Buddhism Meets Evolutionary Psychology | Psychology Today Canada

Robert Wright is an award-winning science journalist who has written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the New York Times. He is also the author of a number of popular 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 visited Buddhist temples in Kathmandu and Bhutan. So she was impressed to see that I was mentioned in Wright’s book, because Buddhist meditation and awakening are quite far from my area of ​​expertise. I was mentioned not as a shining example of enlightenment, but because the book views Buddhism through the prism of evolutionary psychology.

Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True”

Source: Official cover of the book being reviewed here.

There are two things I associate with Buddhist meditation: one is the idea of ​​taking what you might call a “Zen perspective” – ​​looking at the world, especially the aspects of the world that lead you to. distraction and misery, from an external objective point of view. . It means letting go of all your personal biases and accepting things as they really are, rather than obsessing over what you wish they were. For example, in a previous article, I talked about the Zen of Embracing Rejection – based on a lecture aimed at helping graduate students cope with rejection letters from scientific journals (which are inevitable, given a rejection rate of 90 percent or more in journals). Throughout his book, Wright explains 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 is presumably a way to let go of all of those personal concerns, and potentially even a path to ultimate enlightenment. Wright notes that many people meditate not to achieve perfect enlightenment, but with more humble goals such as relaxing, reducing anxiety, and turning off the endless chatter in their heads – inner voices harassing you for whether you are working out. tough enough, if other people like or respect you, or you’re a bad person because you ate an extra chocolate brownie.

Wright talks about his own struggles to achieve the simple goal of focusing on his breathing and clearing his mind of other distracting thoughts. He notes how, despite Buddhists avoiding the very concepts of “success” and “failure,” he felt like a complete failure in meditation when he attended his first meditation retreat from one week. I myself have tried to achieve the simple goal of focusing on my breathing and stopping the incessant inner distractions, and I found it quite amazing how difficult it was to do.

Wright sums up what he considers to be a dozen “truths” from Buddhist philosophers that are consistent with scientific evidence. These include:

  1. We humans often don’t see the world clearly, distorting reality in ways that can make us suffer and cause others to suffer.
  2. We expect lasting satisfaction from achieving our goals, but we are not designed to stay satisfied for long. Once we reach a goal or reward level, 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. The desire for things is a source of suffering. Rather than appreciating what we have here and now, we compare ourselves to others who have more, or to idealized versions of what our lives might be like, for example. (see, for example, If you are looking for happiness, you may find loneliness).
  4. Mindful meditation can weaken the hold of our attractions and repulsions. Several examples discussed by Wright involve changing the way we think about unpleasant sensations such as toothaches and various bodily pains. If rather than trying to suppress or deny these unpleasant feelings, we allow ourselves to be fully experienced, their power over us often diminishes. On a bike ride yesterday I came to a hill which I often find boring and unpleasant. Thinking about this point from Wright’s book, I decided to focus on the burning sensation in my thighs and found that the pain was somehow pleasant (like 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, made up of several “sub-months” or executive systems with different purposes. These sub-months do not necessarily communicate well with each other. It is in this context that Wright spoke of the work of our laboratory and the 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, in part because of its humorous and humbly self-deprecating writing style. He observes that he himself is the perfect test for the benefits of meditation. Buddhists are not meant to judge others or themselves, and of course, meditation is all about sitting and focusing your attention for long periods of time. Still, Wright notes that he’s prone to both attention deficit disorder and misanthropy, so if he can benefit from mindful meditation, he argues anyone can.

Wright notes that many ideas of Buddhist philosophers are paradoxical, and he sometimes likes to delve into these paradoxes, and some of the weeds of what the Buddha himself said or meant, and how later philosophers interpreted the various precepts of Buddhism. .

Wright notes that Buddhist teachers 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 up to unpleasant experiences, in keeping with the idea that acceptance is a big part of awakening. Wright quotes an ancient text which reminds us that our body is full of impure things such as “feces, bile, phlegm, blood, sweat, grease, tears, …” to his line: “I don’t know of any bestselling books on meditation. mindfulness called Stop and smell the feces. “Just as this sentence was spoken, I looked up and saw a rainbow in the distance. Speaking of paradoxes, this moment may have been as close to nirvana as I was. could have done it.