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Buddhism Meets Evolutionary Psychology

The science of meditation and enlightenment.

Key points

  • In his book “Why Buddhism is True,” Robert Wright connects meditation and enlightenment to principles of evolutionary psychology.
  • A central premise is that natural selection designed our minds for delusional thinking, rather than to see the world as it really is.
  • Another central premise is that we are designed by natural selection to be perpetually dissatisfied.
  • Wright argues that meditation can free us from enslavement by our own instinctive reactions, and the accompanying delusions and dissatisfaction.

Robert Wright is an award-winning science journalist who has written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the New York Times. He’s also authored a number of best-selling popular science books, including The Moral Animal: The new science of evolutionary psychology, published in 1994.

Recently, my ex-wife Melanie Trost sent me a copy of Wright’s book Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. Melanie is seriously into meditation and Buddhism, and has even been to visit Buddhist temples in Kathmandu and Bhutan. She was thus impressed to see that I was mentioned in Wright’s book, because meditation and Buddhist enlightenment are rather far outside my area of expertise. I was mentioned not as a shining example of enlightenment, though, but because the book considers Buddhism through the lens of evolutionary psychology.

Official cover of book being reviewed here.
Wright's "Why Buddhism is True"
Source: Official cover of book being reviewed here.

There are two things I associate with Buddhist meditation: One is the idea of taking what one might call a “zen perspective” — looking at the world, especially the aspects of the world that drive you to distraction and misery, from an outside objective perspective. This means letting go of all your personal biases and accepting things as they really are, rather than obsessing over how you wish they would be. For example, in an earlier post, I talked about the Zen of Embracing Rejection — based on a conference talk aimed to help graduate students cope with rejection letters from scientific journals (which are inevitable, given a rejection rate of 90 percent or higher in prestigious journals). Wright talks throughout his book about how Buddhist teachings encourage people to let go of their narrow self-centered views of the world, including the various self-delusions and unrealistic social comparisons that make them miserable.

The other big part of the story is about mindful meditation, which presumably is a route to letting go of all those self-concerns, and potentially even a path to ultimate enlightenment. Wright notes that many people meditate not to achieve perfect enlightenment, but with humbler goals such as relaxing, reducing anxiety, and turning off the incessant chatter inside their heads — the inner voices harassing you about whether you are working hard enough, whether other people like or respect you, or whether you are a bad person because you ate an extra chocolate brownie.

Wright talks about his own difficulties achieving the simple goal of concentrating on his breathing and emptying his mind of other distracting thoughts. He notes how, despite the fact that Buddhists eschew the very concepts of “success” and “failure,” he felt like a complete failure at meditation when he attended his first week-long meditation retreat. I have myself tried to accomplish the simple goal of focusing on my breathing and stopping the incessant inner distractions, and found it rather amazing how hard it was to do.

Wright summarizes what he regards as a dozen “truths” of Buddhist philosophers that comport with the scientific evidence. These include:

  1. We humans often fail to see the world clearly, distorting reality in ways that can make us suffer, and can lead others to suffer.
  2. We anticipate enduring satisfaction from achieving our goals, but we are not designed to stay satisfied for long. Once we achieve one goal, or one level of reward, we desire more to keep us happy. This “hedonic treadmill” is a product of natural selection, but not a recipe for lifelong happiness. Indeed, we seem to be designed to be perpetually dissatisfied.
  3. Craving things is a source of suffering. Rather than appreciating what we have in the here and now, we compare ourselves to others who have more, or to idealized versions of what our lives could be, for example. (see, for example, If you Pursue Happiness, You May Find Loneliness).
  4. Mindful meditation can weaken the grip of our attractions and repulsions. Several examples Wright discusses involve changing the way we think about unpleasant sensations such as toothaches and various bodily aches. If rather than trying to suppress or deny those unpleasant feelings, we let ourselves fully experience them, their power over us often decreases. During a bike ride yesterday I came to a hill that I often find annoying and unpleasant. Thinking about this point from Wright’s book, I decided to focus on the burning feeling in my thighs and found that the pain was somehow pleasurable (as when an aerobics instructor says: “feel the burn”) (see also 7 Good Things about Feeling Bad and When is it Good for You to Feel Miserable?)
  5. There is no single executive “self.” Instead the mind is modular, composed of multiple “subselves” or executive systems with different goals. Those subselves don’t necessarily communicate well with one another. It was in this context that Wright talked about work from our lab and general ideas discussed in my book, with Vladas Griskevicius, The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.

I found Wright’s book a delightful read, partly because of his humorous and humbly self-deprecating writing style. He observes that he is himself the perfect test case for the benefits of meditation. Buddhists are not supposed to judge others or themselves, and of course, meditation involves sitting still and focusing your attention for prolonged periods of time. Yet Wright notes that he is inclined toward both attention deficit disorder and misanthropy, so if he can benefit from mindful meditation, he argues that anyone can.

Wright notes that a lot of the ideas of Buddhist philosophers are paradoxical, and he occasionally likes to get deep into those paradoxes, and into some of the weeds of what exactly the Buddha himself said or meant, and how later philosophers interpreted the various precepts of Buddhism.

Wright notes that Buddhist teachers have never viewed mindful meditation as “stopping to smell the roses,” as it is often conceptualized today. Instead, Zen masters often encourage their students to open themselves up to unpleasant experiences, in line with the idea that acceptance is a big part of enlightenment. Wright quotes one ancient text that reminds us that our bodies are full of unclean things such as “feces, bile, phlegm, blood, sweat, fat, tears,…” My most enlightening experience as I listened to the audiobook during a long drive came at his line: “I’m not aware of any bestselling books on mindfulness meditation called Stop and Smell the Feces.” Just as that sentence was spoken, I looked up and saw a rainbow in the distance. Speaking of paradoxes, that moment may have been as close to nirvana as I’ll get.

References

Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013). The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. New York: Basic Books

Wright, R. (1994). The moral animal: Evolutionary psychology and modern life. New York: Pantheon.

Wright, R. (2017). Why Buddhism is True: The science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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