What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t

Examining the science and supernaturalism of Buddhism.

Robert Wright argues for meditation as a fully secular form of psychotherapy.

Illustration by Anne Laval

An author owns a snappy title, and then the snappy title owns the author. Robert Wright, having titled his new book “Why Buddhism Is True,” has to offer a throat-clearing preface and later an apologetic appendix, in order to explain exactly what he means by “Buddhism” and exactly what he means by “true,” while the totality of his book is an investigation into why we think there are “whys” in the world, and whether or not anything really “is.” Wright sets out to provide an unabashedly American answer to all these questions. He thinks that Buddhism is true in the immediate sense that it is helpful and therapeutic, and, by offering insights into our habitual thoughts and cravings, shows us how to fix them. Being Buddhist—that is, simply practicing Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—will make you feel better about being alive, he believes, and he shows how you can and why it does.

Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being—no miraculous birth, no thirty-two distinguishing marks of the godhead (one being a penis sheath), no reincarnation. This is a pragmatic Buddhism, and Wright’s pragmatism, as in his previous books, can touch the edge of philistinism. Nearly all popular books about Buddhism are rich in poetic quotation and arresting aphorisms, those ironic koans that are part of the (Zen) Buddhist décor—tales of monks deciding that it isn’t the wind or the flag that’s waving in the breeze but only their minds. Wright’s book has no poetry or paradox anywhere in it. Since the poetic-comic side of Buddhism is one of its most appealing features, this leaves the book a little short on charm. Yet, if you never feel that Wright is telling you something profound or beautiful, you also never feel that he is telling you something untrue. Direct and unambiguous, tracing his own history in meditation practice—which eventually led him to a series of weeklong retreats and to the intense study of Buddhist doctrine—he makes Buddhist ideas and their history clear. Perhaps he makes the ideas too clear. Buddhist thinkers tend to bridge contradictions with a smile and a paradox and a wave of the hand. “Things exist but they are not real” is a typical dictum from the guru Mu Soeng, in his book on the Heart Sutra. “You don’t have to believe it, but it’s true” is another famous guru’s smiling advice about the reincarnation doctrine. This nimble-footed doubleness may indeed hold profound existential truths; it also provides an all-purpose evasion of analysis.

Still, the Buddhist basics are all here. Sometime around 400 B.C.E.—the arguments over what’s historically authentic and what isn’t make the corresponding arguments in Jesus studies look transparent—a wealthy Indian princeling named Gotama (as the Pali version of his name is rendered) came to realize, after a long and moving spiritual struggle, that people suffer because the things we cherish inevitably change and rot, and desires are inevitably disappointed. But he also realized that, simply by sitting and breathing, people can begin to disengage from the normal run of desires and disappointments, and come to grasp that the self whom the sitter has been serving so frantically, and who is suffering from all these needs, is an illusion. Set free from the self’s anxieties and appetites and constant, petulant demands, the meditator can see and share the actualities of existence with others. The sitter becomes less selfish and more selfless.

Buddhism has had a series of strong recurrent presences in America, and, though Wright doesn’t stop to trace them, they might illuminate some continuities that show why his kind of Buddhism got here, and got “true.” Its first notable appearance was in late-nineteenth-century New England, where, as Van Wyck Brooks showed long ago, Henry Adams was “drawn especially to the lands of Buddha.” Another New England Buddhist of the day was William Sturgis Bigelow, who brought back to Boston some twenty thousand works of Japanese art, and who, when dying in Boston, called for a Catholic priest and asked that he annihilate his soul. (He was disappointed when the priest declined.) These American Buddhists, drawn East in part by a rejection of Gilded Age ostentation, recognized a set of preoccupations like those they knew already—Whitman’s vision of a self that could shift and contain multitudes, or Thoreau’s secular withdrawal from the race of life. (Jon Kabat-Zinn’s hugely successful meditation guide, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” is dotted with Thoreau epigraphs in place of Asian ones.) The quietist impulse in New England spirituality and the pantheistic impulse in American poetry both seemed met, and made picturesque, by the Buddhist tradition.

The second great explosion of American Buddhism occurred in the nineteen-fifties. Spurred, in large part, by the writings of the émigré Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, it was, in the first instance, aesthetic: Suzuki’s work, though rich in tea ceremonies and haiku, makes no mention of Zazen, the hyper-disciplined, often painful, meditation practice that is at the heart of Zen practice. The Buddhist spirit, or the easier American variant of it, blossomed in Beat literature, producing some fine coinages (Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums”). Zen, though apparently an atypically severe sect within Buddhism, came to be the standard-bearer, so much so that “Zen” became an all-purpose modifier in American letters meaning “challengingly counterintuitive”—as in “Zen and the Art of Archery” or the masterly “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” where you learn how not to aim your arrow or how to find a spiritual practice in a Harley. It was this second movement that blossomed into a serious practice of sitting lessons and a set of institutions, the most prominent, perhaps, being the San Francisco Zen Center.

Though separated by generations, the deeper grammar of the two Buddhist awakenings was essentially the same. Buddhism in America is simultaneously exotic and familiar—it has lots of Eastern trappings and ceremonies that set it off from the materialism of American life, but it also speaks to an especially American longing for a publicly productive spiritual practice. American Buddhism spins off museum collections and Noh-play translations and vegetarian restaurants and philosophical books and, in the hands of the occasional Buddhist Phil Jackson, the triangle offense in basketball.

The Buddhist promise in the American mind is that you can escape and engage. “Ten minutes a day toward Enlightenment” is the sort of slogan that has inspired the current generation to unimaginably large numbers of part-time meditators. (Among whom I number myself, following guided meditations recorded by Joseph Goldstein, a seventysomething Vipassana teacher who has the calming, grumpy voice of an emeritus professor at City College, though my legs are much too stiff for the lotus position and I have to fake it, making mine in every sense a half-assed practice.) “Don’t just sit there, do something” is the American entreaty. With Buddhism, you can just sit there and do something.

Wright, like his Bay Area and Boston predecessors, is delighted to announce the ways in which Buddhism intersects with our own recent ideas. His new version of an American Buddhism is not only self-consciously secularized but aggressively “scientized.” He believes that Buddhist doctrine and practice anticipate and affirm the “modular” view of the mind favored by much contemporary cognitive science. Instead of there being a single, consistent Cartesian self that monitors the world and makes decisions, we live in a kind of nineties-era Liberia of the mind, populated by warring independent armies implanted by evolution, representing themselves as a unified nation but unable to reconcile their differences, and, as one after another wins a brief battle for the capital, providing only the temporary illusion of control and decision. By accepting that the fixed self is an illusion imprinted by experience and reinforced by appetite, meditation parachutes in a kind of peacekeeping mission that, if it cannot demobilize the armies, lets us see their nature and temporarily disarms their still juvenile soldiers.

“O.K., so we’ll have sex and if that works out we’ll go out for a nice dinner and maybe a movie.”

Buddhism, alone among spiritual practices, has always recognized this post-hoc nature of our “reason,” asking us to realize its transience through meditation. (“Not much really there, is there?” Joe Goldstein murmurs about thought in one of his guided meditations.) Meditation, in Wright’s view, is not a metaphysical route toward a higher plane. It is a cognitive probe for self-exploration that underlines what contemporary psychology already knows to be true about the mind. “According to Buddhist philosophy, both the problems we call therapeutic and the problems we call spiritual are a product of not seeing things clearly,” he writes. “What’s more, in both cases this failure to see things clearly is in part a product of being misled by feelings. And the first step toward seeing through these feelings is seeing them in the first place—becoming aware of how pervasively and subtly feelings influence our thought and behavior.”

Our feelings ceaselessly generate narratives, contes moraux, about the world, and we become their prisoners. We make things good and bad, desirable and not, meaningful and trivial. (We put snappy titles on our tales and then the titles own us.) Wright gives the example of a “buzz-saw symphony” as a small triumph of his emancipation: hearing a buzz saw whining in the background, what would usually have been a painful distraction became, robbed by meditation of any positive or negative cues (this is a pleasant sound / this is an unpleasant one), somehow musical. Meditation shows us how anything can be emptied of the story we tell about it: he tells us about an enlightened man who tastes wine without the contextual tales about vintage, varietal, region. It tastes . . . less emotional. “All the states of equanimity come through the realization that things aren’t what we thought they were,” Wright quotes a guru as saying. What Wright calls “the perception of emptiness” dampens the affect, but it also settles the mind. If it isn’t there, you don’t overreact to it.

Having gone the full Buddha route, Wright gives us accounts of meditation retreats, and interviews with enlightened meditators; he explores sutras and explains dharma. Given that he’s more product-oriented than process-oriented, Wright tends to reflect on the advantages of meditation rather than reproduce their pleasures. Meditation, even the half-assed kind, does remind us of how little time we typically spend in the moment. Simply to sit and breathe for twenty-five minutes, if only to hear cars and buses go by on a city avenue—listening to the world rather than to the frantic non sequiturs of one’s “monkey mind,” fragmented thoughts and querulous moods racing each other around—can intimate the possibility of a quiet grace in the midst of noise. The gong with which Goldstein’s meditations begin on YouTube, though a bit of Orientalia, does settle the mind and calm its restlessness. (Yet many sounds of seeming serenity—birds singing, leaves rustling—are actually the sounds of ceaseless striving. The birds are shrieking for mates; even the trees are reaching insistently toward the sun that sustains them. These are the songs of wanting, the sounds of life.)

Wright has, for the purposes of his book, tied himself to a mechanical view of the constraints that operate on the human mind—the same one that he has posited in previous books, rooted in the doctrines of evolutionary psychology. This is the view—to which Wright is, as a Buddhist might say, overattached—that our deepest desires are instincts implanted by natural selection in our primeval past. Whether or not evolutionary psychology is a real or a pseudoscience—opinions vary—one can believe that human beings are afflicted with too much wanting without thinking that we are that way because once upon a time those cravings helped us have more kids than our neighbors. Even if our desires were implanted by evolution rather than inculcated by culture, they’re still always helplessly double: altruistic impulses encourage us to look after our tribe; genocidal ones encourage us to get rid of the neighboring tribe. Pair bonding is adaptive, but so is adultery: fathers want to care for their offspring and see them thrive; they also want to have sex with the woman in the next cave in order to cover all genetic bets. Desires may arise from natural selection or from cultural tradition or from random walks or from a combination of them all—but Buddhist doctrine would be unaffected by any of these “whys.” If every doctrine of evo-psych turns out to be false—if it’s somehow all culture and inculcation—it wouldn’t affect the Buddhist view about our need to get out of it.

Other recent books on contemporary Buddhism share Wright’s object of reconciling the old metaphysics with contemporary cognitive science but have a less doctrinaire view of the mind that lies outside the illusions of self. Stephen Batchelor’s “After Buddhism” (Yale), in many ways the most intellectually stimulating book on Buddhism of the past few years, offers a philosophical take on the question. “The self may not be an aloof independent ‘ruler’ of body and mind, but neither is it an illusory product of impersonal physical and mental forces,” he writes. As for the mind’s modules, “Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task he proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life itself (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity). We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.” Where Wright insists that the Buddhist doctrine of not-self precludes the possibility of freely chosen agency, Batchelor insists of Buddhism that “as soon as we consider it a task-based ethics . . . such objections vanish. The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task. When an inclination to say something cruel occurs, for example, can you resist acting on that impulse? . . . Whether your decision to hold the barbed remark was the result of free will or not is beside the point.” He calls the obsession with free will a “peculiarly Western concern.” Meditation works as much at the level of conscious intention as it does at the level of unreflective instinct.

Batchelor wants to make Buddhism pragmatic not just in the idiomatic sense—practical for daily use—but in the technical philosophical sense as well: he thinks that the original doctrines of Buddhism were in accord with the ideas of truth put forward by neopragmatists like Richard Rorty, for whom there are no firm foundations for what we know, only temporary truces among willing communities which help us cope with the world. Buddhism, in his view, was long ago betrayed into Brahmanism; the open-ended artisanal practice of meditation became a caste-bound dogma with “truths” and ceremonies. It is a process of fossilization hardly unknown to other spiritual movements—there was a time when Hasidism was all about spontaneity and enthusiasm, and a break from too much repetitive tradition—but in Batchelor’s view it led to a needlessly ornate and authoritarian faith, while his own brand of Buddhism has been restored to its origins.

Batchelor also tackles the issue, basically shelved by Wright, of whether Buddhism without any supernatural scaffolding is still Buddhism. As a scholar, he doesn’t try to deny that the supernaturalist doctrines of karma and reincarnation are as old as the ethical and philosophical ones, and entangled with them. His project is unashamedly to secularize Buddhism. But, since it’s Buddhism that he wants to secularize, he has to be able to show that its traditions are not hopelessly polluted with superstition.

Here Batchelor’s pragmatic turn, made tightly on a sharply curving road, begins to fishtail more than a little. He insists that reincarnation is just an embedded doctrine in the ancient Pali culture—a metaphor like all the others we live with, a cosmological picture that works well, not unlike the metaphors of evolutionary fitness and cosmology that are embedded in our own culture. The centrality of reincarnation doctrines shouldn’t be held as a mark against Buddhist truth.

“Maureen Alsop is leaving her magnolia, and her delphinium, and her cats with us this weekend.”

Can we really tiptoe past the elaborate supernaturalism of historical Buddhism? Secular Buddhists try to, just as people who are sympathetic to the ethical basis of Christianity try to tiptoe past the doctrines of Heaven and Hell, so that Hell becomes “the experience of being unable to love,” or Heaven a state of “being one with God”—not actual places with brimstone pits or massed harps. Batchelor, like every intelligent believer caught in an unsustainable belief, engages in a familiar set of moves. He attempts to italicize his way out of absurdity by, in effect, shifting the stresses in the simple sentence “We don’t believe that.” First, there’s “We don’t believe that”: there may be other believers who accept a simple reward-and-punishment system of karma passing from generation to generation, but our group does not. Next comes “We don’t believe that”: since reincarnation means eternal rebirth and coming back as a monkey and the rest of it, the enlightened Buddhist tries to de-literalize the “that” to make it more appealing, just as the Christian redefines Hell. In the end, we resort to “We don’t believe that”: we just accept it as an embedded metaphor of the culture that made the religion.

Then there’s the shrug-and-grin argument that everyone believes something. Is it fair to object that most of us take quantum physics on faith, too? Well, we don’t take it on faith. We take it on trust, a very different thing. We have confidence—amply evidenced by the technological transformation of the world since the scientific revolution, and by the cash value of validated predictions based on esoteric mathematical abstraction—that the world picture it conveys is true, or more nearly true than anything else on offer. Batchelor tap-dances perilously close to the often repeated absurdity that a highly credulous belief about supernatural claims and an extremely skeptical belief about supernatural claims are really the same because they are both beliefs.

A deeper objection to the attempted reconciliation of contemporary science and Buddhist practice flows from the nature of scientific storytelling. The practice of telling stories—imagined tales of cause and effect that fixate on the past and the future while escaping the present, sending us back and forth without being here now—is something that both Wright and Batchelor see as one of the worst delusions the mind imprints on the world. And yet it is inseparable from the Enlightenment science that makes psychology and biology possible. The contemporary generation of American Buddhists draws again and again on scientific evidence for the power of meditation—EEGs and MRIs and so on—without ever wondering why a scientific explanation of that kind has seldom arisen in Buddhist cultures. (Science has latterly been practiced by Buddhists, of course.)

What Wright correctly sees as the heart of meditation practice—the draining away of the stories we tell compulsively about each moment in favor of simply having the moment—is antithetical to the kind of evidentiary argument he admires. Science is competitive storytelling. If a Buddhist Newton had been sitting under that tree, he would have seen the apple falling and, reaching for Enlightenment, experienced each moment of its descent as a thing pure in itself. Only a restless Western Newton would say, “Now, what story can tell us best what connects those apple-moments from branch to ground? Sprites? Magnets? The mysterious force of the mass of the earth beneath it? What made the damn thing fall?” That’s a story we tell, not a moment we experience. The Buddhist Newton might have been happier than ours—ours was plenty unhappy—but he would never have found the equation. Science is putting names on things and telling stories about them, the very habits that Buddhists urge us to transcend. The stories improve over time in the light of evidence, or they don’t. It’s just as possible to have Buddhist science as to have Christian science or Taoist science. But the meditator’s project of being here now will never be the same as the scientist’s project of connecting the past to the future, of telling how and knowing why.

Both Wright and Batchelor end with a semi-evangelical call for a secularized, modernized Buddhism that can supply all the shared serenity of the old dispensation and still adjust to the modern world—Batchelor actually ends his book with a sequence of fixed tenets for a secular Gotama practice. But does their Buddhism have a unique content, or is it simply the basics of secular liberalism with a borrowed Eastern vocabulary? What is the specifically Buddhist valence of saying, as Batchelor does, that the practitioners of a secular Buddhism will “seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves”? Do we need a twenty-five-hundred-year-old faith from the East to do this—isn’t that what every liberal-arts college insists that its students do, anyway, with the help of only a cultural-studies major?

All secularized faiths tend to converge on a set of agreeable values: compassion, empathy, the renunciation of mere material riches. But the shared values seem implicit in the very project of secularizing a faith, with its assumption that the ethical and the supernatural elements can be cleanly severed—an operation that would have seemed unintelligible to St. Paul, as to Gotama himself. The idea of doing without belief is perhaps a bigger idea than any belief it negates. Secular Buddhism ends up being . . . secularism.

Can any old faith point a new way forward? No doctrine is refuted by the bad behavior of the people who believe in it—or else all doctrines would stand refuted—but the stories of actual Buddhism in large-scale practice in America do not encourage the hope that Buddhism will be any different from all the other organized faith practices. One of the best books about Buddhism in contemporary America, Michael Downing’s “Shoes Outside the Door” (2001), takes as its subject the San Francisco Zen Center and its attempted marriage of spiritual elevation with wild entrepreneurial activity. Downing’s novelistic and nuanced account focusses on the charismatic, Bill Clintonish master of the Zen Center, Richard Baker, who got embroiled in a Bill Clintonish sex scandal. American Buddhism seems as susceptible to the triple demon of power, predation, and prejudice as every other religious establishment.

A faith practice with an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a horror; a faith practice without an authoritarian structure sooner or later becomes a hobby. The dwindling down of Buddhism into another life-style choice will doubtless irritate many, and Wright will likely be sneered at for reducing Buddhism to another bourgeois amenity, like yoga or green juice. (Batchelor refers to this as a “dumbing down of the dharma.”) Yet what Wright is doing seems an honorable, even a sublime, achievement. Basically, he says that meditation has made him somewhat less irritable. Being somewhat less irritable is not the kind of achievement that people usually look to religion for, but it may be as good an achievement as we ought to expect. (If Donald Trump became somewhat less irritable, the world would be a less dangerous place.)

If there is something distinctive about a Buddhist secularism, it is that the Buddhist believes in the annihilation of appetite, while the pure secular humanist believes in satisfying our appetites until annihilation makes it impossible. Appetite, though, has a way of renewing itself even after it’s been fed; no matter what we do, some new gnawing materializes. Dissatisfaction with our circumstances, the frustration of our ambitions, something no bigger than a failure to lose enough weight or to have an extra room to make a nursery out of: even amid luxury, the ache of the unachieved seems intense enough. It is these dissatisfactions that drive so many Americans—who cannot understand why lives filled with material pleasure still feel unfulfilled—to their meditation mats.

Secularized or traditional, the central Buddhist epiphany remains essential: the fact of mortality makes loss certain. For all the ways in which science and its blessed godchild scientific medicine have reduced the overt suffering that a human life entails, the vector to sadness remains in place, as much as it did in the Buddha’s time. Gotama’s death, from what one doctor describes as mesenteric infarction, seems needlessly painful and gruesome by modern standards; this is the kind of suffering we can substantially alleviate. But the universal mortality of all beings—the fact that, if we’re lucky, we will die after seventy years or so—is not reformable. The larger problem we face is not suffering but sadness, and the sadness is caused by the fact of loss. To love less in order to lose less seems like no solution at all, but to see loss squarely sounds like wisdom. We may or may not be able to Americanize our Buddhism, but we can certainly ecumenicize our analgesics. Lots of different stuff from lots of different places which we drink and think and do can help us manage. Every faith practice has a different form of comfort to offer in the face of loss, and each is useful. Sometimes it helps to dwell on the immensity of the universe. Sometimes it helps to feel the presence of ongoing family and community. Sometimes it helps to light a candle and say a prayer. Sometimes it helps to sit and breathe. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the August 7 & 14, 2017, issue, with the headline “American Nirvana.”

Source: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/07/what-meditation-can-do-for-us-and-what-it-cant?mbid=social_facebook

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