Very Bad Wizards on Buddhism
I recently listened to Very Bad Wizards' podcast "Clap Your Hand for Robert Wright" (aired Tuesday, July 25 2017). In that episode the hosts, David Pizarro and Tamler Somers mentioned several struggles they had with Buddhism. Their comments resonated strongly with me and are the very ones I have been thinking about, researching and exploring in my practice for many years so I thought I would post my thoughts on their comments here.
1. They mentioned not really getting or buying into this whole idea that there is no self and same thing with Buddhism's frequent use of paradox.
This is a complex topic. I would say that it is not just a Buddhist idea. We can find the same message conveyed in books like the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, The Corpus Hermetica, the Bible, and so on. So if people like Buddha, Lao Tzu, Krishna, Hermes Trismegestus, and Jesus (assuming these were all actual people for the moment) are all saying the same thing, my perspective is that rather than not buying it, perhaps we should take them seriously and investigate whether we are misunderstanding something.
Here’s how I think about it. In their intro to the episode one of them mentions how they just feel like they have a self, there is something that is doing the perceiving or that is aware of your thoughts or feelings so there just must be a self. We all have that sense of course. The problem is that we mix up this ‘awareness,’ which is a good working model of our ‘self,’ with our thoughts and feelings. When there is this merging of our sense of self with what we are thinking or feeling, all sorts of problems arise (and this point was touched on in the interview with Wright). Our thoughts and feelings are not very good at giving us accurate pictures of what is really happening ‘out there’ (see the Serena Podcast). When we confuse our thoughts and feelings with the truth this mistake will lead inevitably to a perpetual and unsolvable sense of separation and lack.
And if the feelings of separation and lack are haunting us day and night, we will put enormous amounts of time and energy into trying to get rid of those feelings and get more of the good stuff (whether it is love, comfort, control, understanding, sensory pleasure, health, safety or whatever). We look at every situation and ask “what am I going to get out of this situation or activity or person? How much am I going to get? When am I going to get it and what is it going to cost me?” Hardly a mindset conducive to peace, happiness and optimal health.
So as best I can tell the trick that all these ancient masters landed on was to withdraw our identity from the products of our brain; from our thoughts and memories and emotions. By withdrawing in to that awareness that they talk about through practices like meditation, a different truth about who we really are emerges. We separate from our identification with our thoughts and feelings and then we are just the awareness. We are told that when we do that, and are anchored firmly in this awareness-only state, we don’t have a sense that there is a self. The masters tell us that as we ascend closer and closer to our true self and our source, we have a sense of being directly connected to other beings, of being one with the universe, or, at the extreme, of not being a self (or even being neither a self nor a non-self at all). But as is discussed (e.g. around min 38 or so of the Very Bad Wizards episode) we have to experience this for our self because otherwise we are just trying to use our words to convey something that isn’t conveyable in words. And I think that is why paradox is used so frequently in Buddha’s teachings. It is a way of forcing us to just throw up our hands and stop relying on our thinking self and search for the answer with our other faculties.
2. Another fundamental stumbling block they mentioned is the buddhist idea that reality as we perceive it is an illusion.
Thanks to modern science we know this one is true. Tamler and David discussed this part with Wright and given their backgrounds they are probably far more expert at this than I. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, we need only read the works of physicists like Brian Greene, neuroscientists like Lisa Feldman Barrett or philosophers who Tamler and David are probably are deeply familiar with (perhaps Daniel Dennett) to unpack the various angles of this truth.
Let’s take the scientist view. While it sure seems that what we see through our eyes is what is actually out there, in fact we see through our imagination. We do not directly experience what science has consistently shown us to be the forces and laws of the cosmos.
Our eyes and ears, for example, have evolved over the millennia to perceive an extremely narrow but evolutionarily advantageous set of frequencies on the electromagnetic and sound spectrums. The world we are looking out on with our eyes is completely different to the image constructed in our mind. Instead of the objects and colors we perceive, what we are looking out on is actually a wild sea of electromagnetic radiation, gravitational waves, dark energy, quantum uncertainty, and possibly riddled with dimensions we can’t even comprehend, let alone observe. The objects we “see” may seem solid and continuous but they are composed of matter, and the atoms that make up matter are 99.9999999999996% empty space. (Taking a Hydrogen atom for example and using very rough math, if the nucleus were the size of an orange, the electron orbital “cloud” would be approximately 30 kilometers distant.) And recent scientific investigations into the neurology of people suffering from “phantom limbs” suggest that even our sense of own bodies is mediated by our imagination. It seems from these neurological studies that our consciousness does not directly contact even our own physical bodies. Rather, our brains appear to have developed an evolutionarily desirable internal “self-model” of the body that allows for swifter processing and response.
Another point that was discussed in their conversation with Wright that I think goes to this point about our perception of the world being an illusion is that our emotions are not much better than our senses in telling us what is actually ‘out there.’ If brain scientists like Lisa Barrett are right, we invent our world in an unspoken agreement with other people in order to regulate our body budgets to maximize our chances of survival.
As I think Wright himself said during the interview, Barrett points out that the illusory interpretation of the world around us happens to be the one that evolution has selected for, not because it is a true representation of reality but because those ancestors that had this sort of illusory capability were more successful at producing offspring. (These ideas were also discussed and they mentioned Robert Frank’s book "Passions within Reason" that I have just bought and look forward to reading.)
Barrett's point is that our brain’s body-budgeting regions drive a constant and huge amount of predictions and our senses are eagerly listening to those predictions in order to help optimize them. When certain predictions begin to win out based on feedback from the senses, the brain then drives the control of the body in a way to maximize survival. For example, only 10% of the connections coming in to the visual cortex are from the eyes; the other 90% come in from other parts of the brain, suggesting that what we “see” has much more to do with these predictions than with what is actually coming in through our eyes. Barrett gives the example of walking through the woods, seeing a giant snake, and running away in fear. She writes: “I did not see a snake and categorize it. I did not feel the urge to run and categorize it. I did not feel my heart pounding and categorize it. I categorized the sensations in order to see the snake, to feel my heart pounding, and to run. I correctly predicted these sensations, and in doing so, explained them with an instance of the concept of ‘Fear.’”
I will leave making any points about the philosophical discussion on this subject since I am not a philosopher but people like Daniel Dennett, on my simple reading, have done away with this idea of our self perceiving the world through a sort of Cartesian Theater and instead put forward ideas like the Multiple Drafts Model that s make more sense to me and also reinforce the idea the lack of a self and the world that we perceive being an illusion.
Anyway, that is a summary of some of the reasons why I don’t see Buddha’s claim of the illusory nature of the world we perceive as being too hard to accept.
3. The human condition is suffering and the only good way to deal with it is to withdraw our desires and withdraw our self from this existence. Buddhism’s solution is detachment.
At one point in the introduction to the episode one them says that they’ll take the suffering because they don’t want to have to give up the good stuff, the stuff that makes life worth living. By “good stuff” they mention pleasure and commitments to or caring deeply about other people (or pets).
I’ll refrain from commenting on the "suffering" interpretation, since Tamler and David discuss the Pali term Dukkha with Sam Harris in his Waking Up podcast (the Episode on The Limits of Persuasion) and I even seem to recall Wright discussing this idea of unsatisfactoriness with Tamler and David; but it is a really important distinction that perhaps they just forgot when you recorded the intro.)
I think what the great ones are saying isn’t that we should withdraw from the world and become detached about everything (even though they sometimes use that word). This is a common misunderstanding. Instead, I think what they mean is that who we really are isn’t who we think it is and therefore achieving happiness isn’t by servicing the desires of that self who we aren’t. My reading of what these masters all say is that inside each of us is a sort of “self” which is fundamentally and inherently loving, joyful, peaceful, creative, spontaneous, safe, and abundant. By discovering and identifying with this self we don’t withdraw from the world or give up our connections with other people (or pets). In fact, our experience of the love for those people and pets is enhanced by shifting our identity to who we really are. Even though we are no longer dependent upon or attached to others, our connection with them is in fact deepened and our interactions improved in every respect. And realizing that the world is illusory doesn’t mean that we experience an annihilation of our identity or a loss of morality. To the contrary, I think there is greater sense of engagement, care, compassion and wonder at how magnificent and massive the illusion is (though the engagement is not complete or merged in the way it is for most of us now).
One of them suggested that no one would do anything if we all withdrew or were all enlightened. In fact, I think there would be even more cool stuff created as more people were in touch with their true selves. Some of the greatest art, architecture, technology and so on have come from inspiration which I would call one of the faculties of our higher (i.e. not our emotional or thinking) self. Sure we may need to engage our logical or emotional selves to progress those ideas to fruition. It’s like our car. Just because we get out of it after driving home doesn’t mean it isn’t sitting there ready for us to use the next time we want to drive somewhere. The point is that our logical or emotional selves are still there and at our service; we’re just not confusing who we are with them.