Why Buddhism Is True:
The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

Robert Wright

Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us. p. 4 (As Charley illustrates.)

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. p. 10

Taking the red pill means asking basic questions about the relationship of the perceiver to the perceived and examining the underpinnings of our normal view of reality. If you’re thinking seriously about taking the red pill, you’ll curious as to whether the Buddhist view of the world works not just in a a therapeutic sense but in a more philosophical sense. p. 23

Though your brief conviction that you’ve seen a rattlesnake may be wrong ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the conviction could be lifesaving the other one time in a hundred. And in natural selection’s calculus, being right 1 percent of the time in matters of life and death can be worth being wrong 99 percent of the time, even if every one of those ninety-nine instances you’re briefly terrified. p. 32-3

If you accept the idea that many of our most troublesome feelings are in one sense or another are illusions, then meditation can be seen as, among other things, a process of dispelling illusions. p. 39

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. Long before psychologists were describing the hedonic treadmill, the Buddha saw it. p. 41

The default mode network, a network in the brain that is active when we’re doing nothing in particular—not talking to people, not focusing on our work or any other task, not playing a sport or reading a book or watching a movie. It is the network along which our mind wanders when it is wandering. p. 45

What you’re generally not doing when your mind is wandering is directly experiencing the present moment. p. 46

The Satipatthana Sutta, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. p. 52

Still, if you want to go full-on Buddhist—if you want to take the red pill—you need to understand that staying in the present, though an inherent part of mindfulness meditation, isn’t the point of the exercise. Its the means to an end, not the end itself. p. 53

Enlightenment entails 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. p. 53 (Overcoming tanha, or craving—is, arguably, so tightly intertwined with the dispelling of these two illusions as to be tantamount to it. Endnote, p. 285)

The Vipassana (vih PAW suh nuh) school of meditation focuses on clear vision and is usually translated as insight. If you are doing mindfulness meditation with a traditional Vipassana framework, the ultimate purpose is more ambitious: to gain insight. The idea is to see the true nature of reality, to apprehend the three marks of existence. The three marks are: (1.) impermanence, (2.) suffering/unsatisfactoriness and (3.) not-self. p. 56

Truly, deeply realizing that you are selfless—in the sense of not having a self—can make you selfless in the more familiar sense of the term. p. 59

The idea of self… is the source of all the evil in the world. p. 59

When I think of my self, I think of something that persists through time. I’ve changed a lot since I was 10 years old, but hasn’t some inner essence—my identity, my self—in some sense endured. Isn’t that the one constant in the flux? The Buddha would be naturally skeptical of this claim, since he holds that everything is in flux and nothing is permanent. p. 63

Natural selection wants you to experience things as either good or bad. The Buddha believed that the less you judge events/experiences—including the contents of your mind—the more clearly you’ll see them, and the less deluded you’ll be. p. 71

…The conscious mind in naturally deluded about its own nature. p. 82

…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 tan it actually is. The other illusion is about exactly what kind of people we are—namely, capable and upstanding. You might call these two misconceptions the illusion about our selves and the illusion about ourselves. p. 85

“It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management (rather than, as our folk psychology would have it, a decision maker). —Jerome Barkow. p. 86

Seeing experiences in these terms help to illuminate a core paradox of Buddhist meditation practice: accepting that your self isn’t in control, and may in some sense not even exist, can put yourself—or something like it—in control. p. 93

The closest thing to a self would be the algorithm that determines which circumstances put which modules in charge. And that algorithm can’t be what we mean by the conscious self in humans—the CEO self—because humans don’t consciously decide to go into romantic mode or fearful mode. p. 95

Feelings decide which module will be in charge for the time being, and it’s modules that then decide what you’ll actually do during that time. In this light, it becomes a bit clearer why losing attachment to feeling could help you reach a point where there seems to be no self. p. 96

If the way modules/states of mind 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. p. 104

The main point these meditation teachers are making is the same as the upshot of the module-mind model: the conscious self doesn’t create thoughts; it receives them. p. 112

Escaping this drama—seeing your thoughts as passing before you rather than emanating from you—can carry you closer to the not-self experience, to that moment when you see that there is no you in there doing the thinking or doing anything else, that moment when what seems like a metaphysical truth is unveiled. p. 113

I don’t mean just focus on whatever thought is distracting you—I mean see if you can detect some feeling that is linked to the thought that is distracting you. p. 115

“Curiosity is a gift, a capacity of pleasure in knowing.” —John Ruskin. p. 116

“Every thought has a propellant, and that propellant is emotional.” —Akincano Marc Weber. p. 117

RAIN: (1.) Recognize the feeling; (2.) Accept the feeling; (3.) Investigate the feeling and (4.) nonidentification/nonattachment. p. 135-141

“If you don’t feed a stray cat, it quits coming to your door.” —Judson Brewer. p. 136

In principle, you can describe much of mindfulness meditation this way—as depriving modules of positive reinforcement that has given them power. Because often when you mindfully observe feelings, you’re keeping the module that generated them from getting some sort of reward. p. 139

Does the meaning of the word ocean—not the dictionary meaning but the actual meaning of the word to you—depend on a mélange offeelings that you’ve come to associate with oceans? p. 155

Our ordinary conception of the self as this distinct, sovereign thing is in some sense illusory: we feel a boundary that is not ultimately as real as we think, and moving toward the ultimate truth involves the dissolution of that boundary. p. 206

Miri Albahari considers tanha to include not just the desire for thing that you find pleasant, but also the desire to be free of things you find unpleasant. p. 209

The connection between tanha and our sense of self nicely frames a refrain that appears over and over in Buddhist texts. The refrain warns people to avoid the three poisons raga (greed), dvesha (hatred) and moha (delusion).

The first two poisons are the two sides of tanha: a craving for the pleasant, an aversion for the unpleasant. Raga plus dvesha equals moha. p. 213

The opposite of tanha is a state of consciousness where you live in a space where “you can’t imagine bringing anything in to improve it or taking anything away that would make it better.” —Gary Weber. p. 214

Nirvana is “a state of perfect happiness and complete peace, complete inner freedom and full awakening and understanding.” —Bhikkhu Bodhi. p. 215

The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings via tanha—via the natural reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you.But if you observe those feelings mindfully rather than just reacting to them, you can in some measure escape the control; the causes that ordinarily shape your behavior can be defied, and you can get closer to the unconditioned. p. 219-20

“There is no such thing as the unconditioned, only the possibility of not being conditioned by something.” —Stephen Batchelor. p. 220

The path of meditative progress consists largely of becoming aware of the causes impinging on you, aware of the way things manipulate you—and aware (aware as a carefully cultivated experiential understanding, a mindful awareness that brings the power to break, or at least loosen, the chains) that a key link in that manipulation lies in the space where feelings can give rise to tanha, to a craving pleasant feelings and an aversion for to unpleasant feelings. This is the space where mindfulness can critically intervene. p. 222

You could say that enlightenment in the Buddhist sense involves becoming aware of of what causes what. p. 223

If you would like to think of meditation practice as being a rebellion against an oppressive overlord, we can arrange that: just think of yourself as fighting your creator, natural selection. After all, natural selection, like the robot overlords, engineered the delusions that control us; it built them into our brains. If you’re willing to personify natural selection, you can carry the comparison with robot overlords a bit further: natural selection perpetrated the delusion in order to get us to adhere slavishly to its agenda. p. 226

If I let go of that feeling that I must beat the other person competing with me for the cab and cease to identify with it—in other words, take a step toward the interior version of the not-self experience—I’m rejecting natural selection’s insistence that I consider myself special. That that, natural selection! p. 231

The view from nowhere, the view of impartiality, shouldn’t be confused with a view of indifference. The view from nowhere can—and, I’d argue, should—involve concern for the well-being of all people (and, if we’re going to be true to Buddhist teaching, and to fairly straightforward moral logic, concern for the well-being of all sentient beings). p. 240

What causes all this hatred? At some level, it’s always the same thing: human beings operating under the influence of human brains whose design presupposed their specialness. That is, human beings operating under the influence of the reality-distortion fields that control us in many and subtle ways, convincing us that we and ours are in the right, that we are by nature good, and that, when we do the occasional bad thing, it’s not a reflection of the real us; whereas they and theirs aren’t in the right and by nature aren’t good, and when they do the occasional good thing, it’s not a reflection of the real them. And it doesn’t help matters that these reality-distortion fields often magnify, even out-and-out fabricate, the threat posed by them and theirs. p. 244

Who the hell was the inner critic, anyway. Now, more than a decade later, having thought about this stuff more and written this book, I might answer: The inner critic was a module in my mind. But at the time I was thinking less academically and the lesson seemed to be that in the future I could treat my inner critic with some critical distance, if not outright disdain. As much as I had resisted entreaties to quit beating myself up, as much as I had minimized the toll it took on me, the prospect of living without this self-torture now seemed powerfully appealing. p. 249

Sometimes I even perform a feat previously thought (by me, at least) impossible: while sitting at the computer, staring at something I’m writing and feeling a painfully strong urge to do anything other than write, I close my eyes, observe the urge until it weakens, and then get back to writing. p. 253

…The more time spent on the cushion, the fewer eruptions of self-chastisement. p. 253

The question is whether I can get far enough down the path to conduct my ideological combat with these people wisely and truthfully, which in turn means viewing them more objectively and, in a sense, more generously than I’m naturally inclined to do. The answer is that I think meditation has, at a minimum, helped move me closer to this goal. p. 258-9

Dharma thus denotes the reality that lies beyond our delusions and, for that matter, the reality about how those delusions give rise to suffering; and it denotes the implications of all this for our conduct. In other words, the dharma is at once the truth about the way things are and the truth about how it makes sense to behave in the way things are. It is both descriptions and prescription. It is the truth and the way. p. 263

Buddhism and Modern Psychology
Robert Wright

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