Are human beings hard-wired to be perpetually dissatisfied? Author Robert Wright, who teaches about the interface of evolutionary biology and religion, thinks so.
Wright points out that evolution rewards people for seeking out pleasure rather than pain, which helps ensure that human beings are frequently unsatisfied: "We are condemned to always want things to be a little different, always want a little more," he says. "We're not designed by natural selection to be happy."
But all is not lost. In his new book, Why Buddhism is True, Wright makes the case that some Buddhist practices can help humans overcome the biological pull towards dissatisfaction.
"I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection," he says. "Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, 'We don't have to play this game.' "
On how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting
This was in the Buddha's first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it's true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It's a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as "unsatisfactoryness."
Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.
If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you'd feel blissed out, you'd never eat again. You'd have sex, you'd, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that's not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it's central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.
On how to approach physical pain with mindfulness
A basic principle of mindfulness meditation is to not run away from feelings that you normally run away from. By "run away from" I mean you're averse to them. Like, if you feel anxiety or physical pain, you want it to go away. You want to do something that makes it go away. And the idea of mindfulness meditation is that you actually sit there — kind of observe the feeling, experience the feeling — and ironically, that can give you a kind of critical distance from it, a kind of detachment from it. So not running away from the pain or the emotional distress, or whatever, can, through meditative practice, disempower the pain or the distress.
On how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull towards dissatisfaction
What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. ... By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that's just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That's an amazing thing — that it can work.
On how cognitive behavioral therapy and Buddhism work together
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works by kind of interrogating people about the logic behind things like fears and anxieties, like, Is there really much of a chance of you projectile vomiting while speaking to a crowd? You've never done it before. ... So there's a suspicion there about the logic behind feelings.
Well, in Buddhism there's a suspicion of the logic behind feelings more broadly, I would say. But as a practical matter, Buddhism works at the level of feeling. They don't interrogate the logic explicitly, but you deal with the feeling itself in a way that disempowers it. And there's a kind of bridge between cognitive therapy and Buddhist practice in evolutionary psychology; because evolutionary psychology explains that, indeed, a lot of the feelings we have are not worth following, for various reasons. They may have literally been designed to mislead us to begin with by natural selection. ... We live in an environment so different from the environment that natural selection designed us for that we have these counterproductive feelings, like fear of public speaking. So evolutionary psychology gives a back story, explaining why it is that we so often are misled by feelings ... and then Buddhist meditation tells us what to do about that.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Robert Wright is the author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." The book explains the contrasting explanations offered by Buddhism and Darwin's theory of natural selection about why happiness is fleeting, and we're never satisfied. But Wright says Darwin's theory helps us understand why meditation can help liberate us from the delusions that make us suffer.
Wright also writes about his own experiences practicing mindfulness meditation. The practice is sometimes difficult for him. It can be surprisingly hard to sit still and refocus the mind, but he's found it very helpful. Wright is a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was brought up in the Southern Baptist tradition. He left the church after he began studying evolution in high school. His earlier books include "The Evolution Of God," "The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology And Everyday Life," and "Three Scientists And Their Gods: Looking For Meaning In An Age Of Information."
Robert Wright, welcome to FRESH AIR. So did you start mindfulness meditation with the idea of connecting it to evolutionary biology, or did you just start it for other reasons?
ROBERT WRIGHT: I had written a book in 1994 about evolutionary psychology, and that had convinced me that human nature is just not optimal. I mean, we're not designed by natural selection to always see the world clearly. We're not designed by natural selection to be happy. And it turns out that meditation - and in particular, I'd say Buddhist meditation grounded in Buddhist philosophy - is very well-equipped to address that problem. In fact, at the heart of Buddhism is the claim that the reason we suffer and the reason we make other people suffer is that we don't see the world clearly. So in a certain sense, thinking about how the brain evolved had led me to get a sense for the diagnosis of the human predicament. But then it turned out that Buddhism had actually diagnosed it long ago and come up with a prescription.
GROSS: So when you say that one of the premises of Buddhist meditation is that we don't see the world clearly, can you elaborate on that thought?
WRIGHT: Yeah, Buddhists mean by that that we have misconceptions both about ourselves and about the world out there - about, in particular, people out there. But to take, you know, a not-so-arcane example to start with, there is a certain skepticism of feelings implied by the logic of mindfulness meditation and kind of a sense that feelings can mislead us and warp our perception. And these include feelings that lots of people have trouble with - anxiety, remorse, self-loathing. There's a skepticism of how trustworthy these feelings are as guides in Buddhist philosophy. That's almost putting it mildly. And one thing I had come to believe is that that skepticism is reinforced by evolutionary psychology. I mean, our feelings were designed to get genes into the next generation. But that doesn't mean they were designed to help us see the world clearly or bring us happiness.
GROSS: Let's look at pleasure. As you point out, one of the basic precepts of a lot of Buddhism is that pleasure is fleeting. So you can't become too attached with seeking pleasure because you'll never be satisfied because pleasure is always fleeting. So I'm going to ask you to elaborate on that thought and to connect it to what we know biologically about pleasure and pleasure seeking.
WRIGHT: Right - well, certainly central to Buddhist philosophy. I mean, this was in the Buddha's first sermon after his enlightenment - is that a big problem - a big source of our suffering is that we crave things. We want things. But then the gratification tends not to last. And so we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering.
And it's true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It's a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well-translated as unsatisfactoriness. We are condemned to always want things to be a little different, to always want a little more. And, certainly, when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this, right? I mean, natural selection built us to do some things - a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex, things like that.
And if it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, if you - you would eat. You'd feel blissed out. You'd never eat again. You'd have sex. You'd lie there, basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously, that's not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurringly dissatisfied. And this is - seems to be a central feature of life, and it's central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.
GROSS: And you quote a really interesting study about dopamine that also connects to the idea that pleasure is inevitably fleeting. Would you describe that study?
WRIGHT: Yeah. It was a study involving monkeys. And dopamine, as people may have heard it - it tends to be correlated with pleasure. Its exact role is still disputed. But it seems to be correlated with pleasure, with reward. And in these monkeys, they put fruit juice on their tongues. And they noticed that when the fruit juice hits the tongue the first time, there's a burst of dopamine, which presumably corresponds to a burst of pleasure.
Now, then they kept doing that, but they would signal the coming of the fruit juice with a light flashing on so that the monkeys could anticipate the reward. And what they saw is that more and more the dopamine came when the light went on, and there was less and less dopamine associated with the actual fruit juice. So it's hard to say what's going on in the brains of those monkeys.
But that's certainly consistent with our own experience, which is that the first time you have, like, a powdered-sugar donut, you are basking in the bliss. It's great. But more and more, you feel the intense desire for these things, and you anticipate the pleasure. But then you may find yourself not even paying attention when you eat the donut. And in any event, the pleasure will last less long. And pretty soon, you'll want another one.
GROSS: So did the study also find the equivalent of, like, the third and the fourth bite isn't as satisfying as the first - isn't as pleasure - as dopamine-releasing?
WRIGHT: That's certainly the implication. There was less and less dopamine accompanying the taste of the fruit juice as time went on.
GROSS: So you say psychologists have a word for this. It's the hedonic treadmill.
WRIGHT: Right. The idea is that, you know, this motivational structure, kind of never being enduringly gratified, keeps you working, keeps you seeking pleasure, keeps you seeking the next promotion, the next cool electronic gadget, you know, the next sexual conquest, whatever. But pleasure doesn't last. You're on the treadmill, and you continue to seek it.
GROSS: OK. So we've talked about pleasure and how evolutionary psychology seems to echo what Buddhist mindfulness meditation has to say. What about pain? How have you been taught to deal with pain in your practice?
WRIGHT: First, I'd say a basic principle of mindfulness meditation is to not run away from feelings that you normally run away from. By run away from, I mean you're averse to them. Like, if you feel anxiety or physical pain, you want it to go away. You want to do something that makes it go away.
And the idea of mindfulness meditation is that you actually sit there, kind of observe the feeling, experience the feeling. And, ironically, that can give you a kind of critical distance from it, a kind of detachment, almost, from it. So not running away from the pain or the emotional distress or whatever can, through meditative practice, disempower the pain or the distress. And I actually did an experiment while on retreat. And I should say when you go on a long, silent meditation retreat, you reach meditative depths that are not so easy to sustain with a daily practice, even though you can do great things with a daily practice.
But I developed what turned out to be an abscess tooth while on retreat. And anything I drank caused me intense pain. So I figured, well, let's try this. I'm going to sit in my room and meditate for 30 minutes and get to a pretty deep state. And...
GROSS: Sounds - great idea (laughter).
WRIGHT: Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. There's not much else to do on a meditation retreat. You have to kind of invent entertainment. But I'm not going to say the pain went away, but there was - it was kind of an alternation between feeling, yeah, that hurts and kind of just looking at the wave of pain and going, whoa, that's, like, an awesome wave of pain.
And when you were looking at it, it wasn't hurting. It was almost - you know, there was almost a sense of grandeur about the wave of pain. And I don't want to promise this as the kind of thing you can do through 20 minutes a day. But you can get better at dealing with painful feelings and emotions. And a number of people use meditation to handle things like back pain.
GROSS: OK. Can you connect that with evolutionary psychology?
WRIGHT: Well, what I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us at a very fundamental level, OK? There's - the original mechanism of control in the simplest organism is either you, you know, move toward something that's good for you like nutrition or you move away from something that's bad for you like a toxin or a predator.
You know, approach and avoid are the two most fundamental things an animal can do. They correspond to good feeling and bad feeling. And by our nature, we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings. That's just our nature. And Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and trying to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That's an amazing thing - that it can work.
So I think of, you know, mindfulness meditation, especially if you think about it in the context of Buddhist philosophy - and I've tried to provide that background in this book. I think of it as almost a rebellion against natural selection. Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda. And Buddhism says we don't have to play this game. We can take a very close look at the way the machinery works and choose which feelings we want to follow and which feelings we don't want to follow. And that can make us not just happier people but better people, you know, more considerate of our fellow beings. And it can help us see the world more clearly, less clouded by the illusions that natural selection implanted in our brains to get us to do its bidding.
GROSS: So you're basically saying that mindfulness meditation goes against human nature, that it goes against the way we're wired.
WRIGHT: It does. I mean, I don't want to leave the impression that it's a wholesale rejection of, you know, feelings or anything like that. In fact, you know, people who are seriously into meditation take a lot of delight in the world. I myself see beauty in places I didn't see it before. But at the same time, yes. It's a pretty thoroughgoing rebellion against the agenda that we were given. Or maybe another way to say is it allows us to pick and choose from the agenda items that natural selection has left us with.
I mean, remember there are a lot of great things about human nature. We're capable of love. We're capable of compassion. We're capable of this appreciation of beauty. And the goal of Buddhist meditation is not to wipe those out along with the more unfortunate parts of human nature. It's to, if anything, accentuate them and, in some cases, channel them more wisely - and even in a certain sense, more equitably. So, for example, it's natural to love your kids, but meditation can make it easier to be compassionate toward people who aren't in your family.
GROSS: Let me make a counter argument here, which is that mindfulness meditation is also supported by biology in the sense that slow breathing can calm the nervous system and lead to a relaxation response - just like a physiological relaxation response that - in that respect, we're wired to respond in part to meditation.
WRIGHT: Meditation certainly takes advantage of whatever tools human nature gives it. I mean, you can't completely defy the biological machinery. Yeah. You do have to be taking advantage of what assets it gives you. Now, when you're focusing on your breath, though, I would point out that that turns out to be hard. I mean, what your mind naturally does when you don't have a goal, when you're not playing some sport, reading some novel, finishing something on deadline - what your mind naturally does is wander from thing to thing to thing. And that's not a bad thing.
But if you want to do mindfulness meditation, the first thing you have to do is calm your mind. And, typically, that is done by focusing on breathing. But that's not the end of the story. Then after that, you use this equilibrium to examine parts of your experience more carefully than you normally do, and that includes feelings. But focusing on your breath I found really, really hard. That's why I had to go on a meditation retreat before I had any real luck with meditation.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Wright. He's the author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." He's a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Wright. He's the author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." And part of what he talks about in the book is how meditation is echoed by evolutionary psychology. And his other books include "The Evolution of God" and "The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life".
You know, so we were talking a little bit about how you think there are parallels between, you know, the Buddhist approach to meditation and what a branch of psychology called cognitive behavior therapy has to say about the mind and how it works and how we can kind of stop a certain amount of our personal suffering. So can you talk about some of those parallels?
WRIGHT: Well, cognitive behavioral therapy works by kind of interrogating people about the logic behind things like fears and anxieties. You know, like, is there really much of a chance, you know, of you projectile vomiting while speaking to a crowd?
WRIGHT: You know, you've never done it before. And, you know, and also more problematic ones - you know, what are the chances of your daughter or son being mugged in this marginal neighborhood they live in - whatever. So there's a suspicion there about the logic behind feelings. Well, in Buddhism, there's a suspicion of the logic behind feelings more broadly, I would say. But as a practical matter, Buddhism works at the level of feeling.
They don't interrogate the logic explicitly, but they - you deal with the feeling itself in a way that disempowers it. And there's a kind of - a bridge between cognitive therapy and Buddhist practice in evolutionary psychology because evolutionary psychology explains that, indeed, a lot of the feelings we have are not worth following for various reasons. They may have literally been designed to mislead us to begin with by natural selection.
More commonly, it's that we live in an environment so different from the environment that natural selection designed us for that we have these counterproductive feelings, like fear of public speaking. So evolutionary psychology gives kind of a back story explaining why it is that we so often are misled by feelings, see things unclearly, why that makes us suffer. And then Buddhist meditation tells us what to do about that.
GROSS: And what about cognitive behavior therapy?
WRIGHT: It's a - you know, there actually is a fusion of the two - mindfulness - I think it's - what is it? Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy. I'm actually not sure of the name, but some people practice mindfulness meditation in concert with cognitive behavioral therapy. And I kind of like to think of my book as offering a version of that synergy in the sense that it - like cognitive behavioral therapy, my book explains why some of these feelings are not trustworthy, are not worth paying attention to. And I think that can enrich a meditation practice, I hope. That is, I explain it from an evolutionary point of view. So, you know, cognitive behavioral therapy and evolutionary psychology, in their own ways, lend validity to the skepticism about certain feelings that Buddhism presupposes and that Buddhist meditation does something about.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Wright, author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." After we take a short break, we'll talk about his meditation practice and how his study of evolution led him to leave the Southern Baptist Church. And John Powers will review a 1985 Albert Brooks film comedy that's just been released on DVD and Blu-ray. John says it's one of the greatest comedies of the last 40 years. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Robert Wright, author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." It compares how Buddhism and Darwin's theory of evolution explain why we seek pleasure but are never satisfied. He says the practice of meditation as a way to dispel the delusions that make us suffer is backed up by modern psychology. Wright is currently a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary.
So tell us a little bit about your meditation practice - like, what the breathing technique is, and what some of the basic principles of the actual practice are.
WRIGHT: Well, I sit down. I focus on my breath, which is pretty standard as a way to calm the mind. Sometimes, I do things a little...
GROSS: When you're focusing on your breath, are you counting breaths? Are you...
WRIGHT: Sometimes, I do count. Sometimes, that helps.
GROSS: Are you timing your inhales and exhales? Or are you just inhaling and exhaling?
WRIGHT: No, I don't do anything that elaborate. And most people probably don't count. Sometimes, that's helpful. Sometimes, I depart a little from that. And I may focus on the breath on the inhale and sounds on the exhale instead of the breath. But the point in any event is to do something that, for you, succeeds in calming the mind to a point where you can start paying attention to things you don't normally pay attention to or pay attention to them with a kind of care that you don't normally employ.
And that can include sounds. I mean, I have a refrigerator that sometimes hums right near where I meditate in the morning. And I just had no idea of the richness of the humming. It turns out it's several, actually, different noises independently that are intertwined. And when I'm meditating, it just seems like a harmony. It's beautiful.
More commonly, I probably focus on my interior life, my interior mind, feelings, thoughts and so on once I get some equilibrium. But that's the basic technique of mindfulness meditation, stabilize your mind and then start observing things inside your mind or outside your mind more clearly.
GROSS: And dispassionately?
WRIGHT: Ultimately, yes, the idea is to get, in some sense, a kind of detachment from these things. But there is an irony here, which is that the way you get the detachment is by getting close to them in the first place. You experience them with a care and, in the case of negative feelings, a kind of fearlessness that gives you the detachment.
So with something like anxiety, I have sometimes - I don't always have such wild success. But I have sometimes sat up in bed when I was just besieged by anxiety about something I had to do the next day and observed the feeling of anxiety until it really came to look like a piece of modern sculpture or something that I was looking at in a museum.
I mean, there was that much detachment. It just didn't - it just was causing me no pain. But it hadn't gone away. Then it tends to go away once you reach that point, actually. But that is the kind of thing that is, in principle, possible with mindfulness meditation.
GROSS: You said that you've had attention deficit disorder. And I wasn't sure whether you were being funny or just honest.
WRIGHT: Believe me, it's not funny.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
WRIGHT: I never ever in college succeeded in emerging from a lecture with anything like a coherent set of notes. And I really tried. I'm a very slow reader because of my distractedness. But one thing I became more aware of after meditating - and this is another thing that comes out of meditation that's very consistent with modern psychology - is I realized that attention problems - and I'm not saying I have the most acute forms, complete with hyperactivity. But, in general, the problem of paying attention is a problem of controlling your feelings.
I mean, if I'm working on a piece of writing, and it's getting to, like, this problematic stage where I don't know what to do next, well, that starts feeling unpleasant. And then, suddenly, pops into my mind, oh, there's this smartphone I wanted to research because I need a new smartphone. And I enjoy that. I like researching smartphones. And that's a good feeling. And if you really pay attention to what's going on when you get distracted and fire up your browser, it's just a contest of feelings. There is an urge. There is a kind of a thirst that you're surrendering to.
Now, knowing that doesn't make it trivially easy to control. But I have gotten to the point where sometimes I do try to employ mindfulness. I'm having trouble focusing, and I'll just close my eyes and kind of indulge that feeling that wants me to look at the smartphone material. And then it becomes less powerful.
GROSS: So if you have a mild or moderate form of attention deficit disorder, and you have trouble focusing, how do you manage to sit still for 30 minutes and try to focus on whatever you're focusing on in meditation, your breath or your pain or, you know...
GROSS: ...Without wanting to just kind of, like, get up and end it. And, especially, when you're on a long retreat, you're talking about sitting for five hours a day.
WRIGHT: Actually, on a retreat, it gets easier because you just get better and better at it. I mean, sometimes on a retreat, you get so good at focus and observation that you can just look at feelings. Like, I once - there was this guy snoring in the meditation hall. I felt this feeling of wrath well up within me. And for a second, it seized me. And I thought, who is this jerk? I wanted to open my eyes and find out so that I could, like, bring him to justice somehow or something.
And then I thought, wait a second. This is crazy. Just look at the feeling of wrath. And it was like a laser gun. I mean, it just vaporized. So on retreat, it actually gets easier and easier as the retreat goes on, in my experience, to just sit down and focus. The challenge comes after you leave the retreat in your daily meditation. And it can be hard. And it takes - I often sit there for 10 minutes without focusing on five or six consecutive breaths. I'm a particularly hard case. Most people have better luck, I think.
But because I have found that it brings rewards, usually both in the immediate sense of - just the state of calm feels good - and in the longer-term sense, which is that the day tends to go better when I meditate. You know, knowing that helps me sit down on the cushion every day. But it's not trivially easy. It's very easy for your practice to fall apart after you come out of a retreat, you know, all full of evangelical fervor about meditation.
GROSS: Do you consider your meditation practice a religion?
WRIGHT: I certainly consider meditation practice spiritual. And this is one of the main messages of the book is - that even if you're doing what you consider therapeutic meditation - it's for stress reduction. It's to deal with anxiety, self-loathing, remorse, whatever. Yes, that sounds therapeutic. But if you look at the logic of meditation, the Buddhist philosophy in which it's grounded, I think you'll realize that you're actually closer then you may realize to a kind of a serious philosophical and spiritual exploration.
William James, the great philosopher and psychologist, said that one thing common to religion is the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme interest lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order. Well, Buddhism says there is this kind of order. There is this natural convergence of truth and goodness and happiness. And you can see why it would be in your interest to align yourself with that order. So I think, certainly by that definition, I would call this a spiritual and even a religious practice, even if you don't adopt the - you know, the literally religious parts of Buddhism, as I don't. I mean, I don't get into reincarnation or anything like that.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Wright. He's the author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." He's also a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary. We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Wright, author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." And in this book, he makes connections between Buddhist meditation practices and what evolutionary psychology has taught us about how the human mind works. He is also the author of the book "The Evolution of God." I want to talk with you about the history of religion in your family. So...
GROSS: ...You grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist family. Would you describe what church was like when you were a child?
WRIGHT: Differed a little from place to place because my father was in the army, and we moved around. And sometimes we'd actually be going to a chapel on a military base. But it was serious religion, you know? I mean, there was a very strong sense that God was up there judging you.
And when I was - I don't know - nine or ten, I kind of spontaneously, during what's called the invitation, went up to the front of the church and accepted Jesus as my savior at nobody's prompting. In fact, my parents weren't even there. It was kind of an evening - what's called a revival service. And, you know, my whole family - my parents are from West Texas - farm families. There was no doubt about the truth of Christianity in the most literal senses. Then
when I started hearing about the theory of natural selection as a sophomore in high school, doubts started to arise because my parents did believe the creation story in the Bible. So there was a conflict right there. And so slowly, I lost my Christian faith. But I think I remained interested in spiritual questions and probably, you know, continued to look for some sort of spiritual path myself.
GROSS: So let me back up a bit to when you were nine or 10, and you accepted Jesus as your personal savior. You asked to be saved. What were you feeling when you approached the pulpit and asked to be saved?
WRIGHT: Well, first, I mean, a revival is designed to save souls. They bring in a minister during these, like, two weeks in the summer, who is an expert at getting people to go up to the front of the church during the so-called invitation, where they play this beautiful song "Just As I Am." And they've given you the sermon, and you're kind of in the mood. And there had been these classes for kids my age to convince them of the virtues of, you know, salvation - accepting Jesus as your savior. So I was primed. And I don't remember it all that clearly, but I remember being possessed by a feeling that it was the right thing to do.
GROSS: Do you remember how you felt after?
WRIGHT: I was good with it. I remember hearing much later that my parents were worried that I was not old enough to make a decision of that magnitude. My parents were - you know, they weren't, like, Holy Rollers. And they were both very thoughtful people. So I thought that - I always thought that spoke highly of them - that they weren't (laughter), you know, just happy to to rack up a victory for Jesus. They wanted to make sure I had thought about it.
GROSS: So when you were introduced to evolution in high school, was that the first that you'd heard of it?
WRIGHT: No, I had heard of evolution. I had started asking my parents questions. What I saw in high school was the beauty of the theory of natural selection. It is so powerful. A very simple idea explains life in all its forms. So it - I became a believer, you might say, in evolution.
GROSS: So when you became a believer in evolution and natural selection, what did your parents have to say about it?
WRIGHT: They actually brought over a minister, who was a personal friend of the family, who tried to convince me that natural selection couldn't be the explanation. He did not.
GROSS: What did he say to try to convince you?
WRIGHT: I don't remember. It's the standard arguments that tend to involve misconceptions about the way natural selection works. But I think it's now safe to say he was not entirely successful.
GROSS: (Laughter) What do you remember about that encounter?
WRIGHT: He was a nice guy. And, you know, when I said, look, you wouldn't want me to just - you wouldn't want me to accept this on faith, right? You would want me to believe it intellectually? And he's like, yeah.
GROSS: OK, so he doesn't convince you. You remain convinced that evolutionary biology is really, you know, interesting and true. Natural selection explains a lot. What did your parents have to say about that - when the minister who they brought in failed to convince you of creationism?
WRIGHT: I don't remember them saying a lot. They were not coercive people. They didn't - you know, they didn't try to force me into church services. But, you know, once I was a, you know, junior, senior in high school, I'm sure it bothered my mother particularly. She was especially devout. You know, they didn't put any pressure on me ever.
GROSS: Are your parents still alive?
WRIGHT: No, they're not. They haven't been for a while.
GROSS: OK. Did your parents know before they died that you became a professor of religion and science?
WRIGHT: No, my father died before my first book was published, but he had read the manuscript. And the book was called "Three Scientists And Their God," so I guess he kind of got the picture. My mother - it's almost a little sad that she died after - midway through reading my book "The Moral Animal." And I, you know, say sad because I can't believe it brought her a lot of joy to read my manifesto on evolutionary psychology. I don't know (laughter).
But she was a really broad-minded, tolerant human being. She was an example of the best that religious belief can do, I think, in my obviously biased opinion. So she worked to understand my worldview. And, you know, I reassured her that I wasn't saying there's no larger purpose to life or anything like that. And - because I'm far from sure that there isn't. I was just not able to accept a particular narrative.
GROSS: OK, one more question - so when you're doing your 30-minute meditation every day, do you look at your watch occasionally and say, is the 30 minutes up yet? Can I stop (laughter)?
WRIGHT: On a bad day, yes. On a bad day, I do that - usually, not. I mean, the smart thing is to, like, take your watch off and just set your smart...
GROSS: Set the timer. Yeah.
WRIGHT: ...Your smartphone to beep after 30 minutes. But that's usually not a problem because it usually starts feeling good soon enough. The bigger challenge for me is remembering that - OK, after I've meditated, I start work. I have coffee. A couple hours into that, work gets hard. I just - I can't focus.
And I think, hmm, maybe if I had some food - it's surprisingly hard for me to remember that if I sit down and meditate for five or 10 minutes, that'll probably solve the problem. And I'll feel better, to boot. That's what I'm working on right now - is supplementing my morning practice with lots of kind of revisitings (ph) of the practice - just brief ones during the day.
GROSS: So in your book, you know, you say that there's a paradox of meditation, which is the problems that meditation can help you overcome often make it hard to meditate in the first place. Like, all of the chatter in your head, all of the self-doubt and fear and self-loathing and catastrophic thinking and all of that can make it really hard to sit still and just meditate and try to release all of those thoughts or at least not be - not allow those thoughts to cause suffering.
So when you leave this interview (laughter) - the impression I get from your book is that one of the things you have to work on is being very self-critical. So when you leave this interview, are you going to be, like, doing a whole self-critical thing about how you described meditation? (Laughter) And do you know what I'm saying? - just in terms of paradoxical...
WRIGHT: I don't know. How bad do you think I did?
GROSS: No, I think you did good (laughter).
WRIGHT: I'll accept your judgment as to how self-critical I should be.
GROSS: I think you did good. I'm just not...
WRIGHT: You know, my mind would naturally...
GROSS: But that doesn't - your mind's - not - do what they do.
WRIGHT: I'll start doing replays probably and think, I should have said this, or I should have said that. But I've gotten better about that through meditation. I actually had a very powerful experience on my first retreat, where, for the first time, the voice inside me criticizing me didn't seem like me.
It seemed like there were actually two players. I was the person the criticism was directed to. But the thing in my mind doing the criticizing wasn't me. So I was letting go of that. And I'm not going to say that the effect has been magically permanent. But I think I've made, you know, progress.
GROSS: Robert Wright, thank you so much for talking with us.
WRIGHT: Well, thank you. It's been a real pleasure.
GROSS: Robert Wright is the author of the new book "Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment." After we take a short break, John Powers will review a 1985 Albert Brooks film comedy that John describes as a masterpiece. It's just come out on DVD and Blu-ray. This is FRESH AIR.
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