I’m a friend and fan of mega-pundit Robert Wright. We’re obsessed with the same ridiculously big questions: What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? What is human nature? How constrained are we by our biology? What hope is there for us? In The Moral Animal, Nonzero and The Evolution of God, Wright explores these riddles with such crisp, assured intelligence that it’s hard figuring out where he goes wrong. But I try to rise to the challenge.
Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, which just hit the bestseller lists, is Wright’s most ambitious book. Guided by evolutionary psychology (his intellectual lodestar) and Buddhism, he diagnoses humanity’s ills and prescribes a treatment:
We are prone to excessive emotions, like desire, fear and anger, and to self-deception, which were instilled in us by natural selection. But we can overcome these harmful tendencies through meditation, which helps us gain insight into and control over ourselves. As Wright says in a Wall Street Journal essay, “The Meditation Cure,” meditation “turns out to be one of the best ways to deal with the anxieties and appetites bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history.”
He suggests that meditation might help us achieve the state of supreme serenity and insight known as enlightenment. And if enough of us meditate, we might overcome the tribalism that causes war and other harmful behaviors. “I think the salvation of the world can be secured via the cultivation of calm, clear minds and the wisdom they allow,” Wright declares. Italics added.
Wright and I just batted this thesis around on Bloggingheads.tv, his online discussion platform. Below are a few concerns I raised in our dialogue, some of which I have mentioned in previous posts (see Further Reading).
*Meditation isn’t that effective. A 2014 review by the Johns Hopkins University Evidence-Based Practice Center examines 17,801 papers on meditation’s psychotherapeutic benefits and found 41 relatively high-quality studies involving 2,993 subjects. The review concludes that meditation programs “reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.” But benefits are low to moderate, and there is no evidence that meditation programs “were superior to any specific therapies they were compared with,” including exercise, muscle relaxation and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
*Meditation is morally neutral. Wright argues that meditation makes you nicer. But you can meditate to be a more effective corporate raider. Throughout history, warriors have meditated or prayed before battle so they can fight more effectively. Today, many U.S. soldiers are taught mindfulness meditation, which presumably will help them feel better about carrying out violent U.S. policies. Moreover, a disturbing number of meditation teachers have behaved more like sociopaths than saints. [See Addendum.]
*Enlightenment is a bad idea. Also called liberation, awakening or nirvana, enlightenment is a state in which you see through the illusory nature of things, and you feel really, really good. Wright treats the concept with too much credulity. People are so desperate for enlightenment that they become vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous meditation teachers. Even when viewed as an unattainable ideal, the concept of enlightenment does more harm than good and should be abandoned.
*We don't need to meditate to achieve world peace. Wright argues that mindfulness can bring about a “Metacognitive Revolution” that helps us overcome our violent tribal tendencies, which often culminate in war. But to end war, we don’t need to meditate and recognize the formlessness of things. We need to recognize that war is stupid and wrong and take steps to eradicate it. I fear that when intellectuals call for a “revolution” that can bring about world peace, they make it seem even more unattainable.
*Save us from our saviors. The idea that humanity is fundamentally flawed and needs saving--whether by Buddha, Moses, Christ, Mohammed, Marx or L. Ron Hubbard--has done more harm than good. We should reject once and for all the idea that life is a problem for which there is a single, true solution.
That’s enough nits. Let me emphasize that I enjoyed Why Buddhism Is True, even when I disagreed with it. I especially like Wright's interweaving of philosophical rumination on Buddhist doctrines such as emptiness with vivid descriptions of his own meditative experiences. I'm guessing his book will become the go-to explication of Buddhism for modern western seekers, just as The Moral Animal remains the go-to explication of evolutionary psychology. Bob, because of his mindfulness practice, doesn’t care about such worldly things any more, but I hope his book remains on the bestseller lists for a long time to come.
Addendum: Evidence contradicting the claim that meditation makes you nicer keeps rolling in. A study in Psychological Science finds that “yoga and meditation do not quiet the ego, but instead boost self-enhancement.” Meanwhile Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a meditation teacher and head of Shambhala, an international Buddhist organization, just stepped down from that position after being accused of sexual misconduct. His father, Chögyam Trungpa, who founded Shambhala, also behaved badly. See also my more recent post, “Can Meditation Make Us Nicer?”