I want to demonstrate how ideas based on a Buddhist approach to contentment and fulfilment are already a powerful force in contemporary culture. A good starting point is Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, first published in 2017.
The first chapter of the book begins with an account of the plot and themes of the 1999 film The Matrix. Probably more people have seen this film in the twenty or so years since its release than have read books on Buddhism. Its estimated sales world-wide are $465 million and it is generally regarded as one of most influential films of all time, perhaps the most significant film in its genre since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968).
The basic premise of The Matrix is that the body of almost every person on the earth is imprisoned within a pod in a laboratory where it is harvested for the energy it contains. At the same time the mind of every such person is the subject of an elaborate hallucination in which they experience that they are living a ‘normal’ existence, with all the phenomenal experience that this entails, in a world that more-or-less resembles our own.
Wright’s approach to his account of Buddhism is based on two key things- his personal experience of practising meditation and his perspective on human psychology. The plotline of The Matrix is appropriate because of the choice that the central character, Neo, is given at the outset of the film. In it, a rebel leader called Morpheus gains access to Neo’s hallucination and tells him, “You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch- a prison for your mind.” The prison is the Matrix. But Morpheus offers Neo a choice, that of taking a blue pill or a red pill. The former would send him back to sleep in the Matrix and allow him to continue in his hallucinated reality, whereas the latter would free him from the delusion. Neo takes the red pill. Wright takes the view that Neo is following a path similar to which many Buddhists have taken in practice; they reject the illusion of identity with which nature has endowed them and instead prefer the reality where a self is not hallucinated.
Wright is an evolutionary psychologist. His approach to psychology, like that of many in the field working today, focuses on how our evolutionary inheritance confers on us our key psychological characteristics. We act, feel and think in the way that we do because such behaviour, emotions and reasoning conferred selective advantage, and because of the advantage it conferred we have inherited those characteristics from our ancestors. The kinds of thoughts, feelings and perceptions that make their way from one generation to the next are the ones that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce. But the real actors in this process are not me and you, nor my ancestors and yours, they are the genes that designed those human bodies. So, the image that The Matrix presents to us- human bodies enslaved by an impersonal slave master- is a metaphor for the human condition, or perhaps even a literal description of that condition.
But if we are deluded into thinking that we are autonomous selves that experience those selves transparently, and even if we amounted to mere slaves of the evolutionary gene, no harm might ultimately be done. We might live contented, if deluded, lives rather like a well-fed turkey in the weeks before Christmas. But the reality is that these inherited psychological biases cause us to suffer and to inflict suffering on others. They cause us to hate and fear, to worry, to be greedy or compulsive, to neglect others in favour of ourselves. Yet as Wright observes, knowing this may not of itself help to solve the problem. ‘Sometimes understanding the ultimate source of your suffering doesn’t, by itself, help very much.’ In his view it is the truth but not the way. What it is then that could induce you to take the red pill?
(see Wright, pp. 1-11)
Wright describes the way in which natural selection has adopted a modular approach to the building of bodies and brains. These various modules, developed at different points in our evolutionary development, often co-operate, but frequently compete. The self is one of those modules and there are strong evolutionary advantages in believing in the self you appear to be. These modules and cerebral networks create, or at the least are a prominent factor in the creation of, our feelings and thoughts. In this sense it is not as independent or autonomous selves that these thoughts arise in our minds, rather they are created for us by these competing modules.
Moreover, many of our thoughts and particularly those which have a powerful effect on our behaviour are propelled by feelings. Thus cognitive and affective processes are more closely connected that we generally tend to realise. One particular feature of the process is that natural selection favours modules which get stronger with repeated success, and this is a feature of both the life of a single individual and in the more successful replication of the relevant genes across the generations. And success in this context is typically measured in terms of the degree of gratification conferred, a gratification in which the self and self-interest are centre stage.
(Wright, pp. 75-134)
Contrary to received wisdom there is no such thing as self-discipline. But the effect of over-dominant modules is moderated through mindfulness. Wright sees this approach as a key part of ‘the way’; if, say, you try to release yourself from a craving by pushing it away, you are likely to fail. If instead you come to recognise and accept the feeling that the craving generates, and investigate it and its relationship with your body, you may come to be less attached to that feeling. This process of increasing non-attachment is crucial because it does not only assist in dealing with a specific habit or craving, it actually reduces the intensity with which ‘you’, or your body, identifies with a self that appears to be that ‘you’. In this way the impact of the various modules that underlie, or come to compose, the self are deprived of the positive reinforcement that gives them power. But the key problem in all of this is that impulse control and attention deficit are closely linked, and the when the mind wanders it is more likely to return to entrenched habits, or simply become lost in vague worries about ‘the self’.
(Wright, pp. 134-39)
Wright has an interesting take on the relationship between selfhood and our innate tendency to see the world around us as comprised of ‘essences’, of real, independently existing objects and events. Buddhism, of course, has a rather different view of essences than that which has emerged within the western tradition. In the Buddhist tradition there are no independent objects or essences, rather everything we find in the world is inter-independent (so-called, co-dependent origination). Of course, even in the western tradition this is acknowledged to a degree. Everything in the universe is composed of elements which combine to form atoms and molecules, planets and animate creatures, you and me. But we find it convenient, and to a degree truthful, to conceive of certain combinations of these physical components as composite entities in their own right. Yet Buddhism maintains that this way of thinking is actively harmful; it distances us from the reality that we are temporarily-existing collections of physical components that will in time disperse.
Wright speculates that this is how young infants might see the world, devoid of judgement about essences, simply absorbed in the richness of that which they encounter (Wright, p. 169). This would certainly accord with other findings that see an infant’s development of a sense of self and a sense of there being essences in the world (e.g dogs or cats) as occurring at roughly the same point in their development, from age eighteen to twenty-four months onwards. Certainly, as adults, not making essences lets you become drawn more into the richness of experience. It makes for a greater degree of originality and creativity in one’s dealings with the world and in one’s relationship with others. Each moment is to be savoured, to be experienced for what it is, a unique and unrepeatable encounter with what is present in that moment.
In this view essences are what human minds construct, and they don’t and can’t exist independently from human perception. Indeed, it goes even further than this, arguing that everything meaningful about the world is something that we human beings have imposed upon it. We can’t understand the world, or ourselves, apart from this imposition of a meaning onto it. This then amounts to one account of the Buddhist concept of ‘formlessness’ or ‘emptiness’, that everything is originally empty.
Wright acknowledges that one’s initial reaction to such a notion might be to regard it as depressing or just crazy. Can we really lead successful, motivated lives with such notions racing about inside our heads? Indeed, do we need to? Wright’s approach is pragmatic. If you try to conceive of emptiness as a deep truth, you might at best reach an impasse in which it adds little or nothing to your life in practice. But if you think more in terms of your personal experience, and in particular of the way in which both ‘you’, your ‘inmost self’, and the things that you come into contact with and think about, are all just experiences that come and go, that wax and wane, something helpful might be gained. Things and feeling are not grasped so tightly; and the thing that grasps loosens its hold.
Finally, Wright gives us the option of creating for ourselves a narrative of being heroic warriors, fighting off the enemy that is natural selection (just as Neo battles against the creators of the Matrix). You don’t necessarily need to comply with nature’s agenda of getting those genes into the next generation (Wright, pp. 225-32). Natural selection has divided us and our genes, and those of our kin that share those genes, from everything else (Wright, pp. 196-7). It divides in order to conquer, and by dividing us it renders us incapable of co-operating effectively in the preservation of the planet and the species it contains. What is needed to save the planet is therefore a ‘Metacognitive Revolution’, albeit one that starts with each individual body and mind (Wright, pp.256-9). Only then will we as a species be capable of finding solutions to our most pressing collective problems.