Why Buddhism Is True
Why Buddhism Is True

Why Buddhism Is True

What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best. One of the Buddha’s main messages was that the pleasures we seek evaporate quickly and leave us thirsting for more. We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing—the next powdered-sugar doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more. (Location 123)

And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. 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. (Location 159)

the amount that comes after the bite is much less than the amount you got after that first, blissful bite into a powdered-sugar doughnut. The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise—or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising. (Location 173)

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. (Location 195)

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I am a walking embodiment of what I consider to be the biggest problem facing humanity. I am, in microcosm, what’s wrong with the world. (Location 311)

In mindfulness meditation as it’s typically taught, the point of focusing on your breath isn’t just to focus on your breath. It’s to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal preoccupations so you can observe things that are happening in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way. ... Feelings arise within you—sadness, anxiety, annoyance, relief, joy—and you try to experience them from a different vantage point than is usual, ... This altered perspective can be the beginning of a fundamental and enduring change in your relationship to your feelings; you can, if all goes well, cease to be their slave. (Location 336)

accepting, even embracing, an unpleasant feeling can give you a critical distance from it that winds up diminishing the unpleasantness. (Location 351)

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Imagine if our negative feelings, or at least lots of them, turned out to be illusions, and we could dispel them by just contemplating them from a particular vantage point. (Location 362)

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Some Mahayana Buddhists even subscribe to a “mind-only” doctrine that, in its more extreme incarnations, dismisses the things we “perceive” via consciousness as, pretty literally, figments of our imagination. (Location 396)

If you put these two fundamental Buddhist ideas together—the idea of not-self and the idea of emptiness—you have a radical proposition: neither the world inside you nor the world outside you is anything like it seems. (Location 404)

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. (Location 439)

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“Food good for me, so I approach.” Feelings arose as proxies for this kind of thinking. ... Feelings are designed to encode judgments about things in our environment. (Location 464)

Take road rage. The desire to punish people who treat you unfairly or show you disrespect is deeply human. And admit it: though there’s something unpleasant about being made angry, there’s something pleasing about the feeling of anger itself—the feeling that you’re rightfully enraged. The Buddha said anger has a “poisoned root and honeyed tip.” ... And you can see why natural selection would have made righteous rage attractive: in a small hunter-gatherer village, if someone took advantage of you—stole your food, stole your mate, or just generally treated you like dirt—you needed to teach him a lesson. ... The disrespectful driver you feel like punishing is someone you’ll never see again, and so are all the drivers who might witness any revenge you wreak. So there’s no benefit whatsoever that comes from indulging your rage. ... So you could call road rage “false.” It feels good, but the aura of goodness is illusory, because succumbing to its attraction leads to behavior that will not, on average, be good for the organism. (Location 491)

This is a reminder that natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes. (Location 530)

My mother used to say, “We wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about what other people think of us if we realized how seldom they do.” She was right; our assumption that people give much thought to us one way or the other is often an illusion, as is our unspoken sense that it matters what pretty much everyone we see thinks of us. But these intuitions were less often illusory in the environment of our evolution, and that’s one reason they’re so persistent today. (Location 572)

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. (Location 617)

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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.” Or, as the Buddha would have put it, a lifetime of dukkha. (Location 662)

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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 ... I was beginning to observe the workings of what psychologists call the “default mode network.” (Location 701)

Two of the three marks of existence sound as if, actually, they wouldn’t be too hard to apprehend. The first is impermanence. ... The second mark of existence is dukkha—suffering, unsatisfactoriness. (Location 869)

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third mark of existence, “not-self,” is different. With not-self, comprehension itself is a challenge. (Location 873)

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But, he notes, our bodies do lead to affliction, and we can’t magically change that by saying “May my form be thus.” So form—the stuff the human body is made of—isn’t really under our control. ... So too with perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Are any of these things really under control—so completely under control that they never lead to suffering? And if they’re not under control, then how can we think of them as part of the self? (Location 941)

So two of the properties commonly associated with a self—control and persistence through time—are found to be absent, not evident in any of the five components that seem to constitute human beings. This is the core of the argument the Buddha makes in this first and most famous discourse on not-self, and it’s commonly taken as the core Buddhist argument that the self doesn’t exist. (Location 969)

liberation consists of changing the relationship between your consciousness and the things you normally think of as its “contents”—your feelings, your thoughts, and so on. Once you realize that these things are “not-self,” the relationship of your consciousness to them becomes more like contemplation than engagement, and your consciousness is liberated. (Location 1024)

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. (Location 1090)

“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!” (Location 1116)

Think of yourself as having, in principle, the power to establish a different relationship with your feelings and thoughts and impulses and perceptions—the power to disengage from some of them; the power to, in a sense, disown them, to define the bounds of your self in a way that excludes them. (Location 1125)

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. (Location 1257)

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.” (Location 1273)

we’re under at least two kinds of illusions. One is about the nature of the conscious self, which we see as more in control of things than it actually is. The other illusion is about exactly what kind of people we are—namely, capable and upstanding. You might call these two misconceptions the illusion about our selves and the illusion about ourselves. They work in synergy. The first illusion helps us convince the world that we are coherent, consistent actors: we don’t do things for no reason, and the reasons we do them make sense; if our behaviors merit credit or blame, there is an inner us that deserves that credit or blame. The second illusion helps convince the world that what we deserve is credit, not blame; we’re more ethical than the average person, and we’re more productive than the average teammate. We have beneffectance. (Location 1303)

It’s feelings that “decide” which module will be in charge for the time being, and it’s modules that then decide what you’ll actually do during that time. In this light, it becomes a bit clearer why losing attachment to feelings could help you reach a point where there seems to be no self. (Location 1458)

So we have three things that can change about people who sense a mating opportunity: they can become crowd-averse, suddenly partial to intimate environments; their intertemporal utility function can get recalibrated; and their career goals, at least for the time being, can become more materialistic. (Location 1518)

So what do we do about all this? If our mind keeps getting seized by different modules, and each module carries with it different illusions, how do we change the situation? The answer isn’t simple, but what should already be clear is that getting more control over the situation may have something to do with feelings. ... If the way they seize control of the show is through feelings, it stands to reason that one way to change the show is to change the role feelings play in everyday life. I’m not aware of a better way to do that than mindfulness meditation. (Location 1571)

Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists. (Location 1587)

But another way to describe it is to say that, actually, the different modules are competing for your attention, and when the mind “wanders” from one module to another, what’s actually happening is that the second module has acquired enough strength to wrestle control of your consciousness away from the first module. (Location 1641)

Thoughts will arise, but they won’t hold your attention for quite so long before you return to your breath; they’ll fail to carry you away; the train will pull into the station, and you’ll watch it leave without ever getting on it. (Location 1649)

He seemed to be saying that thoughts, which we normally think of as emanating from the conscious self, are actually directed toward what we think of as the conscious self, after which we embrace the thoughts as belonging to that self. This, in turn, seemed consistent with the idea that modules generate thoughts outside of consciousness and somehow inject them into consciousness. So I pressed the point. (Location 1671)

thoughts are arising and there’s a strong habit of mind to be identified with them. So it’s not so much they have the intent to reach out and capture us, but rather there’s this very strong habitual identification. This is how we’ve lived our lives, and it takes practice to try to break this conditioning, to be mindful of the thought rather than be lost in it.” (Location 1681)

I’d say modules think thoughts. Or rather, modules generate thoughts, and then if those thoughts prove in some sense stronger than the creations of competing modules, they become thought thoughts—that is, they enter consciousness. Still, you can see how, while observing the mind during meditation, it could seem like “thoughts think themselves”—because the modules do their work outside of consciousness, so, as far as the conscious mind can tell, the thoughts are coming out of nowhere. (Location 1690)

the conscious self doesn’t create thoughts; it receives them. (Location 1694)

But if you’re paying close attention to this “failure” to meditate, then, of course, it isn’t a failure to meditate—because paying attention to whatever is happening is mindfulness meditation. (Location 1732)

“The gratification of curiosity rather frees us from uneasiness than confers pleasure; we are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction.” (Location 1754)

If you’re trying to find out whether the stock market, which contains your life savings, continued its recent plunge today, that’s different from wondering why the stock market crashed in 1929. (Location 1756)

Whether curiosity is more like a desperate hunger or a delightful lure seems to depend on how directly and urgently relevant it is to our interests as defined by natural selection; the less direct and urgent the connection, the more subtle and pleasant the feeling. (Location 1760)

Of all the thoughts engaged in subterranean competition at a given moment, maybe the thought that has the strongest level of feeling associated with it is the one that gains entry into consciousness. (Location 1776)

After all, feelings are judgments about how various things relate to an animal’s Darwinian interests. So, from natural selection’s point of view, feelings would make great labels for thoughts, labels that say things like “high priority,” “medium priority,” “low priority.” If you’re a day away from some event that will markedly affect your social status—an important presentation, a big party you’re hosting—preparation-related thoughts are high priority, hence high anxiety. (Location 1779)

Feelings are, among other things, your brain’s way of labeling the importance of thoughts, and importance (in natural selection’s somewhat crude sense of the term) determines which thoughts enter consciousness. (Location 1794)

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. (Location 1839)

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. (Location 1848)

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.” (Location 1853)

This all makes sense when you think about it in evolutionary terms. After all, feelings are the original motivators. (Location 1858)

Still, if Hume is right, this prefrontal activity shouldn’t be framed as it’s commonly framed, as reason “overcoming temptation” or successfully “opposing feeling.” Reason has its effect not by directly pushing back against a feeling but by fortifying the feeling that does do the pushing back. Yes, that Hershey bar looks good, and the thought of eating it feels good, but reflecting on that article you read about the toll high blood sugar takes on your body makes the thought of eating the Hershey bar guilt-inducing. And it’s the guilt, not the reflection, that does direct combat with the urge to eat the candy bar. “Reason alone,” Hume argued, “can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.” Nothing “can oppose or retard the impulse of passion but a contrary impulse.” (Location 1890)

Joshua Greene, a neuroscientist at Harvard, has written of a particular region in the prefrontal cortex called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: “The DLPFC, the seat of abstract reasoning, is deeply interconnected with the dopamine system, which is responsible for placing values on objects and actions. From a neural and evolutionary perspective, our reasoning systems are not independent logic machines. They are outgrowths of more primitive mammalian systems for selecting rewarding behaviors—cognitive prostheses for enterprising mammals.” In other words, as Greene himself notes, Hume seems to have gotten it right. (Location 1907)

“I considered the pros and cons and decided not to eat the chocolate,” he said that, strictly speaking, you should put it more like this: “There were certain systems in your head that were designed to be motivated to eat high-calorie foods, and those systems had certain kinds of motives or beliefs or representations, and there are other systems in your head that have motivations associated with long-term health, and those systems have certain beliefs about the chocolate.” In the end, modules of the second kind, modules focused on the long term, “inhibited the behavior that was being facilitated by the short-term modules.” In other words, neither kind of module was more “rational” than the other; they just had different goals, and on this particular day, one was stronger than the other. (Location 1930)

First we learned that Hume seems to have been right: our “reasoning faculty” isn’t ever really in charge; its agenda—what it reasons about—is set by feelings, and it can influence our behavior only by in turn influencing our feelings. (Location 1965)

The view emerging here is that we don’t so much have a reasoning faculty as reasoning faculties; modules seem to have the ability to recruit reasons on behalf of their goals. (Location 1968)

One way to answer the question is to depart from the useful but limiting “self-discipline as muscle” metaphor. Let’s translate the question into modular terms: after the module favoring indulgence wins a few debates, its strength grows to a point where countervailing modules don’t even bother trying to muster counterarguments. (Location 1994)

The point is just that it makes sense that natural selection would design a modular mind this way—that “winning” modules would amass more power when their judgment is vindicated. (Location 2011)

There are two virtues of describing the self-control problem this way—as a module getting stronger and stronger rather than as some all-purpose muscle called “self-discipline” getting weaker and weaker. First, this perspective helps explain why the problem would be so treacherous in the first place. It’s hard to imagine why natural selection would design a “muscle” called “self-discipline” in such a way that a few early failures lead to enduring impotence. But it’s easy to imagine why natural selection would design modules that get stronger with repeated success and why natural selection would use, as its working definition of success, gratification in one sense or another. (Location 2020)

That doesn’t mean you succumb to the urge and light up a cigarette. It just means you don’t try to push the urge out of your mind. Rather, you follow the same mindfulness technique that you’d apply to other bothersome feelings—anxiety, resentment, melancholy, hatred. You just calmly (or as calmly as possible, under the circumstances) examine the feeling. What part of your body is the urge felt in? What is the texture of the urge? Is it sharp? Dull and heavy? The more you do that, the less the urge seems a part of you; you’ve exploited the basic irony of mindfulness meditation: getting close enough to feelings to take a good look at them winds up giving you a kind of critical distance from them. Their grip on you loosens; if it loosens enough, they’re no longer a part of you. There’s an acronym used to describe this technique: RAIN. First you Recognize the feeling. Then you Accept the feeling (rather than try to drive it away). Then you Investigate the feeling and its relationship to your body. Finally, the N stands for Nonidentification, or, equivalently, Nonattachment. Which is a nice note to end on, since not being attached to things was the Buddha’s all-purpose prescription for what ails us. (Location 2034)

Though we don’t generally think of nicotine addiction and a short attention span as having much in common, both really are problems of impulse control. And in both cases, we can, in principle, weaken the impulse by not fighting it, by letting it form and observing it carefully. This deprives the module that generated the impulse of the positive reinforcement that would give it more power next time around. (Location 2087)

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. (Location 2147)

Remember Ajahn Chah, the Thai monk who said that if you try to understand the idea of not-self by “intellectualizing” alone, your head will explode? He once recounted a time when he was trying to meditate and kept getting interrupted by sounds from a festival in a nearby village. Then, as he recalls it, he had a realization: “The sound is just the sound. It’s me who is going out to annoy it. If I leave the sound alone, it won’t annoy me. . . . If I don’t go out and bother the sound, it’s not going to bother me.” (Location 2216)

Essences don’t exist independent of human perception. This is the version of the emptiness doctrine that makes sense to me, and it’s the version most widely accepted by Buddhist scholars: not the absence of everything, but the absence of essence. To perceive emptiness is to perceive raw sensory data without doing what we’re naturally inclined to do: build a theory about what is at the heart of the data and then encapsulate that theory in a sense of essence. (Location 2226)

We build stories on stories on stories, and the problem with the stories begins at their foundation. Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, a tool for examining our stories carefully, from the ground up, so that we can, if we choose, separate truth from fabrication. (Location 2282)

The psychologist Paul Bloom has written that “essentialism”—the tendency to attribute inner essences to things—is a “human universal.” Some of his examples of essentialism are exotic: someone paid $48,875 for a tape measure that was owned by John F. Kennedy, apparently motivated by a sense that it was imbued with some sort of presidential “essence.” (Location 2334)

Note, by the way, that Zajonc implicitly equates having feelings about things with making judgments about them. This equation is true to the Darwinian view (laid out in chapter 3) that, functionally speaking, feelings are judgments. It’s also true to the meditative technique of relaxing judgment by critically inspecting our feelings. (Location 2368)

the claim is just that the machinery in my mind that assigns feelings to things was originally designed to maximize genetic proliferation. That it no longer reliably does so is among the absurdities of being a human. (Location 2421)

It now lacked the essence-of-weed that had previously made it stand out from the other plants and seem uglier than they seemed. (Location 2591)

This experiment fits into a large body of psychological literature about something called “the fundamental attribution error.” The word attribution refers to the tendency to explain people’s behavior in terms of either “dispositional” factors—in other words, the kind of person they are—or “situational” factors, like whether they happen to be late for a talk. The word error refers to the fact that these attributions are often wrong, that we tend to underestimate the role of situation and overestimate the role of disposition. In other words, we’re biased in favor of essence. (Location 2637)

Why would the human mind be designed to ignore or downplay situational factors when sizing people up? Well, for starters, remember that natural selection didn’t design human minds to size people up accurately. It designed human minds to size people up in a way that would lead to interactions that benefited the genes of the humans doing the sizing up. (Location 2659)

fundamental attribution error—the tendency to overestimate the role of disposition and underestimate the role of situation— (Location 2688)

Hostile actions by the enemy are attributed dispositionally, and thus provide further evidence of the enemy’s inherently aggressive, implacable character. Conciliatory actions are explained away as reactions to situational forces—as tactical maneuvers, responses to external pressure, or temporary adjustments to a position of weakness—and therefore require no revision of the original image.” (Location 2695)

It’s great that natural selection gave us the capacity for love and compassion and altruism, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept natural selection’s guidance on how to allocate these precious resources. (Location 2839)

“As my mother used to say, as far as I’m concerned, between an enlightened Buddhist and a vegetable, there’s no difference.” He reared his head back and laughed for a full five seconds before continuing to quote his mother: “Is this why you become a Buddhist monk, to become a vegetable?” Then he got serious again. “But I would say that in my opinion, my experience, as one continues to practice the Buddhist path, it enriches the emotional life, so that one becomes emotionally more sensitive, more happy and joyful. And I would say that one can respond to things in the world in a freer, more happy, more delightful way.” Makes sense to me. After all, one virtue of mindfulness meditation is that experiencing your feelings with care and clarity, rather than following them reflexively and uncritically, lets you choose which ones to follow—like, say, joy, delight, and love. And this selective engagement with feelings, this weakened obedience to them, can in principle include the feelings that shape the essence we see in things and people. (Location 2877)

For now, the point is that what things we identify with and how closely we identify with them—things both inside our skin and outside our skin—is to no small extent the result of the path that human evolution did, as a matter of fact, take. Our intuitive conception of our self and its bounds is in that sense arbitrary. (Location 2970)

But there is also what you could call the exterior not-self experience. This consists of looking at the “outside” world—at things beyond your skin—and asking, “In what sense are these things not a part of me?” In other words, instead of asking whether the supposed contents of the self are really contents of the self, you’re asking whether the supposed bounds of the self are really bounds of the self. (Location 2980)

In other words: nothing possesses inherent existence; nothing contains all the ingredients of ongoing existence within itself; nothing is self-sufficient. Hence the idea of emptiness: all things are empty of inherent, independent existence. (Location 3035)

This suggests an interesting possibility: maybe the deepest meditative experiences had by Buddhists and the deepest meditative experiences had by Hindus in the Advaita Vedanta tradition are basically the same experience. There is a sense of dissolution of the bounds of self and an ensuing sense of continuity with the world out there. If you’re Buddhist (at least, a Buddhist of the mainstream type), you’re encouraged to think of that as a continuity of emptiness; and if you’re a Hindu, you’re encouraged to think of it as a continuity of soul or spirit. For that matter, maybe some Abrahamic mystics—Christians, Jews, Muslims—who during contemplative practice feel a union with the divine are having somewhat the same experience as the Hindus and Buddhists, and interpreting it in a way that is closer to the Hindu than the Buddhist perspective. The core experiences remain the same, but the doctrinal articulation varies. (Location 3085)

He says that the basic cause of dukkha is tanha, a word usually translated as “thirst” or “craving” and sometimes as “desire.” To put a finer point on it, the problem is the unquenchability of tanha, the fact that attaining our desires always leaves us unsatisfied, thirsting for more of the same or thirsting for something new. (Location 3134)

To see the full breadth of the argument Albahari is making, you have to understand that, like many scholars, she considers tanha to include not just the desire for things you find pleasant—sex, chocolate, a new car, a newer car; it also includes the desire to be free of things you find unpleasant. In other words, tanha fuels not just attraction to alluring things but also aversion to off-putting things. In this view, my annoyance at the snoring in the meditation hall was tanha. It was a desire to be free of the snoring noise. (Location 3146)

So, really, there were two intertwined feelings that I observed mindfully: the wrath toward the snorer and the aversion to his snoring. And when you overcome aversion, you are, by Albahari’s logic, approaching the exterior version of the not-self experience more fully and directly than when you just overcome wrath.† You are diluting the tanha that reinforces the bounds of self. (Location 3168)

In ancient texts, nirvana is often described with a word that is commonly translated as “the unconditioned.” (Location 3248)

This has been the point of much of this book. The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings via tanha—via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you. But if you observe those feelings mindfully rather than just reacting to them, you can in some measure escape the control; the causes that ordinarily shape your behavior can be defied, and you can get closer to the unconditioned. (Location 3295)

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Underlying this whole endeavor is a highly mechanistic conception of how the mind works. The idea is to finely sense the workings of the machine and use that understanding to rewire it, to subvert its programming, to radically alter its response to the causes, the conditions, impinging on it. Doing this doesn’t let you enter “the unconditioned” in the strict sense; it doesn’t let you literally escape the realm of cause and effect. Then again, airplanes don’t literally defy the law of gravity. But they still fly. (Location 3356)

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. (Location 3399)

Consider the absurdity of the current situation: this planet is full of people operating on the premise that their interests trump the interests of pretty much everyone else on the planet—yet it can’t be the case that everybody is more important than everybody else. So a core tenet of natural selection’s value system is internally contradictory. Rejecting it, then, would pretty much have to move you closer to the truth. (Location 3458)

selection! So (Location 3470)

But note that phrase serve the interests. This whole evaluation, by accepting a particular organism’s interests as the criterion for whether judgments are accurate, is accepting natural selection’s basic frame of reference: that you, this particular organism, are special; your interests are the most important interests, and therefore your particular perspective—the perspective that judges everything in relation to those interests—is the appropriate perspective for evaluating the goodness or badness of things in the world. (Location 3507)

If Chandrakirti had been writing after Darwin, he might have put the point this way: Our entire notion of good and bad, our whole landscape of feelings—fear, lust, love, and the many other feelings, salient and subtle, that inform our everyday thoughts and perceptions—are products of the particular evolutionary history of our species. If having sex with armadillos had been the only way our ancestors could get their genes into the next generation, you and I would think armadillos are attractive—not just cute in an offbeat way, but deeply enticing. (Location 3559)

Still, suppose—just as a thought experiment—that your goal wasn’t living as long as possible but rather attaining the clearest vision possible. Suppose you wanted to view life on this planet, and reality in general, from some perspective less parochial than the perspective of any one species. Suppose you wanted to view it from some more objective, more transcendent, more universally “true” perspective. Then you would want to look at a snake without the emotional biases of any species—without the fear and aversion and dislike that comes naturally to a human and without the lust that comes naturally to a snake’s paramour. You’d want to look at a swamp from the standpoint of neither a human nor a mosquito. You’d want to view reality with none of the feelings that evolved in our species or any other species as a way to get genes into the next generation. You’d want, like Einstein, the view from nowhere in particular. (Location 3582)

The phrase the view from nowhere is famously associated with the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who made it the title of a book. The book wasn’t about Buddhism; it was about the whole nature of knowing and about the mission of philosophy. (Location 3590)

In any event, the view from nowhere may be the pithiest way of describing what Buddhist enlightenment would be like: the view that carries none of my selfish biases, or yours, and that in a certain sense isn’t even a particularly human perspective, or the perspective of any other species. This, truly, would be a view that defied natural selection’s authority, because natural selection is all about specific perspectives. (Location 3597)

even if complete and utter enlightenment will remain remote for most of us, portions of enlightenment are available. Even if we can’t apprehend the truth about all of reality and sustain that apprehension throughout our lives, we can apprehend the truth about little corners of reality and sustain that apprehension for a little while. And here’s the key thing: seeing these little, almost trivial truths on a regular basis, in a disciplined way, can help us see bigger, less trivial truths. (Location 3753)

The more you focus on the objective fact—on the feeling itself and its instantiation in your body—the less unpleasantness you may feel. This is not a trivially easy feat, but it’s doable, and it counts in favor of the Buddha’s claim that dukkha is in some sense optional, and that the way to reduce if not eliminate it is to see reality clearly, to see objective facts for what they are and for no more than what they are. (Location 3764)

If at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. I’m feeling unsettled or angry or resentful or despondent or anything else that I’d rather not feel, I can sit down on the meditation cushion and observe that feeling and, pretty reliably, make things better. (Location 3779)

The reason I can do all these things—and, for that matter, the reason I even remember that doing them is an option—is that I’m spending some time on the cushion every morning. (Location 3784)

Tags: pink

At least, that’s one way you could put it. Another way you could put it is that I am pursuing enlightenment—it’s just that, rather than think of enlightenment as a state, I think of it as a process. (Location 3788)

What’s more, this little bit of enlightenment can lead to more bits of liberation that then lead to more bits of enlightenment. If seeing less essence-of-jerk in people, and thus spending less time fulminating pointlessly, further reduces the amount of stress in your life, maybe this effect will be so gratifying—so liberating—that it encourages you to meditate for twenty-five minutes a day instead of twenty. And that leads to more liberation from stress, which further clarifies your view of other people. (Location 3805)

James said that, in the broadest sense, religion can be thought of as “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” (Location 3916)

Then there’s the third leg of this alignment: our well-being. Happiness—the elimination or at least lessening of suffering, of unsatisfactoriness, of dukkha—tends to coincide with seeing the metaphysical truth and acting on the attendant moral truth. This too is a kind of alignment that, presumably, a universe doesn’t have to have. It’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that the world would be set up this way: that the path you embark on to relieve yourself of suffering would, if pursued assiduously, lead you to become not just a happier person but a person with a clearer view of both metaphysical and moral reality. Yet that is the Buddhist claim, and there is substantial evidence in favor of it. This three-part alignment—the alignment of metaphysical truth and moral truth and happiness—is embodied in the richly ambiguous word that lies at the heart of Buddhist practice: dharma. (Location 3934)

Once you see less in the way of essence in people—once your perception of them is less imbued with judgments about their badness or goodness—there is, you might think, a greatly lessened reason to feel anything at all about them, including compassion. But if we’re naturally inclined to think that things, including people, are beautiful, that inclination could translate into concern for their well-being. At least, that’s one theory as to why meditation can make people more compassionate. In any event, I remain flummoxed by what seems to be a natural tendency of contemplative practice to strengthen the sense of beauty. I guess one explanation is that, without really thinking about it, you’re using mindfulness to filter your feelings—working harder to get critical distance from the unpleasant feelings than from the pleasant feelings, such as aesthetic delight. But, for what it’s worth, it doesn’t feel like that. The sense of beauty feels more like something the mind just naturally relaxes into when the preoccupation with self subsides. (Location 3975)

There’s a lot to dislike about the world we’re born into. It’s a world in which, as the Buddha noted, our natural way of seeing, and of being, leads us to suffer and to inflict suffering on others. And it’s a world that, as we now know, was bound to be that way, given that life on this planet was created by natural selection. Still, it may also be a world in which metaphysical truth, moral truth, and happiness can align, and a world that, as you start to realize that alignment, appears more and more beautiful. If so, this hidden order—an order that seems to lie at a level deeper than natural selection itself—is something to marvel at. And it’s something I’m increasingly thankful for. (Location 3991)