Sunday, February 4, 2018

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Undergirding this experiential understanding, and often accompanying it, is the more abstract understanding that is part of Buddhist philosophy. Making real progress in mindfulness meditation almost inevitably means becoming more aware of the mechanics by which your feelings, if left to their own devices, shape your perceptions, thoughts, and behavior--and becoming more aware of the things in your environment that activate those feelings in the first place. You could say that enlightenment in the Buddhist sense has something in common with enlightenment in the Western scientific sense: it involves becoming more aware of what causes what. 
The title of Robert Wright's book is problematic, and he seems to know it. He bookends the text with a defense of the language from the title, and he's spoken in podcasts and interviews about how it can be misinterpreted. My husband (and likely other scientifically minded skeptics) has refused to read the book based largely on the title. The subtitle, however, is fairly accurate. Wright uses evolutionary psychology and our current understanding of how brains work to explain why Buddhism, specifically mindful meditation, is a way around some of the ways our brains have evolved to deceive us and make our lives more complicated.

The version of Buddhism that Wright discusses here (and he makes this very clear) is a Western, secular Buddhism, and Wright is clearly a Western, secular scholar. He draws on everyone from Darwin to Plato to Montaigne to ground the reader in Western thought, and cites current studies on brain development and psychology. His discussion of Buddhism is a little less deep (and often based on his own experiences with meditation), but he does a good job of making it accessible and clear. His basic point is that humans have evolved to do everything in their power to survive and pass on their genes. Our brains often play tricks on us to ensure that we are able to survive as long as possible, and Buddhism, despite being developed long before we understood evolutionary biology provides us with the tools to circumvent those tricks. In Buddhism, that circumvention ends in enlightenment. For us laypeople, it ends in a less anxious, more compassionate existence. It allows us to let go of our attachment to feelings, to objects, to pre-conceived notions, and, most importantly, to detach from our sense of ourselves as uniquely special individuals.

One of the ideas he explores later in the book is whether secular Buddhism (which, as far as I can tell, mostly boils down to the regular practicing of mindfulness meditation) counts as a religion. This is something I've wondered about for a while. To be clear, my experiences with mindfulness are far less extensive than Wrights. At one point, Wright suggests that 50 minutes a day is an appropriate amount of time to be meditating to see real results; I occasionally remember to meditate for 10-minute stretches. That being said, even with my meager and inconsistent practice, I've felt the benefits of mindfulness in ways that have helped me see how (if done far more regularly and seriously) it could constitute the foundation of a spiritual practice.

I really enjoyed reading this. Wright is articulate and his expertise is wide-ranging. His own skepticism makes him a compelling guinea pig in the quest for mindfulness, and I appreciated his dry humor and mild chocolate addiction. I do wonder how serious scholars and practitioners of Buddhism would take this. Wright glosses over many aspects of Buddhism and pokes gentle fun at others. He also does things like take extensive notes during silent meditation retreats, which can't be smiled upon.

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