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Can Buddhist Practices Help Us Overcome The Biological Pull Of Dissatisfaction?

"There's a kind of a bridge between cognitive therapy and Buddhist practice in evolutionary psychology," says author Robert Wright.
Veronica Grech/Getty Images
"There's a kind of a bridge between cognitive therapy and Buddhist practice in evolutionary psychology," says author Robert Wright.

Are human beings hard-wired to be perpetually dissatisfied? Author Robert Wright, who teaches about the interface of evolutionary biology and religion, thinks so.

Wright points out that evolution rewards people for seeking out pleasure rather than pain, which helps ensure that human beings are frequently unsatisfied: "We are condemned to always want things to be a little different, always want a little more," he says. "We're not designed by natural selection to be happy."

But all is not lost. In his new book, Why Buddhism is True, Wright makes the case that some Buddhist practices can help humans overcome the biological pull towards dissatisfaction.

"I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection," he says. "Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, 'We don't have to play this game.' "

Interview Highlights

On how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting

This was in the Buddha's first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it's true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It's a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as "unsatisfactoryness."

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you'd feel blissed out, you'd never eat again. You'd have sex, you'd, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that's not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it's central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.

On how to approach physical pain with mindfulness

A basic principle of mindfulness meditation is to not run away from feelings that you normally run away from. By "run away from" I mean you're averse to them. Like, if you feel anxiety or physical pain, you want it to go away. You want to do something that makes it go away. And the idea of mindfulness meditation is that you actually sit there — kind of observe the feeling, experience the feeling — and ironically, that can give you a kind of critical distance from it, a kind of detachment from it. So not running away from the pain or the emotional distress, or whatever, can, through meditative practice, disempower the pain or the distress.

On how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull towards dissatisfaction

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. ... By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that's just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That's an amazing thing — that it can work.

On how cognitive behavioral therapy and Buddhism work together

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works by kind of interrogating people about the logic behind things like fears and anxieties, like, Is there really much of a chance of you projectile vomiting while speaking to a crowd? You've never done it before. ... So there's a suspicion there about the logic behind feelings.

Robert Wright is a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His previous books include <em>The Evolution of God</em> and <em>Three Scientists and their Gods.</em>
Barry Munger / Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
Robert Wright is a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His previous books include The Evolution of God and Three Scientists and their Gods.

Well, in Buddhism there's a suspicion of the logic behind feelings more broadly, I would say. But as a practical matter, Buddhism works at the level of feeling. They don't interrogate the logic explicitly, but you deal with the feeling itself in a way that disempowers it. And there's a kind of bridge between cognitive therapy and Buddhist practice in evolutionary psychology; because evolutionary psychology explains that, indeed, a lot of the feelings we have are not worth following, for various reasons. They may have literally been designed to mislead us to begin with by natural selection. ... We live in an environment so different from the environment that natural selection designed us for that we have these counterproductive feelings, like fear of public speaking. So evolutionary psychology gives a back story, explaining why it is that we so often are misled by feelings ... and then Buddhist meditation tells us what to do about that.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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