On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke with Robert Wright, the best-selling of author of books including The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and The Evolution of God. Those books covered subjects such as the evolutionary roots of human behavior, globalization and technology’s positive influence on our relationships and lives, and how religious belief has become increasingly tolerant over time. His new book is called Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It seeks to explain why Buddhism is so valuable, both to the world and to Wright’s own life, and how its core insights reflect real truths about evolution and human psychology.
Below is an edited transcript of part of the show. You can find links to every episode here, and the entire interview with Wright is also below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, that my first paid job in journalism was at bloggingheads.tv, which you were the founder of.
Robert Wright: You realize you’ve just undermined the credibility of this entire conversation?
I didn’t make enough money that I’m in any sort of debt to you.
That’s true. Well, then, I may have the opposite problem in this conversation.
Can you just talk a little bit about what Buddhism is, and specifically, the variety of Buddhism that you’re talking about in this book?
Well, first of all, there’s religious Buddhism, which this book isn’t about. This book is about what you might call the naturalistic or secular part of Buddhism. It’s not about reincarnation, and it’s not about prayers, and so on. It is about the central claim of Buddhist philosophy, which is that the reason we suffer, and the reason we make other people suffer, is because we don’t see the world clearly. Buddhist practice, including meditation, can be seen as a program for seeing the world more clearly.
You write in the book that you wondered if there was a way to put the “actual truth about human nature and the human condition into a form that would not just identify and explain the illusions we labor under, but would help us liberate ourselves from them.” One of the things that you’re doing in the book is you’re talking about these illusions, and you’re explaining how science gives us some reason to understand why we have these illusions and that Buddhism and science, in this sense, coexist or teach us the same thing. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah. I had written in the past about evolutionary psychology, and one thing that struck me is that actually, the human mind was not designed by natural selection to see the world clearly, per se. That’s not the bottom line. The bottom line is like: What psychological tendencies got the genes of our ancestors into subsequent generations? Often, [that] involved seeing the world clearly. You want to have a pretty clear visual picture of the world, generally, but not in all respects. If having a mind that is deceived or that has a distorted view of things will get genes into the next generation, then distortion will be built into the mind.
What would be an example of that?
Buddhism makes two really radical-seeming claims, when you drill down on what Buddhists mean by, “We don’t see the world clearly.” One thing they mean is that we don’t see ourselves clearly at all. In fact, Buddhism goes so far as to say, “We’re confused about the very existence of a self. There is a sense in which the self doesn’t exist,” which is pretty radical. Then, there’s also a claim about how deluded we are about the world out there, that the people and the objects we see, we tend to have a distorted view of, we attribute to them a kind of essence that isn’t there. Both of these claims may sound strong, but I think there’s a lot more to be said for them than you might imagine. I think evolutionary psychology explains why we do suffer from these particular distortions.
One of those distortions concerns things such as our love of chocolate.
Chocolate, which I remain a fan of, as I was before I started meditating. Here, we get to another of the kind of central claims of Buddhism, very central, that in a way, is related to the other things I’ve said about what Buddhism is. The idea that at the root of suffering was … like, thirst, craving, for not just food, but for material attainments, for status, for sex, for everything that we crave. The illusion there is that lasting gratification will ensue, or even that it will endure for very long. It actually tends not to, right? We tend to pursue things as if they will be more deeply and enduringly gratifying than they are. The Buddha stressed their impermanence, that they would evaporate, and I think evolutionary psychology, again, explains why they evaporate.
And why they exist.
Well, sure. Organisms have to be motivated, from natural selection’s point of view, to do things, to nourish themselves, to do whatever will get genes spread, like sex, but they can’t be enduringly happy with these things, or they wouldn’t sit around and get busy. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. The fleetingness of pleasure is a product of natural selection. We’re learning more about the brain chemistry of it, and I talk a little about that. That’s another example. The idea, in general, with mindfulness meditation, which is the kind I focus on in the book, is to, rather than be driven by your feelings, examine them and decide which feelings you think are offering good guidance and which aren’t.
If I really want to eat my second ice cream sundae of the day, you, in the book, you don’t think that the way to do that is to repress it, necessarily, but to think about why I have that desire for it, and why, in fact, it may not make me that happy to have a second ice cream sundae. Is that correct?
Well, not just to think about it, and in fact, I came out of my study of evolutionary psychology very aware that knowing about the problem of human nature by itself doesn’t solve the problem. … Mindfulness meditation is a practice for getting better at seeing what’s driving you and deciding consciously whether you want to be driven in exactly that way.
That’s why, I think it’s interesting that Buddhism, a couple thousand years before Darwin, diagnosed the human predicament in ways that make a lot of sense in terms of evolutionary psychology and also came up with a prescription, a program that is not trivially easy to follow, by any means. Then again, it’s a difficult problem, but a program that I think works in a kind of pragmatic, therapeutic sense. Beyond that, it can take you into really, I think, interesting philosophical, and I would say, spiritual territory. I’ve been on meditation retreats, a number of them, where you really just do nothing but meditation all day, no contact with the outside world. In that context, you can really go to some interesting places.
One of the things that you write about in your book, just to move off things like chocolate, is anger. You talk about why, in a certain way, we sometimes get pleasure from anger. In some incident of road rage or something, being angry really brings us some sort of joy. Again, it’s not long-lasting. I was wondering, in your own life, how do you feel like Buddhism has helped you with anger?
I’m as prone to rage as the next person.
I worked for you, I know this.
I was actually ... I forget, was I a very well-behaved boss?
I have no comment.
I contend that there are worse bosses. Some of them occupy very high positions, even as we speak.
Rage is an interesting example, because it, in a certain sense, made more sense in the environment of our evolution, a hunter-gatherer environment, than it makes now. The point of rage, from natural selection’s point of view, is to demonstrate that people can’t mess with you. If you disrespect me, if you try to steal my mate, whatever, I will fight you. Even if I lose the fight, I have sent a signal to everyone in my social environment that I am willing to pay the price to make sure that people who exploit me suffer.
In a modern environment like road rage—and there actually recently was an actual death by gunshot in a road rage case—it doesn’t even make that much sense, because there’s nobody who’s ever going to see you again who’s witnessing the rage. There’s no point at all in a demonstration of your resolve.
It's not going to help you on Tinder if you put on your profile that you just shot someone on the freeway, either.
No. There could be active downside, beyond the risk of getting shot. One thing an evolutionary perspective can do is highlight the absurdity of some of our feelings and so reinforce the idea that it’s worth learning how to examine them carefully and cultivating the ability to not be driven by them, should you choose not to.
How has that worked for you? You talk in the book about a former colleague who would make you angry sometimes to think about.
I do not mention that person’s name.
I was just meditating once, this was during a retreat, and for some reason, he came to mind. You know, I don’t have a lot of just bitter enemies. I would say there are two or three people in the category I would put this person in. I was meditating, and I don’t know why I started thinking of him, but just suddenly I had a very charitable view. Suddenly, I was like, imagining him as a gangly, awkward adolescent, like, not fitting in on the playground, and developing the various tendencies that, in my view, are not entirely commendable, and in any event, have rubbed me the wrong way. It was just the first time I’ve ever thought of this person in a charitable way. That’s some kind of testament to the kind of distance you can get on your more reflexive reactions to things.
How do you feel about anger and rage in terms of people who, say, are reading the newspaper now and seeing what’s going on in the world? What do you think the appropriate response is?
Very interesting question. I’m thinking about, and I may have done this by the time the podcast airs, who knows, trying to get the phrase mindful resistance off the ground. Maybe, I don’t know, a podcast called Mindful Resistance that competes with yours or something, who knows. I, personally, think that the reaction to Trump is excessive, for tactical purposes, that I don’t think we realize how often our outrage actually feeds his base and serves his goal of keeping support at least high enough that he can’t get impeached, for example. I just think in a lot of ways, and Im as prone to this as the next person, clicking retweet on something that actually doesn’t have much nutritional value—it’s a real challenge. Righteous indignation is a powerful motivator, and it can be harnessed for good. We just need to be mindful that our conception of what’s righteous is kind of naturally warped. You need to very carefully examine, I think, your commitments, kind of, your value commitments or whatever, to make sure that you’re not being led astray by the parts of human nature that tend to lead us astray, or that you’re not just overreacting in a counterproductive way. It absolutely is a challenge.
To be honest, I’ve known people who went so far down the meditative path that, although they had the same views that they had about social justice or whatever, the same views they’d ever had, still, they seemed a little more complacent than I thought was optimum. I think that’s an actual danger. You want to think about it. I don’t think I’m anywhere near there. My problem, in general, with politics and ideology, is keeping my rage below the counterproductive level. I need meditation even to do that.
Do you think you’ve gotten a better sense of why people like Trump?
Three of my four siblings voted for Trump. On the other hand, I’ve pretty much avoided talking to them about it, so I don’t claim that I’ve gotten a lot of insight there. I do think, there is the natural tendency to want to demonize the people on the other side of the fight. It is natural and easy to say, “They are racist, they are stupid” and so on, and I just think it’s more complicated than that. There are some true racists, but I think you’re not serving your own cause when you succumb to the tendency to demonize people in that way, because I think if you’re going to undermine Trump’s support, you’re going to need to understand what the source of that support is.
That’s a very pragmatically political way of looking at it, though, that if you want Trump to lose in 2020 that you have to reach some people who voted for him, and so on. What about from a larger sense of, just put aside the political consequences for a minute. Do you think that what we need is more sympathy for people who vote in different directions and so on?
One term I would use is cognitive empathy. Not necessarily feeling their pain or even caring about them, just understanding what the world looks like from their point of view. Again, I think meditation can really facilitate that. It can break down your natural tendency to want to dismiss or demonize them. Once you do that and understand what their situation in life is, and what their frustrations are, you may then feel deeply that, yeah, some of these problems they face should be addressed. Cognitive empathy may lead to sympathy, but I think the first step is just to see the situation clearly. Our brains naturally discourage that.
You started this podcast by saying, “I’m not talking about religious Buddhism, per se.” When you close the book, you talk about this very subject, and you ask, “Is the type of Buddhism I’m practicing in fact a religion?” I was just wondering, how do you feel about it, sitting here today? Is the type of Buddhism you’re practicing a form of religion?
It kind of feels like that to me. I certainly consider it spiritual in some reasonable definitions of that term. The thing I say in that chapter about religion is, William James said, “Generically, religion certainly centrally involves the idea that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme interest lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order.” Buddhism, set aside the religious part, but just philosophical Buddhism does posit the existence of a kind of order. A couple of kinds, but one kind is that there is a natural convergence between seeing the world more clearly, seeing the truth, becoming happier, and becoming a better person.
That’s three different things, right? Clarity of vision, happiness, and moral edification, becoming a better person. The assertion by Buddhist philosophy is that, conveniently, those are all the same thing. If you get on the path, including a meditative path, and seriously pursue it, you will be making progress on all three fronts. At least, they will tend to coincide. I think that’s basically true. There are people of great meditative attainment who are bad people. That’s possible. But I think, by and large, this kind of amazing claim about the way the universe is set up, that you get kind of three for one, I think is true.