My life has unquestionably changed over two years, leaving me simultaneously comforted and puzzled. Familiar desires, goals, and sense of identity, have melted away.
While trying to explain this shift, I found Buddhism. I don’t mean becoming a Buddhist – I mean – discovering my own epiphanies apparently already laid-out in Buddhist precepts. “How bizarre.” – OMC
I have no desire to establish myself as a “spiritual person” – I just want to be me – with desires and habits that feel like worthy ones. Pretty sure that’s the key to life. Even so, I admire how Buddhism frames things, and, rather than try to articulate this myself, I’ll refer to a book that already does it beautifully: Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.
If Buddhism is a 2000-year-old island of clarity, then Why Buddhism is True is a bridge that takes you to its heart – scientifically, skeptically, and empirically. A safe passage for anyone who is allergic to “faith” but still wants a rational framework to view the world and their place within it. Surprise surprise… the essence of Buddhism is actually rational, and Robert Wright illustrates this rapidly – no need to distill 2000 years of texts and stories and contradictions on your own.
Below, are a few favorite excerpts from this book. The full reading journey, and the concepts it offers, are invaluable.
The Matrix Analogy
This analogy is arguably the most important excerpt of the book – as it EASILY justifies the rest of the read. Yes – really – there are aspects of life that are truly an illusion. Wright spends his entire book leaning on Buddhist tradition and evolutionary psychology to substantiate this. Anecdotally, this is analogy came to mind personally before finding this book, which made finding this comparison even more special.
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.
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.”
Satisfaction Never Endures
As I’ve proposed many times: Desire is empty. Satisfaction does not endure. Bliss is always fleeting. Pick your favorite expression. Buddhism asserts the same.
Let’s take a simple but fundamental example: eating some junk food, feeling briefly satisfied, and then, only minutes later, feeling a kind of crash and maybe a hunger for more junk food. This is a good example to start with for two reasons. First, it illustrates how subtle our delusions can be. There’s no point in the course of eating a six-pack of small powdered-sugar doughnuts when you’re believing that you’re the messiah or that foreign agents are conspiring to assassinate you. And that’s true of many sources of delusion that I’ll discuss in this book: they’re more about illusion—about things not being quite what they seem—
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.
Buddha is famous for asserting that life is pervaded by suffering, some scholars say that’s an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as “suffering,” dukkha, could, for some purposes, be translated as “unsatisfactoriness.” So what exactly is the illusory part of pursuing doughnuts or sex or consumer goods or a promotion? There are different illusions associated with different pursuits, but for now we can focus on one illusion that’s common to these things: the overestimation of how much happiness they’ll bring.
If you put these three principles of design together, you get a pretty plausible explanation of the human predicament as diagnosed by the Buddha. Yes, as he said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has said, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”
Mindfulness – Small and Large Benefits
Mindfulness Mindfulness Mindfulness. No surprise I’m a huge fan and advocate – long before this book. I attribute most of my shift in awareness to this practice. Here, Robert shows there are really two levels of what mindfulness delivers – calmness – yes, but also… eventually, a profound understanding about reality.
The routine business of mindfulness—observing the world inside you and outside you with inordinate care—can do more than tone down troublesome feelings and enhance your sense of beauty. It can, in a slow, incremental, often uneven yet ultimately systematic way, transform your view of what’s really “out there” and what’s really “in here.” What begins as a modest pursuit—a way to relieve stress or anxiety, cool anger, or dial down self-loathing just a notch—can lead to profound realizations about the nature of things, and commensurately profound feelings of freedom and happiness.
There are all kinds of things going on in the human mind. Whether its happy stuff, or sad stuff, or benign stuff, it’s almost certainly a storm. It’s possible, however, to witness this storm from the sidelines, NOT be swept-up within it. Over time, this leads to ease, and understanding.
When the Buddha speaks of consciousness itself as being liberated—he frames the relationship between consciousness and the aggregates in an interesting way. In its ordinary form—the form with which all of us unenlightened beings are familiar—consciousness is “engaged” with the other four aggregates, the Buddha says; it is engaged with feeling, with mental formations, with perception, with the body.
This doesn’t just mean that consciousness has access to perceptions, bodily sensations, and so on; after all, even the consciousness of a fully enlightened being would have access to these things; otherwise—if there weren’t access even to perceptions, for example—there wouldn’t be much, if anything, for enlightened beings to be conscious of. “Engagement” refers, rather, to a stronger connection between consciousness and the other aggregates. Engagement is the product of a “lust,” as the Buddha puts it, that people have for the aggregates; there is a clinging to them, a possessive relationship to them. In other words, the “engagement” persists so long as the person fails to realize that the aggregates are “not-self.” The person clings to emotions, thoughts, and other elements of the aggregates as if they were personal belongings. But they’re not.
We Are Not in Full Control
There is a fantastic illusion about being human – we really think we are in total control. We believe every thought that arises, every emotion we feel, every desire, is our doing… is “meant to be” and, act accordingly. How shocking, then, to discover these sensations arise from parts of the brain and sensory system we will never directly know or control. How equally shocking, to discover we have some kind of wise veto power – nonattachment.
This is a matter of nearly unanimous agreement among psychologists: the conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority. In fact, according to modern psychology, the conscious self has even less power than Aggivessana attributed to it after the Buddha clarified his thinking. Aggivessana was just acknowledging that, on reflection, the various aggregates aren’t under complete control. After all, if they were, then, as the Buddha was known to ask, why would they cause so much suffering? Modern psychology is making a stronger point. It’s basically saying: You know how, on reflection, you conclude, along with Aggivessana, that you’re not in total control? Well, you’re actually in even less control than you conclude on reflection.
Some of the contents of your consciousness that you normally think of yourself as generating seem to be getting generated by something other than you. More than once I’ve heard a meditation teacher say, “Thoughts think themselves.” By the end of a retreat, oddly, that can start to make sense. So if the conscious mind isn’t in control, what is in control? As we’ll see, the answer may be: nothing in particular. The closer we look at the mind, the more it seems to consist of a lot of different players, players that sometimes collaborate but sometimes fight for control, with victory going to the one that is in some sense the strongest. In other words, it’s a jungle in there, and you’re not the king of the jungle. The good news is that, paradoxically, realizing you’re not king can be the first step toward getting some real power.
It seems fair to say that the role of our conscious selves in guiding behavior is not nearly as big as was long thought. And the reason this role was exaggerated is that the conscious mind feels so powerful; in other words, the conscious mind is naturally deluded about its own nature.
Our sense of our self, our possessions, our friends and family, and strangers, can be warped and inflated without us realizing it. This insight, among many others, is another way to see the root of tribalism , and therefore, inspires humility as an antidote.
‘I consider myself an average man except for the fact that I consider myself an average man.’
In 1980 the psychologist Anthony Greenwald invented the term “beneffectance” to describe the way people naturally present themselves to the world—as beneficial and effective. Lots of experiments since then have shown that people not only put out this kind of publicity about themselves but actually believe it.
In one study, academics who had worked on jointly authored research papers were asked what fraction of the team’s output their own work accounted for. On the average four-person team, the sum of the claimed credit was 140 percent.
Our egocentric biases are aided and abetted by the way memory works. Though certain painful events get seared into our memories—perhaps so we can avoid repeating the mistakes that led to them—we are on balance more likely to remember events that reflect favorably on us than those that don’t.
All told, we’re under at least two kinds of illusions. One is about the nature of the conscious self, which we see as more in control of things than it actually is. The other illusion is about exactly what kind of people we are—namely, capable and upstanding.
The anthropologist Jerome Barkow has written, “It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision-maker).”
Imagine a room with 50 smart people in it, running your life. Imagine opening the door to this room and they all simultaneously shout what they feel is really important. Each of these people is an expert in something very specific. This – is actually – how your brain works. It’s not one big masterful blob with a single coherent view – rather – it is a collection of many mini brains – or modules. Our conscious experience only hears the individual person or “expert” who happens to be shouting the loudest. Further, we have no control over which expert we hear.
The modules aren’t like departments in a company’s organization chart. Maybe this goes without saying, given what I’ve just noted about how fluidly interactive and overlapping the modules are, and given that the whole context for this discussion is that our minds lack a CEO. Still, it’s worth dwelling on how utterly unlike the idealized working of a corporation the operation of the mind is. Among the traits modules often lack are obedience and harmony. Yes, the modules may sometimes collaborate, but they sometimes compete, and they can compete fiercely.
Gazzaniga, the split-brain experiment pioneer, has written, “While hierarchical processing takes place within the modules, it is looking like there is no hierarchy among the modules. All these modules are not reporting to a department head—it is a free-for-all, self-organizing system.”
Perhaps most important for our purposes, thinking of the mind as modular helps make sense of things you hear from Buddhist meditation teachers, such as that “thoughts think themselves” and that appreciating this fact can be liberating.
Here, Wright explains how in an experiment, two groups of people watched different kinds of movies, horror and love, and were then shown an ad. The type of movie they watched completely manipulated the preference. How else might our surroundings manipulate our judgement in ways we don’t understand?
People who had been watching The Shining felt more favorably about the museum, and more inclined to visit it, when given the first pitch, presumably because a state of fear inclines you to see crowds as safe havens. People who had been watching Before Sunrise had the opposite reaction, perhaps because feeling romantic inclines you toward a more intimate environment. They think that in this case which movie you watch determines which subself, or module, controls your reaction to the ad. The romantic movie puts your “mate-acquisition” module in charge. The scary movie puts your “self-protection” module in charge.
Seeing Emotions from the Side
One of the biggest misconceptions about mindfulness or Buddhism is that it makes you numb, or emotionless, or stops thoughts. That’s not the case at all. Every emotion, every feeling, every thought, can still be felt fully. What changes, drastically, is your ability to inspect it objectively and react carefully. You realize emotions don’t necessarily serve your best interest – in the sense of your life broadly. They serve some module or complex in the brain that is conditioned. Recognizing this is life changing.
This idea—that modules are triggered by feelings—sheds new light on the connection between two fundamental parts of Buddhism: the idea of nonattachment to feelings and the idea of not-self. We’ve already seen one kind of connection: when you let go of a feeling by viewing it mindfully, you’re letting go of something you had previously considered part of your self; you are chipping away at the self, bit by bit. But now we see that calling this a “chipping away” may understate the magnitude of what you’re doing. Feelings aren’t just little parts of the thing you had thought of as the self; they are closer to its core; they are doing what you had thought “you” were doing: calling the shots. It’s feelings that “decide” which module will be in charge for the time being, and it’s modules that then decide what you’ll actually do during that time. In this light, it becomes a bit clearer why losing attachment to feelings could help you reach a point where there seems to be no self.
They concluded that what emotions do—what emotions are for—is to activate and coordinate the modular functions that are, in Darwinian terms, appropriate for the moment. (This isn’t, of course, to say that these functions are appropriate in moral terms, or even that they serve the welfare of the person they steer, but just that they helped our ancestors spread genes.)
Sex and mating are obviously one of the most powerful desires and emotions we can feel as humans. How powerful then… to begin understand this, so that these urges might loosen their grip.
Men who see signs of a near-term courtship opportunity take advantage of any near-term resource acquisition opportunities, even if that means forgoing more distant opportunities.
Of course, the men in these experiments didn’t see real mating opportunities; they just saw pictures of women. But in the ancestral environment there weren’t photographs, so any realistic image of a woman would have signified the actual presence of a woman. That’s why the minds of the men in this experiment could be “fooled” by mere pictures, even though the men “knew,” at a conscious level, that these women weren’t available. So this experiment is, among other things, another reminder that modules can get triggered not only without the conscious self doing the triggering but also without it having a clue as to the Darwinian logic behind the triggering.
Beyond mindfulness, and observing emotions and thoughts passively, comes observing the “empty” nature of – well – everything. For instance, think of physical reality as one massive ocean of atoms. The fact that I see a “cup” on the table, or even further, that this is “my” cup, or further, that it’s a cup “my grandfather gave me 20 years ago” – are layers of concepts and stories… which we attach feelings and behaviors to. Whereas if you see the cup, it’s just a cup. If a horse sees the cup, it’s just a funny looking rock.
It’s not to suggest our stories are false or meaningless. The point is, you, me, the horse, 8 billion humans, all project individual and contradicting meaning into things, and in the cosmic sense, this meaning is “empty”.
This doesn’t just apply to physical reality – it applies to our mental reality, too. Again, the brain spontaneously feeds us thoughts and memories and emotions as it reacts to unfathomably vast stimuli. The “meaning” we place on either physical reality, or mental reality, may lead us suffering, and so, should be considered carefully.
Of all the concepts here, this is perhaps the one that will require some days of reading (and reflecting) at length to grasp.
Here’s a passage from the Samadhiraja Sutra, a Buddhist text that’s about nineteen centuries old:
‘Know all things to be like this: A mirage, a cloud castle, A dream, an apparition, Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.‘
This world of apparent forms is in some sense, as the Samadhiraja Sutra has it, a ‘mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition.’ Or, as the Heart Sutra famously and pithily puts it,
‘Form is emptiness. Emptiness is Form.’
Remember Ajahn Chah, the Thai monk who said that if you try to understand the idea of not-self by “intellectualizing” alone, your head will explode? He once recounted a time when he was trying to meditate and kept getting interrupted by sounds from a festival in a nearby village. Then, as he recalls it, he had a realization: “The sound is just the sound. It’s me who is going out to annoy it. If I leave the sound alone, it won’t annoy me. . . . If I don’t go out and bother the sound, it’s not going to bother me.”
Robert recalls a time when the sound of a buzzsaw was destroying his focus. He uses this as an example of how we can reflexively project “annoyance” or “revulsion” into things – in this case the sound and its layers of associated thoughts…
Once I was at a meditation retreat, and a new dormitory was being built, so there was the sound of hammers and buzz saws. Normally if you heard the abrasive, annoying sounds of construction, you might close your window or do something else to tune them out. But here the idea was to accept the sounds themselves while not buying into the idea that they’re abrasive and annoying.
Look again at the final line of that passage from the Samadhiraja Sutra. It says that all things are “without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.” This sutra isn’t denying the reality of the buzz-saw sound waves that were hitting my ear, the “qualities” I was observing, but it seems to be saying that the “essence” I normally see beneath the qualities—essence of buzz saw—is a matter of interpretation; it’s something I’m choosing to construct, or not, from the qualities. Essences don’t exist independent of human perception.
This is the version of the emptiness doctrine that makes sense to me, and it’s the version most widely accepted by Buddhist scholars: not the absence of everything, but the absence of essence. To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw sensory data without doing what we’re naturally inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the data and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence.
The excerpts above are a small subset of many highlights. Again, I highly suggest anyone take the full tour of this book. The goal is not to become a Buddhist (though, feel free), the goal (at least the one I am proposing) is simply see what Buddhism is claiming, and decide for yourself, how “True” this feels. To me, these claims are irrefutable.
- We are not our thoughts or emotions
- Our reality is often distorted
- Desire is empty
- Mindfulness is an incredible tool to observe all the above
Observing these things, steadily, over weeks, months, years, not only leads to a feeling of ease, but deeper understanding about the nature of human life – for you and everyone else. Compassion and gratitude emerge from here.
See: Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.
For what it’s worth, I see this resource as the most effective way to put all of this into practice. (Coincidentally, another clip from Robert ahead, introducing another favorite mind).