What does it mean to be Buddhist? All I’ve ever done is study it casually – no monkhood, no monastery, no meditation retreats. At the very least, I AM a sincere admirer and explorer of its ideas. And if Buddhism were somehow wiped from the human record tonight, I am convinced something like it would inevitably return. I am convinced of this because so much of what it has to say seems like what anyone might discover about life on their own, given enough time and frustration.
Dogma – Hard No
As a teen learning how to protect against mind-control, I collapsed “spirituality” and “religion” into one homogenous blob of “things people blindly believe to feel good” – so that I could stay away from it. Raised catholic, I was happy to unbuckle from dogma and rote rituals – such as: not eating certain things at certain times, or confessing secrets to another human, or dogs not going to heaven, or eating god wafers on Sundays. Was there a baby in the bathwater of religious systems? It didn’t matter – the bathwater was too repulsive to redeem anything. I took comfort in Atheism and science.
What’s changed, decades later? I now realize “spirituality” is distinct from “religion”. Even this is murky… Spirituality can evoke ideas of souls, and God, and religious doctrine. I don’t mean any of that. I simply define spirituality as: non-religious, non-mystical experiences that help one deepen their understanding of existence and reality. That’s it. Given this, I see a massive baby in Buddhism’s bathwater – completely harmonious with rational thought, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience.
Late to the Party
I am not the first human to peer deeply into Buddhism from the sidelines, and have a holy shit moment, as I see a couple of its core ideas resonate so strongly with hard-earned personal insights. And this is my premise – that Buddhist-like epiphanies are an emergent property of the human condition colliding with rational self-inquiry. In that regard, they feel “true”. In other words, take anyone like me, critically skeptical and trying to figure things out through reasoning, allergic to religion, coming to few really helpful conclusions throughout life, and then seeing they’ve existed in Buddhism all along. Further, I see this as distinct and deeper from spotting “helpful” or “true” ideas in other religions.
Robert Wright – Why Buddhism is True
As if spotting two personal epiphanies within Buddhism wasn’t mind blowing enough, discovering someone else had done the same, from the same rational sidelines, AND written a book about it, using the same little analogies and comparative techniques I did, really shook me (in the best way).
This book is Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright. Here a two eerie-yet-wonderful coincidences from Chapter 1 alone. In sharing this, I offer affirmation that this is some serious life-changing stuff worth worth considering. And one doesn’t need to call themselves a Buddhist to explore this shift. (suggestions follow).
Three weeks ago I wrote an essay about a shift in my life – how my relationship with identity and desire has drastically changed – DeleteMyself.exe. I used the film, The Matrix, as analogy for two reasons. First, Neo famously comes to see the world as he knows it has been an illusion. He is not exactly who he’s believed himself to be, and further, he slowly understands he has power over forces inside the matrix that manipulated him.
“At the risk of overdramatizing the human condition: Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix? It’s about a guy named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who discovers that he’s been inhabiting a dream world. The life he thought he was living is actually an elaborate hallucination. He’s having that hallucination while, unbeknownst to him, his actual physical body is inside a gooey, coffin-size pod—one among many pods, rows and rows of pods, each pod containing a human being absorbed in a dream. These people have been put in their pods by robot overlords and given dream lives as pacifiers.
These Western Buddhists, long before they watched The Matrix, had become convinced that the world as they had once seen it was a kind of illusion—not an out-and-out hallucination but a seriously warped picture of reality that in turn warped their approach to life, with bad consequences for them and the people around them. Now they felt that, thanks to meditation and Buddhist philosophy, they were seeing things more clearly. Among these people, The Matrix seemed an apt allegory of the transition they’d undergone, and so became known as a “dharma movie.”
The concept of “self-illusion” is beyond the scope of this post. One of my favorite ways to grab this topic is from the neuroscience angle, and who better to do that than a PhD from MIT/Cambridge whose spent decades in the field, Bruce Hood. Here are my favorite excerpts from his book, aptly named, The Self Illusion.
In short, however unsettling this might be, the brain tells us stories – that often do not align with outside reality. Which begs another question: who exactly us the “us” in this situation, if not the brain itself? 🙂 Who is speaking to who? I digress. Needless to say, there are massive implications in exploring and accepting the implications of not identifying with feelings of self. Namely, you might find a level of relaxation you did not know existed, after you unhook from confabulated expectations.
More on the idea of Self Illusion.
Ice Cream & Doughnuts
Sorry for triggering anyone with this photo. Four weeks ago I wrote an article about craving and desire. In it, I describe the feeling of eating ice cream – pure bliss – but as soon as it’s over, it’s over. And you are the same person as you were before. The bliss does not endure! (I wrote two more essays on the subject, Desire is Empty, and The Unfillable Void, the second of which is inspired by Infinite Jest. Also in this category, a reflection on Eraserhead).
Here again, I am gobsmacked by coincidence. From the book, page 5.
“Let’s take a simple but fundamental example: eating a six-pack of small powdered-sugar doughnuts, feeling briefly satisfied, and then, only minutes later, feeling a kind of crash and maybe a hunger for more junk food.
What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best. One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next powdered-sugar doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more.”
If you cannot tell by the 4 linked essays above, I see desire as one of the greatest ever tricks played on humans. Anticipation of anything – from ice-cream, to sex, to career goals, to big homes…. drives us absolutely wild. Yet – when we finally have these things – the satisfaction that endures is either minimal or zero.
This is NOT a call to eliminate desire – or to never indulge. Rather, it’s a call to become intelligent about your own puppet strings. How the carrot on the stick is sometimes way more powerful than actually getting the carrot. Here too, by taking time to truly grasp this point, you might find a level of relaxation you did not know existed, after you unhook from certain desire, or at least you know you have the power to.
Seeing “common sense” in religion from the sidelines is not unique to Buddhism. For example, someone might figure on their own that it’s bad to steal because they’re severely punished for it, and subsequently discover there is a commandment in Catholicism stating clearly: “Thou shall not steal”. But, this does not make Catholicism “true” in the same sense…
Declaring that “someone not steal”, vs teaching someone deeply about their innate desire to steal something, and suggesting they devote time to study the impulse, are categorically different things.
Buddhism, like many religions, has thousands of aspects, many contradictions, and different schools of thought, as can be expected from any 2000-year-old collection of beliefs. Again, I am not suggesting anyone take up Buddhism – I’m not qualified to do that. But I am pointing to a couple core ideas I find deeply intelligent and profound. I gently urge anyone to look at these from the sidelines, too, even if- purely through a scientific or psychological lens, which is presented in this and other books.
Further, the most predicable note I will end on, is suggesting Mindfulness practice as a tool to understand all of these things about yourself. It’s one thing to grasp things intellectually. It’s another thing entirely to observe them for yourself. Mindfulness is the only way to do that, so far as I can tell. I seriously suggest the resources here. They are rooted in neuroscience, philosophy, and medicine.
Finally, I look forward to finishing this book and will offer a fuller review and reflection. I was so blown away by Chapter 1 and it’s relationship to my world of recent reflection, I had to put the book down and sort this out.
Back to deleting Buddhism. If all the history and knowledge of Buddhism were erased from the human record, I am convinced something like it would return. The circumstances of desire and identity are so clearly a source of universal human suffering. Once one discovers this reality, either through their own inquiry, or learning from others, or both, the effects are life-changing and positive. Here is my personal experience of seeing this so vividly. And once anyone discovers this, wouldn’t you want to carefully share it with the world, too? For the sake of our collective wellbeing and true departure from tribalism. Even if it were discovered by Frank, (or you!), the essence of these ideas would make sense to illuminate and share.