Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright | Review
Publication: New York : Simon & Schuster Audio, 2017
Genre: Psychology, Philosophy, Nonfiction
Audio Length: 10 hours, 32 minutes | Pages: 321
Formats: Paperback, Audiobook
This book, like many others that try to bring what we often think of as spiritual topics into a more scientific light, gave me fits. (I know. The about page says I cringe somewhat in the face of writing reviews for books I wouldn’t recommend. While I’m reserving judgment, maybe this is more of an exploratory review.) Now I know my conservative Christian upbringing–which I left apologetically, yet not without some feelings of betrayal, in my mother’s earnest hands in my early twenties–will probably forever taint my perspective of books like this one. “Separate yourself from the self of your feelings” sounds like “blessed are the meek,” and “meditation can bring enlightenment” has the ring of “pray and do your devotions every day.”
So I’ve boiled the heart of my conflict surrounding such books, which seem to grasp at topics of spirituality from the self-help shelves of our local bookstores, to a question about why religion/spirituality seems to persist throughout human history. Why is it so goddamn (pun intended) important that we commune with some higher power or find some sort of enlightened connectivity in this nonsensical universe we inhabit? Interestingly, Wright comes at such frail yet persistent questions from an evolutionary standpoint, and I’m finding this perspective much easier to accept.
To start out, Wright’s book explains how our feelings, which the art of mindfulness meditation is meant to help the individual free him or herself from, are the mechanism evolution has developed so that we can prioritize our most basic needs toward survival now and toward the spreading of our genes for the future. But, he repeats over and over through various examples, our evolutionary needs haven’t quite caught up with civilised society. We have affairs to spread our seed; we hold onto prejudices because we have memories of not feeling safe in certain kinds of people’s company; we chase addictive substances because our brains are wired to gather immediate rewards or means of at least momentary escape/relief.
So what’s the use of mediation for someone, like myself, whose outlook regarding the elusive spirit of human existence holds only skepticism? If the point of a practice such as mindfulness mediation is to free oneself of one’s attachment to feelings, how can a person still generate opinions of good and evil in the world? The line between attachment to and being controlled by seems to be the division I’m struggling with here. If a person was molested as a child, to take an extreme but sadly not all that uncommon example (speaking again from personal experience), by someone who was purported to be a trustworthy and protective force within that person’s family unit, what good does it do to give up the perfectly reasonable feelings of anger and betrayal that would consequently ensue? But herein again is that fine line. Giving up on feelings is different from seeing them for what they are: the potentially out-of-control catalysts of things like revenge and prejudice. On the one hand, it’s difficult for me to not equate meditating my feelings away with forgiving my abuser, as the rest of my family has. As if anger and a sense of betrayal are the only consequences a person could impose on his or her abuser. Wright, however, also explains how our evolutionary-needs-driven feelings can flatten the characteristics, or “essence” as he calls it, of those around us. While I may not be ready to take my abuser out of the “my abuser” box, I’m also aware that this person’s childhood was filled with its own set of abuse, likely triggering his significantly poor choices later in life. Consequently, if mindfulness meditation is meant to create a barrier between feelings and the feeler, maybe there’s hope that we can be protected from the negative and sometimes destructive consequences of our feelings. But I don’t think the Buddha would say my ability to meditate from an objective viewpoint above my feelings of anger or betrayal negates the need for real-life consequences for the person my feelings have been directed toward.
Meditation, according to what I’ve been able to glean from this book, is a way of rewiring the brain so that the prefrontal cortex’s tendency to give into the flood of adrenaline, cortisol, and other emotion-dumping drugs can be better regulated; so we may finally catch up to all the great philosophers of our history whose ideas of morality and justice we seem to always praise but can never quite realise in our day-to-day lives. Taking this idea in light of my earlier pondering of “why religion?” I’m left trying to connect the pieces through John Steinbeck’s striking quote from The Grapes of Wrath: “Fear the time when man’s self will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of man’s self, and this one quality is man distinctive in the universe.” (If you’d like to substitute “man” with “humanity” in this quote, I think Steinbeck would cheer you on.) Still seems like a pretty emotive quote when compared to the goals Wright purports for mindfulness meditation. Being allowed to feel and to feel fully will probably always be attractive to me because of the stifling and ultimately deceptive environment of my aforementioned upbringing. But Christianity probably isn’t to blame, and maybe humanity will someday ultimately find the balance the Buddha talked about.