Robert Wright: Why Buddhism is 'true' and vital for the new politics to emerge


In his most recent book Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment prize-winning author Robert Wright (whose Mindfulness Resistance project we've previously blogged) takes a long hard look at Buddhism through the lens of philosophy and evolutionary psychology. In between he draws parallels to his own experiences as a mindfulness meditation practitioner.

Wright arrives at the conclusion that Buddhism is "true" - and by "true" his doesn't mean superior to other religions or belief systems but that Buddhism’s “diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important".

In a recent interview with Sean Illing on Vox he says: 

“One of the things that’s most lacking in the world is not emotional empathy, it’s cognitive empathy - meaning we have trouble seeing things from the point of view of other people ... That is more urgently needed than emotional empathy.”

Listen to the whole interview here. Below is an excerpt of the transcript:

Illing: What’s the connection between mindfulness meditation and becoming more moral? Does one lead to the other?

Wright:I think so. The superficial version of that is just that being stressed out tends to make you behave like a jerk. If you look at times when you've been rude to a checkout clerk or somebody, you were probably a little stressed out or something, so there’s that. If you just think of mindfulness in a strictly therapeutic sense, like mindfulness-based stress reduction, it’s probably going to make you a little easier to get along with.

I think the more you go down the path, the clearer the connection between practice and your everyday moral behavior. As I said, all the way down the path is this idea of emptiness where you’re not projecting essences onto lamps or weeds or people, but if you just get a little ways down the path and are reacting a little less emotionally to people, you can make real progress. Can I talk about a cognitive bias that fascinates me because it's so subtle?

Illing: Sure.

Wright: This is an example of what used to be called the fundamental attribution error. The idea was that we tend to, when we analyze people’s behavior, we attribute too much to their disposition and not enough to their situation. So we see somebody being a jerk at the checkout counter and we go, "Oh, he’s a jerk," whereas in fact, he might've just had a bad day. He might've just found out he has cancer. Who knows, but the default thing tends to be, "That’s the kind of person they are," whereas if you see somebody giving money to a homeless person, "Oh, that’s a good charitable person."

Now, it turns out it's more complicated than that, and here’s the way it actually works, which is that with our friends and allies, if they do something good, we attribute it to disposition. We at least tend to, and not to circumstance. If our friends and allies do something bad, if they misbehave, then we attribute it to circumstance, "They were low on sleep. They were, peer group pressure," whatever. With our enemies, if they do something bad, we go, "Yeah, that’s the kind of person they are. No surprise." That is essence of them. If they do something good, we explain it away, "Oh, he's showing off in front of some woman or something," and this is a deeply consequential fact, and it’s very, very subtle.

I think it’s one reason when people want to go to war. They spend so much time demonizing the leader of the country they want to invade because once he’s in that box, once everybody's thinking of him as the enemy, as a bad guy, there's nothing he can do to escape. Anything good he does, people will take as not representative of him and as just some kind of trick and anything bad he does will be taken as confirmation. I personally think you saw this in the run-up to the Iraq war, not that Saddam Hussein wasn't a genuinely bad guy, but I think like the Hitler comparisons had the effect of deeply influencing the way we process information about him. I think this has consequences on the scale of wars, whether they happen or not, but they also have consequence in everyday life.

If you look at people you consider rivals and enemies and think about it, and think about how you process their behavior, you'll find that you’re doing this. I know because I do it.

After I wrote my book on evolutionary psychology, I was more aware than ever of the absurdity of being human. We have all these feelings that distort our vision that are unpleasant. We make these judgments about people that are self-centered. That was a big theme in the book, and yet I felt worse than before. I was more aware of all the unfortunate things about me. Buddhism isn’t a panacea, but it does offer a prescription.

Illing: In the book, you talk about how we’re walking around with this outdated operating software for our brain that was designed or fitted for a very different kind of life circumstance that has almost nothing in common with present reality. This disjunction results in a lot of neuroses and pathologies and psychological disorders. So how does meditation ameliorate that or make our day-to-day mental life better?

Wright: Let me first say that the problem is actually even worse than that. That is a problem that we're not living in the environment that we were designed for. We’re put in situations like I’ve got to give a talk tonight. I’m going to address a roomful of people I’ve never met. We weren’t designed to do that. There are a lot of things that cause anxiety that just we were not designed to do and that’s why they cause such anxiety. That said, when I say the problem is even worse than that, it's that we weren’t designed by natural selection to even be enduringly happy in the environment that we were designed for, like a hunter gatherer environment.

In fact, the two, as you've said, I've written about evolutionary psychology, I wrote a book called The Moral Animal a long time ago, and one thing I emphasize in that book is that we’re clearly not designed to be happy, and we’re not designed to see the world clearly. Natural selection just wants to get genes into the next generation. I say "wants to" and personifying natural selection, obviously it's not really a conscious process, but if you look at its priorities, it’s designing organisms that get genes into the next generation. If illusions will help them do that, then illusions there will be. If suffering will help them do that, then suffering there will be.

That’s why things like anxiety, fear, unpleasant feelings are natural to begin with and even exaggerated anxieties and fears. In other words, fearing things more often than it’s going to turn out to be warranted. All that is natural, but then you put us in a modern environment and things get even worse. You’re right, we're kind of doubly cursed.

Illing: So how does Buddhism, or I guess more particularly, how does the practice of meditation make that better?

Wright: Well, one implicit assumption of mindfulness meditation is that it makes sense to be suspicious of our feelings. In a certain sense, in a way that’s a big part of Buddhism that all of the things going on in your head are not necessarily to be taken very seriously. Again, evolutionary psychology I think drives that point home and explains why a lot of these feelings are not to be trusted.

Meditation is a discipline that helps you not take them seriously and that liberates you from the tyranny of feelings. It’s a technique for taking things ranging from anxiety to remorse to actual physical pain and they’re taking a perspective on them that somewhat releases you from their grip.

So it's just a technique for doing what both Buddhist philosophy says is well-advised and what, in a certain sense to me, evolutionary psychology says is well-advised, which is don’t take your feelings too seriously, especially certain feelings which are manifestly misleading, which manifestly cloud your vision and keep you from seeing the world clearly.

Illing: We are deep sunk in a very tribalized climate where people are not talking to each other, are certainly not listening to each other across the aisle. I’m not sure you say this in your book explicitly, but do you think that if we were all meditating, or at least trying to be more mindful and to practice meditation regularly, that that would be socially and politically transformative?

Wright: Absolutely. I just started this thing called mindful resistance. It's at, and the idea isn’t that if we all meditate everything will magically get better. In fact, the idea isn’t even that you have to meditate to sign on to what I’m basically talking about. It’s enough if you just try to be mindful in the plain English sense of that word — just being aware, attentive, alive to other people.

Buddhism is very anti-essentialism and essentialism includes seeing essence of groups, which is what racism is. If you view all Trump supporters as bigots or idiots, I think that’s a big mistake. Even if it were true that they were all racists, I would want to know how they became racist. I don't think people are born like that. I would want to know what circumstances made them like that. There's so many things that seem worthy of outrage, in my view at least, that are happening that it’s hard to know when maybe you’re going too far.

I think it’s always a useful exercise to try to understand how people are reacting to the world, what made them the way they are, and I think that is, in a way, more urgently needed than emotional empathy."