Chapter 1: Taking the Red Pill

At the risk of overdramatizing the human condition: Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix?

It’s about a guy named Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), who discovers that he’s been inhabiting a dream world. The life he thought he was living is actually an elaborate hallucination. He’s having that hallucination while, unbeknownst to him, his actual physical body is inside a gooey, coffin-size pod—one among many pods, rows and rows of pods, each pod containing a human being absorbed in a dream. These people have been put in their pods by robot overlords and given dream lives as pacifiers.

The choice faced by Neo—to keep living a delusion or wake up to reality—is famously captured in the movie’s “red pill” scene. Neo has been contacted by rebels who have entered his dream (or, strictly speak-ing, whose avatars have entered his dream). Their leader, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), explains the situation to Neo: “You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch—a prison for your mind.” The prison is called the Matrix, but there’s no way to explain to Neo what the Matrix ultimately is. The only way to get the whole picture, says Morpheus, is “to see it for yourself.” He offers Neo two pills, a red one and a blue one. Neo can take the blue pill and return to his dream world, or take the red pill and break through the shroud of delusion. Neo chooses the red pill.

That’s a pretty stark choice: a life of delusion and bondage or a life of insight and freedom. In fact, it’s a choice so dramatic that you’d think a Hollywood movie is exactly where it belongs—that the choices we really get to make about how to live our lives are less momentous than this, more pedestrian. Yet when that movie came out, a number of people saw it as mirroring a choice they had actually made.

The people I’m thinking about are what you might call Western Buddhists, people in the United States and other Western countries who, for the most part, didn’t grow up Buddhist but at some point adopted Buddhism. At least they adopted a version of Buddhism, a version that had been stripped of some supernatural elements typically found in Asian Buddhism, such as belief in reincarnation and in various deities. This Western Buddhism centers on a part of Buddhist practice that in Asia is more common among monks than among laypeople: meditation, along with immersion in Buddhist philosophy. (Two of the most common Western conceptions of Buddhism—that it’s atheistic and that it revolves around meditation—are wrong; most Asian Buddhists do believe in gods, though not an omnipotent creator God, and don’t meditate.)

These Western Buddhists, long before they watched The Matrix, had become convinced that the world as they had once seen it was a kind of illusion—not an out-and-out hallucination but a seriously warped picture of reality that in turn warped their approach to life, with bad consequences for them and the people around them. Now they felt that, thanks to meditation and Buddhist philosophy, they were seeing things more clearly. Among these people, The Matrix seemed an apt allegory of the transition they’d undergone, and so became known as a “dharma movie.” The word dharma has several meanings, including the Buddha’s teachings and the path that Buddhists should tread in response to those teachings. In the wake of The Matrix, a new shorthand for “I follow the dharma” came into currency: “I took the red pill.”

I saw The Matrix in 1999, right after it came out, and some months later I learned that I had a kind of connection to it. The movie’s direc-tors, the Wachowski siblings, had given Keanu Reeves three books to read in preparation for playing Neo. One of them was a book I had written a few years earlier, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life.

I’m not sure what kind of link the directors saw between my book and The Matrix. But I know what kind of link I see. Evolutionary psychology can be described in various ways, and here’s one way I had described it in my book: It is the study of how the human brain was designed—by natural selection—to mislead us, even enslave us.

Don’t get me wrong: natural selection has its virtues, and I’d rather be created by it than not be created at all—which, so far as I can tell, are the two options this universe offers. Being a product of evolution is by no means entirely a story of enslavement and delusion. Our evolved brains empower us in many ways, and they often bless us with a basically accurate view of reality.

Still, ultimately, natural selection cares about only one thing (or, I should say, “cares”—in quotes—about only one thing, since natural selection is just a blind process, not a conscious designer). And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation. Genetically based traits that in the past contributed to genetic proliferation have flourished, while traits that didn’t have fallen by the wayside. And the traits that have survived this test include mental traits—structures and algorithms that are built into the brain and shape our everyday experience. So if you ask the question “What kinds of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day?” the answer, at the most basic level, isn’t “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality.” No, at the most basic level the answer is “The kinds of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation.” Whether those thoughts and feelings and perceptions give us a true view of reality is, strictly speaking, beside the point. As a result, they sometimes don’t. Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us….


Chapter 2: Paradoxes of Meditation

I’m not supposed to tell you about my first big success at meditating. The reason is that there isn’t supposed to be success at meditating. As any good meditation teacher will tell you, if you talk about meditation in terms of success or failure, you’re misunderstanding what meditation is.

Here I must depart from orthodoxy. I wouldn’t advocate meditation if I didn’t think there was something people could achieve by it. And if people don’t achieve that something, well, that would constitute failure, right? As in: the opposite of success.

Granted, it may be best for people who are meditating to not think about succeeding, but that’s because thinking about succeeding gets in the way of success! And, granted, if you do achieve meditative “success,” that may lead to a new frame of mind that is less caught up in the pursuit of success than your old frame of mind—less relentlessly focused on achieving certain kinds of distant material goals, more aware of the here and now.

In sum: you can best achieve success at meditation by not pursuing success, and achieving this success may mean caring less about success, at least as success is conventionally defined. If this sounds unbearably paradoxical, maybe you should quit reading here, because this won’t be the last time we find paradox in Buddhist practice or Buddhist teachings. Then again, there’s paradoxical stuff in modern physics (an electron is both a particle and a wave), and modern physics works fine. So you might as well keep reading….


Chapter 3: When Are Feelings Illusions?

Hovering over the question posed by the title of this chapter is a larger question: What the hell are we talking about here? Illusions are things that seem to be true but aren’t—and what would it even mean to say that feelings are “true” or “false”? Feelings just are. If we feel them, then they’re feelings—real feelings, not imagined feelings. End of story.

There’s something to be said for this point of view. In fact, one of the take-home lessons of Buddhist philosophy is that feelings just are. If we accepted their arising and subsiding as part of life, rather than reacting to them as if they were deeply meaningful, we’d often be better off. Learning to do that is a big part of what mindfulness meditation is about. And there are lots of satisfied customers who attest that it works.

Still, saying that it works isn’t the same as saying that it’s intellectually valid. Just because being less reactive to some of your feelings makes you happier doesn’t mean it brings a truer apprehension of the world. Maybe this less reactive stance is like a narcotic: it dulls the pain by insulating you from the real-world feedback that your feelings pro-vide. Maybe it’s meditation, not your ordinary consciousness, that puts you in a dream world.

If we want to see whether meditation does, in fact, bring you closer to the truth, it helps to ask whether some of the feelings it can liberate you from would otherwise have carried you away from the truth. So we need to try to get a handle on this admittedly unwieldy question: Are our feelings in some sense “false”? Or “true”? Are some false and some true? And which are which?

One way to approach these questions is to go back in evolutionary time. Way back. Back to when feelings first arose. Sadly, no one knows exactly when that was, or even approximately when that was. Was it back when mammals appeared? Reptiles? Squishy blobs floating in the sea? One-celled creatures such as bacteria?

One reason it’s hard to say is that feelings have an odd property: you can never be absolutely, positively sure that anyone or anything other than you has them. Part of the definition of a feeling is that it’s private, not visible from the outside. So I don’t know for sure that, say, my dog Frazier has feelings. Maybe that wagging tail is just a wagging tail!

But just as I seriously doubt that I’m the only human with feelings, I seriously doubt that my species is the only species with feelings. I suspect that when my cousin the chimpanzee writhes in seeming pain, it is writhing in actual pain. And if, from chimpanzees, you go down the ladder of behavioral complexity—down to wolves, lizards, even jellyfish, and (what the hell) bacteria—I don’t see an obvious place to stop assuming that there are feelings.

Anyway, regardless of when feelings first arose, there is a rough consensus among behavioral scientists on what the original function of good feelings and bad feelings was: to get organisms to approach things or avoid things that are, respectively, good for them or bad for them. Nutrients, for example, keep organisms alive, so natural selection favored genes that gave organisms feelings that led them to approach things containing nutrients—that is, food. (You may be familiar with such feelings.) Things that harm or kill organisms, in contrast, are best avoided, so natural selection gave organisms feelings that inclined them to avoid such things—feelings of aversion. To approach or to avoid is the most elemental behavioral decision there is, and feelings seem to be the tool natural selection used to get organisms to make what, by natural selection’s lights, was the right decision.

After all, your average animal isn’t smart enough to think, “Hmm, that substance is rich in carbohydrates, which give me energy, so I’ll make a habit of approaching and ingesting it.” In fact, your average animal isn’t even smart enough to think, “Food good for me, so I ap-proach.” Feelings arose as proxies for this kind of thinking. The inviting warmth of a campfire on a freezing night means that staying warm is better for us than freezing. The pain caused by actual contact with the fire means that there’s such a thing as too much warmth. The job of these and other feelings is to convey to the organism what’s good for it and what’s bad for it. As the biologist George Romanes put it in 1884, twenty-five years after Darwin’s The Origin of Species appeared, “Pleasures and pains must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”

This suggests one way to think about whether feelings are true or false. Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our envi-ronment. Typically these judgments are about whether these things are good or bad for the survival of the organism doing the feeling (though sometimes they’re about whether these things are good or bad for close kin—notably offspring—since close kin share so many of our genes). So we could say that feelings are “true” if the judgments they encode are accurate—if, say, the things they attract the organism to are indeed good for it, or if the things they encourage the organism to avoid are in-deed bad for it. We could say feelings are “false” or perhaps “illusory” if they lead the organism astray—if following the feelings leads to things that are bad for the organism. †

This isn’t the only way you could define true and false in a biological context, but it’s one approach, so let’s see how far we get with it….


Chapter 4: Bliss, Ecstasy, and More Important Reasons to Meditate

Strictly speaking, “silent meditation retreat” is a misnomer. On my first weeklong retreat, back in the summer of 2003, there were two times when students spoke with a meditation teacher. On one of those occasions, a group of eight or nine of us “yogis” assembled in a room near the meditation hall. There, for forty-five minutes, we could air any problems we were having.

Which was good, because I was having a problem: I couldn’t meditate! I hadn’t yet had my big meditation breakthrough, that moment when I viewed my overcaffeination mindfully and transcended it. All I had done was spend a day and a half failing to concentrate on my breath. I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about stuff.

So when my turn came to speak, I gave voice to this frustration. The ensuing dialogue with my teacher went something like this:

So you notice that your mind keeps wandering?


That’s good.

It’s good that my mind keeps wandering?

No. It’s good that you notice that your mind keeps wandering. But it happens, like, all the time.

That’s even better. It means you’re noticing a lot.

This didn’t have the uplifting effect that my teacher had perhaps in-tended. I felt a bit patronized. It was kind of like those times when one of my daughters, back in the toddler stage, would fail abjectly at something and I’d strain to find an encouraging word. Maybe she would fall down while trying to get on a tricycle, and I’d say, “You got back up! What a big girl!”—neglecting to note that, actually, big girls don’t fall down while trying to get on tricycles in the first place.

But I’ve since come to realize that this first bit of feedback I ever got from a meditation teacher wasn’t just strained encouragement. My teacher was right: by frequently noticing that my mind was wandering, I was breaking new ground. In my ordinary, workaday life, when my mind wandered I would follow it over hill and dale, not even aware that I was being led. Now I was following it for only short stretches before breaking free—at least, briefly free, free for long enough to realize it had been leading me, a realization that would then give way to its leading me some more.

To put this in more scientific-sounding terminology: I was beginning to observe the workings of what psychologists call the “default mode network.” This is a network in the brain that, according to brain-scan studies, is active when we’re doing nothing in particular—not talking to people, not focusing on our work or any other task, not playing a sport or reading a book or watching a movie. It is the network along which our mind wanders when it’s wandering.

As for where the mind wanders to: well, lots of places, obviously, but studies have shown that these places are usually in the past or the future; you may ponder recent events or distant, strong memories; you may dread upcoming events or eagerly anticipate them; you may strategize about how to head off some looming crisis or fantasize about romancing the attractive person in the cubicle next to yours. What you’re generally not doing when your mind is wandering is directly experiencing the present moment.

In one sense it’s not hard to quiet your default mode network: just do something that requires concentration. Do a crossword puzzle or try to juggle three tennis balls. Until you get to a point where juggling is second nature, you probably won’t be fantasizing about the attractive person in the cubicle next to yours.

What’s hard is to abandon the default mode network when you’re not doing much of anything—like, say, when you’re sitting in a meditation hall with your eyes closed. That’s why you try to focus on the breath: the mind needs some object of focus to wean it from its habitual meandering.

But even with this crutch available, you may find yourself in the position I was in during the early part of that retreat: being repeat-edly, frequently, helplessly carried away from experiential mode into default mode. Every time you realize you’ve been carried away, it’s tempting to feel frustration or anger or (my personal favorite) self-loathing. But the standard instruction is to not waste time on that; instead just note the fact that your mind was wandering, and perhaps even note what kind of wandering it was doing (dreading work, looking forward to lunch, lamenting a bad golf shot), and then return your focus to the breath. My teacher, in highlighting the silver lining surrounding my cloud of diffuse attention, was no doubt trying to encourage me to do just that.

This turned out to be good guidance. By interrupting the workings of my default mode network, by “snapping out of it” and realizing that my mind was wandering and then returning to my breath, I was diluting the network’s dominance. As I got better at focusing on my breath for longer periods, this network would become less and less active. At least, that’s a pretty fair guess. Brain-scan studies have shown this happening in novice meditators. Such studies have also shown that highly adept meditators, people who have meditated for tens of thousands of hours and are in a whole ’nother league from me, exhibit dramatically subdued default mode networks while meditating.

When the default mode network subsides—when the mind stops wandering—it can be a good feeling. There can be a sense of liberation from your chattering mind, a sense of peace, even deep peace. You may not get this feeling every time you meditate, but for some people it happens often enough that it’s one of the main inducements to get back on the cushion the next day, part of the positive reinforcement that sustains the practice.

But once you get to this point, once you’ve used your breath to gain some measure of escape from your wandering mind, you’re at a cross-roads. There are two different paths you can follow, corresponding to two different types of meditation….


Chapter 5: The Alleged Nonexistence of Your Self

Ajahn Chah, a twentieth-century Thai monk who did much to spread awareness of Vipassana meditation in the West, used to warn about the difficulty of grasping the Buddhist idea of anatta, or “not-self.” The basic idea is that the self—your self, my self—in some sense doesn’t exist. “To understand not-self, you have to meditate,” he advised. If you try to grasp the doctrine through “intellectualizing” alone, “your head will explode.”

I’m happy to report that he was wrong about the exploding head. You can try to fathom not-self without meditating and without fear of detonation. I’m not saying you’ll succeed in fathoming not-self. I’ll try to help you get as close to success as possible, but if at the end of this chapter you feel you still don’t have a crystal-clear understanding of the idea, don’t worry: you’re not alone.

Anyway, Ajahn Chah wasn’t just making a point about the difficulty of grasping this idea intellectually. He was also underscoring the importance, in Buddhism, of grasping key ideas experientially, through meditation. There’s a big difference between seeing the not-self doctrine in the abstract and really seeing—or, in a way, feeling—what it means firsthand. And that’s particularly true if you want to not just apprehend the idea of not-self but actually put it to use, harness it to become a happier person and even a better person: to feel a new sense of connection with your fellow creatures and a new sense of generosity toward them. According to Buddhism, truly, deeply realizing that you are selfless—in the sense of not having a self—can make you selfless in the more familiar sense of the term.

Listen to how dramatically Walpola Rahula, a Buddhist monk who in 1959 published an influential book called What the Buddha Taught, put the matter: “According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities, and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.”

Kind of makes you wish more people would realize they don’t have a self! But here we run into a problem: experiencing full-fledged notself is typically reported only by meditators who have done a whole, whole lot of meditating—certainly more than I’ve done. If saving the world depends on a big chunk of the human race having this experi-ence, we may be in for a long wait.

But we have to start somewhere! And here there is good news. The not-self experience isn’t strictly binary. You don’t have to think of it as a threshold that you either manage to finally cross, to transformative effect, or forever fall short of, getting no edification whatsoever. As strange as it may sound, you can, with even a fairly modest daily meditation practice, experience a little bit of not-self. Then, as time goes by, maybe a little more. And—who knows—maybe someday you’ll have the full-on, transformative version of the experience. But even if you don’t, important and lasting progress can be made, and benefits, for you and for humankind, can accrue along the way.

And, actually, I’d say that what Ajahn Chah called “intellectualizing”—trying to understand not-self conceptually, in the abstract—can help a person get on this path of meditative progress. Particularly worthwhile, I think, is pondering the argument that the Buddha himself made about not-self…


Chapter 6: Your CEO Is MIA

Apparently the Buddha’s famous discourse on the not-self didn’t immediately convert everyone to his way of thinking. Sometime after delivering it, according to Buddhist scripture, he runs into a man named Aggivessana, a braggart who has assembled a large audience to watch him vanquish the Buddha in a debate about the self. Aggivessana begins the proceedings by challenging the Buddha’s claim that the self can’t be found in any of the five aggregates. He declares, “Form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, mental formations are my self, consciousness is my self.”

This is a pretty blatant provocation, a direct assault on the Bud-dha’s worldview. But the Buddha, being the Buddha, remains calm. He says, “Very well then, Aggivessana, I will cross-question you on this matter.”

If you’ve read many of the Buddha’s discourses, you know that Aggivessana’s convictions will not survive the ensuing dialogue in good shape. The only question is which rhetorical tool the Buddha will use to dispel his interlocutor’s confusion. Turns out the answer is the “king” metaphor.

The Buddha asks, “Would a consecrated, noble-warrior king—such as King Pasendai of Kosala or King Ajatasattu Vedehiputta of Magadha—wield the power in his own domain to execute those who deserve execution, to fine those who deserve to be fined, and to banish those who deserve to be banished?”

“Yes, Master Gotama,” answers Aggivessana. “He would wield it, and he would deserve to wield it.”

The Buddha then says, “What do you think, Aggivessana? When you say, ‘Form is my self,’ do you wield power over that form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus’?” Aggivessana says nothing. The Buddha repeats the question. Aggivessana remains silent.

Now the Buddha pulls out the big guns. He reminds Aggivessana that “when anyone doesn’t answer when asked a legitimate question by the Tathagata [the Buddha] up to three times, his head splits into seven pieces right here.” At that point Aggivessana looks up and, omi-nously, sees a spirit with an iron thunderbolt in hand. (The spirit is aptly named “Thunderbolt-in-hand.”) The spirit speaks up, warning that if Aggivessana “doesn’t answer when asked a legitimate question by the Blessed One up to three times, I will split his head into seven pieces right here.”

Thus incentivized, Aggivessana answers the Buddha’s question: “No, Master Gotama,” he doesn’t, he admits, have complete power over his body. The Buddha then runs through the other aggregates—feeling, perception, and so on. Aggivessana sees that, no, he doesn’t have the power over any of these things that a king has over his domain.

So the Buddha has made his point. You—the “you” that experiences feelings and perceptions and entertains thoughts—isn’t really in complete control of these things. If you think that somewhere inside your head there’s a kind of supreme ruler, a chief executive, well, there’s some question as to where exactly you would find it.

Twenty-five hundred years later, the science of psychology is talking the Buddha’s language. Well, not exactly his language; psychologists don’t often assert that you’re not the king of your personal domain, since these days there aren’t many kings who wield actual power over their own domains. Psychologists use more modern terminology. As Robert Kurzban, a professor of psychology at Penn, puts it, “ ‘You’ aren’t the president, the central executive, the prime minister.”

This is a matter of nearly unanimous agreement among psychologists: the conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority. In fact, according to modern psychology, the conscious self has even less power than Aggivessana attributed to it after the Buddha clarified his thinking…


Chapter 7: The Mental Modules That Run Your Life

When I was a freshman in college, I learned that I had an intertemporal utility function. This wasn’t a diagnosis; “intertemporal utility function” isn’t a malady. It’s something everybody has. It’s an equation that describes, roughly speaking, your willingness to delay gratification—your willingness to forgo something you like in order to have more of that something later.

So, for example, I might be willing to give up $100 in wages today if I could be guaranteed that I’d get $125 a year from now. But my friend, whose intertemporal utility function is calibrated differently, might demand $150 a year from now in exchange for giving up $100 now.

This is also called “time discounting.” People tend to “discount” the future in the sense of feeling that getting $100 a year from now isn’t as good as getting $100 today. In the example above, my friend discounts the future more steeply than I do.

Anyway, according to the models presented in my economics class, however my intertemporal utility function was calibrated—however steep my time discounting—it would stay that way tomorrow and next week and next month and next year. My discount rate was said to be a firm and enduring feature of my psychology.

I think the Buddha would have been skeptical of this claim. He tended not to see things as enduring—certainly not things that are part of a person’s psychology. I think if he had been my college classmate, he would have stood up during an econ lecture and said, “What do you think of this, O monks? Are mental formations permanent or impermanent?”

Actually, he might not have been quite that disruptive. But according to Buddhist scripture, he did say that very thing in another setting. It was during one of his not-self sermons. In fact, it was during his very first and most famous discourse on not-self, the one we looked at in chapter 5. In that chapter and chapter 6, I focused mainly on only one part of the Buddha’s basic not-self argument: the idea that the “five aggregates” are not under your control; they do not, as he later put it, bear the relationship to you that a king’s domain bears to a king.

The other big part of the Buddha’s not-self argument, the part I touched on only lightly, was about flux, impermanence. After he asks the monks “Are mental formations permanent or impermanent?” he gets the predictable reply: “Impermanent, O Lord.”

Well, the Buddha goes on to ask, does it make sense to say of impermanent things “they are mine, this I am, this is my self”?

“Indeed, not that, O Lord.”

The Buddha then goes through the same drill with the other four aggregates. He insists, in each case, that something subject to change shouldn’t be thought of as part of the self. He doesn’t explicitly say why. And to provide the fullest explanation, we’d need to delve into ideas about the self that were circulating in his day. But certainly, leaving his intellectual context aside, there’s a kind of commonsense appeal to his argument: We do tend to think of the self—the inner, real me—as something enduring, something that persists even as we grow from children to adults to senior citizens.

But in fact, of course, we change. And we don’t just change in the sense of changing from children into adults. We change on a moment-by-moment basis. And sometimes we change along dimensions that are commonly thought to be constants….


Chapter 8: How Thoughts Think Themselves

You know the old saying about Zen meditation, Tibetan meditation, and Vipassana meditation? Well, no, you probably don’t. It’s a saying that’s meant to capture the difference between these three Buddhist contemplative traditions—Vipassana, with its emphasis on mindfulness; Tibetan, which often steers the mind toward visual imagery; and Zen, which sometimes involves pondering those cryptic lines known as koans. Here’s the saying: Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists.

Like most stereotypes, this one exaggerates contrasts, but it does contain a valid point: Mindfulness meditation, the main vehicle of Vipassana, is a good way to study the human mind. At least, it’s a good way to study one human’s mind: yours. You sit down, let the mental dust settle, and then watch your mind work.

Strictly speaking, of course, this isn’t what psychologists do. Psychology is a science, and sciences, by definition, generate publicly observable data, experimental results that are out there for all to see. In contrast, the things you see when you watch your mind can’t be seen by anyone but you. They’re not data in the strict sense, so when you’re meditating you’re not being an experimental psychologist. If you emerge from a meditative state and declare that the self doesn’t exist, that’s not scientific evidence that the self doesn’t exist.

No, if anything, the relationship between science and meditation works the other way around. It’s not that meditative observations about your mind validate theories, but more that theories can help validate meditative observations about your mind. If during meditation you see things that are consistent with credible scientific models of how the mind works, that gives you a bit more reason to believe that, indeed, meditation is helping you see the dynamics of your mind clearly.

Take the modular model of the mind, for example. There is good scientific reason to take it seriously. Well, if this modular model is truly an accurate picture of the mind, and if Vipassana meditation—insight meditation—indeed gives us insights into the workings of the mind, then you might expect this kind of meditation to give us glimpses of a modular mind at work.

I think it does….


Chapter 9: “Self” Control

In the eighteenth century, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that human reason is “the slave of the passions.” If Hume had meant by “passions” what we mean by that word today, his observation wouldn’t be worth noting. Obviously, when we’re seized by intense feelings like lust or vengeance, our reasoning faculties are not running the show. But Hume meant “passions” in a different sense; he meant feelings, broadly speaking. He was saying that, though rational thought plays an important role in human motivation, it is in a certain sense never really calling the shots. When we decide to do something, we decide on the basis of a feeling.

Where did Hume get this idea? Apparently through introspection—carefully watching his mind at work. In a sense, Hume was being mindful before mindfulness was cool. Indeed, as Western philosophers go, Hume was pretty Eastern. A number of his views align almost uncannily with Buddhist thought, including an argument he mounted against the existence of the self. Some scholars have suggested that this may be no coincidence, that he may have somehow encountered Buddhist ideas even though they had barely begun to drift westward from Asia. Certainly the idea that feelings run more of the show than we realize is Buddhist in spirit.

Now, a quarter of a millennium after Hume caught up with Buddhism, science is catching up with Hume. It has developed tools to peer into our motivational machinery, to see which parts of the brain are active when we make decisions. And Hume’s ideas about the relationship of reason to feeling, long considered radical, are looking pretty good.

Consider a decision as straightforward as whether to buy something. It’s tempting to think of this as an exercise in rational deliberation. You look at the product and the price, and then you ask yourself a series of questions: How much would you use the product? Would the purchase take a big chunk of your cash? What else could you buy with that money? After answering such questions, you coolly weigh the factors for and against the purchase and decide.

But weighing factors may not be so cool after all, according to an experiment done by cognitive scientists at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT. They gave people real money and offered them a series of things to buy: wireless headphones, an electric toothbrush, a Star Wars DVD, and so on. As these people were shown each product, and then its price, their brains were being scanned. It turned out researchers could do a good job of predicting whether someone would purchase something by watching which parts of the brain got more active and which got less active. And none of these were parts of the brain mainly associated with rational deliberation; rather, they were parts associated with feelings. Like, for example, the nucleus accumbens, which plays a role in doling out pleasure and gets more active when people anticipate rewards or see things they like. The more active the nucleus accumbens while subjects were looking at a product, the more likely they were to buy it. On the other hand, there’s the insula, which gets especially active when people anticipate pain and other unpleasant things. The more active the insula got when people were shown the price, the less likely they were to buy the product.

Though weighing the pros and cons of a purchase sounds like a purely rational, even mechanical act, this experiment suggests that the way the brain actually does the weighing is through a contest of conflicting feelings. Even the factor of price—a purely quantitative index, the kind of thing that is easily fed into a computer’s decision-making algorithm—ultimately enters the equation in the form of a feeling, a degree of aversion. And the stronger feeling—attraction or aversion—wins.

To be sure, these feelings may be informed by reason. If you remind yourself that the last electric toothbrush you bought went unused and infer that this is the likely fate of your next electric toothbrush, any feeling of attraction to the toothbrush may fade. If you remind yourself that the $20 they’re asking for the toothbrush is less than you spent on dinner last Friday, your aversion to the price—and activity in your insula—may weaken.

Why Feeling Governs Thought

So reason does play a role in what a person finally does. Still, this experiment suggests that maybe reason can play that role only by influencing the ultimate motivator: feelings. As Hume put it, “Reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will.” Buying something ultimately comes down to feeling good about the purchase—or at least feeling better than walking away from the purchase feels. Of course, you may later regret walking away; “nonbuyer’s remorse” is as real as “buyer’s remorse.” But either way, the key word is remorse. The Monday-morning quarterbacking comes in the form of a feeling because that’s the form the Sunday quarterbacking assumed in the first place….


Chapter 10: Encounters with the Formless

Here’s a passage from the Samadhiraja Sutra, a Buddhist text that’s about nineteen centuries old:

Know all things to be like this:

A mirage, a cloud castle,

A dream, an apparition,

Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.

I first heard this at a meditation retreat where one of the teachers had been going on and on about “the formless.” If you got to a point in your meditative practice where you apprehended the formless, I gathered, you were perceiving reality more truly than if you were still hung up on the world of “forms”—you know, tables, trucks, bowling balls.

“The formless” isn’t a particularly well-known bit of Buddhist terminology. But there’s a better-known word that means roughly what this teacher meant by the term: emptiness.

Whichever term you use, the upshot is that, in the world out there, which seems so solid and so structured, so full of things with a distinct and tangible identity, there is less than meets the eye. This world of apparent forms is in some sense, as the Samadhiraja Sutra has it, a “mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition.” Or, as the Heart Sutra famously and pithily puts it, “Form is emptiness.”

Apparently some very accomplished meditators get to a point where they feel this truth deeply, and may even see the world as “empty” or “formless” on a regular basis. This is considered an important feat, especially if your goal is to attain enlightenment.

As you ponder these words—formlessness and emptiness—two other words may come to mind: crazy and depressing. It seems crazy to think that the world out there isn’t real, that things that seem substantial are in some sense devoid of content. It also seems kind of depressing; I don’t run into a lot of upbeat, fulfilled people who go around rejoicing in the emptiness of it all.

But I’ve slowly come to think that, actually, this idea isn’t so crazy, and that in fact it makes more and more sense as psychology advances. And as for the depressingness: thinking of the perceived world as in some sense empty doesn’t have to strip your life of meaning. In fact, it can allow you to build a new framework of meaning that’s more valid—maybe even more conducive to happiness—than your old framework.

I hasten to add: my willingness to defend “formlessness” and “emptiness” depends on what exactly they’re taken to mean, and different Buddhist thinkers have meant different things. I’m not here to defend the most extreme version of “mind-only” Buddhism, with its claim that the world out there doesn’t really, ultimately exist. At the same time, I’m not just pulling a bait and switch; I’m not going to define formlessness and emptiness in some sense that’s so narrow and technical that the “validity” I claim for the underlying idea turns out to be trivial. I think there’s an important, if subtle, sense in which we attribute too much form and content to reality, and I think appreciating this can have—and should have—radical implications for our lives….


Chapter 11: The Upside of Emptiness

One day, a fifty-nine-year-old man asked his wife where his wife was. “Fred”—the pseudonym given this man by the researchers who wrote up his case in the journal Neurological Science—wasn’t kidding. “On her surprised answer that she was right there,” the researchers wrote, “he firmly denied that she was his wife.”

The problem wasn’t that Fred didn’t recognize his wife’s face. Clearly this woman looked like his wife. But he insisted that she was a “double.” His actual wife, he speculated, had gone out and would re-turn later.

Fred suffered from Capgras delusion, which consists of being convinced that someone—usually a relative, sometimes a close friend—is an imposter. And a very good imposter, an exact replica—on the outside, at least. But not on the inside. This person may look exactly like, say, your mother, but she lacks what we might call essence-of-your-mother.

Essence, as we’ve seen, is central to the Buddhist concept of emptiness. At least its absence is central to the concept of emptiness. The idea of emptiness is that, while the things we perceive out there in the world do in some sense exist, they lack this thing called “essence.” So when Fred looked at his wife and didn’t see essence-of-wife, was he experiencing emptiness? Was he poised on the threshold of Buddhist enlightenment?

Um, no. The idea of enlightenment is to lose your delusions, whereas to start thinking that your wife isn’t your wife is to gain a delusion. Hence the term Capgras delusion. Whatever was going on in Fred’s brain, it wasn’t what Buddhists mean by enlightenment. At the same time, I think Fred’s brain may have something in common with the brain of someone who, while in a deep meditative state, sees the world as wholly or partially “empty.” And I think this prospect may shed important light on the experience of emptiness: what it is, why people experience it, and what we should make of it….



Chapter 12: A Weedless World

Several days into my first meditation retreat, I was taking a walk in the woods when I encountered an old enemy. Its name is Plantago major, and it is commonly known as the plantain weed. Years earlier, when I lived in Washington, DC, my lawn had been afflicted by this weed, and I spent many hours battling it—most of them just pulling it out of the ground, but sometimes I got so desperate that I’d use weed killer. I like to think that I’m not the kind of person who would devote much time to loathing forms of foliage, but I have to admit that my attitude toward this plant was in some sense one of hostility.

Yet now, on this meditation retreat, I was struck—for the first time ever—by the weed’s beauty. Maybe I should be putting the word weed in quotes, because to see a weed as beautiful is to question whether it really should be called a weed. And that is the question I asked myself as I stood there looking at my former foe. Why was this green-leafed thing called a weed, whereas other nearby things that fit the same description weren’t? I looked at those nearby things, and then at the weed, and found myself unable to answer the question. There seemed to be no objective visual criteria that distinguished weeds from nonweeds.

In retrospect, I guess I would call this my first close brush with the experience of emptiness. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic—and certainly it wasn’t as pervasive and persistent—as the experiences described in the previous chapter by Rodney Smith and Gary Weber. But it had the key characteristic of their experience: the weed was projecting its identity less strongly than it traditionally had. Though as visually discernible as ever, it was in some sense less dramatically marked off from the surrounding vegetation than before. It now lacked the essence-of-weed that had previously made it stand out from the other plants and seem uglier than they seemed.

So essence matters! One minute you see a certain essence in something and you want to kill it, and the next minute the essence has vanished and you don’t want to kill it.

Of course, the stakes aren’t all that high here. So far as I know, weeds aren’t capable of pleasure or pain, so yanking one out of the ground isn’t a grave moral transgression. Still, with weeds—more than with lamps or pencils or eyeglasses—we are approaching the realm of moral psychology, the realm of judgments about good and bad that have consequences for the way we treat other beings. And when the beings in question are sentient—human beings, for example—the stakes can be high.

These moral stakes are the main reason I’m spending so much time on the doctrine of emptiness. At the root of the way we treat people, I think, is the essence we see them as having. So it matters whether these perceptions of essence are really true or whether, as the doctrine of emptiness suggests, they are in some sense illusions.

From a Darwinian standpoint, the reason people attribute essence to other people is the same reason they attribute essence to things in general. Fellow human beings, no less than food or tools or predators or shelter, were part of the environment in which we evolved. So natural selection designed us to react to them in particular ways, and it engineered those reactions by giving us feelings toward them, and those feelings give shape to the essence we sense in them. But fellow human beings were a more complicated part of our environment than, say, shelter or tools, and they were a very, very important part. So it stands to reason that we would possess specialized mental machinery for sizing people up and then assigning them an essence.

Our Essence-of-Person Machinery

Decades of social psychology experiments have shed light on how that machinery works. For starters, it works fast. We start sizing people up the moment we first encounter them, and in some cases we can do a good job on the basis of little evidence. For example, if you show people a short videotape of someone talking or engaging in social interaction and then ask them to assess something about the person—her professional competence, for example, or her status—the assessments match up pretty well with more objective measurements. That holds true even when there’s no audio, so that all the cues are nonverbal. And a judgment rendered after thirty seconds is almost as likely to be accurate as a judgment rendered after five minutes.

Two Harvard psychologists conducted a meta-analysis of dozens of these “thin-slice” studies and concluded that, after a very brief observation, “some stable underlying essence is picked up by judges.” By “judges,” of course, they meant the people in the experiments who did the observing, but they might as well have been talking about all of us; judging is what we’re designed to do.

Our judgments can rest on evidence that may seem laughably superficial. For example, people considered attractive are more likely to be rated as competent. But this makes a certain kind of sense; attractive people do seem to have an easier time getting their way socially, and being able to pull social levers can be a big part of competence.

When it comes to making moral judgments, we don’t put so much stock in looks. Attractive people aren’t much more likely to be judged as having integrity or being considerate than unattractive people. That too makes sense, since there’s no reason to think they are more considerate or conscientious. However, one thing judgments about moral fiber have in common with judgments about competence and status is that we often make them on the basis of a single data point. Though various experiments show this, there’s no point in trotting one out: just reflect on your own behavior. If you see a person stopping to help someone who is lying injured on the sidewalk, don’t you think, “Oh, what a nice person”? If you see a person walking briskly past someone lying injured on the sidewalk, don’t you think, “Oh, what a not-so-nice person”?

I know what you’re thinking: But people who stop to help the needy are nice. And people who walk briskly past them aren’t nice.

Actually, you’re wrong! A famous study published in 1973 showed as much….


Chapter 13: Like, Wow, Everything Is One (at Most)

Recounting experiences you’ve had while meditating is a delicate business. They’re most worth recounting if they’re unusual—but if they’re too unusual, people look at you like you’re crazy. I once had an experience that I hope falls in the sweet spot: weird enough to get people’s attention, not so weird that they notify local authorities.

It was the fourth or fifth day of a meditation retreat. I was sitting on my cushion, legs crossed, eyes closed, as usual. I wasn’t making a point of focusing on any one kind of thing—not particularly on sounds, not particularly on emotions, not particularly on physical sensations. My field of awareness seemed wide open; my attention moved easily from one part of it to another, resting lightly on each new perch, and meanwhile a sense of the whole remained.

At one point I felt a tingling in my foot. At roughly the same time, I heard a bird singing outside. And here’s the odd thing: I felt that the tingling in my foot was no more a part of me than the singing of the bird.

You may ask: Was I feeling that the singing of the bird was actually a part of me? Or was I feeling that the tingling in my foot wasn’t a part of me? To put a less fine point on it: Did I feel like I was at one with the world, or was I closer to feeling like I was nothing? If you are indeed asking these questions, you’ve hit on a fascinating philosophical issue that highlights a contrast among different strands of Buddhist thought and that, more fundamentally, divides mainstream Buddhist philosophy from mainstream Hindu philosophy. But you’re probably not asking these questions. You’re more likely to be asking whether I’m crazy. So I’ll address that question first, and get to the deep philosophical questions later.

For starters, let me emphasize that if this experience makes me crazy, I’m in good company. I’ve had several chances to describe the experience to truly accomplished meditators—some of them monks, some of them famous meditation teachers—and invariably they’ve recognized the kind of experience I’m describing as one they’ve had.

What’s more, it’s a kind of experience that, they tend to believe, is very important. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that this is the central experience of Buddhism. Not central in the sense of most profound or most important, but, rather, central in the place it occupies in the landscape of Buddhist philosophy: the place where Buddhism’s two fundamental, crazy-sounding but arguably valid concepts—not-self and emptiness—come together. It’s a kind of grand unifying meditative experience.

Before explaining what I mean by that, I should try to put a little more flesh on the experience itself….


Chapter 14: Nirvana in a Nutshell

The rock group Nirvana, which became world famous in the early 1990s, wasn’t always known as Nirvana. In its early years it went under a series of other names. One of them was Bliss.

Some people might ask: What’s the difference? Aren’t nirvana and bliss the same thing? As we’ve seen, the answer is no. Nirvana does entail bliss, but it entails a lot more than bliss—most notably enlightenment. Bhikkhu Bodhi, the prolific translator of Buddhist texts, including many that characterize nirvana, described it as “a state of perfect happiness, complete peace, complete inner freedom, and full awakening and understanding.”

Another difference between bliss and nirvana is how easy they are to attain. If you’re pursuing bliss, period, you can just take bliss-inducing drugs, an approach that is guaranteed to work for a while, though unlikely to work in the long run. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, became a heroin addict and committed suicide.

If you pursue nirvana rather than mere bliss, the approach is less straightforward and more arduous. And even if you’re diligent, you are, it is safe to say, less likely to attain nirvana than Cobain was to attain—however fleetingly—bliss. On the other hand, whatever measure of contentment you do attain will almost certainly be more enduring and stable than Cobain’s bliss was.

The concept of nirvana occupies a unique place in Buddhist thought—not just because it represents the culmination of the Buddhist path, and not just because it represents the nicest imaginable place to be, but also because of the way it straddles the two sides of Buddhism. There is the side of Buddhism this book has been about: the “naturalistic” side, featuring ideas that would fit easily into a college psychology or philosophy course. And then there is the side of Buddhism featuring supernatural and exotic ideas that would be more at home in the religion department. Nirvana certainly has its exotic aspect: Buddhists who believe in reincarnation see nirvana as the thing that can free them from an otherwise endless cycle of rebirth. But this story about nirvana—the story about how exactly you find the escape hatch from endless rebirth—leads seamlessly to a more naturalistic story about nirvana, a claim about the mechanics of suffering and of contentment. And in the process of following one story to the other, you can see mindfulness meditation in a new light, a light that emphasizes what a radical undertaking it can be.

In ancient texts, nirvana is often described with a word that is commonly translated as “the unconditioned.” For years I heard this strange-sounding term and wondered what it meant, but I figured that understanding it without actually reaching nirvana was probably hopeless and, for my purposes, not all that important. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. The question “What is the unconditioned?” has a pretty clear answer and a very important one, an answer that forms a kind of intersection between the exotically metaphysical and the naturalistic….


Chapter 15: Is Enlightenment Enlightening?

Over the ages, the equation of enlightenment and liberation has assumed many forms and found many audiences. The original headquarters of the CIA had Jesus’s version of the equation etched in its wall: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And the movie The Matrix, as we saw at the outset of this book, offers a truth-freedom linkage that echoes Buddhist philosophy: Life as ordinarily lived is a kind of illusion, and you can’t be truly free until you pierce the illusion and look into the heart of things. Until you “see it for yourself,” as Morpheus puts it to Neo, you will remain in “bondage.”

But there are important differences between the Matrix scenario and the Buddhism scenario. For starters, the truth in The Matrix is easier to describe. Sure, Morpheus says you have to “see it for yourself,” but the fact is that he could have given Neo a pretty clear verbal picture of it: robot overlords have put humans in gooey pods and are pumping dreams into their brains! There—how complicated was that? Certainly it’s an easier claim to grasp than, say, that the self doesn’t exist or that everything is empty.

There’s another sense in which those robot overlords give Neo’s predicament an appealing simplicity. Namely, they give him something to rebel against. And rebellions are energizing! An oppressive enemy focuses the mind and steels you for the struggle ahead. Which would come in handy with meditation, because it really can be a struggle—getting on the cushion every day, even when you don’t feel like it, and then trying to carry mindfulness into everyday life. Too bad that in Buddhism there’s no evil perpetrator of delusion to fight!

In traditional Buddhism, actually, there is: the Satan-like supernatural being named Mara, who unsuccessfully tempted the Buddha during the epic meditation session that led to his great awakening. Mara, though, has no place in the Western, more secular Buddhism that is the backdrop of this book. Kind of disappointing.

But there’s good news on this front. If you would like to think of meditation practice as being a rebellion against an oppressive overlord, we can arrange that: just think of yourself as fighting your creator, natural selection. After all, natural selection, like the robot overlords, engineered the delusions that control us; it built them into our brains. If you’re willing to personify natural selection, you can carry the comparison with robot overlords a bit further: natural selection perpetrated the delusion in order to get us to adhere slavishly to its agenda.

Its agenda being, of course, to get genes into the next generation. This is the core of natural selection’s value system, the criterion that guided the engineering of our brains. And we have every right to decide, like Neo, that our values differ from those of the force that controls us and that we want liberation from it. Which means, first and foremost, liberating ourselves from the delusions through which that control is exercised. (This declaration of independence is of course in no way undermined by the irony that, in a modern environment, these delusions often fail to serve natural selection’s agenda of genetic proliferation anyway.)

There’s a second virtue of thinking of the Buddhist path as a rebellion against natural selection. Looking at things that way helps us put a finer point on what we mean by liberation and by enlightenment. And it helps us answer the big question: Is enlightenment really enlightening? I mean, obviously enlightenment is enlightening—that’s why they call it enlightenment. But is the Buddhist version of enlightenment—the end state, Enlightenment with a capital E—enlightening? Is it a radically truer view of things than our ordinary experience? Is it the ultimate truth? …


Chapter 16: Meditation and the Unseen Order

There were many wonderful things about that first meditation retreat I attended, back in the summer of 2003. And there was one not-so-wonderful thing: a song got stuck in my head. When you’re on a silent meditation retreat, songs can stay in your head for a really long time, because there’s not much input to displace them. And this song was one I don’t especially like.

It’s by Foreigner, a group that had a burst of prominence when I was in college, and it’s called “Feels Like the First Time.” The chorus begins, “And it feels like the first time, like it never did before / Feels like the first time, like we’ve opened up the door.”

The song was haunting me from early in the retreat, and it proved oddly prophetic. By the end of the retreat, I did feel like a door had opened for the first time.

In fact, there was a distinct moment when it felt, almost literally, like a door had opened and I had walked into a strange new place. It happened during the overwhelmingly and vibrantly blissful experience I mentioned in chapter 4, the one I had while meditating at night amid loudly chanting insects. Though I had my eyes closed, the experience was very visual, and I remember a distinct moment when I felt I’d crossed some threshold and entered a kind of fuzzily defined cavernous room made of orange and purple light.

Before I explain what I saw in that room, I need to expand on something I’ve already mentioned: the fact that I had been kind of hard on myself during this retreat for not being a good meditator. This was actually part of a long-standing pattern. I’ve always been good at convincing myself I’ve made a mistake, at chastising myself for it, and sometimes at pretty literally hating myself for it. For decades people have told me I shouldn’t be like this. They’ve said things like, “Don’t beat yourself up about it.” This has always annoyed me. My feeling has been that you should beat yourself up about things you do wrong. Otherwise you may keep doing them! And let’s be honest, isn’t one of the big problems with the world how many people do bad things and then don’t feel any need for self-chastisement?

One thing about meditation teachers that bothered me from the get-go was their frequent insistence that we yogis not be hard on ourselves. This is such a common refrain that I’ve encountered people who thought “Don’t be hard on yourself” was a core Buddhist teaching, a message that pervades ancient scripture. It’s not. Here’s a passage from one of the Buddha’s discourses: “Monks, true knowledge is the forerunner in the entry upon wholesome states, with a sense of shame and fear of wrongdoing following along.” You will have to look a long time to find a mindfulness meditation teacher in modern America encouraging students to feel shame.

But I digress….