In August 2003, Robert Wright—author of, among other best-sellers, The Evolution of God and The Moral Animal—attended his first meditation retreat. Emerging from the Insight Meditation Society in rural Massachusetts, the first thing he did was to call his wife.
“I like the new you,” he recalls her saying; she sensed some sort of newfound serenity in him. In many ways, his new book, Why Buddhism Is True, out today, is an an investigation into the mechanics of that serenity.
As Wright explains to Thrive Global, natural selection, quite inconveniently, designed our minds to be deluded by nature. An Indian sage now known as the Buddha—and the tradition that followed him—did a remarkable, prodigious job of ascertaining how and why we’re so confused more than a thousand years ago, making a diagnosis about human psychology that modern science continues to validate.
We caught up with Wright to learn more about why our brains are so unruly, how emotions shape more than you realize, and why, in the most coldly rational sense, meditation can help save the world.
The below interview has been condensed and edited.
THRIVE GLOBAL: You frame mindfulness as a “rebellion against natural selection.” Why?
ROBERT WRIGHT: If the Buddhist quest is to strip ourselves of illusions that are deeply embedded in us, you might suspect that they were embedded in us by our creator. I think that’s the case, that natural selection did not design us to always see the world clearly—it’s agenda is just getting genes into the next generation. In fact, it designed us to, in some cases, see other people in a warped way and see to ourselves in a warped way.
TG: How so?
RW: Take the simple example of judging our enemies in harsh light. There are specific cognitive biases that are activated when we appraise someone who is an enemy, and certain other ones that are activated when we appraise someone who is a friend. Those biases exist because they had a pragmatic value for our ancestors in helping them get genes into the next generation, but that doesn’t mean that the judgment is true.
You could argue that in our modern environment, which is so different from the environment we were designed for, it’s not even a pragmatic value always to view your enemies in that kind of light. I would argue it’s gotten us into wars that in the end weren’t a good idea.
TG: And that’s why you say meditation can help bring world peace.
RW: If you say to someone, “Meditation can save the world,” they probably think you mean that if we were suffused by brotherly love and empathy then everything would be wonderful. Everything probably would be, but that’s not that’s not what I mean when I say meditation can save the world.
I’m just talking about clarity of vision. I’m actually talking about not increasing the role of emotion in human affairs, but in a certain sense decreasing it. Just gaining the ability to accurately appraise the perspectives of other people in a way that’s conducive to fruitful interaction with them.
I think this is a misconception about Buddhism. It’s true there is such a thing as loving-kindness meditation, which is specifically aimed at increasing empathy and love and kindness, and that’s a great thing. I think it’s also true that just garden variety mindfulness meditation does tend, on balance, to give you more compassion for people. I think those things are true, but I think in some ways the most valuable thing about mindfulness meditation is it gives you almost a cool, clinical, detached view of the human situation.
TG: And of your own situation.
RW: And of other people’s. If you look at the way we usher in our great blunders and tragedies—invade countries we shouldn’t invade—emotion plays a large role, and moralistic rhetoric with an emotional tenor plays a large role. And we get up swept in it, and we don’t think clearly. I’m all for brotherly love, but I actually don’t think it’s necessary to stabilize the situation. I think mediation can help save the world in a more modest way than that—just by letting us see things clearly.
TG: And yet in the West, it’s still thought to be about the warm and fuzzies.
RW: Mindfulness meditation in particular is less stereotypically Eastern than I think people think of meditation as being. By that I mean it’s very analytical. It’s like ‘watch your mind, and see it clearly, and break it down into its working parts,’ right? That sounds kind of Western, and it doesn’t sound mushy. It doesn’t mean that it can’t lead to compassion, but first and foremost I think it leads to clarity of vision. I just don’t think Westerners appreciate that. They just think ‘kumbaya.’
I think in general Buddhism is more Western—I don’t mean in origin, It’s authentically Eastern in origin— but parts of it have more in common with Western philosophy than is appreciated.
TG: Especially the very early Greek stuff.
RW: Stoicism, yeah, for one. Also, the emphasis on causality. Buddhists appreciate that there are causes—of the kind a Western psychologist would appreciate—impinging on the mind so pervasively that it’s almost misleading to think of the mind as an independent thing. It’s always reacting. At the same time, Buddhism offers a way of being liberated by recognizing causal mechanics, and seeing the buttons of yours that are being pushed.
TG: And in practice, that’s how observing a sensation creates a sense of distance or spaciousness.
RW: There is this irony that by getting closer to feelings and in a sense experiencing them more intimately you actually get a critical distance from them. This is especially true of emotions that you generally run away from, like anxiety. Being unafraid to just sit there with it gives you an almost detached perspective on it.
TG: In other interviews I’ve learned about how cognition—or our moment-to-moment thoughts—are largely along for the ride. You argue that emotion is really in the driver’s seat. How does that inform meditative practice?
RW: People don’t realize, as a rule, the extent to which thoughts are governed by feelings, or at least shaped by feelings. For example, if there’s some work you’re supposed to be doing and you’re having trouble with it, and your mind wanders towards some electronic gadget you’ve been meaning to buy, the reason you’re doing that is because it feels better than what you were doing before. Your attention is just pulled along by that quest for pleasure.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes perfect sense the feelings would be fundamental, because they came first. Long ago we had distant ancestors who were governed almost completely by feelings and had almost nothing in the way of cognition. These cognitive apparatuses were added later, but the basic steering mechanism was already there. It’s the feelings that reflected the goals of the organism to begin with and the cognition was added to serve those goals.
The philosopher David Hume, who I quote in the book, said that “reason is the slave of passion,” meaning exactly that—and by passions, he just meant feelings. I think that’s a really under-appreciated fact. And reckoning with it can help people in their personal lives, and again can be a step towards saving the world, which is a nice bonus.
TG: Why is that so surprising to us?
RW: Because feelings work subtly—especially in the realm of cognition. From natural selection’s point of view, it’s a feature, not a bug that people are unaware often of the actual motivation behind their thoughts and their utterances.
TG: You talk about the distinctiveness of Buddhism—the thoroughness of its diagnosis, and the precision of its prescription. What’s so revolutionary about it?
RW: I think the core Buddhist claim is a remarkable one—that the reason we suffer, and the reason we make other people suffer is because we don’t see the world clearly. I think it’s basically true. I think that modern psychology, including evolutionary psychology, helps explain why it’s true.
As if it weren’t amazing enough, Buddhism also makes a claim that the three goals of becoming a happier person, seeing the world more clearly, and becoming a better person naturally converge. And that’s better than having to pursue these three totally unrelated paths if you want all three. Then there is this laying out of specific practices for making these things converge.
It kind of begins as therapy, with a question of how can I reduce my suffering. Then it leads into these grand claims about the nature of human psychology and the very nature of reality, and the relationship between the two.
TG: That is remarkable indeed. One of the things about meditation, of course, is that it’s not the most visible of skills. What’s it mean to get better at it?
RW: First of all, I don’t claim to be a great meditator, and I do claim to have started out as one of the least promising candidates for meditation—I have a minuscule attention span.
But I’ve gotten better. I have seen, especially with the help with meditation retreats, what it can be like to get very good. In the course of the meditation retreat—a week, ten days, two weeks of pure silence—you get a sense of what it would be like to be someone who’s doing it three or four hours a day all the time. The answer is that it’s transformative.
As a fact of the matter the retreat ends, you head back home, and you can’t meditate for three or four hours a day—at least I can’t. I do not remain in a permanently transformed state, but I find the more I do it every day the better off I am, the better a person I am, the happier I am, the less subject I am to the vicissitudes of emotional life. I also find that it’s useful every once in awhile to go back for another retreat to recharge, to remind yourself of how good it can be.
TG: How would you explain that to someone that hasn’t experienced it?
RW: It’s about wasting waste much less time with self-centered thoughts and judgments, ranging from “I can tell that guy’s a jerk by the way he looks” to “I can’t wait to stuff some chocolate in my mouth” to spending more of the time appreciating the beauty of things, including the beauty in people. Just having a literally clearer view of the world that is less burdened by these narratives you’re imposing on things, and these stories you’re telling yourself about yourself and about other people.
At the same time I warn people it’s like extreme sports for the mind. Things can seem very bad on retreat, and every once in awhile you hear someone just having an experience so horrible they would have been better off not going. You hear about that once in awhile, but in my experience the dark parts of retreat fade in comparison to the upsides, and the dark sides are often, in the long-run, things you’re working through. I’m a big retreat advocate, but I think a large part of the point of a retreat should be to reinforce your conviction to do the work of daily meditation.
TG: It provides an anchor.
RW: On retreat, in my experience, you do get deeper into realizations, and you remember them, and you remember that the more modest daily meditative accomplishments are kind of the tip of an iceberg.