A very interesting book which approaches Buddhism from a secular, evolutionary, and psychological point of view. Talks a lot about meditation, but this meditation is more like cognitive behavioral therapy where one analyzes and tries to understands one's thoughts and feelings. Main point is we are controlled by our feelings which is strongly shaped by evolution. These feelings are not applicable to the modern world, and anyways we are smarter now and can react differently to these perceived threats. When we carefully examine our feelings (through meditation), we see the real truth and free ourselves from suffering, or more precisely, unsatisfactory-ness. The final main point is that after more examination, we lose the boundary of what is myself and what is others, leading to a world wide consciousness that can lead to world peace! (Started in Aug 2019, finished April 2020).
Authors: Robert Wright
Published: May 2018
Tags: Buddhism, philosophy, psychology
A Note to Readers
The Buddhism in this book is "Western Buddhism", which does not include the mystical aspects such as reincarnation or gods. Focuses on the philosophy of Buddhism. There are many branches of Buddhism, this talks about common Buddhist beliefs.
Chapter 1: Taking the Red Pill
In the Matrix, Neo takes the red pill to wake up from his computer controlled reality. We are also living in a delusion which was created by evolutionary biology. Evolution biology favors gene spreading systems, so we are driven to have sex (or eat or buy things), which gives us a jolt of pleasure inducing endorphins, but then the pleasure fades quickly, which causes us to seek more. The Buddha is famous for saying "life is full of suffering", but the word "dukkha" could also be translated to "unsatisfactoriness". We overestimate how much happiness achieving our goal will bring. This is also the explanation for the "hedonic treadmill". OK, so the question is, now that we understand the source of our drive, what can we do about it (if anything) ?
Chapter 2: Paradoxes of Meditation
Most people think of meditation as clearing the mind or focus on breathing, which is valid. But there is another type of meditation where you focus on something (for example, sadness) but using a different perspective on it. Kind of think of it in a detached way. Doing so will make the feeling seem less real. Then you start to wonder if the original feeling was real if you made it seem less real by simply taking another perspective on it. There is one strand of Buddhism (a small one) that takes this idea to the extreme and thinks that everything we perceive (inside and out?) are literally figments of our imagination. Most Buddhist beliefs incorporates a little bit of this idea, but not to this extreme.
Chapter 3: When Are Feelings Illusions?
Feelings are a shortcut that evolution has created in our brains and behaviors to cause us to do things which will ensure the propagation of our genes. However, these feelings (which also trigger behaviors) can be out of place in our modern society which ends up harming. A simple example is consuming calories. Evolution has created a pleasant feeling and urge to eat. Which was good when food was precious and scarce. But in modern society, we have too much food available, and overeating harms us. A more complex example is social status. In primitive tribal times, having status was also important for propagating our genes and also for our own protection in the group. But in modern society, this causes us to worry and be anxious about what others think of us. So mindful meditation helps us figure out which of our feelings are really helping us. This approach is very similar to Cognitive Behavioral therapy, which analyzes our phobias by gently probing why we feel a certain way. Not all feelings are false or illusions though.
Chapter 4: Bliss Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate
Default Mode Network: when mind is not concentrating on anything, it wanders. Concentration meditation (concentrating on breathing or a particular scene or repeating sounds) stops default mode network. It is one of the Eightfold Paths. The other is mindfulness meditation. They are not in sequential steps. Mindfulness meditation can help you see what is really inside you and what is really happening in the world. Another way to describe it is insight or clear/right vision. Comprehending the 3 marks of existence (vipassana): impermanence, suffering/unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, which will be covered in next chapter.
Chapter 5: The Alleged Nonexistence of Your Self
The concept of not-self is very difficult to understand on an intellectual level. You have to meditate and feel it. According to the teachings of Buddha, the concept of me or mine leads to harmful feelings of attachment, craving, desire, pride, egoism, etc. Good news is that self/non-self is not binary. You can slowly and gradually let go of the feeling of self. There was a seminal non-self sermon by Buddha to some of his disciples where he categorizes things that might be thought of as self and argues how they are not really self. (1) the physical body, (2) basic feelings (3) perceptions (4) mental formations (5) consciousness. The last one is the hardest to argue against. If your consciousness is not part of yourself, and once you let go of that, what is left of you? Perhaps it is easier to think of yourself as being liberated from these things. Perhaps consciousness can be split into two parts: one that you are liberated from and one that remains. The one that remains is more detached from everything.
Chapter 6: Your CEO is MIA
Continuing with the not-self theme, we tend to think our consciousness controls our self, or that our consciousness is our self, but that is actually not true. Thoughts think themselves. There are a lot of sub-conscious players in our minds struggling for control. Realizing that is the first step to gaining real control. There was a famous experiment done on patients who had a full lobotomy (left and right sides of brains cut off from each other). Doctors showed something to the right side something to make the patient get up and walk around. Then asked the left side why it was walking. The left side made up a coherent story of why it was walking, but was actually completely wrong. This shows the brain is very good at making up stories to demonstrate it is in control when it is not. We even fool ourselves into thinking we are (our consciousness is) in control. Another set of more recent experiments shows thoughts and actions appearing in the brain (via brain scans) before we are consciously aware of those thoughts. (This is another view of the "we have no free will" argument). There is an evolutionary justification for convincing ourselves and others that we are in control of our thoughts and actions, simply that we are reliable and not crazy. Also for making ourselves feel better and more capable so we can attract mates. The consciousness is not the CEO; a better analogy the head of marketing. The mind is modular, has many completing and overlapping modules. Whichever module is winning at the moment is how you are feeling and thinking.
Chapter 7: The Mental Modules That Run Your Life
Our personalities (our "self") is impermanent and in flux. It changes depending on which modules are in charge. Seeing images of sexy women or scary movies changes our behavior. It is "feelings" or emotions that allow a certain mental module to take control in that moment. Letting go of attachment to feelings give you greater control. There is a evolutionary explanation for why feelings control our modules, mostly having to do with mating and survival from predators. So the idea that we are in control of ourselves is an illusion, which can be dangerous if something causes us to react violently towards others based on a false trigger.
Chapter 8: How Thoughts Think Themselves
3 main types of meditation: zen, which contemplates these cryptic lines known as koans, tibetan, which involves visual imagery, and Vipassana, which is the mindfulness contemplation of this book. Insights gained from mindful meditation backs up a lot of what modern psychology has discovered. When our mind wanders during meditation, it is mostly caused by thoughts of ourselves or our relationships with others. Interesting side note: recreational drugs directly stimulates the reward centers in our brain without having to go through the normal social interactions or work. Think of your thoughts as foreign things bubbling up from something outside of yourself. Do not attach yourself or think of these thoughts as yours. Or think of it like watching a movie: you might be very involved with the emotions of the characters but ultimately we realize that the movie is not us. Having this perspective brings us one step closer to letting go of our "self" and especially detaching ourselves from bad thoughts. Feelings give strength to thoughts. Feelings is an evolutionary shortcut to tell us to pay attention to something, so it makes sense that stronger feelings will create stronger thoughts.
Chapter 9: Self Control
In the eighteenth century, philosopher David Hume wrote that reason is the slave of the passions. He may have had insight similar to Buddhism. Even when we think we are applying reason to a quantitative decision, there are feelings involved. Buying something ultimately comes down to how you feel about the purchase. Again, there is a good evolutionary explanation of why feelings are so dominant in our decision making: as a short cut for making good decisions about passing down your genes. Self control is sometimes pictured as a muscle fighting against feelings, but actually a more accurate picture is that it strengthens the other feeling that is fighting against the feeling you are trying to control. Hume further wrote that nothing can oppose the impulse of passion but a contrary passion. So instead of thinking of self control in terms of a muscle that has to be strengthened, think of self control as weakening the source of the bad feeling. This method is also used in addition therapy. RAIN: recognize the feeling, accept it, investigate it, then Non-identification with it (similar to detachment). Good analogy is a rat which has been trained to press a button to get food. Fighting the urge is like pushing the rat away from the bar, but the rat is still attracted to the bar and the food. But by addressing the root cause of the behavior (no food when the bar is pressed), the rat will stop pushing it. Even attention deficit or distraction can be thought of as an addition, or as one feeling overcoming the weaker feeling for doing slightly uncomfortable or boring work. Mention of the Eightfold Path. Both therapeutic problems (addiction to alcohol) and spiritual problems (hate, anger, jealously) are the product of not seeing things clearly, being mislead by feelings.
Chapter 10: Encounters with the Formless
What this really means is that when we look at things in our surroundings, we are attaching a lot of our own feelings, emotions, prejudices, assumptions to the actual thing we are looking at. If we are from a primitive and isolated culture and we hear or see an airplane (but don't know what it is), we would have a different reaction and mental concept of it than if we did know what it is. Long example of "accepting" the annoying sound of a jackhammer or buzz saw. We apply an "essence" or narrative to the raw object or event, but that essence/narrative is a construct we made up in our own brain.
Chapter 11: The Upside of Emptiness
Capgras delusion: a neurological condition where a person sees a spouse, relative, or friend and thinks that person is not the spouse, relative, or friend even though that person looks exactly like him/her. The actual perception portion of the brain is not connected to the feelings part of the brain. Its the feelings part that actually identifies the person. Someone paid $50K for a tape measure once owned by John F Kennedy. The tape measure is just a tape measure, but because there is a story, an essence, around that simple object, it is worth more. People who are tasting two glasses of identical wine will like the one more if they are told that one is more expensive. We can be manipulated at a subconscious level by showing us related words or concepts ahead of the actual test word. This is called priming. From evolution, we tend to pay more attention to things that affect our ability to survive and spread our genes. So these things tend to have stronger feelings attached to them. But in modern days, these old feelings are transfered to things that do not really matter, like an expensive car. One could argue that its ok to enjoy an expensive bottle of wine or an expensive car, but the counter argument is that a deeper, more true enjoyment comes from enjoying the true nature of the thing without the superficial stuff attached to it.
Chapter 12: A Weedless World
Why do we label some green grasses as weeds and others not? Natural selection has designed us to attach feelings to things so we can quickly make judgements about things, including other people. Various experiments show we make very quick judgements about people. The fundamental attribution error: we tend to attribute our conclusions about a person based on their character (disposition) rather than their circumstance and environment. Good example of experiment where seminary students walked by a homeless person. Students who were in a hurry were less likely to help. What's more, we twist the attribution error to preserve and reinforce our conclusions about a person. If we see an enemy do something good, we attribute that to the circumstance rather than the possibility that the enemy might be a good person after all. Even how we perceive "facts" are influenced by how we perceive the people involved: if you are a fan of football team A, you will interpret a play/foul differently than if you are a fan of the opposing team. So we need meditation to remove our feelings about other humans, this can be done by loving-kindness meditation. We must realize that our evolution and emotions are controlling our actions much like evolution is controlling the actions of a simple reptile. But what if we take this detachment too far? Will we feel less love for our spouse or children? Feel towards them just like we feel towards anyone else? Maybe, but some would argue it might be a more pure, more clear. Note that feeling detachment from the essence of other people does not necessarily make you a more moral person, you could also become a serial killer. That is why moral instruction and proper moral practices are still important.
Chapter 13: Like, Wow, Everything is One (at Most)
Why is the tingling in your foot considered part of you, but the sound of bird singing is not part of you? Both end up as signals firing in your brain. Is the boundary your skin? What about the bacteria living in your gut? Do you not consider your child/family "a part of you"? In previous chapters, we learned to detach from our feelings by considering them not part of ourselves ("not-self"). But you can consider the other side of this concept and consider everything around you part of yourself. "Interdependent co-arising": things do not exist independently of other things. A tree only exists because of the ground, water, and sunlight. A person also needs air, food, and most likely other people around them. (So again, you cannot consider a single person separate from all the things/people around that person.). Once you consider all people as part of one, you will not want to harm them, because that is like harming yourself. Unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) arrises from thirst/craving/desire (tanha). But you can only have tanha if you have a sense of self, what you have (inside you) and what you don't have and want (outside of you). Tanha also applies to things you don't want or are adverse to. You have something (pain, discomfort) in yourself and you want to push it outside of yourself. The three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed is to want something, hatred is to not want something, delusion is the delusion of self, that the first two things implies there is a self. So if you meditate a lot, and you become free of the delusion of self, then you will not suffer from dukkha, does that mean you have achieved Nirvana?
Chapter 14: Nirvana in a Nutshell
Nirvana is a state of perfect happiness, complete peace, complete inner freedom, and full awakening and understanding. It has two sides, the scientific, naturalistic side, which is the focus of this book, and the mystical side, which says once you have achieved nirvana, you will break the endless cycle of rebirth. In ancient texts, nirvana is described as being "unconditioned", meaning we are not always reacting to the conditions around us. There is a long buddhist theory about the 12 chains of cause and effect, but the most important point is between feeling and craving. If you can break that link, you are well on your way to nirvana.
Chapter 15: Is Enlightenment Enlightening?
[Seems like we are getting to the summary phase of the book, repeating and summarizing a lot of previous concepts]. Rebellions are energizing. Neo (in the Matrix) had a clear enemy to rebel against. In the context of Buddhism, rebelling against this concept of natural selection controlling our actions is not as easy or clear. Is there a checklist for knowing when you are enlightened? Yes, but seems to be scattered: understanding the concept of not-self, impermanence, overcoming tanha (craving), the Eightfold path, etc. Long section about seeing things not from your own perspective, or even from your own species' perspective. Looking at things from a universal perspective. This is another way of describing not-self, or enlightenment. This would be the ultimate rebellion against natural selection, which causes us to think and act for the preservation of self. If we look at a brief summary of evolution of life on this planet, we went from single celled organisms to complex individual animals. Is the next step the emergence of a peaceful and unified global civilization/organism? Of course, war, climate change, and other problems stand in the way of this next step.
Chapter 16: Meditation and the Unseen Order
Even if we cannot achieve total enlightenment, being able to see some glimpses of truth is worthwhile. Through mindful meditation, you can become more of an observer of your feelings rather than being controlled by it, which reduces your suffering or dukkha. Liberation and enlightenment are mutually self-reinforcing. Seeing clearly will ultimately save the world as we stop the vicious cycle of overreacting to perceived threats. Future historians might calls this a Metacognitive revolution. It would be a shame that after a million years of evolution, we have finally gotten to the point where we understand the processes in our minds, but ultimately fail to control or overcome them and reach a higher level of consciousness. The heart of Buddhist teaching has a three-part alignment of (1) the metacognitive truth, (2) moral truth, where other people's well being is just as important as mine, and (3) happiness, meaning freedom from suffering.
Card created: 2019-08-31 09:31:21
Card updated: 2020-04-24 12:58:05