Some very interesting questions

Niall James Holohan reviews Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment (Robert Wright Simon & Schuster; Hb £20.00).

I have always been interested in secular Buddhism and evolutionary psychology and first heard the name Robert Wright after taking his Princeton Coursera on Buddhism and Modern Psychology in 2016. Anyone who has taken this course or read Robert’s books will attest to his deceptively amiable style of reorganising expert knowledge into witty but suitably challenging teaching
and writing.

In The Moral Animal, published in 1994, Wright outlined how human desires were selected for by evolution and noted that the result is that we are not necessarily designed to see the world clearly or to be satisfied. But if we concede the human brain’s design has been selected to court unease, impatience, jealousy and depression, then what are we as individuals to do about it?

In Why Buddhism Is True, Wright makes the case for mindfulness meditation rooted in Buddhist philosophy as a practical way to dispel the delusions that lead to the suffering we feel, fastened to the hedonistic treadmill. Where CBT interrogates the logic behind intrusive thoughts, Wright argues that Buddhist meditation seeks to disembody thought in order to rebel against the agenda set for us by natural selection. We may not be in a position to defy our biological engineering but through meditation rooted in Buddhist philosophy, it is possible to detach from the oleaginous rails of our desires and simultaneously sit with noetic conflicts that we may ordinarily seek to escape and at least periodically wrangle our emotion life into a collaborative space rather than be blindly driven by naturally selected needs that are heretofore obscured from our view.

While light on citations and relying heavily on Wright’s own theories, this book does provoke some very interesting questions on the subject of Buddhism and psychology, particularly regarding the correlation Wright sees between the Buddhist teaching of not-self and the modular model of the mind most recently expounded by Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius in their book The Rational Animal. It is at the very least an affable aid to those interested in meditation, evolutionary psychology, Buddhism and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Its conclusion, brought to mind the infamous words of US statistician W. Edwards Deming: ‘In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.’

- Reviewed by Niall James Holohan, musician, writer and psychology undergraduate at the University of East London

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