DT-Why meditate? – Robert Wright

Tonight, we’ll explore the question, “Why meditate?” I’ll be drawing on Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. As a professor of religion and psychology, Wright admits that initially he was skeptical that meditation practice would enhance his life. Attending a few retreats changed his mind. He connected with the Buddha’s insight that the main reason we suffer and cause others to suffer is that we do not see reality clearly. 

Among the benefits of meditation that Wright mentions are moments of clear perception. I’ll give an example from my own practice. Sitting at a retreat center in rural New York, I had an experience of being unified with a pure, crystalline liquid sound. In the instant of perception, there was no sense of self or separation between the exquisite sound and the organ of the ear that received it. Only afterwards came a thought labeling the sound as a birdsong. Although the experience was brief, it gave me a glimpse of the selflessness of sensory perception. 

Wright points out how clearer perception can help us drop critical judgments that lead to aversion. During a period of outdoor walking meditation, he observed a lovely patch of leafy plants. Upon closer inspection, he was surprised to identify one of the plants as a plantain weed. Memories surfaced of treating such weeds as pests—uprooting and discarding them whenever they infested his lawn at home. But in that moment on retreat, that particular, green-leafed plant looked just as attractive as its neighbors, which were not considered to be weeds. Suddenly, there seemed to be no objective visual criteria to differentiate weeds from non-weeds. With a fresh perspective, he could drop his habitual aversive reaction. 

Another benefit of meditation is the practice of observing emotions instead of engaging with them. For instance, if I become aware of anxiety, instead of pursuing catastrophic thoughts and worries, I can investigate bodily sensations such as shallow breathing and tightness in my throat and belly. In this process, I notice that unpleasant physical sensations associated with anxiety fluctuate in intensity and are impermanent. I also note non-anxious moments when the breath releases, and the mind clears enough to remember that anxiety is not me or mine. This kind of mindful attention alleviates suffering. 

Robert Wright states that sitting with boredom can be as challenging as dealing with anxiety, sadness or anger. One of his meditation teachers invited him to sit still and to notice how interesting boredom could be. Wright realized that underlying the judgment that “nothing new is happening” were physical sensations of tension and restlessness along with emotions of frustration and impatience. As he paid careful attention, those sensations and emotions shifted until they were no longer in the foreground. His investigation uncovered so much inner activity that he was no longer bored.

Many of the insights that arise in meditation are directly applicable to daily life. Once we discover how fruitful it is to be mindful of emotions and mental states, we are often motivated to apply that practice to everyday challenges. As an author, Wright sometimes has periods of writer’s block when he cannot develop his ideas on the page. With mindfulness, he notes that beneath the feeling of being stuck and uninspired is a strong urge to do anything other than write. He closes his eyes and observes impulses to escape or resist, noting related body sensations and fantasies arising and passing away. Often after this nonjudgmental investigation, his writing begins to flow again. 

Regular meditation practice tends to develop mental clarity and calm. During a sit, if an unresolved issue comes to mind, I can view it with more spaciousness and objectivity than usual. For example, in mid-breath an upsetting thought arises about voter suppression. Instead of pursuing a story line about unjust power in politics, I let the thought go for now. With curiosity, I notice underlying anger and indignation. As I accept those emotions, my attention is drawn to physical sensations of heat and tension. When the emotional intensity fades, I return to noting the rhythm of breathing. Reestablishing a calm center helps me to connect with a clearer sense of purpose. After meditating, I feel inspired to act according to my values, signing petitions and donating to organizations that defend voting rights.

Meditation helps us to become aware of how our minds work, which frees us to go against the stream in our thoughts, words and deeds. Wright says that the survival of our planet depends on this awareness, which is a crucial part of our evolution as human beings. Evolutionary biologists have traced how human beings spread their genes to the next generation by repeatedly pursuing pleasures associated with eating, having sex and besting rivals. 

But one of the Buddha’s basic teachings is that the sensory pleasures that we seek are fleeting and leave us hungry for more; we delude ourselves by overestimating how much happiness we’ll obtain by satisfying our desires. In meditation, we practice sitting still and observing desires without acting on them. As we learn not to scratch every itch or shift posture each time pain arises, we see that we have choices to be free from habitual conditioning.  

We have evolved according to natural selection and are conditioned to protect and defend our self-interest. Human beings tend to gather in groups with those who look and think similarly and to view those who look and think differently as enemies. Even in an increasingly global world, tribalism persists, and battles are fought over ethnic, religious, national or ideological differences.

Wright proposes that in order to move beyond tribalism, we reject what he calls “the core evolutionary value of the specialness of self.” In his vision, when enough people practice cultivating calm and clear minds; wise, relatively selfless leaders will emerge who know how to defuse conflicts without overreacting to threats. Such leaders can assess with clarity the roots of environmental, social and political crises—for example, understanding what animates potential terrorists to join or support violent causes and what discourages them from doing so. 

As Wright says, “We don’t have to love our enemies, but seeing them clearly is essential. And one lesson from both Buddhist psychology and modern psychology is that seeing them clearly involves dialing down the fear and loathing. [More] than that, it involves transcending much subtler distortions of perception and cognition, often distortions that are grounded in subtler feelings.” 

Mindfulness meditation practice is an effective path for observing and uprooting those distortions. It also allows us to experience directly the dharma—the core truths that are conveyed by the Buddha’s teachings. In Wright’s words, “Dharma… denotes the reality that lies beyond our delusions and… the reality about how those delusions give rise to suffering; and it denotes the implications of all this for our conduct. In other words, the dharma is at once the truth about the way things are and the truth about how it makes sense to behave in light of the way things are. It is both description and prescription. It is the truth and the way…. Indeed, dharma can be thought of as natural law both in the sense of the law that the physical world complies with and the moral law that we strive to comply with.”

In the Varieties of Religious Experience, William James described religion in the broadest sense as “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Wright argues that over time Buddhist practice reveals a kind of “unseen order.” In meditation, we observe that underlying the appearance of a substantial, separate self is actually an interconnected continuity flowing within and all around us. 

The more we let go of rigid boundaries and experience that sense of interconnection, the more we recognize the moral connection between our welfare and the welfare of others. With this recognition, rather than acting competitively, we tend to be compassionate to ourselves and others. We are motivated to do what we can to alleviate universal suffering and to celebrate our common good. We see that our “supreme good” lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that previously unseen order. 

Part of that unseen order is reflected in the closing lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by the 19th century poet John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” 

For Wright, meditation practice reveals a connection between truth and beauty. He describes his experience of witnessing a sunset on a winter retreat in Massachusetts. At first, because he was reflecting upon melancholic memories, he didn’t pay full attention to the subtle colors in the sky. When he investigated the feeling of melancholy, however, its intensity faded, and it transformed into gentle waves of energy—neither pleasant nor unpleasant—moving slowly through his body. As his self-preoccupation subsided, his mind relaxed and he connected with how stunningly beautiful the horizon was. It was no longer a reflection of sadness, but a source of delight and awe. 

His experience reminds me of a transformative experience that I had near the end of a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock. In my notebook, I wrote the following account of taking a walk outside: “I look over my shoulder at the vast expanse of hills and the spotless blue sky…. Such natural beauty takes my breath away. As I enter [a wooded area], a state of awe encompasses me. Every dewy blade of grass seems sacred. In their capes of moss and lichen, all the trees appear to bow with me to the mystery of life. Patches of purple iris are celebrating too… and the birds around me add refrains of praise. Every step I take feels charmed… I shake hands with the longest limb of the grandest tree. Everything I see, hear or touch seems as blessed as I am. Even poison ivy has its place—at a distance. Simultaneously, I feel small and insignificant and yet empowered…. I sense my feet firmly on the earth. Life is precious in all of its manifestations.” 

For a brief time, I felt aligned with an unseen order that connects all life. In that state, I could not conceive of harming any sentient being. When I have doubts about the value of meditating, and when I sit with anger, boredom, sadness or pain, I remember that glimpse and persevere.