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

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From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy, and lots of meditation to show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.

Robert Wright famously explained in The Moral Animal how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world. And it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.

But if we know our minds are rigged for anxiety, depression, anger, and greed, what do we do? Wright locates the answer in Buddhism, which figured out thousands of years ago what scientists are only discovering now. Buddhism holds that human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly—and proposes that seeing the world more clearly, through meditation, will make us better, happier people.

In Why Buddhism is True, Wright leads readers on a journey through psychology, philosophy, and a great many silent retreats to show how and why meditation can serve as the foundation for a spiritual life in a secular age. At once excitingly ambitious and wittily accessible, this is the first book to combine evolutionary psychology with cutting-edge neuroscience to defend the radical claims at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. With bracing honesty and fierce wisdom, it will persuade you not just that Buddhism is true—which is to say, a way out of our delusion—but that it can ultimately save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

336 pages, Audiobook

First published August 8, 2017

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About the author

Robert Wright

89 books1,308 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

ROBERT WRIGHT is the author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, and Three Scientists and Their Gods. The New York Times selected The Moral Animal as one of the ten best books of the year and the other two as notable books of the year.

Wright is a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A contributing editor at The New Republic, he has also written for Time, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker.

Wright has taught in the philosophy department at Princeton and the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania, and is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv.

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Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,127 followers
December 4, 2020
A far more accurate title for this book would be Why Mindfulness Meditation is Good. For as Wright—who does not consider himself a Buddhist—admits, he is not really here to talk about any form of traditional Buddhism. He does not even present a strictly “orthodox” view of any secular, Western variety of Buddhism. Instead, this is a rather selective interpretation of some Buddhist doctrines in the light of evolutionary psychology.

Wright’s essential message is that the evolutionary process that shaped the human brain did not adequately program us for life in the modern world; and that mindfulness meditation can help to correct this bad programming.

The first of these claims is fairly uncontroversial. To give an obvious example, our love of salt, beneficial when sodium was hard to come by in natural products, has become maladaptive in the modern world where salt is cheap and plentiful. Our emotions, too, can misfire nowadays. Caring deeply that people have a high opinion of you makes sense when you are, say, living in a small village full of people you know and interact with daily; but it makes little sense when you are surrounded by strangers on a bus.

This mismatch between our emotional setup and the newly complex social world is one reason for rampant stress and anxiety. Something like a job interview—trying to impress a perfect stranger to earn a livelihood—simply didn’t exist for our ancestors. This can also explain tribalism, which Wright sees as the most pressing danger of the modern world. It makes evolutionary sense to care deeply for oneself and one’s kin, with some close friends thrown in; and those who fall outside of this circle should, following evolutionary logic, be treated with suspicion—which explains why humans are so prone to dividing themselves into mutually antagonistic groups.

But how can mindfulness meditation help? Most obviously, it is a practice designed to give us some distance from our emotions. This is done by separating the feeling from its narrative. In daily life, for example, anger is never experienced “purely”; we always get angry about something; and the thought of this event is a huge component of its experience. But the meditator does her best to focus on the feeling itself, to examine its manifestation in her body and brain, while letting go of the corresponding narrative. Stripped of the provoking incident, the feeling itself ceases to be provocative; and the anger may even disappear completely.

Explained in this way, mindfulness meditation is the mirror image of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT the anger is attacked from the opposite side: by focusing on the narrative and subjecting it to logical criticism. In my experience, at least, the things one tells oneself while angry rarely stand up to cool analysis. And when one ceases to believe in the thought, the feeling disappears. The efficacy of both mindfulness meditation and CBT, then, is based on the interdependence of feeling and thought. If separated—either by focusing on the feeling during meditation, or the thought through analysis—the emotion disappears.

This, in a nutshell, is how mindfulness meditation can be therapeutic. But Wright wants to make a far more grandiose claim: that mindfulness meditation can reveal truths about the nature of mind, the world, and morality.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism is that of “emptiness”: that the enlightened meditator sees the world as empty of essential form. The first time I encountered this idea in a Buddhist text it made no sense to me; but Wright gives it an intriguing interpretation. Our brain, designed to survive, naturally assigns value to things in our environment based on how useful or harmful they are to us. These evaluations are, according to Wright’s theory, experienced as emotional reactions. I have quite warm and fuzzy feelings about my laptop, for example; and even the communal computers where I work evoke in me a comforting sense of familiarity and utility.

These emotions, which are sometimes very tiny indeed, are what give experiential reality a sense of essence. The emotions, in other words, help us to quickly identify and use objects: I don’t have to closely examine the computers, for example, since the emotion brings their instrumental qualities quickly to my attention. The advantages of this are obvious to anyone in a hurry. Likewise, this emotional registering is equally advantageous in avoiding danger, since taking time to ponder a rattlesnake isn’t advisable.

But the downside is that we can look at the world quite narrowly, ignoring the sensuous qualities of objects in favor of an instrumental view. Visual art actively works against this tendency, I think, by creating images that thwart our normal registering system, thus prompting us into a sensuous examination of the work. Good paintings make us into children again, exploring the world without worrying about making use of things. Mindfulness meditation is supposed to engender this same attitude, not just with regards to a painting, but to everything. Stripped of these identifying emotional reactions, the world might indeed seem “empty”—empty of distinctions, though full of rich sensation.

With objects, it is hard to see why this state of emptiness would be very desirable. (Also it should be said that this idea of micro-emotions serving as registers of essential distinctions is Wright’s interpretation of the psychological data, and is rather speculative.) But with regards to humans, this mindset might have its advantages. Instead of attributing essential qualities of good and bad to somebody we might see that their behavior can vary quite a bit depending on circumstances, and this can make us less judgmental and more forgiving.

Wright also has a go at the traditional Buddhist idea that the self is a delusion. According to what we know about the brain, he says, there is no executive seat of consciousness. He cites the famous split-brain experiments, and others like it, to argue that consciousness is not the powerful decision-maker we once assumed, but is more like a publicity agent: making our actions seem more cogent to others.

This is necessary because, underneath the apparent unity of conscious experience, there are several domain-specific “modules”—such as for sexual jealousy, romantic wooing, and so on—that fight amongst themselves in the brain for power and attention. Each module governs our behavior in different ways; and environmental stimuli determine which module is in control. Our consciousness gives a sense of continuity and coherence to this shifting control, which makes us look better in the eyes of our peers—or that’s how the theory goes, which Wright says is well-supported.

In any case, the upshot of this theory still would not be that the self doesn’t exist; only that the self is more fragmented and less executive than we once supposed. Unfortunately, the book steeply declines in quality in the last few chapters—where Wright tackles the most mystical propositions of Buddhism—when the final stage of the no-self argument is given. This leads him into the following speculations:

If our thoughts are generated by a variety of modules, which use emotion to get our attention; and if we can learn to dissociate ourselves from these emotions and see the world as “empty”; if, in short, we can reach a certain level of detachment from our thoughts and emotions: then, perhaps, we can see sensations arising in our body as equivalent to sensations arising from without. And maybe, too, this state of detachment will allow us to experience other people’s emotions as equivalent to our own, like how we feel pain from seeing a loved one in pain. In this case, can we not be said to have seen the true oneness of reality and the corresponding unreality of personal identity?

These lofty considerations aside, when I am struck by a car they better not take the driver to the emergency room; and when Robert Wright gets a book deal he would be upset if they gave me the money. My point is that this experience of oneness in no way undermines the reality of distinct personal identity, without which we could hardly go a day. And this state of perfect detachment is arguably, contra Wright, a far less realistic way of seeing things, since being genuinely unconcerned as to whom a pain belonged, for example, would make us unable to help. (Also in this way, contra Wright, it would make us obviously less moral.)

More generally, I think Wright is wrong in insisting that meditation can help us to experience reality more “truly.” Admittedly, I know from experience that meditation can be a great aid to introspection and can allow us to deal with our emotions more effectively. But the notion that a meditative experience can allow us to see a metaphysical truth—the unreality of self or the oneness of the cosmos—I reject completely. An essentially private experience cannot confirm or deny anything, as Wright himself says earlier on.

I also reject Wright’s claim that meditation can help us to see moral reality more clearly. By this he means that the detachment engendered by meditation can allow us to see every person as equally valuable rather than selfishly considering one’s own desires more important.

Now, I do not doubt that meditation can make people calmer and even nicer. But detachment does not lead logically to any moral clarity. Detachment is just that—detachment, which means unconcern; and morality is impossible without concern. Indeed, it seems to me that an enlightened person would be even less likely to improve the world, since they can accept any situation with perfect equanimity. Granted, if everyone were perfectly enlightened there would be no reason to improve anything—but I believe the expression about hell freezing over applies here.

Aside from the intellectual weakness of these later chapters, full as they are of vague hand-waving, the book has other flaws. I often got the sense that Wright was presenting the psychological evidence very selectively, emphasizing the studies and theories that accorded with his interpretations of Buddhism, without taking nearly enough time to give the contrasting views. On the other hand, he interprets the Buddhist doctrines quite freely—so in the end, when he says that modern science is confirming Buddhism, I wonder what is confirming what, exactly. And the writing, while usually quite clear, was too hokey and jokey for me.

Last, I found his framing of meditation as a way to save humanity from destructive tribalism as both naïve and misguided. In brief, I think that we ought to try to create a society in which the selfish interests of the greatest number of people are aligned. Selfish attachment, while potentially narrow, need not be if these selves are in enmeshed in mutually beneficial relationships; and some amount of attachment, with its concomitant dissatisfactions, seems necessary for people to exert great effort in improving their station and thus changing our world.

Encouraging people to become selflessly detached, on the other hand, besides being unrealistic, also strikes me as generally undesirable. For all the suffering caused by attachment—of which I am well aware—I am not convinced that life is better without it. As Orwell said: “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,667 followers
August 15, 2017
“The problem with introspection is that it has no end.”
― Philip K. Dick


For years I've told people I was a Zen Mormon. More as a way to squirm into the edges of LDS cosmology, and less because I was practicing anything really approaching a hybrid of Buddhism and Mormonism. But I've always been attracted to Buddhism, like many Westerners before me. I'm thinking of Herman Hesse, W. Somerset Maugham, Jack Kerouac, and Peter Matthiessen. I've always been attracted to the intersection of cultures, philosophies, etc. So, I guess it is natural for me to be attracted (if somewhat lazily) to Western Buddhism, Zen gardens, and the potential of mediation.

I'm also a big, nerdy fan of Robert Wright. I've read most of his books. It is probably easier to just post the one book of his I haven't read, rather than list the ones I have.* I enjoy Wright's evolution from Evolutionary Psychology to Buddhist writings. I think the premise of Wright's book is mostly correct. There is something that evolution has burdoned us with, that meditation (specifically Mindfulness Meditation) and Buddhism can help us with.

The books title, I should note here, IS a little off putting. I think Wright almost meant it as a joke (with a hook of truth). It comes across like some Mormon, Southern Baptist or Jehovah's Witness tract; a bit evangelical. But Wright is not just trying to convert the reader (and he's not exactly NOT trying to convert the reader either). He lays out pretty good arguments about how Evolutionary Psychology and behavioral psychology show (lots of caveats, obviously the mind is complex and not everyone agrees with everything) that a lot of our feelings, motives, choices are built on genetic coding which might actually make us unhappy, unhealthy, etc. The Buddhists seemed to have climbed that mountain before us. Wright seems less of a philosophical or religious Buddhist and more of a pragmatic Buddhist. I think his time studying how religion, the mind, behaviors, etc., have evolved over time has also provided him with ample evidence about how these traits that were evolved to help our more primitive selves reproduce, survive, etc., don't always help us in a modern age that includes HR departments, Facebook, politics, etc. Buddhism, Wright would argue, can help untangle some of these evolutionary knots.

So? What does this book mean for me? Someone who calls himself (mostly in jest) a Zen Mormon who has spent exactly 10 minutes mediating in a half-assed way? Well, I'm thinking of hooking up with a local Buddhist/Meditation group and giving Mindful Mediation a try. I'm pretty chill, but I think mindfulness can only help. I'm also not above exploring truth beyond my own familiar cosmology. When I told my wife and kids of my plan, they did laugh however. My wife suggested meditation might not be easy for me, given my competitive nature.

Wife: "You can't win at meditation."
D8u: "Sure you can, isn't enlightenment basically winning?"
Daughter: "Yeah Mom, the Buddha definitely won."
D8U: "See?"

My daughter, laughing, said the closest I've come to meditating was my nightly scalding bath, with headphones in my ears, a cold diet Dr. Pepper, and candy. She thinks anything that would help me unplug one or two of my sensory addictions might not be a bad thing. I agree. It is worth a shot.

* I haven't read Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
December 15, 2017
I've read every book Wright's written and all have been fantastic. This is my favorite. It's the perfect book for the cultural moment we're in. Forget the title--it's misleading. The book is a nice primer on meditation and evolutionary theory with some helpful insights. Basically, our brains are not wired for peace and happiness--only to propel our genes forward. There's a yearning for more programmed into us and the only antidote is mindfulness meditation. I've read a ton of evolutionary theory and a bunch of buddhism lite, but this one is exactly the synthesis I've been waiting for (without knowing it). It changed the way I think about meditation and my thoughts and feelings. Read it and pass it along. We all need this book right now or we're going to nuke ourselves off the planet or otherwise destroy it through greed in no time.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
763 reviews3,495 followers
December 29, 2019
This is a fact-based and serious book that uses brain science, evolutionary psychology/biology and sociobiology to prove each claimed assumption and maybe one of the best explanations of how and why mindfulness and a livelong training and evolution of meditation and self-reflection might be advisable.

A few examples: Someone working hard and achieving amazing results after decades of training and exercising to become a leading expert, master, maybe even a prodigy, world elite. People bursting full of enthusiasm, charisma and happiness, spreading it as if it was a renewable energy source they could never run short of. A classical, stereotypical Buddhistic monk or a kung-fu master. A surgeon, soldier or emergency doctor, staying cool and focused for hours. Etc.

They all have what all others are desperately searching for, control over their minds. Be it innate, epigenetic or just regular practice, guess what way could work for nearly everyone? By starting practicing right now and never stop being mindful again many of personal, unreachable seeming goals can become possible. But that´s just about controlling the mad monkey in one´s single brain.

Where other books about the topic end, Wright begins to dissect the functioning of all aspects of a human mind and how a loss of objective serenity just always leads to problems, no matter if it is a family of 4 or a state of hundreds of millions or humankind. All those group dynamics, ego, being right or wrong, getting angry, sad, etc. were really fancy vehicles as long as we were nothing more than animals, but in highly developed civilizations, where uncontrolled emotions are no evolutionary advantage anymore, they just bring pain and sadness. Of course, it´s about the bad, negative emotions, not cutting love and joy out of one's soul.

Wright has the idea of a new, real-life based Buddhism without focus on afterlife, reincarnation, heaven, hell, etc. and instead a basis on the philosophical and scientific ideas that help everyone to become a better human by integrating the knowledge of psychology and evolutionary biology/psychology at a purely scientific base without any faith or potential for extremism.

Happiness and joy is a free choice and everyone can freely choose between it and neutral or pessimistic, but both the neurological and Buddhistic approach show that it might just hurt oneself. It is much healthier and makes one stronger, because we are social animals that are functioning better, be it as extroverted people lovers or as introverted stay at homers, when we enjoy what we do. It´s a shield against any harm and it´s an armor that is easy to wear and impossible to permeate, because if someone is cool about everything and takes everything negative, even provocations, positive, she/he is indestructible. In contrast, someone who protects her/himself by anger and hate, is permanently boiling her/himself in everything negative the biochemistry of the body can provide and is much easier to attack or be provoked to overreact.

As long as we were even more primitive and hairier apes (how I love calling everyone a monkey, hey, chimpanzee over there, yea, looking at you, do you want a banana? Don´t forget, anger is your enemy, I am just helping you, don´t throw sh** at me please.) many of those mental dysfunctions were helpful. Find oneself great and think that everyone else is an idiot. Check. Prone to group dynamics, opportunism and hierarchies to build mighty tribes. Done. Building a conscience, ego and higher intelligence by repeatedly believing and thinking the same things to shape the wetware. Bingo. And then, well, it quickly escalated, because narcissistic, cognitive dissonant, psycho primates (ha, got you again!) are a true pain in the gluteus maximus for themselves, all other groups and those poor, innocent planet under their swift paws.

A short utopia: Out of calm and mindful minds grow more when they reproduce and the more they get the more influence they have on the state and if everyone would be enlightened and realized how destructive ego and negative emotions are world peace and a sustainable economic system would come and, but wait, stop, dystopia just called, saying humans are humans. The sad end of the story.

No, just joking, forget the misguided and deluded ones who aren´t guilty, just had no chance and are impossible to heal, focus on the next generation instead. With each kid, able to control her/his emotions, self-reflection, self-criticism, stay objective, believe nothing, stay evolving and adapting and always curious, you make Buddha laugh.

And questioning and changing anything may bring us away from many self-destructive paths we are currently on as humankind, to realize that there may be the too objective, too easy and egoistic and wrong Buddhistic approach to say that there is no right and wrong, nothing matters, no true or false, the mind is empty, total objectivity is king, all is an illusion, etc. That´s a sophisticated way to say that one's own peace of mind and easy, stressless life is more important than to stay motivated, positive, neutral and engaged in both civil society and politics to make a change happen.

Not all that seems bad is just evil and not all that seems good is pure gold, instead the wrong, destructive, dangerous and misleading ideas out of all ideas humans ever had, have to be eliminated because there is just a collective way in the middle of the road together, not with everyone walking angrily, sulky and offended as far at each side of this metaphorical entity that is our all lives.

But all compromises have to be evidence-based, no soft science, no mumbo jumbo humanities, just real, hard-science based long term, reproducible studies, not funded by anyone interested in a certain outcome. This is also how this amazing author wrote a must-read book and how we as a society can overcome our animalistic roots, urges and instincts to something more worthy of the Latin name sapiens in the article description.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books:

Look, in a nutshell made a video too
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,109 reviews44.2k followers
October 20, 2020
“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”

True happiness is exceedingly hard to find in this life. And when I hit hard times I always find myself drawn to Buddhist teachings as a way to detach myself from my thoughts, feelings and desires in order to become mindful and live in the moment.

Whilst not a miracle cure, the strongest benefit gained by Buddhist practice is the ability to gain perspective and understand that often it is our own reactions that cause us to suffer internally. The wisdom gained through achieving contentment with our life can lead to the emptiness Buddhist's strive for. But these are just words. Achieving them is an entirely different matter.

This is what Wright discusses here, the philosophy of Buddhism and the truth and positiveness behind it. Because it is true if we can embrace it. If we can learn to live it everyday we can achieve some small sense of internal happiness. Initially this is all marginal and preoccupied with the self; however, once we learnt to transform the self we can transform the world and others around us.

So I believe in the truth of Buddhism and this book provides a deep, stimulating and intellectual discussion behind exactly why the truth is such a potent one.


You can connect with me on social media via My Linktree.
Profile Image for Otis Chandler.
386 reviews113k followers
March 31, 2020
This was a really compelling book for me - it made me think deeply about myself and the world and opened my eyes a bit too. It's no coincidence that multiple of my smarter friends have told me to read it!

Meditation is a subject that is interesting to me because of how many smart/successful people that I've talked to or read about highly recommend it. I wanted to better understand it, but I didn't predict all the directions this book would take.

One of the main interesting takeaways was how strongly the book ties the theory of natural selection with meditation.

"So if you ask the question “What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day?” the answer, at the most basic level, isn’t “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality.” No, at the most basic level the answer is “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation."

This makes sense, we evolved over millions of years according to an algorithm that simply said: the ones who live pass on their genes. This has a lot of implications however, the foremost being that our ancestors - the ones that passed their genes on to us - evolved to be particularly good at finding food, mating and having kids, being alert to and surviving various dangers, and being positive contributors of their tribe (as outcasts don't survive). They did NOT evolve to be "happy".

"Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting."

This to me was a huge insight. I am constantly seeking new experiences, and am fortunate to have experienced many amazing things. But each thrill quickly fades and I find myself worrying about whatever is next remarkably quickly. To know that we were evolved that way on purpose - because our ancestors who killed a mammoth would only survive if they killed another one next week - is both fascinating and illuminating. This is why it is true that money doesn't make you happy, nor do successes in career.

The book delved into our emotions around human relationships a lot, which I found very interesting. Because as much as I would love to say "I don't care what others think of me", it's simply not true. In fact, random encounters with people I don't know and will never see again - can bother me. Also, encounters with people I do know can worry me quite a lot too. So it's somewhat comforting to realize that we evolved to be this way. Interestingly, interactions with strangers is a newer thing to us and has likely added to our modern day stress. The book also talks a lot about essence, as many of us have impressions of others (eg nice, not nice, helpful, jerk, selfish, weird, etc) that aren't really "accurate" - they are just our perceptions, and by being aware of this, it can better help us interact with such people.

"We're designed by natural selection to care—and care a lot—about what other people think of us. During evolution, people who were liked, admired, and respected would have been more effective gene propagators than people who were the opposite. But in a hunter-gatherer village, your neighbors would have had a vast database on your behavior, so you’d be unlikely, on any given day, to do anything that radically revised their opinion of you, for better or worse. Social encounters wouldn’t typically have been high-pressure events."

So meditation can help us by recognizing that our mind is running these "algorithms", which come in the form of emotions, and cause us to "worry" about things, instead of focusing on being present in the moment. By observing which emotions and worries pop up, we can become more aware of them, and somewhat strangely - worry a lot less about them.

"The routine business of mindfulness—observing the world inside you and outside you with inordinate care—can do more than tone down troublesome feelings and enhance your sense of beauty. It can, in a slow, incremental, often uneven yet ultimately systematic way, transform your view of what’s really “out there” and what’s really “in here.” What begins as a modest pursuit—a way to relieve stress or anxiety, cool anger, or dial down self-loathing just a notch—can lead to profound realizations about the nature of things, and commensurately profound feelings of freedom and happiness. An essentially therapeutic endeavor can turn into a deeply philosophical and spiritual endeavor. This is the third virtue of mindfulness meditation: it offers a path to liberation from the Matrix."

The book had an interesting section on "the self". Most of us think there is an "I" inside of us that is calling the shots in our lives, or as the book calls it, our internal "CEO". But in Buddhism, one of the key concepts as you advance is you are supposed to learn that there is no self. But we aren't really in control of ourselves - if we were we wouldn't have all kinds of thoughts all day worrying about or contemplating all kinds of random things. The book proposes that what is really going on is that there are a number of "modules" (or algorithms as I prefer to think) that are competing for our attention. There is the "mating" module, the "get food" module, the "look good socially" module, etc. Any thought or anything we see or hear or smell can easily trigger the emotion that starts any of these modules.

"Buddhist thought and modern psychology converge on this point: in human life as it’s ordinarily lived, there is no one self, no conscious CEO, that runs the show; rather, there seem to be a series of selves that take turns running the show—and, in a sense, seizing control of the show. If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, it stands to reason that one way to change the show is to change the role feelings play in everyday life. I’m not aware of a better way to do that than mindfulness meditation."

So, to summarize, humans suffer from "dukkha" or unsatisfactoriness, which means we have a constant craving or thirst or desire, which can't be quenched because if we attain our desire we will just have a new one. The only solution is to be mindful of the desires we have. To notice when we have a feeling, to examine the feeling, turn it over until you understand its root. By doing this, it loses its power over you. You can also start to recognize patterns in your thoughts if you do this a lot. The book says meditating 20min a day is a great start, but the difference between 30min a day and 50min is huge, as is the difference between 30min and 90min. But it also seems to imply that a weeklong retreat is likely also required if you really want to see benefits.

"You might say that the path of meditative progress consists largely of becoming aware of the causes impinging on you, aware of the way things manipulate you—and aware that a key link in that manipulation lies in the space where feelings can give rise to tanha, to a craving for pleasant feelings and an aversion to unpleasant feelings. This is the space where mindfulness can critically intervene."

This all leads to a question that is interesting to ponder but the book only touches lightly on, which is that: is the way we evolved the way we need to behave to be happy and thrive in modern times? The answer is likely not as humans over the past 1000 years have changed a lot - even the past 100 years. So how could we help a lot more people be aware of this and what impacts could that have? A good question!

"There’s a lot to dislike about the world we’re born into. It’s a world in which, as the Buddha noted, our natural way of seeing, and of being, leads us to suffer and to inflict suffering on others. And it’s a world that, as we now know, was bound to be that way, given that life on this planet was created by natural selection. Still, it may also be a world in which metaphysical truth, moral truth, and happiness can align, and a world that, as you start to realize that alignment, appears more and more beautiful."
Profile Image for William2.
737 reviews2,877 followers
May 29, 2019
I disagree with the author’s view of meditation as a study of one’s thought. But then there are so many schools of meditation… I’m primarily interested in the evolutionary psychology angle here, but have to sit through these pages that don’t entirely accord with my Soto Zen dharma. But as Shunryu Suzuki-roshi once said—read Zen Mind, Beginners Mind—there’s something to be gained from all schools of meditation, and we should seek those aspects of any dharma which strengthen our practice instead of seeking to tear down by way of a brittle Western-style critique, which, let’s face it, is little more than dogma-mindset or just plain envy masked by pedantic connoisseurship.

The author goes through the many self-delusions evolution instills in us as a means of making our genes more viable in a hunter-gatherer society. These include our ability to generate fundamentally baseless feel good stories about ourselves as a means of instilling confidence in others; our tendency to convince ourselves that we are more valuable than the average team member.
Our egocentric biases are aided and abetted by the way memory works. Those certain painful events get seared into our memories—perhaps so we can avoid repeating the mistakes that led to them—we are on balance more likely to remember events that reflect favorably on us than those that don’t. . . which presumably makes it easier to convince others that our story is true. (p. 84)

We are in short a species of hustlers. No wonder the one percent is flourishing. (!) Overall the book is too colloquial, too chatty, to be genuinely engaging. I like the evolutionary biology angle but it’s buried among too much padding. Meh. Stopped reading at p. 109. The prose being dull as dishwater. (I say this not really knowing how or why dishwater is dull, just that the simile seems apposite.)
Profile Image for Brian Bergstrom.
2 reviews5 followers
August 7, 2017
This is a truly remarkable, fantastic book. It is one of those rare volumes that will turn your head inside out and leave you seeing the world differently, not because he (or it) is extreme, but because reality is extreme; he is sewing together science and philosophy and offering readers a breathtaking tapestry for their consideration. Briefly, his argument is that our minds are populated by evolved psychological adaptations that were naturally selected for their adaptive utility, NOT for seeing the world objectively. And especially when it comes to our feelings and emotions, our minds often saddle us with perceptual and conceptual distortions that lead to unnecessary suffering. This state of affairs, as revealed by psychological science, aligns well with Buddhist renderings of the human predicament, and (even more remarkably) psychological science is also showing that the Buddhist prescription of mindfulness meditation can indeed help alleviate much of this suffering. Mindfulness meditation works as a kind of cognitive exercise (a kind of mental resistance training), that over time affords us distance from the tumultuous workings of our mind and allows us to see things more clearly (which often drains anxiety and anger of their motivational power) and helps foster our ability to chart where our mind goes next. Not only does mindful distance get us closer to the Truth (or at least further from delusion), but Wright argues that it can also bring us closer to moral truth, enhancing our capacity for responding in idealistically ethical ways.

And that's just scratching the surface. The deeper details, duly contemplated, will leave readers enchanted (head often spinning, occasionally agitated). Robert Wright has always had a keen ability to integrate disparate ideas in science and philosophy (stepping back to view things in wider perspective than the original scientists whose work he builds upon) and this book is a gem that will not disappoint those who enjoyed his earlier books (e.g. The Moral Animal, Nonzero, The Evolution of God), especially his dry wit, everyday-guy accessibility, pragmatic reasoning, and clear writing.

As a psychology professor who teaches courses in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and psychology of religion, I'm in something of a unique position to review the work. Certainly I can say that Wright's command of the subject matter, ranging from evolutionary psychology to abstruse Buddhist philosophy, is excellent. (Experts in those fields will find details to quibble about, of course, but Wright does his homework and--to his credit--modestly concedes that his interpretations are his own best renderings. And they are good renderings.)

I think everyone should read this wonderful and important book. I worry that many will be put off by the title alone. I worry that those conversant with the subtleties of Buddhist thought will not invest the time and effort to grapple with the subtleties of psychological science and evolutionary biology (and vice versa). It IS a book that, I think, requires more of a cognitive commitment from readers than others. But it will reward all who do. Whether readers come away in general agreement with Wright or not, I don't think it is possible to read the book and come away WITHOUT a better understanding of yourself and a better appreciation what it means to be human. That alone makes it an engine of insight.

(Thank you to NetGalley for the advance review copy!)
Profile Image for Indran Fernando.
214 reviews17 followers
July 28, 2018
Even if this book has its occasional thought-provoking moment, my overwhelming reaction is shock at how fluffy and slipshod the writing is. It seems as if Wright submitted a rough draft to make some quick cash. (Why waste time on an editor--just throw a goldfish on the cover and wait for the Whole-Foods-goers to take out their mandala-adorned hemp wallets.) A promising book was undermined by the author's unwillingness to do research or teach himself about Buddhism or anthropology.

Instead, he often takes the easy route by focusing on his own personality, his own anxieties & insecurities. This might have been okay if he had come across as a more likable person, but I felt trapped in a room with an uptight, narcissistic, falsely-modest bloviator. I'm glad to finally be liberated.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews404 followers
December 13, 2017
62nd book of 2017.

I imagine the author at a diner party, demanding complete attention from those present, while he describes at length being at an intense macho meditation retreat in the Maine woods, having the unfortunate luck of sitting next to a fat flatulent person. Telling all present very seriously that he's not the sort of person who is OK with flatulence, especially from other people, especially if they are fat, but because of his very serious (but also very modest) attempts at mediation he was able to step-back from his intense hatred of the person sitting next to him, and was able to experience the beauty of each particular fart in turn, smelling different notes, and if not loving them, at least seeing their beauty for what they are. He also felt some sort of oneness with the farter next too him. Now he tells us how some super-meditator, that he (blush) could never be, was put in a brain scanner, and showed almost no brain response when smelling evil odours. Imagine that! Now throw in some random passage from either Buddhist scripture or some other pre-20th C source to make some sort of weak point. Now repeat for another +300 pages.

I would have been much happier if it had either (1) been a serious attempt at accessing the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment; or (2) been offered a serious discussion of Buddhism. The book offers neither. It's a shame because I think the topic itself is worthy of a serious book.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
986 reviews1,113 followers
June 26, 2019
The title is a bit misleading, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. This book is really about Wright wanting you to know why he thinks secular Buddhism makes sense, and why mindfulness meditation is good for you. Wright goes with the basic idea that suffering is caused by our desires, and that our desires are caused by our illusory perception of reality. Buddhist practice aims to bring people out of that state of delusion and suffering, but Wright wanted to know, very practically, how that works. How does keeping the mind still and counting your breath while sitting in front of a wall make things clearer? He uses evolutionary biology and neuropsychology to dig at that question, and I must say that he comes up with very interesting explanations.

I have read plenty about the overlaps of Buddhism and psychology and physics, but the evolutionary biology is a new perspective I hadn’t dwelled on before, I found the information provided by Wright fascinating. Biology, after all, affects our behavior, and the way Wright connects it to the Teachings makes an awful lot of sense. As does the way he explains the role of our conscious mind and the way our emotions often end up taking the wheel.

I liked the passages on fundamental attribution error, as this is something I try to remain very aware of; it goes back to the axiom of grandmotherly wisdom that you should be nice with everyone because you never know their story, and their rudeness might have nothing to do with you, but be part of a greater context you have no knowledge of. Cheesy, but nevertheless important to remember when faced with difficult people.

This book is written in a very accessible, conversational tone, and quite relatable to anyone who first came across Buddhism in the Western world. To anyone who isn’t familiar with the practice and philosophy, it is a clear book on how it all works, but it doesn’t contain any sutras, or anything like that. This is really a purely practical work on how the mind and brain work to defuse harmful habits and behavior when we engage in regular meditation practice.

There is no mysticism or superstition in this book, which I appreciate greatly, as it can be a really helpful resource even for the biggest skeptics. You don’t have to believe in anything supernatural to understand what Wright is saying, nor to understand how meditation works and its effects. I was practicing cognitive behavioral therapy, as recommended by a mental health professional, for a long time before I started practicing zazen; it has been a very important tool for dealing with anxiety, anger, self-confidence and abandonment issues, and when I started getting serious in my Zen practice, the parallels were quite obvious right away. But I was also aware that they had different goals: the first one was to help me function in my daily life without getting paralyzed by the tricks my mind was playing on me, and the second was about reaching a very different kind of clarity. While there are similarities between CBT and zazen, it’s crucial to remember that they do not have the same purpose. I am not 100% on board with blurring the lines between therapy and spiritual practices, even when they feel very similar – which is really the main bone I have to pick with this book. Mindfulness meditation is great tool, but Buddhism is not therapy and should not be sold as such.

I can see how it could have felt very fluffy to some people, but I really think this was meant as an introduction to Buddhist ideas: there are plenty of other books with which one can deepen their understanding of Buddhist philosophy, practice and history. Anyone curious as to how their brain works while they meditate will find this interesting, if occasionally a bit irritating.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,402 followers
October 31, 2017
Growing up I always had a problem reading philosophy books, which often seemed to be written in a way that made them deliberately obtuse and inaccessible. For that reason I was really glad when I discovered the writing of Will Durant, an early 20th century writer who became popular for revisiting the arguments of the great philosophers in a clear and unpretentious language. It struck me as a very American thing to do, and I think with this book Robert Wright does much the same thing with Buddhist philosophy.

The book traces through the core teachings of Buddhism and how they relate to evolutionary biology, which is Wright's area of expertise. Many of our ingrained yet seemingly irrational social behaviors (i.e. flying into a rage while driving, gorging on sweets past the point of hunger) are evolutionary remnants from the time we lived as hunter-gatherers or in small tribes. While once useful these behaviors and feelings are not actually good for us today living in a modern society, nor are they good for what evolutionary biology gears us towards: protecting and spreading our own genes. Since feelings are in some sense a means of getting us to do what's good for us, these behaviors and emotions could be said to correspond to what Buddhists call "false" feelings. This was an interesting hypothesis and is clearly a product of Wright's own expertise in this field.

Much of the book also deals with Wright's own journey as a Buddhist, and he provides many helpful tips about both meditation and mindfulness. Among these are:

1) Consciously recognizing that your mind is wandering during meditation is actually a good thing, because it shows that you aware of the moment, which is the first step towards mindfulness.

2) Rather than you creating them, "thoughts think themselves" in your mind. They try to draw you into embracing them, but you are neither their slave or master. Once you become aware of that, it is easier to dismiss the ones you don't want or that are harmful to you. For example: frivolous thoughts during meditation or anxious ones when you have no reason to be unhappy.

3) Accepting and analyzing your feelings or temptations about something are a means of truly "owning" them and then deciding whether you want to accept them or not (again, you don't have to).

4) Declining to satisfy your temptations is a means of reducing their hold over you in the long term, as it gradually weakens the temptation-reward circuit in your brain.

Wright also briefly discusses some of the more blissful and you could say "supernatural" experiences that he has had while on the Buddhist path. Like writing about how a piece of cake tastes to someone who has never eaten one, this is a difficult thing to do and in a sense it is not really possible to convey in text to someone a thing that they just have to experience. He seems to be aware of this and the book is written in full humility about the limitations of text. It was interesting to me to contrast some of the teachings of Sufism, which I'm more familiar with, with the ideas that animate Buddhist meditation. While there are areas of crossover and perhaps the ending point is similar, I think that they are genuinely different paths.

All in all this was a rewarding book and the product of a deeply humane and thoughtful mind.
Profile Image for Shaina.
206 reviews20 followers
October 16, 2017
It took me a while to put my finger on why I found this book irritating, but I think I've figured it out. I LOVE self help books based on scientific and psychological research, ones that cite a lot of studies and academic papers. I HATE self help books based on the personal opinions and philosophical musings of the author.

Based on reviews and descriptions of WHY BUDDHISM IS TRUE, I thought it would be the former, when it was in fact the latter.

I also felt like the author only made about five main points that could have been summarized in a nice magazine editorial. Instead they took up an entire repetitive book. Bleh.
Profile Image for Michael Austin.
Author 113 books236 followers
January 28, 2019
Here are a two things about myself that shaped my reading of Why Buddhism Is True

First, I like to play at evolutionary theory. I am not a scientist, but I did write a book on evolutionary psychology (Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature) as it applies to the human attraction to literature, and, in writing this book, I read a lot of popular-science-type evolutionary psychology, including Robert Wright’s first three books. I liked them, and I thought that they were a notch above most of the genre. So, in a heavily qualified and limited way, I am a fan.

Second, I have a deep intellectual attraction to Buddhism. I love reading about it and thinking about it. It makes sense to me on an intellectual level. I do not have a strong spiritual attraction to it, though, which is not surprising because I don’t really have a strong spiritual attraction to anything. I am religious, but not spiritual. I love religions, but I don’t go in for the spooky stuff. I see religion largely as a facilitator of deep human connections, which has always made Buddhism a bit problematic for me, as, in the orthodox varieties, human connections are among the things that you are supposed to not have attachments to because they only make you miserable. I don’t disagree. But I still want human attachments.

Robert Wright’s view of Buddhism, then, is at the right level of abstraction for me. He is intellectualizing it too, as I would, and he dismisses most of the spooky stuff the beginning. In fact, he makes it clear that what he is really talking about in this book is not Buddhism as practiced in most Buddhist nations, but the sort of Westernized pseudo-Buddhism that goes in for yoga and mindfulness meditation but not for Bodhisattva vows and celibacy. He acknowledges that he is working from a very limited palette of Buddhism.

So, how does he do? There are some terrific insights in the book. Two of them, I think, stand out for their clarity and usefulness. First, he observes that natural selection causes us to anticipate more pleasure in things like food, sex, and achievement than we will actually ever feel. We are supposed to keep wanting these things, but never to feel like we “have” them (or we will stop pursuing them), so we will always overestimate the happiness that they will bring us. This puts us on a vicious cycle of trying, and failing, to achieve happiness through mechanisms that are never going to bring it to us. This is an important observation in Buddhism, and, by showing that it has an evolutionary foundation, Wright makes it all the more compelling.

The second key observation is that most of the things that motivate us can be described as illusions. What he is really talking about here is anxiety. Human beings are really good at worrying about stuff that is never going to happen, or, if it does happen, never going to be as bad as we think it is going to be. This is because natural selection does not care if we are happy. It only cares that we are surviving and reproducing. And high anxiety correlates strongly with survival. The theory here is that, if we run away from everything, we will eventually run away from something dangerous, and even if we run away from a thousand non-dangerous things, running away from the real dangerous thing just once will save our life and our genes.

Understanding this has been key to my own psychological development. It is a known thing in evolutionary theory (usually called the “Smoke Detector Principle”). I encountered it in researching my own book, and it became the basis for the cognitive self-talk that brought me out of a period of crippling anxiety many years ago. I had never connected it to Buddhism before, but it makes sense.

In both of these areas, Wright’s marriage of Buddhism and evolutionary psychology works. And it works in a way that makes the argument stronger. The Noble Truths of Buddhism really do have as scientific foundation. Desire leads to suffering. We are programmed to believe that things will make us happy, and we are programmed to overestimate the happiness they will bring us. So disappointment is inherent in desire. Similarly, we are motivated by anxiety, and we are programmed to feel a lot more anxiety than we need. So, in a very real sense, the things that make us anxious are “illusions.”

Not all of Wright’s points of contact between evolutionary psychology and Buddhism work this well. He devotes two chapters, for example (Chapters 5 and 6) to defending the Buddhist principle that the self is, on some level, an illusion. To do this, he makes the same sorts of arguments that Daniel Dennett makes in Consciousness Explained : we tend to think of ourselves as a discrete and consistent phenomenon, we see our brain as the CEO of our being, we imagine ourselves sitting in a ‘Cartesian Theater’ watching a set of concrete actions and motives that we call “us.”

These are defensible positions, but they have almost nothing to do with Buddhism, which sees the isolation of the self as the illusion, not the consistency of the self. (Hence the old joke about the Buddhist monk who orders a hot dog by saying “make me one with everything”). The idea of connectedness, or interbeing, gets fairly short shrift in Why Buddhism Is True. I find this problematic for two reasons. First, it seems to me to miss the whole point of why Buddhists say that the self is an illusion, and second, it drives the narrative further into the self (to try to understand what is really behind the illusion), whereas (I would argue) Buddhism forces the self into seeing more connections with everything else.

I think that Wright misses a huge opportunity here to talk about the fact that evolution always occurs in an ecosystem that includes, in broadest terms, the entire universe. Things that happened worlds away affected human evolution. Everything that surrounds us created the context in which we evolved. And we affect the way that other things evolve. Even within societies, human beings are adapted to other human beings. There is a strong evolutionary basis here to talk about the interconnectedness of all living things as both a Buddhist principle and a biological fact. I would have found this more interesting than a rehasing of recent evolutionary theories about the non-existence of a Cartesian Theater.

I also felt that, during the last half of the book, Wright overused the "modular mind" theory, or the idea, popular in evolutionary psychology, that our mind has a series of "modules," or brain apps, that interact with each other to produce our thoughts and actions. We may have a "get sex" module, or a "do things to be popular module," or a "understand what other people are thinking" module. This is not a generally accepted idea outside of Evopsych circles, and at best it is an extremely abstracted metaphor for what really goes on inside of our minds. I don't think that it supports all of the uses that Wright puts it to in explaining things like self-discipline, meditation, and the interplay between reason and emotions. And I don't really think it is necessary. It ends up getting in the way of his explanations more than it further supports them.

But now I’m starting to quibble. Wright narrows the case that he is making and acknowledges up front that he is using a very specific version of Buddhism to tell equally specific stories about the evolution of human consciousness. He does this, and he is a good writer. He is funny and interesting, and he makes some good points about important things. I wanted the book to be more, and I was disappointed that it was not. But, according to Wright, we always want things to be more than they are and we are always disappointed that they are not. So it would be both ungenerous and unscientific to expect Wright himself to be any different.

All of this said, I can conclude that, while I enjoyed Wright's book, it did not unseat my favorite Buddhism-and-Science mashup: The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life. This is a dialogue between a father and a son. The son, Matthieu Ricard, is a former biologist who became a Buddhist monk. The father, Jean-François Revel, is a reasonably well-known philosopher and atheist who loves his son. Through a dialectical process, they arrive (and guide the reader to) a deep understanding and appreciation of Buddhism as both an intellectual and a spiritual phenomenon. It is a phenomenal read.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books901 followers
October 10, 2017
In book titles, the sub-title after the title is a popular but often unnecessary thing. In this case, it's necessary. Why Buddhism Is True is very much indeed about The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

Especially the science. Or so it struck me, who at times grew impatient with the science aspect. Frankly, I was much more engaged by the Buddhism part of the book--Wright's experiences, chiefly, and his attempts (in Buddhism, there can be nothing but attempts) to explain the religion (which isn't a religion so much as a paradox).

Speaking of, if you read this book, prepare for the paradoxical. Not even Buddhists can agree on Buddhism--and I mean Buddhists from the same branch (be it Mahayana or Theravada or Zen or whatever other sub-categories there might be... and there might very well be).

But back to science, is it that important that Buddhism's precepts be "proven" by science or, more sketchily, by psychology (which, like Buddhism, can be pretty paradoxical itself)? Wright seems to think so. He is in argument mode here, out to show that the "weird" parts of Buddhism are a lot less weird than first glance would lead you to believe.

Me, I'm not worried about such truck when it comes to religion philosophy. But I had no choice but to be here. Meaning: move over Siddhartha. Make room for Darwin. Lots of natural selection, because natural selection works against Buddhism which works against natural selection.

And lots of talk of modules here, too. Good grief. Modules? Something to do with adopted behaviors. Somewhat like the lecture hall in Psych 101, I dozed a bit but kept hearing the word. Like a mantra, maybe. Om... module.

Happily, Wright sees Buddhism-style thinking as the only hope for an increasingly hopeless world. He never mentions He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Neither the one in Washington nor the one in Korea, but both could use a healthy dose of meditation and soul-searching, if there be one to search:

"...we're living in an age when information technologies make it easy for relatively small numbers of people bound by a common enmity to find each other, no matter where on earth they are, and then coordinate to deploy violence. Hatred, even when diffuse and far-flung, has increasingly lethal potential.

"What causes all the hatred? At some level it's always the same thing: human beings operating under the influence of human brains whose design presupposed their specialness. That is, human beings operating under the influence of the reality-distortion fields that control us in many and subtle ways, convincing us that we and ours are in the right, that we are by nature good, and that, when we do the occasional bad thing, it's not a reflection of the 'real us'; whereas they and theirs aren't in the right and aren't by nature good, and when they do the occasional good thing, it's not a reflection of the 'real them.' And it doesn't help matters that these reality-distortion fields often magnify, even out-and-out fabricate, the threat posed by them and theirs.

"So, yes, we need to reject the core evolutionary value of the specialness of self. Indeed there's probably never been a time in human history when this rejection was more vital."

The poisonous tribalism Wright sees Buddhism as an antidote for works not only from an international standpoint but from an intranational one. I mean you, red state and blue state where never the purple shall meet. So here's one science quote I did like that might apply:

"[Einstein] said, if you want a deeper understanding of physics, you need to detach yourself from your particular perspective--from any particular perspective--and ask: Suppose I occupied no vantage point? Since I wouldn't be able to ask how fast things are moving relative to me, what exactly would it mean to ask how fast things are moving?"

The answer, of course, is it would change the question entirely, just as Buddhism does. "After all," Wright writes, "without a perspective to serve, there would be no feelings in the first place."

Hoo, boy. Giving up feelings is a hard thing to do. Which is why you best get meditating. Another hard thing to do. But look at how far we've come taking the easy way out by ignoring self-awareness and catering to our desires.

Kind of like the band playing on as the Titanic took on Atlantic, in its way.
Profile Image for Jake.
232 reviews50 followers
August 12, 2019
Wright looks at Buddhism through the lens of modern psychology, but with a primary focus on his specialty: Evolutionary Psychology. The book served to be pretty enlightening , as it gave a solid overview of a secular, or "naturalistic " perspective of Buddhism - by showing how many psychological theories that are currently entertained by the scientific community have, all the while ,been accepted(albeit in a implicit sense... very implicit sense) by Buddhists for thousands of years . Well, at least some of them. He acknowledges that there are a ton of schools of thought that can be classified under the category of Buddhism - therefore drawing a universal understanding of all schools is kinda hard. Which, partially invalidates the universality of his thesis. But , I digresss. The book was pretty good as an introduction to some secular perspectives of Buddhism, some modern perspectives in psychology , and an ehhh intro to evo psych. yay

It is well complimented by wrights earlier book on evolutionary psychology, the moral animal .
Profile Image for Shilpi Somaya  Gowda.
Author 12 books72.9k followers
November 19, 2017
For the first time ever, as soon as I finished this book, I returned to the beginning and began it again.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,135 reviews1,016 followers
December 1, 2018
I’d strongly recommend this for anyone curious about meditation, specifically the Buddhist Vipassanā “mindfulness” meditation that everyone and their dog is doing, attempting, or at least talking about.

What Robert Wright provides is the very welcome examination of the scientific basis of the claims and practice. Wright is a journalist so deeply embedded in cognitive science that he has taught in the philosophy department at Princeton and the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written several books on related topics, and taught a six-week Coursera online course on “Buddhism and Modern Psychology”, which was part of his preparation for writing this. Wright has also been meditating seriously for many years.

So you could think of this as a mostly unbiased, non-spiritual defense of Buddhism. Unlike every other book on the topic out there, he doesn’t assert the Buddha was the enlightened one and genuflect; in fact, the concept of enlightenment comes in for some rough treatment before Wright concludes that the goal isn’t as important as the attempt to progress towards that somewhat amorphous objective.

The early chapters provide the scientific basis; the later ones are about Wright’s philosophical examination of meditation — and frankly, those latter chapters got kind of repetitive and boring.

But meditation is connected in multiple ways to current cognitive science.

■ The attempt of the meditator to take control of their own thought process is related to the gradual recognition of the default mode network, which is that part of your brain that is active when you’re daydreaming, or when distracting ideas come unbidden when you’re trying to focus, or even when you're trying to get to sleep. When you’re really focused on something, this network is usually quiet, but it gets in the way a lot. Meditation is an attempt to tame that.

■ The connection between thoughts and emotions is examined. There’s a strong case here that no thought can exist without being tied somehow to an emotion, which is why your subconscious “cares enough” about it to present the thought to your conscious self. This is consistent with recent work in identity-protective cognition, which tells us that we didn’t evolve the ability to think in order to be logical and rational, but to aggressively defend those emotionally-connected thoughts. Wright mentions tribal cognition several times, which is the social version of those identity-protective mental heuristics. I agree with Wright that tribalism can be highly caustic in modern society, and he believes that meditation is the best chance at saving the world. I’m doubtful, primarily because of free riders and the coordination problem, but his point is a good one otherwise.

■ He doesn’t explicitly refer to Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 thinking modes, but the connection is obvious. Meditation is designed to take control of the automatic part of the fast, instinctive, and emotional System 1, and be capable of using the slower, deliberative, and logical System 2 whenever the practitioner desires. This also connects to the “elephant and rider” analogy in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.

■ And, as I noted, mindfulness meditation is now everywhere. In the August 29, 2017 episode of the excellent science podcast STEM-Talk, the hosts interview David Spiegel, a psychologist who is one of the nation’s foremost experts on hypnosis. I listen to that podcast because it dives deep into the science, but I really wasn’t surprised when the connection between hypnosis and meditation came up early on, and Dr. Spiegel noted that they work in related ways, and that people who are good at meditation tend to be good good subjects of hypnosis.

If you’re interested in mindfulness meditation but need convincing that it isn’t just a bunch of mystical nonsense — or you’re just curious — then this is the only book out there.
Profile Image for Vaiva Rykštaitė.
Author 10 books636 followers
September 12, 2019
Viena geriausių mano pastaruoju metu skaitytų knygų - iš tų, kurią įveikti buvo sunkoka, dažnai ją skaitydama susimigdydavau. Bet būtent ši knyga mane padarė šiek tiek ramesne - kai pykteliu ant vyro ar noriu mašinoje trankyti vairą ir nachui siųsti man ką tik užkišusį vairuotoją, kas kad jis manęs negirdi?! Bet tada prisimenu, kad pvz road rage - įsiūtis vairuojant yra tik vienas iš mano proto modulių, na tokių beveik kaip telefono apps’ų, įjungiančių ir tam tikrą emocinį režimą, kuris išsivystė dar pirmykštėje žmonijos stadijoje kaip vienas evoliucinių išlikimo mechanizmų. Maždaug taip. Bet pradėsiu nuo pradžių.

Iš tikrųjų tai truputį pykstu dėl klaidinančio pavadinimo: nes ieškojau grynai dvasingos knygos; ir dėl to, kad toks pavadinimas gali atbaidyti dvasingumo nemėgstančius. Tai yra knyga, kurioje į meditacijos sukeliamą ramybę ir mūsų emocijas žvelgiama iš evoliucinės psichologijos perspektyvos. Mūsų emocijos ir aplinkos suvokimas aiškinamas pasitelkiant mokslinius ekperimentus ir įvairius protinius sutrikimus, kaip pvz. Capgras’o iliuzija - toks sindormas, kai žmogui ima atrodyti, kad jo artimus žmones pakeitė apsimetėliai. Nes tie žmonės atrodo taip pat, elgiasi taip pat, tik nesukelia įprastinio jausmo. O būtent per jausmus mes patiriame ne tik kitus žmones, bet ir daiktus, kaip tai liudija aukcionuose už garsių žmonių daiktus dešimtis tūkstančių mokantys jų fanai. Tai čia tik keli įdomesni pavyzdžiai.

Autoriaus manymu ne mes valdome savo emocijas, bet jos valdo mus. Kai kurios emocijos mums trukdo, kai kurios klaidina. Proto balso irgi nėra - tai tik triukšmas galvoje. Ir apskritai nieko nėra, tik beribė tuštuma arba iliuzija, bet čia jau įžengiama į hinduizmo ir budizmo klausimus. Atsakymas į visus klausimus - meditacija, į kurią čia žvelgiama labai racionaliai. Meditacijos reikia visiems - ypač neturintiems jai laiko ir nemokantiems susivaldyti. Nors perskaičiusi šitą knygą aš ir nemeditavusi pasijutau ramesnė ir jau ne kartą užuot rėkusi tiesiog biškį pabambėjau ir aprimau.
Labai patiko Robert Wright rašymo stilius. Kalėdų senio prašysiu kitų dviejų jo knygų.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 2 books336 followers
March 5, 2023
if you like this review, i now have website: www.michaelkamakana.com

210415: conversational, collegiate, comfortable. if you can accept details of title, such as which 'buddhism' and what is 'true', this is an easy, flowing read. rather than bio, synopsis, critical overview, this book is intent on revealing personally educated experience that leads the author to his claims. this is primarily through meditative practice, recognition of paradoxes such as are inherent in quantum physics, more mediative practice, conceptualisation of scientific models of psychology that parallel buddhist models of thought/experience...

having read certain number of books on buddhism as philosophy, there is nothing particularly new here for me, but perhaps his voice is friendly to others who do not know this tradition. there are some basic reasons to meditate that do not rely on supernatural reasons, in fact the entire argument is more that of 'secular buddhism' than the common religious form. the main focus of the book is that current scientific psychology, and particularly evolutionary schemes, seem to validate buddha's original insights about 2 500 years ago. this is how humans are 'designed' (he notes this is just way of speaking) to search for pleasure, to be forever finding transient results, to search again etc. this is everything from having no 'self' to dispersed 'co-dependant origination'...

you are expected to understand 'science' as particularly valid interpretation of human experience, if not ontology of the universe, but this attitude is no more difficult than our common, current, 'western' prejudice towards apparently 'objective' facts. such as brain scans, neurotransmitters, that can characterise unusual mental states such as meditation or, particularly, kind of baseline reduced mental 'noise' of wandering thoughts as shown by experienced meditators...

from meditation as much as logic it is apparent there is no 'CEO', no 'Cartesian theatre' running our experience of the world, and wright would replace this with speculative scientific psychology of 'modules', though these are intertwined and he does recognise details, conflicts, naming etc needs to be figured out. but he is confident modern science in this conception validates buddhism...

there is kind of 'natural selection' overdeterminism that answers our usual human delusions, misperceptions of reality as seen from 'nowhere'. which is problem because 'nowhere' always strikes me as combination of many 'wheres', and natural selection is not, from what i read in Science and Poetry, near as individually oriented as suggested. there are many good reasons to follow the 'biology is all about propagating genes'-model, but this is much more complex than wright would have it...

he does address the major schism between hinduism (all is one) and buddhism (all is empty) and suggests how these can be reconciled to mean the same thing. he suggests buddha's contention there is 'no self' should be understood practically, as guide on the way, but to me this seems an attempt to 'westernise' this assertion because of the 'eastern' paradox. he is candid that he is perhaps not fully 'accomplished' a meditator and that maybe this entire book is mistaken project (as one meditator tells him he might have to choose between writing this book and becoming liberated). very good introductory narrative of trying for 'enlightenment'...

Buddhism: A Philosophical Approach
What the Buddha Thought
Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy
Wisdom Beyond Words: The Buddhist Vision of Ultimate Reality
Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction
An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy
Why I Am Not a Buddhist
Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
429 reviews1,358 followers
October 11, 2017
I've been interested in many of Robert Wright's other books, but this is the first one I've read. The title is misleading (and perhaps nonsensical?), but there's plenty of interesting reflection here on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, both in terms of personal health and wellbeing, and in better understanding the nature of self and the universe in ways consistent with what scientific discovery has revealed on those subjects. It is in THAT sense that Buddhism is "true", and Wright hastens to separate secular Buddhism from the metaphysical claims and figures (such as Mara, the demonic deceiver) that attend some strains of Buddhism. I feel it is strange to label any belief system as "true" or "false", terms better suited to describing individual claims.

Wright shares his own stories from various retreats, personal experience, and discussions with sage practitioners. There's a LOT of repetition here, which can prove boring, but the book is punctuated by moments of profundity that could be collated into a much shorter work of greater impact. It didn't help that I was already convinced of the thesis, which is that a habit of introspection and contemplation offers many important benefits (and Buddhism has a long and impressive history of presenting the best methods for fueling that habit). Taking the time to inspect one's thoughts, to realize we are but temporary collections of atoms, and to see there is no self... directly improves one's grasp of reality and sense of humility. Adding a filter of detachment and examination of one's emotions provides an extra beat before reacting. This one habit allows a chance to assume the best in others, to put yourself in their shoes, and to reconsider passionate or angry responses that might prove ineffective.

An expert on evolution and morality, Wright spends a lot of time exploring how natural selection has primed us with certain behaviors. He looks at many pre-programmed urges in turn, and demonstrates how they've been co-opted in ways that no longer improve our reproductive success, yet still rule our habits and interactions. Meditation can be a great tool for examining those motivations and resisting them where they are unhelpful. There are mentions here and there of brain studies that buttress these findings, though not as many as I might have expected.

There are a lot of terms related to meditation practice: schools of thought and names of techniques that I must confess have not stayed in my head. Part of it is that I heard them pronounced on the audio book, but did not see how they are spelled. The other part is that I have a hard time engaging with these other-language terms because I fear I could only employ them superficially or incompletely. That's purely my fault - I can't blame the book for that. Throughout, Wright is self-deprecating and makes clear that his years of mindfulness study have only equipped him enough to be dangerous, but nods toward the findings of advanced practitioners. I'll admit a certain level of skepticism toward those claims, and the utility of such extensive withdrawal from society, but I can't fault those who have devoted years to internal searching. There are far more harmful things they could be doing, and the world could use a lot more introspection and awareness right now. Not less.

I was about to give this three stars, but realized I was docking it mainly for the soporific narration in the audio book, which is how I consumed this. That was the longest 10 1/2 hours of my life, and I've done Scientology auditing. I had to frequently rewind to figure out where I'd left off before my mind had started wandering. Robert Wright would remind me to use that as an opportunity to examine my thoughts question the nature of the sensation of "boredom".
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
670 reviews383 followers
December 5, 2019
Enjoyed this book, however— I don’t think you can pinpoint anything in it that 100% “proves” why Buddhism is “true.”

Other than yes, meditation does help the brain.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of organized religion by any stretch, but out of all of them, Buddhism is my favorite.
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
557 reviews1,908 followers
June 2, 2018
This is Robert Wright’s attempt to square the insights and outcomes of Buddhist practices and philosophy with evolutionary psychology.

The book is confused and confusing at times. But that’s mostly because Buddhism is pretty confused and confusing when you press down hard on some of its key constructs.

That being said. Write is honest about his areas of confusion and does a more than admirable job of exploring and resolving the dissonance over the course of the book.

Ultimately, Write’s basic argument is pretty sound.

In a nutshell:

* Natural selection predisposed us language adapted chimps to feel perpetually anxious and dissatisfied.

* This feature kept our ancestors alive and striving, but now we’re needlessly miserable pert near all the damn time for no good reason.

* Buddhists noticed this a long time ago, and figured out some ways to reduce/eliminate that particular brand of suffering better know as ‘the human condition’ or Dukha in the parlance of Buddhism.

* If you pay mindfull attention to your thinking and feeling processes enough, you begin to realize that the ego (self story) thing you/me/we identify with and tirelessly defend is actually just a bunch of psychological ‘smoke and mirrors’.

* Furthermore, we should probably all practice meditation so we can progress beyond our evolutionarily programmed proclivities to reflexively compete, endlessly self promote and mindlessly consume.

I can’t really argue with any of that.

And overall, I loved this book.
Profile Image for Hákon Gunnarsson.
Author 29 books132 followers
January 10, 2022
This title, Why Buddhism is True, is so wrong for this book that it's not even funny, because Robert Wright isn't trying to prove anything about Buddhism as a whole. For example it isn't about rebirth which is part of buddhist believes. In fact it is not about any of the religious aspects of Buddhism. It's about secular Buddhism, or Western Buddhism. The subtitle, The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, is on the other hand completely right for it. This book is mostly about scientific research into meditation, and the authors own experience of it.

That being said, I really like this book. Wright manages pretty well to go into what science has to say about meditation, and that is actually quite a lot. I can't say I'm an experienced meditator, but I've done enough that I can say this rings true to me. It didn't teach me anything new about how to meditate, but it does explain the effects of it quite well. On the whole I think Robert Wright is a good writer. He writes with this self-deprecating humor that I found quite likeable. I listened to the audiobook version of this through storytel, but I think I may buy the print book to read someday.
Profile Image for Lea.
830 reviews170 followers
October 30, 2021
It was mostly the tone I could not stand, very early 2000s US-American pop science non-fictiony. But I also did not like the framing. It tries to explain why buddhist practices (not buddhism itself as a religion or belief, like the title claims) are good for humans via evolutionary psychology. I have conflicted feelings about evopsych anyway, but what Wright does here is so superficial that it really doesn't offer us anything new. I mean, yeah, sure, meditation is good for you. But you don't need to read this book to know that.
Profile Image for Francisco.
Author 20 books54.9k followers
September 4, 2019
If I meditated half as much as I read books about meditation it is very possible that I’d be a notch or two from enlightenment by now! But in my own weak defense, I will say that when the writing is good, as it undoubtedly is in this book, reading about the science, philosophy and psychology behind the Buddhist Vipassana tradition of meditation is . . . well, more fun. It would be tempting to lump this book about mindfulness as yet another attempt to capitalize on the current mindfulness vogue. But Wright’s book, although delightful to read, is intelligent and care-fully written and it doesn’t take long to detect the act of generosity that motivated its writing. The book seeks to have the same effect on your mind as mindfulness meditation: it will help you see your world a little more clearly, a little less clouded by egocentric delusions – yours and others. And that is not a bad thing. It was helpful to me to see how the findings of evolutionary psychology shed light on the question that comes up for all of us now and then: where the hell did that thought come from? It is good to know that my particular desire to strangle the living daylights out of someone is a vestige of a brain whose primary function was keeping me alive and keeping my genes traveling on into the future. Or that the nagging restlessness for some kind of specialness comes from when social status was needed to survive. But do I really need to give in to that kind of hunger now? Especially when to be special means that others aren’t? What the book did is to direct my attention for some three-hundred pages to feelings and thoughts I often think of mine but need not do so. I can observe them, and the observation diminishes their power. You can say that this is a small step toward liberation – a small step that has good effects for me and for the rage-filled world I live in. It is in this sense that Wright believes Buddhism to be true: that it accurately describes the faulty seeing that is happening inside of us, the suffering caused by the lack of clarity, and a way to ease the pain. The Buddhist notions of “no-self” and “emptiness” are not metaphysical doctrines to be intellectually examined. They are existential facts to be experienced. The beauty of this book is that thanks to it I could see how even a tiny movement toward no-self and emptiness, a tiny experience of their truth, could help bring peace to my world.
Profile Image for MG.
772 reviews9 followers
August 26, 2017
I was a huge fan of Wright's EVOLUTION OF GOD where he tracked the progress in humanity's idea of God from an evolutionary paradigm. That is why I was surprised by his new book: In what sense did he mean Buddhism is "true"? Well, he is still a naturalist but he has discovered that Buddhism has done the best job of describing the human problem and how to transcend our natural states and live happier, more peaceful lives--namely, through the practice of meditation. He even has some eschatological urgency to his mission since he thinks the forces of tribalization might end humanity's prospects for future thriving and so the best prospects for becoming nontribal is through becoming mindful souls who can transcend our fears and anxieties. Also, Wright's Buddhism is itself nontribal in that he describes the practice in terms of science and psychology and so requires no religious attachment in order to benefit from these spiritual exercises. As a Christian, I see no problem in fully embracing his insights and recommendations for meditating and becoming mindful. It simply reinforces the idea that spiritual growth requires deep self-knowledge and reflection, and too many of us treat these as optional.
August 16, 2019
I've given this 5 stars because it is the first book that I have come across that so neatly and persuasively links together the big ideas of buddhist thought and modern understanding of psychology and neuroscience. I've read great books that focus extensively on Buddhist logic with examples peppered throughout of corroboration with modern neuroscience (Rodney Smith's "Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha's Liberating Teaching of No-Self) or books that deconstruct Buddhist ideas using a rigorous empirical approach (Stephen Batchelor's "Alone With Others") or books about neuroscience that implicitly underline specific ideas within Buddhism (Robert Kurzban's "Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind") but nothing that is (at least to my knowledge) as single-minded in the synthesis of both fields as this new book by Robert Wright. So in that sense, it is an important book in my view.

The idea underpinning the book is that feelings have been utilized by natural selection as levers in which to push and pull us towards its ends (genetic proliferation), either towards things that are 'good' for us or away from things that are 'bad' for us, and that mindfulness meditation can help loosen the grip that these feelings have on us. It goes into the myriad ways in which these feelings give us inaccurate perceptions of the world and by extension guide us in ways that make us suffer, and offers real world experimental counterparts that give a clearer picture. For example, the tendency to anticipate a much more enduring sense of satisfaction from the attainment of goals than what actually occurs upon attainment of the goal is presented alongside a study of dopamine generation in primates where much more dopamine was produced in anticipation of fruit juice (association of a light being turned on with receiving juice) than when the juice was actually given to them. It makes sense from natural selection's perspective to program this sort of illusion into us, as resources need to be acquired to keep the gene-vehicle running and if what is 'out there' always seems better to us than what we already have, then we will try to keep acquiring new things. The 'good' feeling of of anticipation is a lever used to push us towards a new perceived resource, and the 'bad' feeling of dissatisfaction upon attainment is to keep us on the hedonic treadmill. This idea of craving leading to suffering is right in line with buddhist doctrines, as Wright lays out. And more importantly the teaching that mindfulness meditation can be effective in getting distance from your feelings and therefore more freedom in choosing which, if any, to follow. It seems that simply learning to focus on feelings themselves can dissolve their power in some fundamental way. As if our very ignorance of their presence or the circumstances in which they manifest is a core component that lets the levers do their work.

There are numerous examples in the book that go into different aspects of buddhist doctrines and seamlessly ties them to current findings. The feeling certain things in the world are imbued with a particular essence is another delusion that is is dealt with at length with experimental examples (among others: expensive wine labels giving a "good essence" to wine 'experts' in comparison to an identical wine sans label) and compared to buddhist ideas about emptiness. The stories we attach to things, and the accompanying feelings, drastically affect our judgment.

Outside of just experimental examples he goes into some detail with brain scans and which areas of the brain are activated for which impulses, and so on. It all helps to give a backbone to the arguments presented and make them altogether unassailable or at least very difficult to deny.

Perhaps the most powerful section of the book is the area about the modular view of the mind. The buddhist doctrine of no-self is perhaps one the most difficult to apprehend and integrate into practice and Mr. Wright meticulously details the history of the teaching as well as the nuts and bolts of it. He also expounds about how current neuroscience supports the claim, specifically the landmark 'Split-Brain Experiment' which casts serious doubt as to whether an "I" exists as perceived and suggests that the sense of self is, to borrow the analogy, more of a Public Representative than a CEO.

Wright intersperses the science and the rigorous appraisal of doctrine with his own experiential anecdotes of meditation and the evolution of his relationship with his feelings. The book is both parts descriptive and prescriptive in how a clearer relationship with our feelings can lead us to greater moral truth (dispelling the myth of our specialness in relation to others, for one). The prescriptive part may turn some people off, but I found it to be compelling and inspiring. There is a whole transcendent aspect of rising above natural selection's aims that permeates the book, and a call to arms using mindfulness as an entry point. The world is in a sorry state, and as effective as evolution has been to get us to this point of global integration, it now threatens to overwhelm. Higher cognizance of our situation is needed, and especially the delusions we operate under. We have to get distance from our feelings first, which is natural selection's primary tool for fostering delusion, and as Wright forcefully demonstrates mindfulness is a direct path to doing so. As liberating as the prospect of having a more objective relationship with your feelings and the world around you may seem, it can be hard to catalyze motivation without convincing evidence. Robert Wright's book offers such evidence and is an important dissemination of the 'radical' ideas of buddhism and modern neuroscience and what they tell us about our condition and how they can help us overturn our creator.
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