August 7, 2017
by Antonio Damaso
Anyone writing (or reading) about Buddhism faces a critical question. What is Buddhism, really? A religion, complete with supernatural deities and reincarnation? A secular philosophy of life? A therapeutic practice? An ideology? All of the above? Robert Wright sketches an answer early in “Why Buddhism Is True.” He settles on a credible blend that one might call Western Buddhism, a largely secular approach to life and its problems but not devoid of a spiritual dimension. The centerpiece of the approach is the practice of mindful meditation.
The goal of “Why Buddhism Is True” is ambitious: to demonstrate “that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” It is reasonable to claim that Buddhism, with its focus on suffering, addresses critical aspects of the human predicament. It is also reasonable to suggest that the prescription it offers may be applicable and useful to resolve that predicament.
To produce his demonstrations and to support the idea that Buddhism is “true,” Wright relies on science, especially on evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience.
This is a sensible approach, and in relation to Buddhism it is almost mainstream. Over the years, in a number of encounters, I have found the Dalai Lama and those around him to be keenly interested in science. Wright is up to the task: He’s a Buddhist who has written about religion and morality from a scientific perspective — he is most famous for his 1994 book, “The Moral Animal.”
My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows. First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time.
It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.
Wright’s book is provocative, informative and, in many respects, deeply rewarding. A good example is Wright’s description of his first full entry into the realm of mindfulness. Arriving at this new mental state generated in him an intense emotive response and a memorable feeling that Wright evokes with suggestive but spare prose. It rings true. This scene lets the reader glimpse the power of mindful meditation and be intrigued, even seduced, by the transformative potential of the practice. I found myself not just agreeing but applauding the author, on a number of passages. A case in point is his unflinching embrace of the notion of feeling, which he understands as the mental experiences of physiological states, states imbued with a valence ranging from positive and pleasant to negative and unpleasant. He is referring to phenomena in the mind, private to each specific human being and not inspectable by others. He does not confuse feelings with emotions, which are public and can be inspected by others. Surprisingly, this distinction between feeling and emotion is often glossed over not just in popular accounts but also in the scientific literature. And yet, it is fundamental for the understanding of how living organisms with nervous systems can behave, develop conscious experiences and construct individual minds, sociality and cultures.
Wright is not as persuasive when he attempts to establish the truth of Buddhism by considering the circumstances in which feelings arise. He readily admits the value of feelings as basic guides to the way we run our lives. For example, feelings can express states of our physiology by letting us experience thirst and hunger and satiety and pain and well-being. He designates such feelings as “true” because their experience is congruent with the organism’s state of need or lack thereof. But when, in modern life, emotions such as fear and anger are incorrectly and unnecessarily engaged — for example, road rage — Wright calls the respective feelings “false” or “illusory.” Such feelings, however, are no less true than the thirst, hunger or pain that Wright accepts and welcomes. When we feel road rage, the feeling faithfully depicts the disturbed state of our physiology brought about by anger. That feeling is just as true as the feeling of pain after we suffer a wound. Practical inadequacy is the issue, not lack of truth.
More often than not, we gain from subjecting the recommendations of any feelings to the scrutiny of reason. With some exceptions — situations of panic being an example — emotions and the feelings they engender need to be judged by reason, in the light of knowledge, before we let them guide our behavior. Even “good” feelings such as empathy, compassion and gratitude benefit from distance and discernment.
We can agree that mindful meditation promotes a distancing effect and thus may increase our chances of combining affect and reason advantageously. Meditation can help us glean the especially flawed and dislocated status of humans in modern societies, and help us see how social and political conflicts appear to provoke resentment and anger so easily. Over and above the personal benefits of meditation one can imagine that populations engaged in such practices would expand their awareness of the inadequacy and futility of some of our affective responses. In turn, that would contribute to creating healthier and less conflicted societies, one person at a time.
But there are important questions to be raised here. How does one scale up, from many single individuals to populations, in time to prevent the social catastrophes that seem to be looming? I also wonder if, for some individuals, the successful practice of meditation and the actual reduction of the anxieties of daily life is not more likely to induce equanimity regarding social crises than the desire to resolve those crises with inventive cultural solutions. Individual therapy and the salvation of society are not incompatible, of course, but I suspect they can be easily uncoupled.
Wright correctly defends the view that the self as director of operations and decider of one’s actions is an illusion. I could not agree more. But there is an important distinction to be made between the idea of self as mastermind and chief executive officer, and the process of subjectivity. The self appears fragmented, in daily life and in meditative states, but subjectivity does not break down. It never disappears, or we simply would be unable to observe the fragmentation in the first place.
I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?
Antonio Damasio directs the USC Brain and Creativity Institute. He is the author of a number of books, including “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.”