contra Wright, a far less realistic way of seeing things, since being genuinely unconcerned as to whom a pain belonged, for example, would make us unable to help. (Also in this way, contra Wight, it would make us obviously less moral.)
More generally, I think Wright is wrong in insisting that meditation can help us to experience reality more “truly.” Admittedly, I know from experience that meditation can be a great aid to introspection and can allow us to deal with our emotions more effectively. But the notion that a meditative experience can allow us to see a metaphysical truth—the unreality of self or the oneness of the cosmos—I reject completely. An essentially private experience cannot confirm or deny anything, as Wright himself says earlier on.
I also reject Wright’s claim that meditation can help us to see moral reality more clearly. By this he means that the detachment engendered by meditation can allow us to see every person as equally valuable rather than selfishly considering one’s own desires more important.
Now, I do not doubt that meditation can make people calmer and even nicer. But detachment does not lead logically to any moral clarity. Detachment is just that—detachment, which means unconcern; and morality is impossible without concern. Indeed, it seems to me that an enlightened person would be even less likely to improve the world, since they can accept any situation with perfect equanimity. Granted, if everyone were perfectly enlightened there would be no reason to improve anything—but I believe the expression about hell freezing over applies here.
Aside from the intellectual weakness of these later chapters, full as they are of vague hand-waving, the book has other flaws. I often got the sense that Wright was presenting the psychological evidence very selectively, emphasizing the studies and theories that accorded with his interpretations of Buddhism, without taking nearly enough time to give the contrasting views. On the other hand, he interprets the Buddhist doctrines quite freely—so in the end, when he says that modern science is confirming Buddhism, I wonder what is confirming what, exactly. The writing, while quite clear, was too hokey and jokey for me.
Last, I found his framing of meditation as a way to save humanity from destructive tribalism as both naïve and misguided. In brief, I think that we ought to try to create a society in which the selfish interests of the greatest number of people are aligned. Selfish attachment, while potentially narrow, need not be if these selves are in enmeshed in mutually beneficial relationships; and some amount of attachment, with its concomitant dissatisfactions, seems necessary for people to exert great effort in improving their station and thus changing our world.
Encouraging people to become selflessly detached, on the other hand, besides being unrealistic, also strikes me as generally undesirable. For all the suffering caused by attachment—of which I am well aware—I am not convinced that life is better without it. As Orwell said: “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”