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Why Buddhism is True

ROBERT WRIGHT
2017

  • If you ask the question "What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day?" the answer, at the most basic level, isn't "The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality." No, at the most basic level the answer is "The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation."
  • Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us.
  • What's fundamental to the Buddha's teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best. One of the Buddha's main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more.
  • Natural selection doesn't "want" us to be happy, after all; it just "wants" us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.
  • To live mindfully is to pay attention to, to be "mindful of" what's happening in the here and now and to experience it in a clear, direct way, unclouded by various mental obfuscations. Stop and smell the roses.
  • "Mindfulness," as popularly conceived, is just the beginning of mindfulness.
Paradoxes of Meditation
  • You can best achieve success at meditation by not pursuing success, and achieving this success may mean caring less about success.
  • The problems that meditation can help you overcome often make it hard to meditate in the first place.
  • In mindfulness meditation as it's typically taught, the point of focusing on your breath isn't just to focus on your breath. It's to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal preoccupations so you can observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way.
  • Accepting, even embracing, an unpleasant feeling can give you a critical distance from it that winds up diminishing the unpleasantness.
  • Some Mahayana Buddhists even subscribe to a "mind-only" doctrine that, in its more extreme incarnations, dismisses the things we "perceive" via consciousness as, pretty literally, figments of our imagination.
  • The concept of emptiness: things we see when we look out on the world have less in the way of distinct and substantial existence than they seem to have.
  • The famous Buddhist idea that the self-you know, your self, my self-is an illusion. In this view, the "you" that you think of as thinking your thoughts, feeling your feelings, and making your decisions doesn't really exist.
  • You put these two fundamental Buddhist ideas together-the idea of not-self and the idea of emptiness-you have a radical proposition: neither the world inside you nor the world outside you is anything like it seems.
When Are Feelings Illusions?
  • One of the take-home lessons of Buddhist philosophy is that feelings just are. If we accepted their arising and subsiding as part of life, rather than reacting to them as if they were deeply meaningful, we'd often be better off. Learning to do that is a big part of what mindfulness meditation is about.
  • To approach or to avoid is the most elemental behavioral decision there is, and feelings seem to be the tool natural selection used to get organisms to make what, by natural selection's lights, was the right decision.
  • Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our environment. We could say that feelings are "true" if the judgments they encode are accurate. We could say feelings are "false" or perhaps "illusory" if they lead the organism astray-if following the feelings leads to things that are bad for the organism.
  • One way to define true and false as they apply to feelings: if they feel good but lead us to do things that aren't really good for us, then they're false feelings.
  • Natural selection didn't design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.
  • If you accept the idea that many of our most troublesome feelings are in one sense or another illusions, then meditation can be seen as, among other things, a process of dispelling illusions.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy is very much in the spirit of mindfulness meditation. Both in some sense question the validity of feelings. It's just that with cognitive-behavioral therapy, the questioning is more literal.
  • Feelings can be misleading:
    • Our feelings weren't designed to depict reality accurately even in our "natural" environment. Feelings were designed to get the genes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors into the next generation.
    • The fact that we're not living in a "natural" environment makes our feelings even less reliable guides to reality.
    • Underlying it all is the happiness delusion. As the Buddha emphasized, our ongoing attempts to feel better tend to involve an overestimation of how long "better" is going to last. What's more, when "better" ends, it can be followed by "worse"-an unsettled feeling, a thirst for more.
Bliss, Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate
  • The "default mode network" is a network in the brain that, according to brain- scan studies, is active when we're doing nothing in particular. It is the network along which our mind wanders when it's wandering. Studies have shown that these places are usually in the past or the future; you may ponder recent events or distant, strong memories
  • When the default mode network subsides-when the mind stops wandering-it can be a good feeling. There can be a sense of liberation from your chattering mind, a sense of peace, even deep peace.
  • One path is to sustain the focus on your breath, the focus it felt good to establish in the first place, for a long, long time; and try to tighten and deepen the focus, becoming more immersed in the breath. Then just keep going. If sustained for long enough, it can bring powerful feelings of bliss or ecstasy.
  • First, mindfulness meditation is good training. Viewing your feelings mindfully while on a meditation cushion can make you better at viewing them mindfully in everyday life, which means your life will be less governed by misleading or unproductive feelings.
  • Another virtue of mindfulness meditation is that it can make you more attuned to beauty.
  • Becoming enlightened, in the Buddhist sense of the term, would entail wholly ridding yourself of the twin illusions from which people tend to suffer: the illusion about what's "in here"-inside your mind-and about what's "out there" in the rest of the world.
  • Mindfulness meditation is a technique you can use for various purposes, beginning with simple stress reduction. But if you are doing mindfulness meditation within a traditional Vipassana framework, the ultimate purpose is more ambitious: to gain insight, to see the true nature of reality.
  • Vipassana is about apprehending what are known as "the three marks of existence:"
    • The first is impermanence;
    • The second mark of existence is dukkha-suffering, unsatisfactoriness;
    • The third mark of existence, "not-self."
The Alleged Nonexistence of Your Self
  • The Buddhist idea of anatta, or "not-self." The basic idea is that the self-your self, my self-in some sense doesn't exist.
  • According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me' and ‘mine,' selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities, and problems.
  • So two of the properties commonly associated with a self-control and persistence through time-are found to be absent, not evident in any of the five components that seem to constitute human beings.
  • The Buddha didn't really mean to be denying the existence of the self, but that there was more to you than the five aggregates in the first place.
  • What happens after you take the not-self teaching seriously and abandon your attachment to the five aggregates? He says that consciousness itself is "liberated." By being liberated, it is steady; by being steady, it is content; by being content, he is not agitated. Being unagitated, he personally attains nirvana. It is engaged with feeling, with mental formations, with perception, with the body.
  • Consciousness is not-self, something that "you" have to let go of for liberation to happen.
  • One is the kind of consciousness you're liberated from, and the other is the kind of consciousness that stays with "you"-that is you-after the liberation. The first kind of consciousness is deeply entangled with-fully engaged with-the contents of the other aggregates, and the second kind is a more objective awareness of those contents, a more contemplative consciousness that persists after the engagement has been broken.
Your CEO Is MIA
  • This is a matter of nearly unanimous agreement among psychologists: the conscious self is not some all powerful executive authority.
  • The split-brain experiments powerfully demonstrated the capacity of the conscious self to convince itself that it's calling the shots when it's not.
  • Experiment suggests a different scenario: the actual brain machinery that translates incentive into motivation is the same regardless of whether you're consciously aware of the incentive and consciously experiencing the translation; so maybe the conscious awareness doesn't really add anything to the process. In other words, maybe it's not so much "conscious motivation" as "consciousness of motivation."
  • From natural selection's point of view, it's good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren't accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.
  • We think we're better than average at not being biased in thinking that we're better than average.
  • We recount an experience to someone, the act of recounting it changes the memory of it. So if we reshape the story a bit each time-omitting inconvenient facts, exaggerating convenient ones-we can, over time, transform our actual belief about what happened.
  • We're under at least two kinds of illusions. One is about the nature of the conscious self, which we see as more in control of things than it actually is. The other illusion is about exactly what kind of people we are-namely, capable and upstanding.
  • Your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules-modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them-and it's the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part.
  • You may find it useful to think of meditation as a process that takes a conscious mind that gets to do a little nudging and turns it into something that can do a lot of nudging-maybe even turns it into something more like a president than a speaker of the House.
  • Buddha emphasized how fluid, how impermanent, the various parts of the mind are, and why he considered this flux relevant to the not-self argument; if the self is supposed to be some unchanging essence, it's pretty hard to imagine where exactly that self would be amid the ongoing transitions from state of mind to state of mind.
  • Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life as it's ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show; rather, there seem to be a series of selves that take turns running the show-and, in a sense, seizing control of the show. If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, it stands to reason that one way to change the show is to change the role feelings play in everyday life. I'm not aware of a better way to do that than mindfulness meditation.
How Thoughts Think Themselves
  • Thoughts, which we normally think of as emanating from the conscious self, are actually directed toward what we think of as the conscious self, after which we embrace the thoughts as belonging to that self.
  • Anyway, the main point these meditation teachers are making is the same as the upshot of the modular-mind model: the conscious self doesn't create thoughts; it receives them.
  • Of all the thoughts engaged in subterranean competition at a given moment, maybe the thought that has the strongest level of feeling associated with it is the one that gains entry into consciousness.
  • Feelings are judgments about how various things relate to an animal's Darwinian interests.
Self Control
  • Though rational thought plays an important role in human motivation, it is in a certain sense never really calling the shots. When we decide to do something, we decide on the basis of a feeling.
  • Good and bad feelings are what natural selection used to goad animals into, respectively, approaching things or avoiding things, acquiring things or rejecting things.
  • Self-control has often been described as a matter of reason prevailing over feelings.
  • Reason has its effect not by directly pushing back against a feeling but by fortifying the feeling that does do the pushing back.
  • Reason remains a "slave" to the passions.
  • It's hard to separate the valid reasons from the invalid reasons, because sometimes the least valid reasons feel good-and feelings tend to carry the day.
  • We have a tool-mindfulness meditation-that's well suited to intervening at the level of feelings and altering their influence.
  • There's an acronym used to describe this technique: RAIN. First you Recognize the feeling. Then you Accept the feeling (rather than try to drive it away). Then you Investigate the feeling and its relationship to your body. Finally, the N stands for Non-identification, or, equivalently, Non-attachment.
Encounters with the Formless
  • This world of apparent forms is in some sense, as the Samadhiraja Sutra has it, a "mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition."
  • When we apprehend the world out there, we're not really apprehending the world out there but rather are "constructing" it.
  • Perception is an active, not a passive, process, a process of constantly building models of the world.
  • We build stories on stories on stories, and the problem with the stories begins at their foundation. Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, a tool for examining our stories carefully, from the ground up, so that we can, if we choose, separate truth from fabrication.
The Upside of Emptiness
  • The tendency to attribute inner essences to things is a "human universal." Some of his examples of essentialism are exotic: someone paid $48,875 for a tape measure that was owned by John F. Kennedy.
  • To see special items as having special essences is to have special feelings about them.
  • There's lots of evidence that people do tend to attach positive and negative associations to just about every kind of thing there is.
  • Human beings are automatic evaluators. We tend to assign adjectives to nouns, whether consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.
  • The perception of emptiness dampens the affect; once you see that the thing you're accustomed to reacting strongly to isn't much of a "thing" in the first place, it only makes sense to react less strongly.
  • The stories we tell about things, and thus the beliefs we have about their history and their nature, shape our experience of them, and thus our sense of their essence.
  • In some cases the story evoked by essence is a minimizing story: That's just a tree or just a piece of celery. But in other cases - the fantastic glass of wine, the tape measure that belonged to JFK - the story is an amplifying story, so loud that it overwhelms intrinsic experience. Maybe essences can be labels that discourage experience altogether, or labels that encourage experience but in some sense distort it.
  • The medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) seems to be where story, and hence expectation, mixes in with raw sensory data to modulate what the researchers called "the hedonic experience of flavor."
  • One example of a more general illusion: that the "essences" we sense in things really exist, that they inhabit the things we perceive, when in fact they are constructions of our minds, with no necessary correspondence to reality.
A Weedless World
  • The fundamental attribution error is that we tend to underestimate the role of situation and overestimate the role of disposition. In other words, we're biased in favor of essence.
  • The loving-kindness meditation (metta meditation from the ancient Pail word for loving-kindness) starts with you making a point of feeling kindly toward yourself. Then you imagine someone you love and direct some loving-kindness toward him or her. Then you imagine someone you like and direct some loving-kindness toward that person. Then you think about someone you don't feel strongly about one way or the other. And so on-until you get to an actual enemy.
  • The thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi is said to have written, "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it."
  • If you're seriously pursuing liberation, and trying to divorce yourself from the cravings and aversions that most of us have, then naturally things in the world wouldn't have "strong emotional connotations, and that might be part of your perception that they lack essence.
  • If one takes it too literally, one might come away with the idea that the ultimate aim of Buddhism is to become a completely unemotional, emotionally flat, emotionally deprived automaton.
  • As one continues to practice the Buddhist path, it enriches the emotional life, so that one becomes emotionally more sensitive, more happy and joyful. Like, Wow, Everything Is One (at Most).
  • The not-self experience actually has two sides. The interior version of the experience. This consists of looking "within"-at your thoughts, your feelings-and asking, "Wait a second, in what sense are these things really inherently a part of me?" There is also what you could call the exterior not-self experience. This consists of looking at the "outside" world-at things beyond your skin-and asking, "In what sense are these things not a part of me?".
  • Nothing possesses inherent existence; nothing contains all the ingredients of ongoing existence within itself; nothing is self-sufficient. Hence the idea of emptiness: all things are empty of inherent, independent existence.
  • In Hindu thought, specifically within a Hindu school of thought known as Advaita Vedanta, there is the idea that the individual self or soul is actually just a part of what you might call a universal soul. To put the proposition in Hindu terminology: atman (the self or soul) is brahman (the universal soul). The very birth of Buddhism, its distinct emergence within an otherwise Hindu milieu, is thought to lie largely in the denial that atman exists.
  • If there's really not much difference between saying that things are so interconnected and interdependent as to lack individual identity and saying that things are so interconnected and interdependent as to be a single thing. Maybe the deepest meditative experiences had by Buddhists and the deepest meditative experiences had by Hindus in the Advaita Vedanta tradition are basically the same experience.
  • Tanha, a word usually translated as "thirst" or "craving" and sometimes as "desire." To put a finer point on it, the problem is the unquenchability of tanha, the fact that attaining our desires always leaves us unsatisfied, thirsting for more of the same or thirsting for something new.
  • Tanha is inextricably tied to the sensation of self, and that overcoming tanha is therefore tied to the experience of not-self.
  • The "three poisons" are raga, dvesha, and moha. Those three words are typically translated as "greed, hatred, and delusion". The word for greed refers to any grasping attraction to things. The word for hatred can mean negative feelings toward anything-all feelings of aversion. In other words, the first two poisons are the two sides of tanha: a craving for the pleasant, an aversion to the unpleasant. If tanha is indeed tightly bound up with the sense of self, then it makes sense to see these two poisons as bound up with the third poison: delusion.
  • Raga plus dvesha equals moha.
Nirvana in a Nutshell
  • Buddhist texts describe Nirvana as "a state of perfect happiness, complete peace, complete inner freedom, and full awakening and understanding."
  • In ancient texts, nirvana is often described with a word that is commonly translated as "the unconditioned."
  • Things that are conditioned in the Buddhist sense are things that are subject to causes. So if nirvana is "the unconditioned," then, you might think, it would involve some kind of escape from "the caused." But what does that mean? In Buddhism it means paticca-samuppada. It is a term that has numerous applications and numerous translations. A good translation is "conditioned arising."
  • In its most generic sense, conditioned arising refers to the basic idea of causality: out of certain conditions some things arise; It is this chain of causal links that nirvana is said to break.
  • There are twelve causal links starting with: Through the condition of the sensory faculties, contact arises. Through the condition of contact, feelings arise - feelings give rise to tanha, to "craving": It is here in this space between feeling and craving that the battle will be fought which will determine whether bondage will continue indefinitely into the future or whether it will be replaced by enlightenment and liberation. For if instead of yielding to craving, to the driving thirst for pleasure, if a person contemplates with mindfulness and awareness the nature of feelings and understands these feelings as they are, then that person can prevent craving from crystallizing and solidifying.
  • The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input.
  • If you observe those feelings mindfully rather than just reacting to them, you can in some measure escape the control;
Is Enlightenment Enlightening?
  • What is enlightenment? To apprehend the truth experientially, understand not-self and emptiness, seeing the impermanence of everything, overcoming tanha, or craving.
  • Meditatively apprehending Buddhism's central metaphysical claims is said to erode the psychological roots of bad behavior.
  • One element of enlightenment - the exterior version of the not-self experience, with its dissolution of the bounds between you and the world, hence a constant continuity of interest between you and all of life - involves abandoning one of the most basic precepts built into us by natural selection: that I am special by virtue of being me. Now that's rebellion.
  • Feelings, viewed in the context of their evolutionary purpose, are implicit judgments about things in the environment, about whether they are good for the organism or bad for the organism. Feelings could be called true or false: Are those judgments accurate or inaccurate?
  • If you transcend the perspective of the self, any self, and view things from nowhere in particular-essence disappears, along with the feelings that created it in the first place.
  • Our entire notion of good and bad, our whole landscape of feelings-fear, lust, love, and the many other feelings, salient and subtle, that inform our everyday thoughts and perceptions-are products of the particular evolutionary history of our species.
  • You could even view mindfulness meditation itself as in some sense a part of the natural unfolding of life, part of the ongoing coevolutionary process. Maybe, given the constraints under which this universe operates, the only way for complex consciousness to arise on this planet was for it to be warped in the process, distorted by the exaltation of self. And maybe, once social organization approaches the global level, the only way for complex consciousness to flourish on this planet - or even to survive - is for it to now be unwarped, or at least partly unwarped.
Meditation and the Unseen Order
  • I am pursuing enlightenment - it's just that, rather than think of enlightenment as a state, I think of it as a process. The object of the game isn't to reach Liberation and Enlightenment- but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on a not-so-distant day. Like today!
  • A basic premise of Buddhism is that seeing the metaphysical truth-seeing the way things really are, both on the inside and the outside, and hence seeing the continuity between those two zones-in some sense amounts to seeing the moral truth, the moral equivalence between our welfare and the welfare of others.
  • Here are some Buddhist "truths":
    • Human beings often fail to see the world clearly, and this can lead them to suffer and to make others suffer.
    • Humans tend to anticipate more in the way of enduring satisfaction from the attainment of goals than will in fact transpire.
    • Dukkha is a relentlessly recurring part of life as life is ordinarily lived.
    • The source of dukkha identified in the Four Noble Truths-tanha, translated as "thirst" or "craving" or "desire"-makes sense against the backdrop of evolution.
    • The two basic feelings that sponsor dukkha-the two sides of tanha, a clinging attraction to things and an aversion to things-needn't enslave us as they tend to do.
    • Our intuitive conception of the "self" is misleading at best. We tend to uncritically embrace all kinds of thoughts and feelings as "ours," as part of us, when in fact that identification is optional.
    • The "self" simply doesn't exist - sense that the bounds surrounding the self have dissolved and were in some sense illusory to begin with.
    • When a sense of the dissolution of the bounds of self (perhaps paired with the "interior" version of the not-self experience in the form of reduced identification with selfish impulses) leads to a less pronounced prioritization of "my" interests over the interests of others, does that move a person closer to moral truth?
    • The intuition that objects and beings we perceive have "essences" is, as the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness holds, an illusion.
    • Seeing the world more clearly can make you not just happier but more moral.
    • Mindfulness meditation involves increased attentiveness to the things that cause our behavior-attentiveness to how perceptions influence our internal states and how certain internal states lead to other internal states and to behaviors.
These notes were taken from Robert's book.
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