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Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Rating: 4/10

Date Read: April 25, 2021

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My Thoughts

I remember being very excited when I picked up this book. I got interested in the topic of Buddhism and downloaded a couple of Buddhism related books (more reviews coming 😏). First few chapters felt very fresh, exciting. However, by the 7th chapter I felt like I’m reading water. As in the main point of the books is regaring meditation, being present and happiness. I decided to stop reading after finishing the 7th chapter, as I had other exciting titles to check out. However, I might return to it at some point.

Despite saying this was mostly water, I did make a few notes. You will notice that the theme of those note is very similar. Hope you find something useful that resonates with you.


1 Taking the Red Pill

  • Though these feelings—anxiety, despair, hatred, greed—aren’t delusional the way a nightmare is delusional, if you examine them closely, you’ll see that they have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without.

An Everyday Delusion

  • One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more.
  • Buddha is famous for asserting that life is pervaded by suffering, some scholars say that’s an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translated as “suffering,” dukkha, could, for some purposes, be translated as “unsatisfactoriness.”

Why Pleasure Fades

  • 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.

Unhelpful Insights

  • knowing the truth about your situation, at least in the form that evolutionary psychology provides it, doesn’t necessarily make your life any better. In fact, it can actually make it worse. You’re still stuck in the natural human cycle of ultimately futile pleasure-seeking—what psychologists sometimes call “the hedonic treadmill”—but now you have new reason to see the absurdity of it.
  • Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has said, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” What he meant is that if you want to liberate yourself from the parts of the mind that keep you from realizing true happiness, you have to first become aware of them, which can be unpleasant.

The Truth about Mindfulness

  • To live mindfully is to pay attention to, to be “mindful of” what’s happening in the here and now and to experience it in a clear, direct way, unclouded by various mental obfuscations. Stop and smell the roses. This is an accurate description of mindfulness as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. “Mindfulness,” as popularly conceived, is just the beginning of mindfulness.
    • Note: Real mindfullness is a little deeper than what is usually meant.

2 Paradoxes of Meditation

  • More and more, it seems, groups of people define their identity in terms of sharp opposition to other groups of people.

My Big Breakthrough

  • This is something that can happen again and again via meditation: accepting, even embracing, an unpleasant feeling can give you a critical distance from it that winds up diminishing the unpleasantness.
  • In fact, one thing I occasionally do when I’m feeling very sad—and this is something you can experiment with even if you’ve never meditated—is sit down, close my eyes, and study the sadness: accept its presence and just observe how it actually makes me feel.

3 When Are Feelings Illusions?

  • Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our environment.

False Positives

  • feeling—an uncomfortable feeling of self-consciousness—sponsors a kind of perceptual illusion, a basic misreading of the behavior of others.
    • Note: We tend to falsly make obesrvations on other humans based on oujr ow n demokns

Public Speaking and Other Horrors

  • The ancestral environment—the environment of our evolution—featured lots of social interaction, and this interaction had great consequence for our genes. If you had low social status and few friends, that cut your chances of spreading your genes, so impressing people mattered, even if PowerPoint wasn’t the thing you impressed them with. Similarly, if your offspring didn’t thrive socially, that boded ill for their reproductive prospects, and hence for your genes. So genes inclining us toward anxiety about our social prospects and our progeny’s social prospects seem to have become part of the human gene pool. In this sense our social anxieties can be considered “natural.” But they’re operating in a very different environment from the environment they were “designed” for, and this fact may explain why they’re often unproductive, sponsoring illusions that are of no value at all.
  • If you accept the idea that many of our most troublesome feelings are in one sense or another illusions, then meditation can be seen as, among other things, a process of dispelling illusions.

Levels of Delusion: A Recap

  • 1. Our feelings weren’t designed to depict reality accurately even in our “natural” environment. Feelings were designed to get the genes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors into the next generation.
  • 2. The fact that we’re not living in a “natural” environment makes our feelings even less reliable guides to reality.
  • Aaron Beck, who is sometimes called the founder of cognitive-behavioral therapy, has written, “The cost of survival of the lineage may be a lifetime of discomfort.”
  • It’s in the nature of feelings to make it hard to tell the valuable ones from the harmful ones, the reliable from the misleading. One thing all feelings have in common is that they were originally “designed” to convince you to follow them. They feel right and true almost by definition. They actively discourage you from viewing them objectively.

4 Bliss, Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate

Insight Meditation

  • The idea is to see the true nature of reality, and Buddhist texts going back more than a millennium spell out what that means. They define vipassana as apprehending what are known as “the three marks of existence.” Two of the three marks of existence sound as if, actually, they wouldn’t be too hard to apprehend. The first is impermanence. Who could deny that nothing lasts forever? The second mark of existence is dukkha—suffering, unsatisfactoriness. And who among us hasn’t suffered and felt unsatisfied? With these two marks of existence, the point of Vipassana meditation isn’t so much to comprehend them—since basic comprehension is easy enough—as to comprehend them with new subtlety, to see them at such high resolution that you deeply appreciate their pervasiveness.
  • But the third mark of existence, “not-self,” is different. With not-self, comprehension itself is a challenge.† Yet according to Buddhist doctrine, it is crucially important to grasp not-self if your goal is vipassana: seeing reality with true clarity, such clarity as to pave the path to enlightenment.

5 The Alleged Nonexistence of Your Self

The Seminal Not-Self Sermon

  • The logical place to begin is with the primordial text, Discourse on the Not-Self, which is said to be the Buddha’s earliest utterance on the subject.
  • Describing these aggregates precisely would take a chapter in itself, but for present purposes we can label them roughly as (1) the physical body (called “form” in this discourse), including such sense organs as eyes and ears; (2) basic feelings; (3) perceptions (of, say, identifiable sights or sounds); (4) “mental formations” (a big category that includes complex emotions, thoughts, inclinations, habits, decisions); and (5) “consciousness,” or awareness—notably, awareness of the contents of the other four aggregates.

Taking the Ache out of Toothache

  • feelings are designed by natural selection to represent judgments about things, evaluations of them; natural selection “wants” you to experience things as either good or bad. The Buddha believed that the less you judge things—including the contents of your mind—the more clearly you’ll see them, and the less deluded you’ll be.

Taking Charge by Letting Go

  • Maybe by not-self the Buddha just meant something like “not usefully considered part of your self” or “not to be identified with.” In which case he was basically saying, “Look, if there’s part of you that isn’t under your control and therefore makes you suffer, then do yourself a favor and quit identifying with it!”

6 Your CEO Is MIA

  • assembled a large audience to watch him vanquish

Of Two Minds

  • The split-brain experiments powerfully demonstrated the capacity of the conscious self to convince itself that it’s calling the shots when it’s not.
    • Note: The experiment is not well describedd, but the idea clear. What he means by showed to right hemisphere? Read about experiment.
  • the movie is directing you—unless you manage to liberate yourself from it.
    • Note: Metaphor tochelp you grasp the Buddhist idea.

The Darwinian Benefits of Self-Delusion

  • In short, from natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren’t accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.
  • Nearly half a millennium after Montaigne died, science has validated the logic behind his perhaps too modest remark: “I consider myself an average man except for the fact that I consider myself an average man.”
    • Note: I always thought that too.

7 The Mental Modules That Run Your Life

  • a core paradox of Buddhist meditation practice: accepting that your self isn’t in control, and may in some sense not even exist, can put your self—or something like it—in control.

Jealousy: Tyrant of the Mind

  • That’s a lot of stuff! Indeed, it’s so much stuff—so much change in a person’s attitude, focus, disposition—that you might say a whole new self has emerged and seized control of the mind.
    • Note: Effect of jeaolusy on the mind. So many reactions that you can say you are a new person
  • Whenever people are throwing things and screaming, that’s a tipoff that the brain is under new management.
  • You’d think that people’s career aspirations, though obviously subject to some change over time, wouldn’t do a lot of moment-by-moment fluctuating. But apparently they do. In one study, psychologists had men fill out surveys about their career plans; some filled them out in a room where women were also filling out forms, and some filled them out in an all-male room. Men placed in the presence of women, it turned out, were more inclined to rate the accumulation of wealth as an important goal.
  • We’re back to the moral of the split-brain experiments: people are capable of convincing themselves of whatever stories about their own motivation it’s in their interest (or their “interest” as defined by natural selection) to tell others. Only these aren’t split-brain patients; these are anatomically normal human beings, governed by a mind as it naturally works. Or, at least, governed by the part of the mind that’s in charge at that moment.

Messy Modules

  • This isn’t a state of mind that the conscious “self” “chooses” to enter; rather, the state is triggered by a feeling, and the conscious “self,” though it in principle has access to the feeling, may not notice it or notice that a new state has been entered. (So much for the idea of the conscious you as CEO.)
  • You can see why the Buddha emphasized how fluid, how impermanent, the various parts of the mind are, and why he considered this flux relevant to the not-self argument; if the self is supposed to be some unchanging essence, it’s pretty hard to imagine where exactly that self would be amid the ongoing transitions from state of mind to state of mind.
  • In one study, men who watched part of a scary film (The Silence of the Lambs) and were then shown photos of men from a different ethnic group rated their facial expressions as much angrier than did men who hadn’t seen a scary film.
  • this tendency to exaggerate the hostility of certain kinds of strangers could keep you from having a constructively friendly interaction with someone of a different ethnicity.


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