Robert Wright on Mindfulness, Buddhism, and Overcoming Delusions

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron
Maté. People who engage in a mindfulness practice,
like meditation or yoga, will often speak of its benefits, a better attention span,
less anger, a reduction of stress, even an easing of depression. Well, a new book tackles the question of why
scientifically this may be. It argues that Buddhism offers a way to overcome
the constraints imposed on the human mind by natural selection. The book is called “Why Buddhism is True,
The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” It’s by Robert Wright, a visiting professor
of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His previous books include “The Moral Animal,”
and “The Evolution of God.” Robert Wright is also the founder of the website
Mindful Resistance. In part two of this conversation, we’re going
to discuss that. For now, we’re talking about the book, “Why
Buddhism is True,” and very happy that Robert Wright is here with us. Robert, welcome. Let’s start with the field that you are known
to be an expert in, evolutionary psychology, and what it can tell us about how the human
mind works and why Buddhism, as I said, can help us overcome some of the constraints that
our mind imposes on us. ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, it turns out that evolutionary psychology
echoes a couple of important themes in Buddhism. I think very, very important, if not the main
message of Buddhism, is that the reason we suffer and the reason we make other people
suffer is that we don’t see the world clearly. We have illusions about ourselves, about other
people, about the world. These things lead to suffering. There is a lot of suffering, as the Buddha
is said to have observed. Evolutionary psychology says that, first of
all, the human mind was not designed to always see things clearly. Natural selection, in some cases, actually
favors illusions, you might say. After all, all natural selection cares about
or, quote, “cares about” since it’s not really a conscious process, is what traits will get
an animal’s genes into the next generation. If having an illusion, having a distorted
view of yourself or of other people has helped get genes into the next generation, then distortion
can actually be built into the human mind. Then, the other thing that evolutionary psychology
tells us is it’s natural, in a certain sense, that we are prone to suffering, because we’re
also not designed to be happy. Our happiness is not high on natural selection’s
agenda. Again, if being unhappy or anxious or restless
or dissatisfied has gotten genes into the next generation over time, then those things
will be encouraged by natural selection. We’ll be inclined to become dissatisfied with
things easily and to want more. Gratification will tend to evaporate, as a
lot of us have observed it actually does and we may have noticed that in our lives. Just in short, Buddhism says we are prone
to not seeing the world clearly and to suffering, to unhappiness. There’s a connection between these two things. Evolutionary psychology reinforces the idea
that we’re prone to delusion, to not seeing things clearly, and to suffering. I argue in the book that there is a connection,
indeed, between these two things and that we can make ourselves happier and make the
world a better place by trying to clarify our vision. AARON MATÉ: Right. You point out in the book that part of the
reason why or a main reason why we’re prone toward seeking gratification is because we
need it in order to pass genes to the next generation. For example, if we just ate one meal and that
was all for us, then we wouldn’t need to eat again or if we just had sex once, then we
wouldn’t need to have sex again. The problem is, that couldn’t help us create
the next generations. ROBERT WRIGHT: That’s right. I mean, if you imagine an animal that ate
one meal and then just said, “Okay, I’m good,” and never got hungry again, never got dissatisfied
with things enough to go pursue more food, obviously that animal wouldn’t last long. Same with sex, an animal that has sex only
once is going to get out-competed by other animals of the same species. This seems to be why we are on what psychologists
call the “hedonic treadmill.” We keep seeking more because the gratification
we get never lasts and we tend to suffer from the illusion that it will last longer than
it does. When you’re gunning for some big promotion
or you’re thinking about some great thing you’re going to buy, you’re focusing on how
good it’s going to feel when you get it and you’re not thinking about how fast that feeling’s
going to evaporate. According to Buddhism, that is an illusion. That’s a central example in Buddhism of an
illusion. Now, the difference between Buddhism and evolutionary
psychology is Buddhism doesn’t just diagnose the human condition, it actually has a prescription. It offers something to do about the problem
and meditation is a big part of that. AARON MATÉ: Right. Okay, in short, we are trying to go through
life using minds that are designed, not for the purpose of necessarily trying to make
us happy or even achieve what we want, but have a very simple purpose, which is survival
for the next generation, which means that we’re applying the faculties of the mind towards
things or in ways that they weren’t necessarily designed for. They were designed for a different purpose
than maybe we’re using them for. If I have that correct, how does Buddhism
help us handle that and maybe correct where it steers us off course? ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, first of all, you’re right. There’s actually two problems. One, is we weren’t designed to be happy in
the first place. Secondly, the modern environment is so different
from the environment that natural selection designed us for that there’s even more suffering. Anxiety is natural and that causes suffering
in a natural environment, something more like a hunter/gatherer environment. In a modern world, there’s all these weird
things we do that weren’t part of a hunter/gatherer environment, like give talks in front of a
bunch of people we don’t know and so on, so there’s even more anxiety. As for what meditation can do about things
like this, mindfulness meditation in particular helps us develop a different kind of relationship
to our feelings. What you do in mindfulness meditation is you
start by focusing on your breathing, but as your mind gets calmer, you find yourself able
to look at feelings that normally you would just react to. You feel anxiety and start thinking, “Oh,
no. Things are going to go horribly,” or “What
can I do? Can I talk myself into thinking they won’t?” Or whatever. Once your mind is in a calm state, you take
a different approach as you just observe a feeling like anxiety. If you get good at that as a meditator, that
takes a lot of the suffering out of the feeling. It’s more like observing it from a more objective
point of view in a certain sense. The feeling doesn’t go away. You still experience the feeling, but because
you’re paying attention to it, it has less of a grip on you. The same with all kinds of feelings that we’re
often better off without, things like hatred, anger, envy, sadness. Meditation helps us develop a different relationship
to them and be less their slave. AARON MATÉ: This sort of contradicts with
an image that many of us have about ourselves, which is that we’re in control of our minds. I was really interested by, in the book, your
rendering of what the Buddha had to say about this, about how we are not actually at all
in control of our minds. Can you tell us about what he taught? ROBERT WRIGHT: Yeah. There’s this kind of crazy sounding Buddhist
idea called “not-self,” which means that, in some sense, the self doesn’t exist. You might say, “Well, what does that mean?” One thing it means is that our sense that
the conscious self is the big CEO, it’s making all the decisions, it’s creating all the thoughts,
that that’s actually mistaken, okay? That’s kind of an illusion. Modern psychology has actually corroborated
the Buddhist claim that this is a very misleading sense of things. I mean, for example, there’s experiments that
seem to indicate that when we feel we are consciously deciding to do something, like
just something simple like push a button, that actually the physical processes in the
brain that initiate the pushing are underway before we feel as if we’d made the decision. There’s other evidence that we’re not as in
control as we think we are, in a certain sense, that the unconscious mind sometimes makes
up stories about our actual motivations for doing things and the conscious mind believes
them. Here, too, meditation, it’s kind of ironic. Meditation, in a certain sense, helps you
accept that you’re not in control, but in the process helps you, or maybe I should say,
“you” according to strict Buddhist doctrine, be more in control. Once you let go of the idea that you are in
charge and just do a little more in the way of observing what’s going on in your mind
and seeing feeling and thoughts as just showing up more than being projected by the conscious
you, that actually helps you lead a more reflective life, a less reactive life. In a certain sense, accepting that you’re
not as in control as you think you are helps you become more in control. I know it sounds paradoxical, but that’s the
way it seems to work. AARON MATÉ: My problem here is that feelings
are so strong in people, at least in my own life, the feelings that I’ve experienced that
I’ve felt guided by, that it’s been impossible for me to not act on them. Why do you think that is and how can mindfulness
help us get around that? ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, the reason they’re so
hard to resist is that they are designed by natural selection to be hard to resist. That is natural selection’s agenda, what it
“wants us to do.” Again, it’s not a conscious being, but that
agenda is inscribed in feelings. Feelings are the levers that it uses to get
us to do its bidding, so to speak. Whether it’s a feeling like lust or just a
desperate desire for more status or hatred of a rival or whatever, feelings are trying
to get us to do the kinds of things that, at least in the environment of our evolution,
tended to get more genes into the next generation. They’re designed to be hard to resist, that’s
why meditation is not easy. It’s not even easy to calm down and focus
on your breath, that takes a lot of practice since our minds just naturally wander from
thought to thought to thought. Then, it takes continued practice before you
start to develop a different relationship to your feelings. Personally, I am not a natural meditator at
all, I had to go to a one-week silent meditation retreat before I got the hang of it at all. It’s not easy and it’s not easy by design,
you might say. Natural selection, again, it doesn’t create
organisms that can easily defy its agenda, but I think defiance is possible. Again, I think if you defy its agenda, you
can be happier. You can be a better person and a less destructive
person. I think you, in the process, begin seeing
things more clearly, seeing the world more clearly, sizing people up in a more objective
way and not in a way that’s so judgmental, that’s kind of use judgment as a bias, you
might say, by your own self-serving point of view. AARON MATÉ: Okay. This is a bit of a tangent here, but I’m curious
about your thoughts on the implications here based on this theory for something like love. If sex, for example, is evolutionary psychology’s
incentive for procreation, then what does that say about love? Obviously love is a good path towards procreation. If you’re in love with someone, the odds are
probably higher that you’re going to make a baby with them. Is love also biology’s incentive structure
for procreating and for getting genes into the next generation? If so, I’m wondering, is that a reason to
maybe view love with the same type of skepticism or detachment that you would other human feelings
and mechanisms? ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, first of all, I’d say
that, through mindful meditation, you can view all feelings with an initial skepticism
and then decide which feelings are wholesome and leading you in a good direction and not
leading you to be either unhappy or a horrible person and then make a judgment about which
feelings you want to follow the guidance of. An initial skepticism, I think, is a fine
thing. Now, love, as it happens, has a lot of good
properties, I think. It can blind you. It’s not always good in all circumstances. It can make you do bad things, but I think
it has a lot of positive manifestations. As for your first question, yes, in our species,
pair bonding seems to have evolved. There are fathers, you might say, attentive
fathers, males stick around and play a role in rearing the offspring. Not all species are like that, not even all
primate species are like that. In a species with pair bonding, it does make
sense that both males and females would have feelings that draw them into lasting attachments
with each other. AARON MATÉ: How do you look at the socioeconomic
class angle of this, if there is one? In my own experience, whenever I’m comfortable
in life, whenever I’m doing well work-wise, whenever I’m not too busy, it’s been really
easy for me or it’s been way easier for me to meditate than it has been when things aren’t
going so well. I think, for many people, would love to be
able to have the chance to go and do a week-long retreat, would love to even have 20 minutes
out of the day when they can meditate, but there are, I think, some class barriers to
that. In my own experience, just even going to mindfulness
gatherings, retreats, I tend to notice that it is people who are more privileged and usually
more white. I’m wondering your thoughts on that? ROBERT WRIGHT: I think that’s true, there
is a demographic bias in terms of who is most likely to be a meditator, but I think that’s
changing somewhat. I just did a public event with Jon Kabat-Zinn,
who started mindfulness based stress reduction long ago. One thing that did is it took mindfulness
out of its Buddhist context in a certain sense so it no longer sounded so much like a religion. When people think of mindfulness as that,
as just this practical, pragmatic thing you can use, it’s more likely to be accepted in
public schools, in hospitals, in a variety of places. I think you are seeing it taught in some public
schools, in more and more public schools, some of which include low income students. Then, separate from that, to get back to a
Buddhist context, for example I’m in New York, I know people at the Brooklyn Zen Center sometimes
make a point of going into the schools as volunteers and teaching meditation to troubled
kids and so on. I think you’re right that it’s traditionally
there’s been an upper class and you might even say, politically, a liberal bias. Well, I think that it’s to the benefit of
the world if more and more people meditate. I’m hoping that, in the long run, the practice
can pervade society much more evenly. AARON MATÉ: Which is a great segue to the
second part of our discussion on mindful resistance. Robert Wright is the author of “Why Buddhism
is True, The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.” Join us in part two, where we’re going to
talk about how mindfulness can help us in the age of Trump. Robert Wright, thank you. ROBERT WRIGHT: Thank you. AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The
Real News.


  1. First of all suffering is best translated as dissatisfaction. This is brought about by desire. Budhism is largely about controlling our thoughts by intention. Bathing in our emotions to flush off debris. Buddhists see all things possessing consciousness of their own kind. We believe compassion is the mark of true belief as it is higher consciousness. I learned from Buddhists not to eat animals. Barbarism. It takes time and practice to still your thoughts. I work on it. Blessings to Real News and its subscribers.

  2. Thank you Aaron for doing this interview.
    It is very interesting to approach our modern age with all its flaws and virtues from the perspective of the Buddhist view.
    The teachings of the Buddha have never been so valuable as in our current digital age especially since we are seeing a convergence in various aspects between modern science and Buddhism on matters such as psychology, quantum physics and a variety of other topics.
    Human evolution will hopefully bring us to a collective comprehension of what awakening from delusion and suffering truly means.

  3. Buddha preached philosophy that was already in existence in Hindu philosophy of bagavat gita, Upanishads and yoga by patanjali rishi and many other monks

  4. Complete utter nonsense. This guy has no idea how natural selection works. Budhism isn't true. There is not a shred of evidence that reincarnation is happening. Esotrical woo woo.

  5. Wright's underlying contention seems to be that Buddhism lies at loggerheads with the evolutionary process of survival, progress and even procreation. This is absolutely wrong.

    Buddhism is not a teaching divorced from practical life but meant to be a tool to enhance life in its myriad variety, including progress and procreation.

    Buddhism is eminently practical, efficient and clear. The student of buddhism seeks to see reality as it is, without delusion or wishful thinking. Seeing things as they are helps one live life, not avoid it.

    The goal of buddhism is not indifference, apathy and mental/emotional torpor. Buddhism is not meant to be passive but active. The difference is the underlying motivation: love and compassion as opposed to greed/ego.

    Buddhism does not shun feelings and emotions. What buddhists do is see feelings and emotions, thoughts and ideas, things and objects, for what they really are. Viewed in its proper place and perspective, the buddhist is free to "play" in the "playground of life" with absolute freedom.

    Unfortunately, the modern Western trend seems to be to reduce buddhism to a kind of yoga for the mind. Meditation is a relaxation/concentration exercise. This is very incomplete, misleading and a gross simplification.

  6. Buddha, would turn in his grave if he knew that his anti religious thoughts was turned into yet another belief system by the Hindus. Hinduists think they go to help if they don't sacrifices and do good all the time. Buddha was speaking against all hundreds of Gods and rituals and cast system enslavement. Buddha was what we would say to day, a non believer.

  7. The Buddha has zip to do with 'natural selection'. Personal karma, will and volition are far more influential than any scientific construct invented to relieve individuals of personal responsibility. This is a massively wild hip shot as far as man as victim of life (natural selection) is concerned. Mindfulness and meditation bring clarity to that which humans have lost within fears, emotions as deflection from reality and any other inventions this civilization's runaway enthusiasms have promulgated.

  8. Interesting. Reducing all of life to mechanics is a huge problem. Natural selection does not look at the totality of balance in biology. Natural selection has a tendency to explain life away.
    I'm happy when I practice and play music or designing for work. Look to Campbell or Alan Watts for a more advanced insight into self. Shit does happen though.

  9. as an atheist and given the recent events of Buddhist extremists oppressing the Rohinga, and the Hindu gurus and Buddhist yoga people oppressing muslims in india and conserving caste system, I resist anyone anointing one thesim above another especially a Western diluted version of what Buddhism is. that being said I really enjoyed Aaron's strong point which can't be overlooked about how its easy for people to prop up mindfulness, and Buddhist or eastern religion's special retreats when and if your rich enough to do it whereas others have to protest and go on strike and risk whatever livelihood they do have because some capitalist jerk offs and other oppressors believe "some animals are more equal then others". that being said I recently read this article in the Australian independent online newsoutlet New Matilda about mindfulness and people should read it. and if I can recommend a book or two check out David Edwards a British media critic who co-founded the popular UK media watchdog site Media Lens subscribe and donate generously check out his two books on politics, the human condition and so fourth Free to be Human and The Compassionate Revolution: Buddhism and Radical Politics.

  10. Some 14 billion years ago what we have become, began. It came from one point, the singularity, and is still one thing. It is in reality the meditation of a single mind, one mind, your mind. 😉 Don't worry be happy.

  11. I've recently read Wright's book "Why Buddhism is True" that explains in detail the concepts & ideas that are summarized in this interview. The information presented in that book is the most clearly described and structured model of how the human mind makes the choices that guide our behavior that I have ever encountered. It is not a religious book as the subtitle suggests. Rather, it offers a view of how the mind functions that is in accord with some of the current views in the fields of, neuroscience, biology’s’s and psychology especially as they relate to beliefs, feelings and suffering. This book offers a clear and forceful description of human reasoning that provides light for his problems and conflicts that humanity faces, both past and present. I am 75 years old and did doctoral work in psychology and sociology.

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