Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright (Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $27)
The last time Bob Wright and I discussed religion was almost two years ago, on an episode of his video podcast on MeaningOfLife.tv. Wright is a perceptive journalist but seems to have moved beyond the typical world-weariness of that type to something else, something wiser and more alive. It feels woo-woo to say it, but the short conversation we had after the recording stopped left me feeling as if the world temperature had cooled by three to five degrees and I had lit one of those scented candles that wives like to buy, eucalyptus or persimmon. He was solicitous, generous, and, in his lapidary way, compassionate. We got off the phone, and suddenly the world seemed fresh again. I made a firm purpose to amend a particular wrong in my life.
And so, I read Wright’s new book, Why Buddhism Is True, with trepidation, fearing another round of unwanted edification — or possibly even conversion. I’m a Catholic and often rather snippy about it. But as I’ve embarked on parenthood, I’ve felt the consolations of my religion less often. The profound fervor of youth has long since given way to the quotidian onset of midlife. Long devotions are replaced with logistical overmanagement of small children. With the addition of midlife sins such as greed and pride to the usual lusts and gluttony, no one would describe me as having overflowing reserves of inner peace or tranquility. I’m a setup either for the devil or for conversion. And if anyone could persuade me to get into a lotus position and focus on my breath for half an hour every day, I think it would be Bob Wright.
I’m not the only one experiencing a sense of danger. In this book, Wright sets out to show how recent findings in psychology and other sciences rhyme with the philosophy and insights of Buddhism. He begins by considering his own “futile pleasure seeking,” in the form of a powdered-sugar doughnut. You may sense another danger already — that Wright might end up trivializing Buddhism as a kind of super self-help system. Too fat? Try detachment. Struggling to achieve your career goals? You’ll achieve them when you discover that ambition is an illusion. But this is a danger Wright succeeds in avoiding.
For Wright, the pleasure found in a powdered-sugar doughnut reveals the slippery way that our conditioning by evolution fools us. Our imperative to pass on our genes, bequeathed to us in a much harsher environment than 21st-century America, has made our desires disproportionate to the pleasures we get from indulging them. Our desires mislead us, leave us crashingly unsatisfied. Presumably, if they run wild with us, we get diabetes or destroy our relationships. Wright then describes how meditation allowed him to see his desires and his feelings from a different angle, and to increasingly escape their mastery over him.
Wright’s book is particularly interesting when marshaling psychological studies and experiments in order to prove the truth of Buddha’s contention that there is no “self,” or at least not the type of self that we usually describe. “This is a matter of nearly unanimous agreement among psychologists: The conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority,” he writes. After a successful meditation retreat, “some of the contents of your consciousness that you normally think of yourself as generating seem to be getting generated by something other than you.” Wright reviews psychological experiments, some of them involving brains that have had their hemispheres separated, and in which human will and intention seem to operate completely shorn of each other. He cites others in which subliminal images bring about different “modes” or “modules” of non-rational reaction. Psychologists can manipulate how people respond to stimuli by subtly priming them to think in terms of self-protection or mate acquisition.
“The closest thing to a self would be the algorithm that determines which circumstances put which modules in charge,” he writes. “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.” In other words, brain chemistry conditioned by evolution meets happenstance and produces our reactions; as a side effect, this generates the illusion of our “selves” reacting authentically and consciously.
Wright eventually comes around to describing his life-altering breakthrough in meditation. After having spent days at a retreat beating himself up for his poor meditation, experiencing in concentrated form the kind of self-reproach he had tortured himself with for years, he finally experienced some detachment from the critical, self-hating voice inside his own head. This sense of detachment from that voice was accompanied by “narcotic-caliber bliss . . . enveloping me with growing warmth as the experience unfolded.” And as he contemplated the prospect of a life in which that voice was no longer his master, he cried. Reading this gave me a jump: My own religious conversion had all the same physical and emotional components as Wright’s breakthrough. In this moment, Wright realized that his inner tormentor was in some sense an illusion. He was translated into a life in which his guilt was no longer primordial, inescapable, and oppressive — born again, you might say.
There is a modesty to this book that serves Wright very well, though I’m not sure it serves Buddha. While Wright does a very respectful job of teasing out different aspects of Buddhism that jibe with careful reasoning about ourselves and with the insights science gives us, it is admittedly a highly selective reading of Buddhist sources, one that doesn’t seem grounded in an authoritative tradition. In other words, Wright is a cafeteria Buddhist, and it isn’t clear how many other Buddhists are dining with him. It might be difficult for potential converts persuaded by his arguments for meditation to sift through these religious traditions and philosophical texts themselves without experiencing the romance that comes in adhering to an authoritative tradition.
Wright’s concluding list of the reasons he meditates is also modest but subtly persuasive. Although its mix of quickly conveyed scientific research and friendly-faced spirituality might appeal to people who watch TED Talks, the book does not reduce Buddhist meditation to a productivity hack, helping you to get what your unenlightened self wanted out of life. It’s a selective reading of Buddhism but not, in my view, a sacrilegious one.
So, is it time to convert? I found little to dispute as Wright explained how elusive the “inner CEO” is, but I do not feel tempted to doubt my “self” itself. The sense of self would begin to disappear from me if I looked for it the way Wright does, searching for it in signs of an observable integrated character beneath the thoughts and feelings I experience. But the self becomes undeniable if I look for it in my mirror, or in my journal, or in the memories of friends. While it is sometimes generally hard to know what it is that I really want or really feel in any given moment, the self reappears when seen in the light of history. It might be a confused self that I drag around: It might be subject to psychological manipulation, vulnerable to the delusions of motivated reasoning, or tripped up by its own weakness.
What else but my self is doing the things I do? Whatever the genesis of my desires or thoughts about a powdered-sugar doughnut, on August 11, 2017, I bought one and ate it — because of this book. Then I finished this book review just before the deadline set for it, and resolved to have a better diet (again). The circumstances of the universe in which I find myself, and which influence the operation of what Wright calls “the algorithm” that determines my responses, I trust to be designed by Providence, conscious of my fallen human nature.
In some ways, I wish that Wright had ventured beyond what he describes as “Western Buddhism” — his version of the faith, which focuses on Buddhist philosophy and meditation and is denuded of the various gods, prayers, and worship that are the focus of the religion of the vast majority of Buddhists. At midlife, with young kids, a day job, and a hobby business, I find that my religious practice now rarely involves deep readings of the saints or long uninterrupted prayers that will one day open the door to mystical experience. Instead, when obliged by the calendar, I get dressed up and drag the little ones to church. There I wrestle my squirming children, who are animated by their own infernal algorithms. But at some point, the bell rings, my knee bends, the Host is lifted up, and I whisper, “My Lord and my God.” Wherever my thoughts strayed, however pathetically distracted I was, whatever delusions clouded my judgment that week, in that moment, in the light of history, I slip out of my own subjectivity and am a witness to the truth of all existence.
So, no, I’m not becoming a Buddhist. Or a Wrightist. But you might. I’m not unchanged from reading his book. The piles of mind research, illumined by Wright’s funny and sometimes searching personal reflections, have convinced me to wake up earlier than my kids and, according to the light of my own tradition, meditate.