Robert Wright on Mindfulness, Buddhism, and Overcoming Delusions
In part one of our interview, bestselling author Robert Wright discusses his new book “Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” Wright argues that mindfulness can help overcome constraints on the human mind imposed by natural selection, allowing us to see the world more clearly
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. People who engage in a mindfulness practice, like meditation or yoga, will often speak of its benefits, a better attention span, less anger, a reduction of stress, even an easing of depression. Well, a new book tackles the question of why scientifically this may be. It argues that Buddhism offers a way to overcome the constraints imposed on the human mind by natural selection.
The book is called “Why Buddhism is True, The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” It’s by Robert Wright, a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His previous books include “The Moral Animal,” and “The Evolution of God.” Robert Wright is also the founder of the website Mindful Resistance. In part two of this conversation, we’re going to discuss that.
For now, we’re talking about the book, “Why Buddhism is True,” and very happy that Robert Wright is here with us. Robert, welcome. Let’s start with the field that you are known to be an expert in, evolutionary psychology, and what it can tell us about how the human mind works and why Buddhism, as I said, can help us overcome some of the constraints that our mind imposes on us.
ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, it turns out that evolutionary psychology echoes a couple of important themes in Buddhism. I think very, very important, if not the main message of Buddhism, is that the reason we suffer and the reason we make other people suffer is that we don’t see the world clearly. We have illusions about ourselves, about other people, about the world. These things lead to suffering. There is a lot of suffering, as the Buddha is said to have observed.
Evolutionary psychology says that, first of all, the human mind was not designed to always see things clearly. Natural selection, in some cases, actually favors illusions, you might say. After all, all natural selection cares about or, quote, “cares about” since it’s not really a conscious process, is what traits will get an animal’s genes into the next generation.
If having an illusion, having a distorted view of yourself or of other people has helped get genes into the next generation, then distortion can actually be built into the human mind. Then, the other thing that evolutionary psychology tells us is it’s natural, in a certain sense, that we are prone to suffering, because we’re also not designed to be happy. Our happiness is not high on natural selection’s agenda.
Again, if being unhappy or anxious or restless or dissatisfied has gotten genes into the next generation over time, then those things will be encouraged by natural selection. We’ll be inclined to become dissatisfied with things easily and to want more. Gratification will tend to evaporate, as a lot of us have observed it actually does and we may have noticed that in our lives.
Just in short, Buddhism says we are prone to not seeing the world clearly and to suffering, to unhappiness. There’s a connection between these two things. Evolutionary psychology reinforces the idea that we’re prone to delusion, to not seeing things clearly, and to suffering. I argue in the book that there is a connection, indeed, between these two things and that we can make ourselves happier and make the world a better place by trying to clarify our vision.
AARON MATÉ: Right. You point out in the book that part of the reason why or a main reason why we’re prone toward seeking gratification is because we need it in order to pass genes to the next generation. For example, if we just ate one meal and that was all for us, then we wouldn’t need to eat again or if we just had sex once, then we wouldn’t need to have sex again. The problem is, that couldn’t help us create the next generations.
ROBERT WRIGHT: That’s right. I mean, if you imagine an animal that ate one meal and then just said, “Okay, I’m good,” and never got hungry again, never got dissatisfied with things enough to go pursue more food, obviously that animal wouldn’t last long. Same with sex, an animal that has sex only once is going to get out-competed by other animals of the same species.
This seems to be why we are on what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill.” We keep seeking more because the gratification we get never lasts and we tend to suffer from the illusion that it will last longer than it does. When you’re gunning for some big promotion or you’re thinking about some great thing you’re going to buy, you’re focusing on how good it’s going to feel when you get it and you’re not thinking about how fast that feeling’s going to evaporate.
According to Buddhism, that is an illusion. That’s a central example in Buddhism of an illusion. Now, the difference between Buddhism and evolutionary psychology is Buddhism doesn’t just diagnose the human condition, it actually has a prescription. It offers something to do about the problem and meditation is a big part of that.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Okay, in short, we are trying to go through life using minds that are designed, not for the purpose of necessarily trying to make us happy or even achieve what we want, but have a very simple purpose, which is survival for the next generation, which means that we’re applying the faculties of the mind towards things or in ways that they weren’t necessarily designed for. They were designed for a different purpose than maybe we’re using them for. If I have that correct, how does Buddhism help us handle that and maybe correct where it steers us off course?
ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, first of all, you’re right. There’s actually two problems. One, is we weren’t designed to be happy in the first place. Secondly, the modern environment is so different from the environment that natural selection designed us for that there’s even more suffering. Anxiety is natural and that causes suffering in a natural environment, something more like a hunter/gatherer environment. In a modern world, there’s all these weird things we do that weren’t part of a hunter/gatherer environment, like give talks in front of a bunch of people we don’t know and so on, so there’s even more anxiety.
As for what meditation can do about things like this, mindfulness meditation in particular helps us develop a different kind of relationship to our feelings. What you do in mindfulness meditation is you start by focusing on your breathing, but as your mind gets calmer, you find yourself able to look at feelings that normally you would just react to. You feel anxiety and start thinking, “Oh, no. Things are going to go horribly,” or “What can I do? Can I talk myself into thinking they won’t?” Or whatever.
Once your mind is in a calm state, you take a different approach as you just observe a feeling like anxiety. If you get good at that as a meditator, that takes a lot of the suffering out of the feeling. It’s more like observing it from a more objective point of view in a certain sense. The feeling doesn’t go away. You still experience the feeling, but because you’re paying attention to it, it has less of a grip on you. The same with all kinds of feelings that we’re often better off without, things like hatred, anger, envy, sadness. Meditation helps us develop a different relationship to them and be less their slave.
AARON MATÉ: This sort of contradicts with an image that many of us have about ourselves, which is that we’re in control of our minds. I was really interested by, in the book, your rendering of what the Buddha had to say about this, about how we are not actually at all in control of our minds. Can you tell us about what he taught?
ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. There’s this kind of crazy sounding Buddhist idea called “not-self,” which means that, in some sense, the self doesn’t exist. You might say, “Well, what does that mean?” One thing it means is that our sense that the conscious self is the big CEO, it’s making all the decisions, it’s creating all the thoughts, that that’s actually mistaken, okay? That’s kind of an illusion.
Modern psychology has actually corroborated the Buddhist claim that this is a very misleading sense of things. I mean, for example, there’s experiments that seem to indicate that when we feel we are consciously deciding to do something, like just something simple like push a button, that actually the physical processes in the brain that initiate the pushing are underway before we feel as if we’d made the decision.
There’s other evidence that we’re not as in control as we think we are, in a certain sense, that the unconscious mind sometimes makes up stories about our actual motivations for doing things and the conscious mind believes them. Here, too, meditation, it’s kind of ironic. Meditation, in a certain sense, helps you accept that you’re not in control, but in the process helps you, or maybe I should say, “you” according to strict Buddhist doctrine, be more in control.
Once you let go of the idea that you are in charge and just do a little more in the way of observing what’s going on in your mind and seeing feeling and thoughts as just showing up more than being projected by the conscious you, that actually helps you lead a more reflective life, a less reactive life. In a certain sense, accepting that you’re not as in control as you think you are helps you become more in control. I know it sounds paradoxical, but that’s the way it seems to work.
AARON MATÉ: My problem here is that feelings are so strong in people, at least in my own life, the feelings that I’ve experienced that I’ve felt guided by, that it’s been impossible for me to not act on them. Why do you think that is and how can mindfulness help us get around that?
ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, the reason they’re so hard to resist is that they are designed by natural selection to be hard to resist. That is natural selection’s agenda, what it “wants us to do.” Again, it’s not a conscious being, but that agenda is inscribed in feelings. Feelings are the levers that it uses to get us to do its bidding, so to speak. Whether it’s a feeling like lust or just a desperate desire for more status or hatred of a rival or whatever, feelings are trying to get us to do the kinds of things that, at least in the environment of our evolution, tended to get more genes into the next generation.
They’re designed to be hard to resist, that’s why meditation is not easy. It’s not even easy to calm down and focus on your breath, that takes a lot of practice since our minds just naturally wander from thought to thought to thought. Then, it takes continued practice before you start to develop a different relationship to your feelings.
Personally, I am not a natural meditator at all, I had to go to a one-week silent meditation retreat before I got the hang of it at all. It’s not easy and it’s not easy by design, you might say. Natural selection, again, it doesn’t create organisms that can easily defy its agenda, but I think defiance is possible.
Again, I think if you defy its agenda, you can be happier. You can be a better person and a less destructive person. I think you, in the process, begin seeing things more clearly, seeing the world more clearly, sizing people up in a more objective way and not in a way that’s so judgmental, that’s kind of use judgment as a bias, you might say, by your own self-serving point of view.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. This is a bit of a tangent here, but I’m curious about your thoughts on the implications here based on this theory for something like love. If sex, for example, is evolutionary psychology’s incentive for procreation, then what does that say about love? Obviously love is a good path towards procreation.
If you’re in love with someone, the odds are probably higher that you’re going to make a baby with them. Is love also biology’s incentive structure for procreating and for getting genes into the next generation? If so, I’m wondering, is that a reason to maybe view love with the same type of skepticism or detachment that you would other human feelings and mechanisms?
ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, first of all, I’d say that, through mindful meditation, you can view all feelings with an initial skepticism and then decide which feelings are wholesome and leading you in a good direction and not leading you to be either unhappy or a horrible person and then make a judgment about which feelings you want to follow the guidance of. An initial skepticism, I think, is a fine thing.
Now, love, as it happens, has a lot of good properties, I think. It can blind you. It’s not always good in all circumstances. It can make you do bad things, but I think it has a lot of positive manifestations. As for your first question, yes, in our species, pair bonding seems to have evolved. There are fathers, you might say, attentive fathers, males stick around and play a role in rearing the offspring. Not all species are like that, not even all primate species are like that. In a species with pair bonding, it does make sense that both males and females would have feelings that draw them into lasting attachments with each other.
AARON MATÉ: How do you look at the socioeconomic class angle of this, if there is one? In my own experience, whenever I’m comfortable in life, whenever I’m doing well work-wise, whenever I’m not too busy, it’s been really easy for me or it’s been way easier for me to meditate than it has been when things aren’t going so well. I think, for many people, would love to be able to have the chance to go and do a week-long retreat, would love to even have 20 minutes out of the day when they can meditate, but there are, I think, some class barriers to that. In my own experience, just even going to mindfulness gatherings, retreats, I tend to notice that it is people who are more privileged and usually more white. I’m wondering your thoughts on that?
ROBERT WRIGHT: I think that’s true, there is a demographic bias in terms of who is most likely to be a meditator, but I think that’s changing somewhat. I just did a public event with Jon Kabat-Zinn, who started mindfulness based stress reduction long ago. One thing that did is it took mindfulness out of its Buddhist context in a certain sense so it no longer sounded so much like a religion.
When people think of mindfulness as that, as just this practical, pragmatic thing you can use, it’s more likely to be accepted in public schools, in hospitals, in a variety of places. I think you are seeing it taught in some public schools, in more and more public schools, some of which include low income students. Then, separate from that, to get back to a Buddhist context, for example I’m in New York, I know people at the Brooklyn Zen Center sometimes make a point of going into the schools as volunteers and teaching meditation to troubled kids and so on.
I think you’re right that it’s traditionally there’s been an upper class and you might even say, politically, a liberal bias. Well, I think that it’s to the benefit of the world if more and more people meditate. I’m hoping that, in the long run, the practice can pervade society much more evenly.
AARON MATÉ: Which is a great segue to the second part of our discussion on mindful resistance. Robert Wright is the author of “Why Buddhism is True, The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” Join us in part two, where we’re going to talk about how mindfulness can help us in the age of Trump. Robert Wright, thank you.
ROBERT WRIGHT: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.