Open Book

Beyond Illusion

Meditation May Not Be for Everyone

Magazine Issue
November/December 2017
A headshot of a man

Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
by Robert Wright
Simon and Schuster
336 pages

I brought great expectations to Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Each of the four books by Wright that had preceded this one had received critical acclaim and popular success. The Evolution of God: The Origins of Our Belief, published in 2009, was both a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a bestseller. Another of his bestsellers, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are—The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, was selected by The New York Times as one of the best books of that year. His expertise in the dual (and sometimes dueling) fields of evolutionary psychology and religion seemed a perfect fit for tackling the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment, just as the subtitle of his current book promises. And having never practiced meditation myself, I was greatly looking forward to finding out from him why I should begin, and how best to go about it.

Then I started reading. Wright really is a smart guy, as proficient in discussing the philosophy of David Hume as he is in presenting the discourses of the Buddha. He even riffs on the character Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, in The Matrix. The catch is that I found his writing so stilted, wordy, and filled with rhetorical tics that I found myself looking around for a knife to cut through it and make sense of the verbiage. The good news: after trudging through the first few dozen pages, I’d learned enough to know that if I took a break and concentrated on my breathing for a bit, I could reset myself and be able to continue, even if I had to force myself.

Wright begins with a lawyerlike preface, qualifying what he means by “Buddhism” and what he also means by “true.” He explains that the Buddhism he presents here is a nonreligious version, scrubbed free of supernatural beliefs such as reincarnation, and unconcerned with various doctrinal controversies and disputes among the many different types of Buddhism. What’s true about this secular, more philosophical than spiritual Western-style Buddhism, he says, is the “common core” that runs through all its schools: the premise that our instinctual perceptions about the world are false and illusory, and they mislead us along a path of deep psychic suffering. Yet Buddhism nevertheless offers an intervention and a potential cure: meditation, a pathway to gaining a clearer, calmer vision, which allows us to see through the illusions that have been blocking us.

While Wright makes it clear that meditation differs from psychotherapy, he regards both as tools to abate suffering by helping us question distorted thinking and focus attention on the ways in which our perceptions can influence our moods and behaviors in self-defeating ways. Readers will discern another connection between psychotherapy and meditation. In the same way that psychological researchers turn increasingly to the workings of the brain and evolutionary biology to discover insights into human behavior, so does Wright look to these disciplines to discover the mechanisms that underlie the ways in which our perceptions can deceive us without our even realizing it.

Wright posits that humans today are subject to misperceptions and illusions galore about the nature of reality because our brains evolved in prehistoric times, when the day-to-day realities of life were quite different. Forget about the pursuit of happiness as an evolutionary goal. Natural selection aimed to do one thing only, he writes, “to get the genes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors into the next generation.” As a result, our primitive brains, developed in response to prehistoric realities of immediate danger and short life spans (will you eat dinner or be dinner?) could never have predicted the stresses and dilemmas we face in our long lifetimes today. That’s why our brains can be so trigger-ready for immediate emotion or action, and why we have trouble discerning between what we think will make us happy in the short run (nailing a prestigious job, winning the sexiest mate) and what will satisfy us in the long run (you discover you don’t really like this work, and you and your sexy mate wind up constantly squabbling).

Wright also asserts that the subfield of evolutionary psychology known as modular psychology is in sync with Buddhist teachings on the “self” and “not-self.” They both share the idea that we have no single, unchanging self, which controls everything we do, like an inner CEO. According to Buddhist teaching, that self represents an illusion of permanence that can mislead us to craving and clinging to transitory pleasures, rather than pursuing more enduring sources of fulfillment and satisfaction. In our therapeutic age, that ancient insight, Wright reports, has been translated into a new approach to overcoming addiction, using mindfulness to (according to the RAIN protocol) Recognize, Accept, Investigate the feeling of craving a substance, and then distance oneself from it by Not identifying with it.

As for the connection to modular psychology, Wright’s view about that will serve as an example of his thorny writing style: “Considerations from evolutionary biology suggest a distinct sense in which the bounds of the self can be thought of as arbitrary, which in turn suggests that sensing a kind of dissolution of the bounds of the self can be thought of as no less accurate an apprehension than our ordinary sense of the bounds of the self.” Got that? Here’s another passage, summarizing the Buddhist idea that an object or being’s “essence” is illusory: “Awareness that essence is a perceptual construct, not a reality, can be valuable, especially if paired with meditative practice that dampens the sense of essence or permits selective engagement with it.”

Here and throughout the book, Wright’s highly cerebral, intellectualized take on meditation is the absolute opposite of touchy-feely. Still, he can get personal, wryly admitting his own difficulties learning meditation and his continued shortcomings practicing it. For instance, even though he acknowledges that one goal of meditation is to get beyond the mindset of success and failure, he goes ahead and writes about his success and failures anyway, calling it one of the many paradoxes of meditation that achieving success at it means trying not to think about succeeding.

The bottom line is that for him, meditation worked. He writes of his meditation practice, “Certainly the world as I saw it had a new tenor. I had shed so much of my usual self-absorption that I could take a new kind of delight in the people and things around me. I was more open, suddenly inclined to strike up conversations with strangers. The world seemed newly vibrant and resonant.” In addition, he continues, “I was spending less time reacting, less time having my buttons pushed, and more time observing—which as a bonus, allowed for more thoughtful responses to things.”

That pithy endorsement, more than anything else in the book, captured the essence of the benefits of meditation so clearly that, for a moment, it even made me wonder if my perception that the rest of the book was such a slog was perhaps nothing more than another illusion through which I filter the world. At the very least, it gave me something upon which I might practice my newfound meditation skills.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.