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Why Buddhism is True: The Science and…

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and…

by Robert Wright

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221952,606 (4.23)45
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    10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story by Dan Harris (Clara53)
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    Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson (melmore)
    melmore: The two works are complementary in their exploration of why traditional contemplative practices work: Wright tackles the question from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, Hanson from that of neuroscience, but both come to the same conclusion: Buddhism "works" because it operates according the parameters of human consciousness.… (more)

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My interest in Buddhism dates back a couple of decades before my graduate studies, which included a wide-ranging look at Buddhist imagery in James Joyce. I find much of Robert Wright’s survey in Why Buddhism is True stimulating and endlessly fascinating. Of additional interest is the fact that Wright is also a psychologist.

In the “Note to Readers,” he concisely separates several areas of inquiry into five neat packages. He first says, “I’m not talking about the ‘Supernatural’ or more exactly metaphysical parts of Buddhism—reincarnation, for example, but rather the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy”; second, “there’s no one Buddhism, but rather various Buddhist traditions, which differ on all kinds of doctrines”; third “I’m not getting into super-fine-grained parts of Buddhist psychology and philosophy;” fourth, “‘true’ is a tricky word;” and fifth and finally, “Asserting the validity of core Buddhist ideas doesn’t necessarily say anything, one way or the other, about spiritual or philosophical traditions” (xi-xii). This two-page note shows this marriage of Buddhism and psychology is precisely the book I have been searching for a long time.

I have so many annotations and marginalia it will be difficult to sort out some of the core ideas Wright addresses. Here is a timely example. Robert writes, Technologies of distraction have made attention deficits more common. And there’s something about the modern environment—something technological or cultural, or political or all of the above—that seems conducive to harsh judgment and ready rage. Just look at the tribalism—the discord and even open conflict along religious, ethnic, national, and ideological lines. More and more, it seems groups of people define their identity in terms of sharp opposition to other groups of people” (18).

Wright attended a week-long meditation camp to sharpen his core ideas of meditation. He writes, “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” (20). By “things that are happening”,” he means feelings inside your mind, such as sadness, anxiety, joy and so forth.

Wright talks about feelings extensively. He asks the reader, “Have you ever been visited by the fear that something you said to someone had offended her? And has this person ever been someone you weren’t going to see for a while? And has it been the case that you didn’t know her very well, it would have been awkward to call her or to send an email to make sure you hadn’t offended or to clarify that no offense was meant? That feeling itself […] is perfectly natural” (34). Shortly after reading this chapter, I bumped into an old friend I had not seen for decades. As we talked over coffee, I toyed with the idea of apologizing for an unfortunate remark long ago. I decided to mention the incident, but she had entirely forgotten all about it. She said with a laugh, “We ere kids! It is inconsequential. Forget about it.” The relief I experienced was wonderful.

Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True is a marriage of Buddhism and Psychology for an amazing journey into mind, memory, and all the associated joys and sorrows we all experience. 5 stars.

--Jim, 1/27/18 ( )
  rmckeown | Mar 5, 2018 |
Wright calls on evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and a little neuroscience to bolster his argument that “some” of what Buddhists teaches about the human condition may be “true.” The operational words here are “some” and “true.” He doesn’t discuss all of Buddhist beliefs, but focuses instead on meditation and mindfulness and how they can be used to more accurately perceive the world.

Wright builds his case on the idea that we humans have little control over our feelings. Wright and Buddhism argue that the idea of a CEO of the mind, we think of as our “self,” is an illusion. Instead he cites the psychological proposal that the mind consists of multiple modules that compete for our attention. This model maintains that the most compelling module determines our feelings and emotions at any given moment.

Buddhism also holds that the values we assign to things in our world, both positive and negative, are illusions. Wright argues that these “essences” have been hardwired into our minds by natural selection with the primary aim of increasing opportunities to pass our genes along. While some of these values and the feelings they excite bear directly on our safety and wellbeing, many others are just irrelevant to modern humans and contribute to personal and societal dysfunction (e.g. tribalism, rage, jealousy, depression, greed, materialism, etc.). In effect, natural selection has rigged us to be anxious and delusional creatures disposed to overestimating the pleasure and pain that things may provide.

Wright maintains that “there is value in exposing this delusion to the light" and meditation provides the ideal method to distance and disengage from these inappropriate feelings. He writes, “According to Buddhist philosophy, both the problems we call therapeutic and the problems we call spiritual are a product of not seeing things clearly. What’s more, in both cases this failure to see things clearly is in part a product of being misled by feelings. And the first step toward seeing through these feelings is seeing them in the first place—becoming aware of how pervasively and subtly feelings influence our thought and behavior.”

Wright provides a personal touch to his arguments by writing, often humorously, about his own failings, anxieties, and faults. His narrative is both engaging and lacking in dogma. His use of the movie, “The Matrix,” to illustrate how humanity is enslaved to delusion is particularly apt and easily identifiable. If the book has a failing, it may come from Wright’s attempt to ascribe too much to mindful meditation. Clearly, mankind will not avoid the global catastrophes that face us by everyone magically deciding to begin meditating. ( )
  ozzer | Feb 12, 2018 |
Natural selection's goal is the deliverance of each organism's genes to the next generation. This process was outrageously successful over the millennia. It relied on and enhanced the emergence of reactions (thoughts and feelings) that promoted the end goal: my sense that my needs, perceptions, judgments, and dreams are not only the most important but, somehow, the most valid or "true," is rooted in adaptations that enabled my ancestors to pass their genes along. In the modern context, however, what was once adaptive is no longer very helpful at all. It's not helpful in living a happy life (that is a relatively easy argument to make) but it's also not very helpful in passing my genes along!

Exploring the intersection between modern psychological science and ancient Buddhist thought, Wright makes the case for mindful meditation. He illuminates some of the key Buddhist concepts in relatively accessible ways and provides a primer to the experience of meditation. His writing is both humble and humorous but he has also done his research. He uses psychological research to support his claims, using a common sense approach. His explanations sometimes skip a logical step. For example, his claim that his observation of his feelings during meditation - his observation of where in his body the feelings reside and what their texture is - his claim that this observation provides empirical evidence for the shape of feelings and his prediction that body scans in the future will confirm his observations seems a bit of a stretch for me. On the other hand, I have worked with many clients over the years and it's true that their descriptions of what feelings feel like are amazingly consistent. So, whatever.

Apart from the occasional lapse into sloppy logic, this book is truly excellent. I learned a lot and I want to try mindfulness meditation. I've long had an interest in it but have resisted giving up 20-50 minutes of each day to the endeavor. What would I give up? Reading? Not a chance. My runs? Nope. Sleep? Already too hard to come by.... So I don't know where this will lead but I definitely recommend the book! ( )
4 vote EBT1002 | Jan 31, 2018 |
“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.”

“We don't have to love our enemies, but seeing them clearly is essential.”

“...it would be tragic, to say the least, if, after billions of years of arduous effort on the part of organic life, effort that has gotten us to the verge of a global community of minds, we let the natural distortions in these minds blow the whole thing apart.”

I grew up with a Christian background. My parents were not practicing but my paternal grandparents were very religious and I was influenced by them and went to Sunday school for many years. As I have matured and my mind has expanded, as I have read industriously and studied the world, I have gotten further and further away from organized religion and may now, be considered, right of agnostic. Although, I won't say that out loud, due to God guilt, that is still ingrained in my soul.
The one religion I do admire, more and more all the time, is Buddhism. It makes sense. It fits. I doubt I'll ever become a Buddhist, but there is no problem with following it's tenets, especially meditation.
I tried meditating a couple years ago. I barely got started but did recognize the benefits. After reading this book, I may try to get back into it.
I really liked this book and it's approach. Wright is a smart guy and completely grounded and gives the reader much to chew on and dwell over. His narrative style is easy and conversational and his has a good sense of humor, which really helps through some of the dry spots. ( )
  msf59 | Jan 7, 2018 |
I enjoyed this, but it came across to me as more personal-anecdotey than science/philosophy. ( )
  BooksForDinner | Nov 14, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Wright’s book is provocative, informative and, in many respects, deeply rewarding.
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Author Robert Wright shows how Buddhist meditative practice can loosen the grip of anxiety, regret, and hatred, and deepen your appreciation of beauty and other people. -- Adapted from book jacket.

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