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Table of Contents

Introduction: Religious Buddhism and ‘Secular’ Buddhism ................................. 2

Feelings and Illusions ................................................................................................. 5
The First Two Noble Truths........................................................................................ 8
Evolutionary Psychology and the First Two Noble Truths ...................................11
Resources for Week 1 ................................................................................................15
The Eightfold Path ......................................................................................................16
Meditation ....................................................................................................................19
Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain .....................................................................23
Can Our Feelings Be Trusted? .................................................................................27
Resources for Week 2 ................................................................................................31
The Buddha’s Discourse on the Not-Self ................................................................32
What Did The Buddha Mean? ...................................................................................36
Modern Psychology and the Self .............................................................................40
Resources for Week 3 ................................................................................................45
Delusions about Ourselves .......................................................................................46
What Mental Modules Aren’t .....................................................................................51
What Mental Modules Are .........................................................................................53
Resources for Week 4 ................................................................................................59
Choosing ‘Selves’ Through Meditation ...................................................................60
‘Self’ Control ...............................................................................................................64
The Experience of Not-self ........................................................................................69
Resources for Week 5 ................................................................................................73
Not-Self as Interconnection ......................................................................................74
Essentialism and Emptiness.....................................................................................79
Buddhist and Darwinian Enlightenment .................................................................85
A Naturalistic Religion? .............................................................................................92
Resources for Week 5 ................................................................................................95
Buddhism and Modern Psychology
by Princeton University

Introduction: Religious Buddhism and ‘Secular’ Buddhism

Hi. Welcome to my course on Buddhism and Modern Psychology. I'm Robert Wright and I'm here
at Princeton University where, for the past couple of years, I've been teaching the seminar that
this course will be based on. Now, I've never taught an online course before, so I'm very excited
about this. It's kind of an adventure for me. And I want to thank you all for choosing to be part of
it. I want to spend the f, the first segment of this first lecture just giving you an overview of, of the
main themes of the course and then I'm going to talk a little bit about myself and what got me
interested in this.
Now one question you could ask about a course called Buddhism and Modern Psychology is
which Buddhism are we're talking about. After all, as with other religions, there are varieties of
Buddhism. Just as there are different denominations of Christianity. There are different versions
of Buddhism in Asia, and in addition to that, in, in recent decades, we've seen the emergence of
something that some people are calling a Western Buddhism. In the United States, where I am,
in Europe and so on. Consisting of people who weren't born Buddhist. But have chosen to adopt
Buddhist practice. In particular, meditation practice. Now, one distinctive feature of this Western
Buddhism is that these people don't pay a lot of attention to what some people would call the
supernatural. Parts of Buddhism. So, for example, if you took some of these Western Buddhists
and showed them this. They'd say, what is that? Well the answer is, it's a hungry ghost. And
many Asian Buddhists believe that you might be reincarnated as a hungry ghost in a kind of hell,
if things don't go well. Or, if things go better, you might wind up in a, in, in, in a heaven and
spend years there before. Being reincarnated again.
But this, this Western Buddhism doesn't really pay much attention to these kinds of ideas. And in
that sense, the focus of this course will have something in common with the Western Buddhism,
because we won't be talking much about things like Buddhist deities or reincarnation. And the
reason is simple.
This course is about the scientific evaluation of Buddhist ideas. And reincarnation is just not
an idea that's very susceptible to scientific evaluation. I don't know how you'd set up
an experiment to kind of test the hypothesis of reincarnation.
Now there are lots of ideas in, in Buddhism that are what you might call naturalistic. That is to
say, they are susceptible to scientific evaluation. A lot of ideas about the human mind. So for
example, Buddhism addresses questions like, why do people suffer? Why do we all feel
anxiety? And sadness, and so on.
Why do people behave unkindly sometimes?
Does the human mind deceive people about the nature of reality?
And can we change the way the mind works? In particular, through meditation? Now, I want to
emphasize that this kind of naturalistic part of Buddhism is an authentic part of Buddhist
heritage. It's found in the earliest writings. And it is common to Asian Buddhism and, and
Western Buddhism. It's kind of a common denominator of Buddhisms. Now some people refer to
this as a secular Buddhism, but that may be a little misleading.
because, I think it's possible to have a wholly naturalistic world view that does address some
of the questions that religions address and does do for people some of the things religion does
for people. So for example, I think a naturalistic world view, including this naturalistic Buddhism,
can in principle, give people a sense that their lives have meaning. Give them moral
orientation. Give them consolation in times of sorrow.
Give them equanimity as they encounter the turbulence of life.
Now, whether that means that you could call this naturalistic version of Buddhism religious
depends ultimately on how you are going to define religion. One of the, one of the broadest
definitions I've seen comes from William James, the great American psychologist who said that
the kind of animating essence of religion is the belief that there is an unseen order. And that our
supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.
Now, Buddhism does in a sense, say that there is an unseen order that we should adjust
ourselves to. Now it's not talking about a kind of cosmic plan.
The unseen order that is referred to, is the truth about the way things work. The truth about the
structure of reality, the truth about human beings, even the truth about yourself. According to
Buddhism, these truths often go unseen because the human mind contains certain built-
in. distortions, illusions. We don't see the word clearly. And Buddhism certainly does assert that
our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to this normally hidden truth. And in
fact Buddhism lays a path for the harmonious adjustment.
it, it, it, it lays out what it considers to be the truth about reality. It tells us what we need to do to
bring our lives in line with that reality.
and, the claim, the Buddhist claim is, that we can thereby relieve our suffering even end our
suffering. And in the process, align ourselves with moral truth. At least that's the claim. That is
the Buddhist claim. Is it true? Is the Buddhist diagnosis of the human predicament, why they're
are suffering through? And the prescription for for, for the human predicament powerful and
effective? Well that's largely what this course is about.
And, I hope it's not too much of a plot spoiler to say that I do think that modern psychology is in
some respects lending support to Buddhist ideas. For example, I think psychology does show us
that the, certain deceptions, distortions, are built into the human mind, and actually that we do
suffer as a result.
And I think even some of the more radical sounding Buddhist doctrines are, are getting some
support. For example Buddhism says that there is a sense in which the self, that is the thing that
I think of as running the show, the thing inside me does not exist. In a sense. And I think
psychology is also raising real questions about the actual nature. Of what we think of as the self.
Now, when I talk about modern psychology, I definitely mean to include evolutionary
psychology. And that is the study of how the human mind was shaped by natural selection and I
think there is evidence. That some of these delusions that the mind is subject to were actually
built in by natural selection for reasons we'll come to.
The mind is kind of programmed that way. But to say that something is natural, or was
engineered by natural selection, isn't to say that it's not changeable. And in fact, part of the idea
of Buddhism is to do what you might call kind of counter programming of, of the brain.
In particular through such techniques as meditation. And kind of neutralize some of these
tendencies that I would say were built into the brain By natural selection. And in fact one thing I
like about Buddhism is the sheer audacity of it. You know, it's kind of like a rebellion against our
creator. Natural selection it, it very much wants to, wants to run in opposition to some of the logic
by which natural selection wired the brain.
Should emphasize that it's not a complete rebellion against natural selection. Buddhism does
make use of some things natural selection engrained in us including, you know, love,
compassion, rational thought, but still it's a pretty thorough going rebellion we're talking
about. [COUGH] Now can the, can the rebellion be successful? I've already suggested that
modern psychology lend support to, to some of the Buddhist diagnosis of the human
But what about the prescription? Can the prescription laid out by Buddism end or greatly alleviate
human suffering. By making us see the world more clearly? Well, we're going to be hearing from
some people who say that it's worked for them. These are people I've talked to over the last few
months. But I want to emphasize that I'm not just interested in the question of whether,
whether meditation has made them happier, made them suffer less but whether it has done that.
By helping them see the world more clearly. Whether dispelling these illusions that seem to
be built into us is the key to happiness.
Now in looking at this issue we will also be hearing from some prominent psychologists. That I've
also been having conversations with other the last few months. And we'll be looking at various
kinds of evidence. Brain scans, social psychology experiments. And we'll also be hearing a
little bit from me about my experiences with meditation. I'm not a hardcore meditator, I don't
meditate hours a day. But I do try to meditate everyday. and. Perhaps more important, I have
done some of these one week silent meditation retreats, which are pretty, pretty intense. And
involve a whole lot of meditation and not much else and they can have dramatic effects on
your consciousness, and I think these have given me a glimpse of what some of these much
more serious meditators. Experience and the conclusions they reach about how their mind is
These retreats are really, probably the main thing that got me interested in this whole area, and,
and, and they're the reason that I decided to research it and write about it and teach about it. At
the same time, my interest also grows out of my. Previous work in a kind of natural way.
About 20 years ago, I read a book called The Moral Animal, about evolutionary psychology when
that term, evolutionary psychology, was just starting to circulate.
And then I went to teach in a psychology department of Penn, the University of Pennsylvania, for
a while. Meanwhile, I was getting more interested in religion. And I wrote a book called The
Evolution of God about the emergence of the Abrahamic God. And in the last few chapters of
that, I addressed the question of whether there can be a religion that is viable in the modern
world, whether you could have something you could call a religion that is fully compatible with
modern science. And now I'm kind of returning to that question here and I'm really
looking forward to to sharing what, my thinking with you and my findings with you. So now let's
dive into the course and move on to the second segment of lecture one. [BLANK_AUDIO]
Feelings and Illusions
In this segment of lecture one, I'm going to talk a little about our feelings, our emotions, and I'm
going to do that from two perspectives. From the perspective of Buddhism, and then also from
the perspective of evolution. In other words, in the perspective of somebody who's trying to figure
out you know, why our feelings have certain properties. Why evolution created them that way.
And here I'm kind of jumping ahead to things we're going to cover in greater detail later in the
course, but I did want to give you a taste of them. For one thing I wanted to give you a sense for
kind of some of the practical payoff for meditation, and also the sense for some of the larger
themes that lie ahead. Now a few months ago I was in Vienna in Austria at a big conference on
interfaith dialogue. And there were people from all kinds of religions there, and one of them was
a Buddhist Nun named Yifa, YIFA, from Taiwan. In fact she is a pretty prominent Buddhist
Nun. She has written books about Buddhism. And I found myself talking to her.
And we got to talking about meditation. And I asked her if I could videotape her. Because I knew
I was going to be teaching this course. And I thought I'd like to share some of her thoughts with
you. And she said sure. And so I pulled out my cell phone. And I pressed record. And I asked her
how can meditation change the way you view your feelings. And, here's what she said. >> When
you act angry or, you know, you have a great emotion,
and you would grasp that feeling as real. But when you are meditating or contemplate on those
sensations, the anger, fear, over anxiety and you will find very interesting those things are not
real, not concrete.
So it's to help you to see the nature of a fear, fear
over you know, anxiety or [UNKNOWN], all kinds of, emotion. And you find, it's very different.
Like, when you use that kind of,
meditative, look, from, kind of from inside.
And you make a analysis, kind of a, okay, this is a so called anger. And you find, it's just like you
watching movie. The movie it's, its a kind of a, you know, picture by picture in motion. And you,
you grasp it as real. But when you you know, take a, a one by one, a piece by piece. It's not
real. >> Well, that would be nice, wouldn't it if you could just convince yourself that some of your
most troublesome, unpleasant feelings aren't real and kind of liberate yourself from them? Now
that does lead to the question what does it even mean to say that feelings are real?
You know, after all, isn't the definition of a feeling just this thing we experience, so as long you're,
as you're experiencing it, isn't it, isn't it real? Well that's a good question, it's a
challenging question and in fact it's so challenging that I think I'll dodge it, for just right now and
promise to get back to it later. What I would say for now is that, on the one hand it's not you
know, found in core Buddhist doctrine anywhere the assertion that you know, feelings aren't real
in so many words. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of Buddhist meditators who would
know exactly what Yifa was talking about. And it is part of Buddhist thought, quite explicitly,
that our feelings are not reliable guides to reality, in a sense. They're not entirely
trustworthy. Okay. And, and meditation is a, is a technique for among other things giving yourself
some critical distance from your feelings to avoid being misled by them. Now one reason it
matters whether feelings are really reliable is that feelings can influence your perceptions. And
your thoughts and, and this is something that becomes more evident through meditation. As you
observe your mind, You can realize that this is happening in a subtler way than you had, than
you had previously thought.
And this kind of influence of feelings on perception and thought is also something that
psychologists have paid more attention to recently. And, in fact, there's a, a very interesting
about this that that I want to talk about now.
What do you see here? Is this a squirrel or is it an alligators head? If it's a squirrel, you see the,
that these as the eyes and this is the tail and these as the paws. If you think it's an alligators
head emerging from the water, then these are the eyes, this is the snout, and here are the
menacing teeth, okay. And so, too for, for this. Is this a rope or a snake? Is this a meat cleaver or
a cooking pot?
Well you know most people, when they see one of these things they make a snap
judgement. What's interesting is what researchers recently found about how you can influence
the snap judgements people make. What the researchers did was they showed these three
pictures to people for one second and asked them what they saw. But first they exposed these
people to one of three different conditions. Either they played kind of happy music Or they played
no music. Or they played scary music that sounded like this. [MUSIC] And then they asked them,
what did you see here? Now it turns out that the happy music didn't have much of an effect one
way or the other compared to just hearing no music. But if you look at these graphs you can see
that the scary music had a pronounced effect. So in the case of the snake about 30% of the
people who heard no music saw a snake as opposed to a coiled rope. And, and roughly 70% of
the people who heard the scary music thought they saw a snake. Now if you ask why is the brain
built like this. So that our feelings can influence our perceptions in this way.
It might help to kind of, step outside of this contrived laboratory condition. And imagine a, a real-
life scenario. Suppose you're about to take a hike, in what you've just learned is rattlesnake
terrain and in fact, you've just heard that, that a few weeks ago, someone was bitten by a snake
and died. Well, that's going to change your frame of mind. As you take your walk, you're going to
be at least modestly fearful and that's going to change the things you pay attention to. the, the
Greek the Greek playwright, Sophocles said, to a main who is afraid, everything rustles. And
that's very much the idea, you're going to be very attentive to rustling sounds. And, if you hear
one, and look down to see what's going on and let's say it turns out it's actually a lizard darting
across your path, well it's a good chance, that for a second you're going to actually think it's a
snake. Or if you, if there happens to be an actual coiled rope as in that experiment, you would
probably interpret that as the snake.
Now from natural selection's point of view, this actually makes sense. Right? The, the, these kind
of false positives actually make sense.
because, you know, it's better safe than sorry. It's, it's, even if you, you jump out of the way 99
times out of 100, and it's not a snake, well, if, if that same fear that made you do that, that made
you see a snake that isn't there, makes sure that you jumped out of the way on, on the
occasion when the snake is there, well, then all that other trouble, and those other 99 times, was
worth it. From natural selection's point of view. Okay. So, this is a reminder that natural selection
designs organisms ultimately to do one thing. That is get genes into the next
generation. Genetically-based traits that are conducive to getting genes into the next
generation and surviving long enough to do that are favored by natural selection.
So it's not really high on natural selection's agenda necessarily that we see the world clearly. If
it's the case that an illusion, seeing an actual illusion, will help us survive or help us get our
genes passed on then that is the tendency that natural selection will favor. So we're not really,
our brains aren't built to see the truth per se.
Now, a couple bits of nuance I want to add to this. First of all, whenever I saw natural selection,
designs, brains, or organisms.
Designs should be in quotes, okay. It's, it's kind of a metaphor. Natural selection obviously isn't
conscious, but it does, produce organisms that look as if they were designed by a conscious
designer to do ultimately one thing, get their genes transmitted. And the second thing I'd add is it,
it, it fairly often, you know, is in, in, in our, our interests, even by natural selection's likes to see
things clearly. Okay. So, if you ask, why am I not about to, to walk over and run into that
wall? The answer is because I see very clearly where the wall is and I have a very healthy
aversion to running into walls. And if you ask why, when I leave this building am I not going to get
run over by a car, one answer is well, I will hear the cars coming and I will pay a lot of attention to
that. But even there, there is a kind of illusion. It turns out that when people hear things, possibly
threatening things, coming they actually overestimate how soon they will get there. That seems
to built into us and, and actually also into our, our primate relatives. So it seems to be a product
of natural selection. And again, it makes sense. It's the better safe then sorry principle. Okay. So
the point of this is just to draw one basic parallel. Okay. Buddhism says that we should be
skeptical of our feelings. They are not necessarily truthful guides to reality and indeed that we
should be skeptical of some of the thoughts and the perceptions that feelings foster.
Evolutionary psychology also says a certain kind of skepticism makes sense. Because we are
not necessarily designed to see the truth. And in some cases our, our minds are actually
designed to see what are literally illusions. Now the stakes of this may not seem especially
high. I mean how often do you actually find yourself hiking in, in rattlesnake terrain? But
sometimes the stakes are higher. So some other psychologists found that if they show people a
scary movie, in this case it was Silence of the Lambs, or show them part of the movie. And then
show them pictures of men in a different ethnic group from theirs. These people are more likely
to see menacing, angry expressions on the faces of these men than people who have not seen
part of the scary movie. And again, you can imagine, you know, as with the rattlesnake illusion,
you can imagine this coming in handy. Maybe you're in a, in, in, in kind of a dicey neighborhood,
and you get some cues that maybe you should get out of there that creates fear, and the fear
makes you kind of hyper vigilant. And maybe even makes you kind of imagine menacing
expressions aren't there, but it does do you the service of, of getting you to a safer place. Could
work like that. But at the same time, remember that one reason, politicians manipulate the
emotions of people when these politicians want to go to war. Is because by manipulating
people's emotions, you can change their perceptions, you can change their perception of the
people that the politicians want to go to war with. So these things do matter. And it's really worth
while to figure out exactly what the interaction is among feelings and thoughts and perceptions,
and how collectively they can distort our view of the world. And figure that out is a lot of what this
course is about.
Now lets go back to square one, in, in the next segment, and look at some Basic Buddhist
doctrine. In particular the Buddha's ideas about why people suffer.
The First Two Noble Truths
So here's a question. Which recording artist sang the most Buddhist song in the history of
popular music? Now obviously, there's no officially correct answer to that question. But if you
want to know someone that I think should at least be in the running for that title, that is, believe it
or not, this guy.
That's right. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, who famously sang the lyric, I can't get no
satisfaction. Now if you've read much Buddhist scripture, you probably don't recall running into
that phrase and that's because I don't think it's there. But it does capture a lot of the spirit of what
is called The First Noble Truth. And that's what we're going to talk about in this segment of
lecture one, along with the Second Noble Truth. Together, they constitute the Buddha's
diagnosis of the human predicament. Then later we'll be talking about the Third and Fourth
Noble Truths, which embody the Buddha's prescription, his cure for what ails us. These, these
Four Noble Truths are foundational to Buddhist thought.
The Buddha delivered them in a famous sermon at Deer Park shortly after attaining
enlightenment, which in turn happened after he had meditated under a Bodhi tree for a very long
Now, I should stop here and admit that we don't really know whether what I just said is true.
We don't know if the Buddha delivered that sermon, or what he said at it. If he did, we don't know
whether he sat under a Bodhi tree. So far as we know, the story of the Buddha, and what
he said, was not written down for a very long time after he lived. So, whenever you hear me say
the Buddha said this, the Buddha thought that, strictly speaking what I mean is according to
Buddhist scripture, the Buddha said this, the Buddha thought that. What we do know is that the
Buddha's teachings were being promulgated, well more than two millennia ago, centuries
before the time of Jesus, who of course is another foundational religious figure whose sayings
we can't really pin down with confidence. Of course, as a matter of faith people may believe that
any given foundational religious figure said various things, and that's fine with me. But as a
matter of historical scholarship, we just can't be sure. So the First Noble Truth, the one that I'm
suggesting has a kind of Mick Jagger aspect, is usually translated into English as The Truth of
Suffering. But a lot of scholars think that suffering is really not an adequate translation of the
word the Buddha used. It's not that the word is wrong, it's just that it doesn't capture the full
breadth of what may have originally been meant by the word. So, maybe we should take a look
at the word itself. And for this purpose, and at the risk of seeming like a relic from a simple
era, I'm going to make use of a black board and an analog information technology known as
This is the word that is typically translated as suffering, and as you can see I've written it twice
with two different spellings. The reason for that is that one is the Sanskrit version and one is in
Pali, an ancient language closely related to Sanskrit. The reason this is worth talking about a little
is because this is true of key Buddhist terms in general. As you read about Buddhism, you may
encounter them in one language or in the other. And in some cases it really matters because that
might keep you from even recognizing the term. So, for example, if you ran into this term,
Nibbana, you might say what is that? Whereas if you ran into it in this form, Nirvana, you would
probably have a slightly clearer idea. Sorry about my handwriting.
Nirvana means of course, liberation, liberation from suffering and that is what you get, in theory,
if you follow the Four Noble Truths all the way to the end. And there's one other very important
term that can appear in either language and is also related to the Four Noble Truths. And that is,
in probably the form you'll see it most commonly, dharma.
Or if you see it in the Pali, it is dhamma. And it's a very interesting and rich word with a lot of
meanings. We don't have time to go into all of them. I want to mention a couple,
though. Probably the most common meaning of dharma is to refer to the Buddha's teachings and
by extension, the path that the Buddha said we should tread. Okay. But there is a more
fundamental meaning of dharma. It refers to kind of the truth about the way the universe
is structured or about the, the natural and moral law that structures the universe, that is the truth
that is reflected in the Buddha's writings and in his teachings and the, the truth whose
implications are spelled out in his teachings but it's the truth itself, not, not just the Buddhist
teaching about the truth. So, in other words, you could say that dharma means both, the truth
about the way things are and then in, in the other sense of the term, the truth about the way we
should live in recognition of the way things are, that is the, the path that is spelled out in the
Buddha's teachings. So this is kind of reminiscent of that William James quote we heard earlier,
where James said that the essence of religion is the belief that there is an unseen order and
the our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to that order. So dharma in the, in
the second sense, in the fundamental sense of the term, is the unseen order.
And then it is spelled out to us in the first sense of the term dharma, in the Buddha's
teachings. And also there, we find out how to harmoniously adjust ourselves to the unseen order,
and, and thereby realize our supreme good, which is Nirvana.
if, again, we, we make it all the way through the, the Four Noble Truths and follow them, and
their implications, precisely which Brings us back to duhkka. Ok now as I said, a lot of
scholars think that the translation of duhkka as suffering is not, not wholly adequate, and if you
ask well, what other senses of the term might we add?
Well the answer is, and here's a clue,
that's right, the most commonly nominated supplementary translation of duhkka, supplementary
to suffering, is unsatisfactoriness in life. And one virtue of adding this sense to the meaning of
duhkka is that it makes the First Noble Truth sound a little bit more plausible. Because you know,
the First Noble of Truth emphasizes the pervasiveness of suffering. One way it's often
paraphrased in English is life is suffering. And, you know, the Buddha never quite says that in so
many words, as far as I know, life is duhkka, but it, that line does capture the, the sense of
things. That, that this duhkka thing is a pervasive part of life.
And you know, that you may just, that may not make any sense to you. Right? I mean, there
have obviously been times in your life when you felt, you know, you were not suffering. But if you
add this sense of unsatisfactoriness to the word, it makes a little more sense I think. So, just to
give you an example, let's take one of my favorite things; powdered sugar donuts. Okay, I don't
eat them all that often, I'm proud to say, but that does sometimes takes some self restraint, you
know. I'm talking about, you may have see them, in these little 6 packs of donuts at a
convenience store, each one small enough to pop into your mouth. And if you asked me, while
I'm eating one of these, am I suffering? The answer is, I would say no, are you kidding, obviously
not. I'm not suffering. On the other hand, it probably is true that, you know, just about as soon as
I start swallowing the one donut, I'm already thinking about that next donut, already kind of
yearning for another donut at some level.
And the fact that I want another donut means that in a literal sense, I didn't get satisfaction. If you
get satisfaction, you don't want any more. Right?
So this, you know, this, this, this lends some credibility to the First Noble Truth, the idea that
there's always a kind of undercurrent of yearning no matter what we get. You know, whether it's
donuts or money or sex. You know, feels good, but eventually the time comes when the thrill
wears off, you want some more.
It just, the pleasure doesn't last. And this, this business of things not lasting is a major theme of
the Buddha's. Impermanence is a very common word in Buddhist texts. The idea is that you
know, nothing is permanent in the world, certainly not pleasure, and yet we seem to try to cling to
things. And here we're actually moving into the Second Noble Truth, which announces the cause
of duhkka, the cause of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. And that cause is, it's a word that
means something like thirst. It's often translated as craving. And there's a sense of clinging, of
trying to hang on. And the Buddha said that, in clinging to things that won't last, you know, we're
evincing a kind of delusion. We're just not getting the picture about the impermanence of
things. We're not reckoning with the truth about reality.
Now I want to emphasize that the stakes of this go way beyond powered sugar donuts in a
couple of senses. First of all, we're not just taking about kind of raw, sensory pleasures,
okay? It's gratifying things in general. Getting an A on that next exam. Winning the esteem of
your friends. Winning the acclaim of society at large. You know, whatever makes you feel good,
eventually that feeling will fade, and you're going to want more. Psychologists refer to this as the
Hedonic Treadmill. Hedonic, meaning pleasure seeking, and treadmill, meaning you're not
getting anywhere. You keep trying, and keep striving after happiness, you don't get any closer to
it. And this refers to the finding that when people do get happier, a new job makes them happier,
they win the lottery, as a rule, their happiness before too long returns to its normal
level. Okay. Now, there's a second sense in which the stakes are higher than, than powdered
sugar donuts. And that is that although it sounds like the first two Noble Truths are all about
things that we, that we seek, that we desire. It also covers anxieties and fears. Anxieties about,
you know being criticized in public or something, or going to some cocktail party you don't want
to go to. The fear of being eaten by a lion or something, you know? And that, you know, that that
doesn't, that doesn't sound right that you could include these things under the rubric of craving,
right, because you don't, you know, social rejection you don't, you don't want, you want to get
away from that. You don't want to get closer to it, and, you know, a charging lion is something
that you do not want to embrace, you want to get away from.
And for that reason, I'm almost kind of surprised that, in the, in the second Noble Truth, we
actually don't hear about aversion to things as a problem, because elsewhere in Buddhist texts,
there is a lot of emphasis on aversion. And sometimes, it's put on kind of an equal plane with
craving, as the source of our troubles. But it is true that, you know, you can phrase these things
in a way such that anxieties and fears do fit into the Second Noble Truth as it's stated. So you
would say, for example, well, if you fear social criticism, if you have anxiety about that, or if you
have anxiety about doing badly at some presentation you're going to give, that's because you're
clinging to your social status. You're attached to your social status. That's the problem. It's
attachment. Or, if you fear a charging lion, that's because you are attached to your own
existence. You cling to, you crave, your own existence. And you know, you may at this point say,
wait a second, this, this is where I get off the boat. If Buddhism is telling me I shouldn't be
attached to my own existence you know, I'm just not interested in this program.
well. You know, I'm not trying to recruit you, I'm just telling you what the Buddha's diagnosis does
explicitly include attachment to your existence as part of the problem. I do want to emphasize
that Buddhism doesn't recommend that you cross the street without looking both ways or
anything else. You can be a good Buddhist and tend to your own survival as you, as you do
now. And as long as I'm emphasizing that Buddhism is not as grim as it may sound sometimes, I
would add that the idea isn't, as far as this craving business goes, that we should never be
attracted to anything, or that we can never enjoy any pleasures. The question is, whether we're
clinging to things. In the, in the next lecture we're going to deal with the Third and Fourth Noble
Truths that is the Buddha's prescription.
But in the next segment of this lecture, we're going to look at kind of the evolutionary psychology
of the first two Noble Truths. We're going to drill down into the question of why it is that
pleasure evaporates, and why it is that we have so much trouble reckoning with that. Why is the
brain built in such a way that pleasure is fleeting. But we really focus a lot more on the pleasure
than the fleetingness. [BLANK_AUDIO]
Evolutionary Psychology and the First Two Noble Truths
So, we've just seen that according to the second noble truth, the source of dukkha, the source of
suffering and unsatisfactoriness is our craving, our attempt to hang onto things that don't last,
including pleasure.
And I used powdered sugar donuts as my own personal example of that.
The Buddha, as we saw, said that our failure to kinda grasp this dynamic was just another
example of our failing to see the world clearly. Now, in this segment of lecture one, we're gonna
drill down a little into the biological mechanics of craving and of the evaporation of pleasure, and
we're gonna ask why it is that if the Buddha was right, why it is that we do fail to get the picture
about pleasure and how fleeting it is.
Now, in Buddhist writing, when the Buddha talks about our failure to see things clearly, he often
uses a word that is typically translated as delusion. But, I wanna emphasize that sometimes that
word is a little bit of an overstatement, so for example, when I'm gazing at powdered sugar
donuts, there's no point where I'm thinking that there are foreign agents conspiring to
assassinate me or anything. There's not even a point where I think the pleasure is going to last
forever. In fact, well do you think it's gonna last for ten minutes, I'd probably say no. But at the
same time, as I look forward to eating those donuts, I'm thinking a lot more about the pleasure
than about the evaporation of the pleasure. And I'm certainly not thinking about, well, maybe the
sugar rush will subside and then I'll feel all unsettled. I'm just focused on that moment of
pleasure. Now in other cases, something more like delusion may actually happen with
infatuation. If you've ever had a serious crush on someone, you may recall that you had a pretty
distorted view of things. You had a lot of trouble seeing any blemishes or deficiencies in the
person. It was all good, right? And there was this idea that, wow, should you ever be so lucky to
find yourself in a relationship with that person, everything would be better, probably
eternally. And relationships, needless to say are, in fact, more complicated.
And so too with say, a job you really want. If you really want that thing you're looking forward to
it, thinking about all the great things it's gonna bring, you're not thinking about the hassles that all
jobs bring, and there may be a sense that if you can just get this job, then you can relax. Then
you will have arrived. Of course, you haven't really arrived. The gratification is not going to last
forever. It never lasts forever.
Now, if you want to look at parts of the brain that are relevant to the failure of gratification to last
forever. One obvious candidate would be the neurotransmitter dopamine. If you read much in the
Popular Science press you probably read about dopamine as the pleasure chemical, the reward
chemical. The true story is actually a lot more complicated than that. The effects dopamine has
depend on the part of the brain you're in, which neurons are involved, which receptors are
involved, and so on. There's also the question of does dopamine actually cause pleasure, or just
correlated with pleasure. For our purposes, the mere correlation is pretty much enough a fact
that dopamine seems to be correlated with pleasure. So we're gonna look at a little data from a
study in which they monitored very precisely the neurons in monkeys that are involved in the
release of dopamine and are in a part of the brain where dopamine seems to be correlated with
pleasure and reward.
So what they did, they gave a little fruit juice to a monkey, and here's what happen. So that is a
dopamine spike. If you want to ask how long does that last, how long are we talking about
along that horizontal axis, well that's about a third of a second of dopamine spike. So assuming
that, in this monkey, dopamine is correlated with pleasure, that's pretty brief pleasure. If monkeys
could talk he might have said, this particular monkey might have said, wow, that was
impermanent. Maybe the monkey condition is very much like the human condition and pleasure
just tends to evaporate pretty rapidly. And if that is the case, then that's all the more reason to
look at natural selection as a possible explanation for why pleasure does evaporate, if monkeys
and humans are exhibiting some of the same dynamics.
So the question is, why does natural selection build brains like this, where pleasure is so
fleeting? Why not just leave that dopamine spigot on? You could keep dishing out dopamine for
ten seconds, 20 seconds, in principle, but that doesn't happen. Why is that? And why do we
seem not to really get the picture in our everyday lives about how rapidly the pleasure is going to
Why did natural selection design our brains like this? Now, as I've said before, whenever I say
something is designed by natural selection, design should be in quotes. Natural selection is not a
conscious designer. Still, it does create animals that look as if they were designed by a pretty
smart designer with one thing in mind, to get them to get their genes into the next generation. So
it is a fair thing to do, as a kind of thought experiment, to put ourselves in the shoes of natural
selection and ask, if we were designing organisms, how would we design their brains? If we
wanted them to get their genes in their next generation, granted that eating helps them do that by
keeping them alive, sex obviously helps them do that.
And even with humans and nonhuman primates, things like elevating their social status helps
them do that, because it seems to be the case that in primates and some other parts of the
animal kingdom, social status is correlated with getting genes into the next generation. So it is a
fair question. How would you design these brains if you were natural selection? I would submit
that there are three principles of design that would make sense if you want animals to reach
these goals. Okay, first of all, when animals do reach the goals, they have food, they have sex,
they should get some pleasure. Pleasure is what reinforces behavior, makes animals more likely
to do whatever led them to the goal in the first place. Principle number two, the pleasure should
not last forever. Obviously, if you ate one meal and just blissed out and never felt the unpleasant
sensation of hunger again, you would never eat again, and you would die, okay? And if you had
sex and then just kind of basked in the afterglow for a really long time, thinking about how
wonderful it had been, and meanwhile, in your species, some other animal had sex, said well
that was great, but said I'm starting to feel restless, I think I'm gonna go get some food or do
something to elevate my social status, or maybe go find some more sex. Well, that animal's
gonna get more genes in the next generation than you will. So, these genes for restlessness And
for not being satisfied for very long, that that animal has are going to do better than your genes.
The third principle of design, I would submit, is that
animals should focus more on the pleasure that reaching goals will bring than on the subsequent
evaporation of the pleasure.
Obviously, if you're focused on that pleasure, if you're focused on how good it's going to feel to
reach the goal, you'll reach the goal. Whereas if you're sitting there thinking, pleasure's gonna be
over in a nanosecond, why work so hard? Well, you're gonna probably wind up sitting in your
room alone, full of ennui, reading existential philosophy or something. And that's definitely no
way to get your genes into the next generation.
So, I would say that these three principles of design, they make sense in terms of natural
selection, and they help make sense of Buddhist teaching, right? The Buddha said that pleasure
tends to evaporate, and it leaves us unsatisfied. And it seems to be the case that pleasure is
designed to evaporate so that it will leave us unsatisfied. And we will be motivated to go out
and do more work and check off more bullet points on natural selection's agenda. The Buddha
said we seem not to get the picture about pleasure. We focus on the pleasure and not on the
fleetingness of the pleasure. And that, too, makes sense in terms of natural selection. Focusing
on the pleasure is a good motivator. Okay, let's get back to that monkey. Now, in the data we
saw about that monkey's brain, we didn't see anything about anticipating pleasure. And that's
because, in that case, the monkey couldn't anticipate the pleasure because the fruit juice came
out of the blue. The monkey was not expecting it, they just dropped it on the monkey's
tongue. However, later in the experiment, they did make anticipation possible. What they did was
when they turned on a light, it meant that if the monkey would reach over and touch a lever, then
there would be fruit juice. And they trained the monkey to behave in accordance with that
principle. And here is what you see in that case.
So here, the light goes on. We're in the zone of anticipation, and now you see a dopamine spike
And that seems to be, I mean, you can't get inside the monkey's brain, but it's a reasonable
conjecture that what's happening is the monkey is anticipating the pleasure, focusing on the
pleasure that is to come in somewhat the way that we humans seem to, right? I mean,
anticipation is not just pleasure, there's also an anticipation, a kind of eagerness, a kind of
excitement, but there is also a kind of imagining of the actual pleasure that you're going to
experience when you get the reward. You actually have some of that feeling, and that may be
one thing that's being captured here in this dopamine spike. Now, interestingly, when the
food actually shows up, what you see is this. They give the monkey the fruit juice, and there's no
elevation of dopamine activity now. Now, I should emphasize this is kind of an extreme
case. They don't find in all the experiments done of this sort, they don't always find that there's a
complete suppression of the dopamine spike upon reward, and the other thing is that it took a lot
of training to get the monkey to this point. So the behavior became really automatic. I might kind
of liken it to, in my case, again to return to one of my vices, dark chocolate. Every afternoon, I
have some dark chocolate. The times comes when I decide that I deserve it. And I'm thinking
about it, I can taste it, it's feeling good. I go downstairs, I get some, I may, in a sense, not
experience the pleasure at all. The whole routine has become so automatic that I may just
be thinking about something else, my mind may be wandering. So again, this is the complete
suppression of a dopamine spike, is an extreme case, but what is quite common, what we can
say is a pretty common dynamic is that, again, originally what you have is you get the
reward. You get the spike in dopamine activity, and then when the animal starts to be able to
anticipate the reward, light goes on, get a pretty big dopamine spike, you get the reward, and
then you get a much smaller spike than what you got before.
And again, if I would conjecturally relate this to my own experience, I might guess that this is like
I'm in a convenience store. I see that pack of powdered sugar donuts. I'm thinking about eating
it. It's all good, you know.
I go, and I grab it, take it to the counter, I buy it.
And then I eat it and, yeah, it's okay. It's okay. But each successive bite is less okay. It's fine, but
the anticipation was maybe where most of the pleasure happened. Because at this point, I've
done the work. The motivational system has gotten me to do the necessary work to obtain the
food, to reach the goal. So, you don't need a lot of additional motivation at this point, and we
don't see a whole lot of additional reinforcement here. Now, I wanna emphasize again that this is
pretty speculative, not just cuz we cannot get inside a monkey's brain. We don't know what's
going on there, but because this science is still being worked out. There're differing
interpretations of this kind of data. And the story will continue to evolve, but it is consistent with
the kinds of motivational dynamics that we would expect from a brain built by natural
selection. Now, you may ask, why would natural selection have designed brains that are
attracted to powdered sugar donuts, cuz after all, they're not very good for us. And the answer is,
natural selection didn't because after all, powdered sugar donuts were not part of the landscape
when our lineage evolved. What was part of the landscape was just sweetness. Fruits had
sweetness, fruits were good for you, and so that seems to be why we have a sweet tooth that
can kind of now go overboard in a convenience store now that junk food exists. So to give you an
example of the kind of dynamic that may have been at play during evolution when there were no
powdered sugar donuts, imagine one of our distant ancestors, maybe early human, even
prehuman, spots some trees off in a distance, and they look like they might be fruit trees. And it's
a hot day, it's a long walk, the animal's not crazy about doing that work, But it may be fruit trees,
the animal remembers this taste of fruit. And you know get's a little bit of a dopamine spike
and that motivates it to go investigate.
It takes a trek, gets there, there is fruit, eats it, you know a little more pleasure. You don't need a
lot of pleasure at that point, you may not need a huge spike. But enough for a little reinforcement,
and you know the brain built by natural selection has done it's job, okay. Now you may ask, if in
cases where we are very used to the pleasure we're getting. You know, it's become routinized,
like my eating the chocolate in the afternoon, so that often there's little, if any, pleasure in the
actual eating of the chocolate and more pleasure in the anticipation.
Why don't we just do the anticipation and then skip the eating? Because that's where the joy is
anyway. And the answer, as to why this won't work. Is this, when they turn the light on for this
monkey and then don't deliver the fruit juice, you don't just get an absence of dopamine spike,
you get a deficit of dopamine activity. Okay? This presumably corresponds to what I would
call the let down of unfulfilled anticipation. You've probably done this, gone to the refrigerator,
you're looking forward to that piece of cake, you open it, somebody's eaten the cake. You don't
just feel an absence of pleasure, you're actually let down. And this too makes sense as a
motivational device. You know if you wanna return to that scenario of our early ancestors.
Say they see the trees in the distance, could be fruit trees, they're motivated, they go over
there. Oh there's no fruit, these aren't fruit trees. Well, you're wanting to not go over to those
particular trees again. If you are building their brain you want them to avoid those trees. You
want this to be an unhappy experience. So it makes sense. That it would make them actively
unhappy to expect something, and do some work to get it. And then not find it. So just to
summarize, there is this correspondence between the way you would expect natural selection to
design a brain, and some basic principles of Buddhism.
Buddha said pleasure doesn't last, leaves us unsatisfied, evolution seems to explain
why. Buddha says we focus on pleasure and not on the fleetingness of pleasure, evolution
seems to explain why. And this is another example of how natural selection doesn't care, care in
quotes, of course, care whether we see the world clearly. We've already seen that sometimes, it
might be natural for us to see a snake that's not there. For us to see an angry menacing face,
when in fact the face is actually not objectively viewed angry and menacing. And these were
cases when natural selection kind of built illusion into the system. And now we see another
sense, in which natural selection seems not to care if we don't see the world clearly. We also see
something else here. Which is that natural selection seems not to care if we're happy. From
natural selection's point of view, happiness is just a tool. If making us happy at one moment will
keep us motivated, fine. If making us unhappy, if making us unsatisfied, if making us suffer will
get us to do the work that's on natural selection's agenda then fine, in those cases that will be the
I said earlier that Buddhism is in a sense a kind of rebellion against natural selection. And now
you can see one sense in which that's true. Because, you know, Buddhism wants us to see the
world clearly all the time, and aspires to end our suffering. Natural selection wants us to
sometimes not see the world clearly, and wants us to suffer sometimes. So, clearly, you know,
the Buddhist program is to some extent in opposition to the logic of and the implicit goals of
natural selection. But in a way, I think we haven't even seen the half of it, really. To see the full
scale of what I call the rebellion of Buddhism against natural selection. You need to see the
Buddhist specific strategy for realizing these goals of ending suffering, and helping us see the
world clearly. So, to see that you need to look at the third and fourth noble truths. A Buddhist
prescription for the human predicament. And, that's what we're gonna turn to in the next lecture.
Resources for Week 1
• The Sermon at Benares/Varanasi, Setting in Motion the Wheel of
• Bhikkhu Bodhi, “The Nobility of the Four
• Ruper Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, pp. 59-79 (first part of chapter 3)
• Bhikkhu Bodhi lecture on four noble truths (lecture no. 2:
The Eightfold Path
In the previous lecture we talked about the first two noble truths, the Buddha's diagnosis of the
human predicament. Now we're going to talk about the third and fourth noble truths which
contain the Buddhist prescription, the cure for what ails us and also they point to meditation
which we'll then talk about in some depth. Now I guess you could call the first two noble truths
the bad news and good news, respectively. The bad news is that human life is full of [FOREIGN]
of suffering, of unsatisfactoriness. And the good news in the second noble truth is that we have
at least isolated the cause. The cause is craving. Clinging to things that are not going to last
forever. Well in that sense I guess you could say that they third and fourth noble truths are
respectively, more good news and then some bad news. The third noble truth tells us what the
cure is. It is the abandonment of craving and of clinging. The fourth noble truth spells out the
path you have to follow if you're going to attain full liberation. And it turns out that it is an
Eightfold Path. There are eight things that you have to master if you want to be liberated. So it
starts with right view, which is to say getting a proper understanding of the Buddhist's
teaching. And there there are a lot of other right things I'm not going to get into all of them. But at
the end we didn't right mindfulness and right concentration; which point us to meditation.
Now some people might be surprised that there's so much stuff on the path, that isn't about
meditation. I think there's an idea in the West, that what Buddhist mainly do is sit around and
meditate. Well actually, in Asia, most Buddhists don't meditate at all. Most lay Buddhists do not
meditate. A lot of Buddhist monks meditate. But if they're meditating really seriously and
certainly if they're meditating with a hope of reaching nirvana, you can bet that they're going to
be paying attention to all eight parts of the path.
Another thing that may surprise people about the Eightfold Path is these three parts of the path
here. These three factors which are about ethical behavior and cultivating virtue. I think there's
an idea in the West that Buddhism doesn't have this kind of hangup about moral conduct that the
Abrahamic religions have you know, there's not all these oppressive lists of do's and dont's, no
Ten Commandments. Well actually these three parts of the path have quite a bit of overlap with
the Ten Commandments and in some ways they're more demanding.
This factor right here, right speech. Says that you not only have to avoid saying things that
are not true, you actually have to avoid saying mean things about people. Avoid ideal
gossip. And I don't know about you, but if I were to try to completely eliminate gossip from my
life, that would take some pretty serious reform. Maybe if you offered me nirvana in exchange
for it, I could do it, but I'm not honestly sure. Then when we get to the meditative part of the path,
there's more heavy lifting to be done, more hard work. And one reason the work is hard is
because, remember, to get to liberation, we're supposed to abandon craving, abandon clinging,
we're supposed to lose our aversion to unpleasant things. And that's obviously not going to be
easy. Meditation isn't the only thing that goes into cultivating that kind of discipline, but it's a big
part of it and it's going to take a lot of work. There's another reason that meditation is going to
involve work if you want to get all the way to Nirvana. And that is that remember, this isn't just
liberation, it's enlightenment. It's seeing the essence of reality clearly as the Buddha taught
it. And part of doing that is back up here in the first factor of the path, right view. That's when you
try to gain an intellectual understanding of Buddhist doctrine. But it's in the meditative part of the
path where you try to gain an experiential understanding of Buddhist doctrine. So, for example,
with the idea of impermanence you would meditate and, and thereby gain just an
intuitive apprehension of the impermanence of things. The impermanence of your feelings, of
your thoughts, and of everything that comes into your mind and this apprehension would in turn
reinforce the intellectual understanding of Buddhist doctrine and strengthen your commitment to
it. Now you might ask, if it takes so much work. To attain liberation, how many people have
actually done it? Well, this question came up in a conversation I recently had on a website I run
called, where we have video dialogues. I was talking to a very highly esteemed
Buddhist scholar and monk named Biku Bodi just to give you some idea of what a serious
scholar he is. This is a sizable chunk of the Buddhist Canon. And the connected discourses of
the Budha. It's more than 2000 pages of translation and commentary. And this is the
achievement of Biku Bodi the person I was talking to. And so I was talking to him, and I thought,
well he's obviously a serious Buddhist. He says he meditates a lot. He's sitting there in a
monastery. Maybe he's attained enlightenment. Maybe I'll ask him. Maybe this is kind of a
personal question, but have you attained liberation? >> [LAUGH] No, not by a long shot. >> Not
by a long shot. >> Yeah. [LAUGH] So are there people alive today that you think have attained
>> I would say there is quite possible maybe some monks in maybe Thailand. [LAUGH] Maybe
Burma. Maybe a few in the forest or Sri Lanka. >> Well he may not have attained Nirvana but he
does seem happy. And for that matter I've seen a lot of happy buddhists. Now you may wonder,
you know, what is the deal here? I mean we've got a whole religion that is supposedly devoted to
helping people reach nirvana and virtually nobody ever reaches it? What kind of religion is
that? You know, with Christianity it seems a lot more straightforward. The idea is to get to
heaven and all you have to do is accept Jesus as your savior. Well actually, for lay Buddhists in
Asia, the kind of incentive structure if you will, is a lot more like that in Christianity than you might
They may not aspire to escape the cycle of rebirth in this life, which is what nirvana would
accomplish. They can hope to get a more favorable rebirth in the next round. And that can
include going to a kind of heaven where they will not stay forever. But stay for a very long time
before another rebirth. And the way they do this is to pursue virtuous behavior. And that
increases their chances of a favorable rebirth. So the religion does make sense on its own
terms. I want to emphasize that there are people that would disagree with Biku Bodi about this
liberation thing. There are people who will tell you that they are enlightened, and who am I to
judge. And there are meditation teachers who will insist that yes, liberation is within reach.
Still, I think it's safe to say that for most of us, nirvana is not going to happen today, next week,
next month, next year, next decade.
Still there is some good news. You know, if you can't attain full liberation, there is such thing as
partial liberation. If you can't eliminate all your suffering, you can eliminate some of it. If you can't
reach complete equanimity you can get more tranquility and balance than you have now. And
your life, according to reports from people who have done this, your life can change considerably
and even be transformed.
So, I guess the way I think of meditative practice is, is being on a kind of spectrum. So, one end
you have strictly therapeutic practice. Maybe you, you come home from work stressed out and
you do ten minutes of meditation and you feel better and, and that's it. You don't think of any
Buddhist doctrines that may be associated with meditation. And then at the other end of the
spectrum, there's Nirvana. Way, way down there.
But then I would say that at some point as you move toward the Nirvana end of the spectrum,
you enter a zone that we could call spiritual practice. Not just therapeutic but spiritual
practice. Now, what does that mean? Well, first of all, this is just my definition. You know, there's
no official definition of spiritual. But what I would say is that if practice qualifies for the
term spiritual, then the motivation is not just about self-help. There is a desire to, to become a
better person, to help others, and to see the world more clearly. And there's the beginning of
an understanding that there's a connection between these two goals of becoming a better
person, seeing the world more clearly. So, there's a desire to kind of strip yourself of some of the
delusions and misperceptions that seem to be natural for human beings. And in the process
become a better person. So you're trying to align yourself with the truth about the world, the truth
about other people, about yourself and with moral truth. Of course, it's good news that you
reduce your suffering in the process. And it's fine that this is one thing that sustains the practice,
but that's. Just not all that it's about.
Now, I don't want to over emphasize this distinction between the therapeutic and the
spiritual. Because for one thing, even if you just reduce your stress, then you're probably going
to see the world a little more clearly, and you're probably going to become a better person. If only
in the sense of making the people around you less unhappy than you might make them when
you're stressed out.
And also, if you're doing this kind of therapeutic practice, it may happen that you start expanding
the practice. You, you don't want to just get a, get rid of your stress. You realize that, that this
can help with anxiety. With sorrow and so on, you may start meditating more. And I think it tends
to happen when people do that. That they do become better people and more considerate of
others. In fact, one interesting thing about Buddhism is this kind of organic connection between
self-help and helping others. It's not automatic. And maybe that's why the Buddha included
explicit ethical strictures. But there is something natural about the progression from helping
yourself to becoming a more considerate person. Still, when I think about practice, it qualifies for
the term spiritual, I do think about the aspiration being about more than self help. So kind of the
driving dissatisfaction isn't just about the fact that we're born into these machines that sometimes
make us suffer. It's that we're born into these machines that make it hard to see things clearly,
that fill us with misperceptions that lead us to make other people suffer.
Now a lot of you have probably seen the movie The Matrix.
And in that movie the character played by Keanu Reeves realizes that he and everyone else on
the planet is actually living in a dream world. They, they've actually, what they thought was reality
is really just an hu, an hallucination And it's been inflicted on them by their robot overlords.
And Keanu Reeves then joins a rebellion that aims to attain complete liberation. Now I don't think
either modern psychology or mainstream Buddhism tells us that we're quite that deluded about
reality. But it is interesting that a lot of western Buddhists identify with that movie. They call it a
dharma movie. They, they saw in, in it a kind of allegory.
And they and they see themselves as being in the process of overcoming delusion in a very
significant sense and, and, and kind of fighting for liberation. And, and I do think that, Buddhist
practice in the spiritual sense, involves having a little Keanu Reeves, in you know? Just, just
saying you know, I just want to see the truth or at least come as close to that, as possible. I want
to see things more clearly.
Now, I hope I haven't sounded too dismissive in the course of this segment about full fledged
enlightenment. I mean, I think it's, it's a very interesting question what enlightenment in a
Buddhist sense would feel like.
And in fact, later in the course, we're going to be talking to some people who if not enlightened
are a lot closer to that than I am and, and we're going to hear what they have to say about
this. And I'm interested in particular in the question of, Is enlightenment as described by
Buddhists, is that something like what a psychologist might say your consciousness would be
like if we stripped it of all the misperceptions and delusions that seem to be kind of built into us
by natural selection. So that's going to come later in the course, but right now in the next
segment of this lecture, we're going to turn to the subject of meditation. We're going to talk about
different kinds of meditation, and about what they have to offer. [BLANK_AUDIO]
Okay, so in this segment we're going to talk a little about meditation. This is not a how to
meditate course. And if it were I wouldn't be the most qualified to teach it by a long shot. But I did
want to give both those of you have meditated and those of you who haven't, some sense for the
varieties of meditation and meditative experience that are available, and in particular how they
connect to themes in Buddhist thought and in this course. Now, if you've never meditated you
may have the idea that meditation is this really hard thing, you've gotta master this technique and
practice, practice, practice. And you know what? You may actually be right. I mean, different
people are different. Some people it comes very easily to. Not to me. I actually meditated a
number of times without feeling that it was sufficiently rewarding to sustain a practice. I finally
went with kind of total immersion and went to a, a one week silent meditation retreat, and at that
point meditation became kind of accessible to me, you might say. Even then it took a lot of work.
But again, your, your mileage may vary.
And moreover there are some things you can do, some kind of shortcuts you can try to take to at
least get a sense for what mediation may have to offer. Now one of these came up in a
conversation I recently had with Shinzen Young and I'll show you a little bit of that
conversation. Shinzen Young is an example of one of these Western Buddhists I've talked
about. In fact, he was kind of a pioneer in western Buddhism. I think it was more than 40 years
ago that having left America he became ordained as a Buddhist monk in Japan, and then he
came back, and became a teacher of meditation, and he, he's kind of got his own system of
teaching meditation. He, he might not call himself in every respect an orthodox Buddhist. I don't
know, but his, his, his teaching is very much grounded in a, in a Buddhist sensibility. So in this
part of the conversation we start out talking about something that, that was alluded to, in lecture
one. Which is how meditation can change your view of your feelings. >> When meditation works
it gives you a skill set that allows you to experience physical and emotional discomfort with
greater poignancy. But less problem. >> So by greater poignancy you almost mean you almost
perceive it more acutely in a sense but it causes you less trouble. What, what do you mean
by? >> It's exactly what I mean. >> Okay. >> That so, you, learn how to escape into discomfort.
There's two ways to deal with discomfort. Escape from it. If you can, great. [LAUGH] But what if
you can't? Well, if you can't, it's good to have in your quiver of life arrows, so to speak the ability
to escape into it. Then you sort of have your cake and eat it too. You experience the richness of
being human. And part of that is uncomfortable. >> Mm-hm. >> But the sense of problem, the
sense of suffering is diminished. >> Mm-hm. >> So now how that takes place, well that's a tleast
an hour talk. >> It is. Although can I interrupt you, and, and, and just mention one little kind of
exercise I've suggested to people as a shortcut to getting the, the idea that I think sometimes
actually works. What I've said is, when you're feeling really sad. And these are people who
haven't necessarily meditated at all. When you're just feeling sad, bor, on the border of
Sit down, close your eyes and just try to accept it. And just say, bring it on. What does, what
does sadness feel like? Pay attention to it.
You know, ac-, just accept it. Just, just, just ask your, just close your eyes and examine the
feeling of sadness. Get closer to it. And some of them do report, you know, although they haven't
meditated that oddly they do sense some of the kind of diminishing of, of the suffering and, you
know what I mean? >> Well, I totally do. >> Of course you do.
>> however, I would just slightly disagree, and say those people in fact have meditated. >>
Okay. >> You just gave them the essence of meditation. >> Right.
>> remember, you don't have to have your eyes closed to be sitting on the floor. What, what did
you have them do? You had them focus on the discomfort. You had them try to be precise about
the discomfort. And you had them try to not fight with the discomfort. >> So, meditation could be
as easy for you as one, two, three. Could be.
But I do want to add one asterisk to, to that conversation. You know, Shinzen said you know,
meditation doesn't have to be about sitting down and closing your eyes. That's true and for
example, you can find yourself in line at a store, you're getting frustrated because the person in
front of you is taking so long, why they didn't remember to take their credit card out before they
got to the cash register. And then you can just decide to look at this feeling of irritation. And
observe it. And then it loses its power over you and kind of dissolves. That can happen. But I do
think that mainly happens with people who are doing a regular meditative practice. Meditating so
regularly that they can then carry the practice into their everyday lives. Okay. So as for kinds of
meditative practices. Well, for starters, there, there are different kinds of meditation associated
with different Buddhist traditions.
so, for example Tibetan Buddhists, when they meditate, often do a lot of visualizing of images.
You know Zen Buddhists may meditate on these koans these you know, these cryptic or
paradoxical sayings or question, questions. And sometimes Zen, Zen Buddhists actually
meditate, do meditate with their eyes open, sitting down, kind of looking at a wall or
something. In Vipassana meditation, which is particularly common in Southeast Asia, there's a lot
of emphasis on observing the workings of your mind. So there, there are a lot of different
traditions, there are stereotypes about the people who practice the traditions, so, I heard once
you know, Tibetan meditation is for artists. Zen is for poets, Vipassana is for psychologists.
But I do think ultimately these traditions have more in common than they have differences among
them. I think for example, observing your own mind is to some extent something that winds up
happening in almost any tradition.
Even if it is a more explicit goal in Vipassana meditation and in general I have found in talking to
people from different traditions. When I talk to really serious meditators, by which I mean people
who have meditated a lot more than I have. I, I find that they're talking the, the same
language. When they're talking about the most profound experiences they've had they tend to be
grounded in, in Buddhist doctrine related to the Buddhist teaching. So I think maybe more useful
than covering all the varieties of meditation associated with Buddhist traditions Is to look at two
basic kinds of meditation. Both of which are often found within a single tradition and these are
the two types that are pointed to by those final factors in the eightfold path that we looked at in
the previous segment that is right mindfulness In right concentration. Those are two kinds of
mediation. Now concentration meditation involves focusing on something very intently. It could
be a mantra, could be your breath, your breathing. Could be a visual image and you, you focus
on it very single-mindedly. Get absorbed in it. And this kind of meditation is said to bring great
serenity, even bliss. And in fact, I can attest to the bliss. one, one thing that happened during my
first meditation retreat was like day four or day five I was focused on my breath.
Breath after breath, and that was something I had a lot of trouble doing at the beginning of the
retreat, but I got really absorbed in it. And I suddenly just entered this state that can only be
described as blissful. And there was a lot of powerful visual stuff going on. And I mean, I just
remember thinking you know, this must be what heroin is like. I mean, it was an amazing
feeling. And so I was like, very proud of myself, you know? I thought I'd finally arrived as a
meditator. So I arranged to talk to one of the teachers after the meditation retreat. And so I had
this little session with him. And I described the thing, you know, to him. And I thought he was
going to give me a medal or something, I don't know. You know, I, I guess I didn't think that I had
attained nirvana, but I thought I had done, you know, gotten to some kind of higher plane. And he
said, oh, sounds, sounds nice. And, and then he said, but don't get attached to it. And, what he
meant, first of all, he's being a good Buddhist and reminding me, don't get too attached to any
But secondly, this was a retreat in the Vipassana tradition, which means it was about
mindfulness meditation, the second of these two kinds of meditation. It, it wasn't fundamentally
about concentration, or attaining bliss, or anything else. We were supposed to use meditation to
observe things mindfully. Okay? You, you could use, and should use concentration techniques to
get to a point where your mind is kind of stable and calm enough to do the mindfulness
meditation. But that's it, I should have gotten off that rocket ship, you know, at some lower level
than I did.
So what is mindfulness meditation? Well it consists of observing anything in your realm of
experience. Your own mind, your own feelings. Anything you can feel. Sounds you hear while
meditating. And if you're carrying it into everyday life it can be things you see. But it involves
observing these things in a kind of unusual way in a special way. And you saw some of this in
that conversation with Shinzen Young. In the way he talked about viewing unpleasant
feelings. You know, normally your relationship to a, to a feeling like anxiety is first of all, you don't
like it. And second of all, it is controlling your thinking. So, for example, you might be sitting
there going I'm going to screw up that presentation tomorrow. Or, you may be doing a counter
narrative and saying well, it'll be okay because there's probably nobody in the audience who
really matters that much anyway. But either way, the anxiety is controlling what you think
about. And it's kind of ironic. You know, here, you've got this feeling that you really don't approve
of, you don't like. And yet, you're letting it control your thoughts. Well, as you may have gleaned
from the conversation with Shinzen. With mindfulness meditation, you are observing in this case
a feeling without like or dislike, that's the idea, without judging it so to speak. You're observing it
you know, kind of objectively.
And as a result it, it doesn't control your thoughts.
Now when you think about it this is kind of an unnatural thing to do, because after all feelings
were designed by natural selection to influence our thought and perception. We already saw a
little of that in lecture one, the way fear can influence what you literally see.
And that is very much what feelings are about from natural selection's point of view. They are
supposed to, to help govern our behavior, and our thoughts, and our perception. So to try to turn
the tables in this way and, and look at feelings in a way that, that can disempower them is, is
really you know, quite a, quite a striking thing to do. and, and very unnatural, you know, and it's,
and it's very much kind of a violation of natural selection's agenda in a certain sense. and, and
this came through in a description of mindfulness meditation that I heard not long ago when I
was listening to a lecture from Bhikkhu Bodhi, who you may remember from our previous
segment. These are lectures he actually delivered quite a while ago but they are available online
and here's what he said about mindfulness. He said, ordinarily the faculty of attention is used
as an instrument for serving our purposes, our biological and psychological needs. But
mindfulness is a kind of attention which operates independently of all ulterior aims and
purposes. I like that idea of you know, talking about our, our, our basic biological and
psychological needs as ulterior. You know, as in some sense, kind of illegitimate. Whereas, you
know, from natural selection's point of view, no, these are, these are the central valid, governing
things of your life. This should determine everything you see about the world. And he's kind of
wanting to cast them aside. He goes on to say, mindfulness is attention that functions in an
atmosphere of detachment. It's attention that aspires towards a pure objectivity, an awareness
which reflects the nature of objects exactly as they are, without adding to them, without
elaborating upon them, without interpreting through the screens of subjective evaluation and
commentary. So the idea is that the mind as it ordinarily works and is designed to work is not a
reliable instrument of perception and of thought. Now, I agree with that. I believe that the human
mind as it naturally works is not necessarily a reliable way of looking at the world in, in the most
truthful way possible. And we'll be hearing more of that theme. But I do want to pause now
and just emphasize what a radical reorientation mindfulness is. You know, mindfulness, I think,
has this reputation for being this kind of gentle thing, you know. You eat mindfully, you go
through life mindfully and appreciate the beauty of life. And, and that's actually all true, that's,
that's possible, but at the same time there's a kind of edge to mindfulness.
Because it does constitute a kind of rebellion against the agenda of natural selection. It's not the
way we're designed to work.
now, in the next segment, we're going to hear a little more about that. We're going to talk more
about mindfulness and, and, and flesh it out. We're also going to talk about, you know, mind
fleeting and things like that. And we're going to look at what is going on according to science in
the brains of people who do mindfulness meditation and for that matter other forms of
Mindfulness Meditation and the Brain
Well there's been a lot in the news in recent years about the brain and meditation. You may have
read that meditation increases gamma wave activity. Or you may have read that over time
meditation can increase the amount of white matter in the brain. Well I'm not sure of which of
these findings are going to hold up in the long run, and in some cases I'm not even really sure
what they mean. But there is one finding that's easy to relate to meditative experience in a pretty
straight forward way. You tell meditators about this finding and they say, yeah, it makes sense
that my brain would be doing that while I'm meditating. And this finding has to do with the part of
the brain called the default mode network. And the basic finding, as in this paper that was
published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that when people meditate,
the default mode network kind of gets quieter. It gets less and less active. And this leads to the
question of what the default mode network is. And for the answer, we turn to the lead author of
this paper, Judson Brewer, who, when he did the study, was at Yale University and now is at the
University of Massachusetts Medical School. >> So, it's called the development network because
it seems to be active when we're not doing anything in particular.
And if you think about any average person walking down the street not doing anything in
particular. There's actually a whole lot going on in there brain. They're thinking about themselves
usually. So they might be regretting something they did in the past. Worrying about something
that's coming up. Planing for something. fantasizing. There's lots of things that are happening in
our brains. When we're not doing anything in particular. And this network or brain region seems
to get activated, or co-activated when we're doing these types of self-referential processing
tasks. >> So, you might say that what the default mode network does is take your mind
somewhere other than where you are. It does that in a spatial sense. In other words, you're
probably not going to be focused on your immediate environment when, when the network is
active. And it does so in a temporal sense along the dimension of time, as well. They've done
studies where they interrupt people while their minds are wandering and basically the, the default
mode network, is your mind wandering And they asked them what they're thinking about. And
usually they're thinking either about something in the past, or something in the future. More the
future than the past, but they're usually not thinking about the present.
Now it makes sense, in that light, that the default mode network would get quiet, as you
meditate, because after all, one way to phrase, kind of one of the main points of meditation, is be
here now. That is the title of a famous book that was published in the 1970's about meditation
and spirituality.
Now when your meditating, you may notice, that the default mode network does not always
surrender. Quietly, right? You're trying to focus on the breath and suddenly a thought bubbles up,
you know, what about this email I've gotta write later today. It's kind of delicate, how should I
handle it? Or, you'll think of someone you may have offended a couple of days ago, wonder how
you can make amends, or you'll think about somebody you've got a crush on, how you can
impress them when you see them in a couple days. Whatever.
Those things are your default mode network asserting itself. And, in a way, it's just doing its job,
you know? The, the, the job of the default mode network seems to be to take advantage of free
time. So in other words, if you're not engaged in some task that requires focus. And you're not
playing some sport. Writing some report, or, or just looking at somebody and wondering whether
that's somebody you know. You know? If you're not doing one of these things that requires
conscious focus, then, in a way, that's free time. And what the default mode network does is try
to use that time, in some sense usefully. You know, taking care of your business, your social
business. Your professional business, whatever. Now, when the default mode network does
quiet down during meditation that doesn't necessarily mean you've entered a state of
mindfulness. The studies show that, the network quiets down during various kinds of
mediation. Mindfulness mediation, but also, concentration mediation, for example. Now, it
certainly is an important first step toward mindfulness for the network to calm down, for you to
kind of get beyond the kind of self involvement that the network keep you enmeshed in. But in
order to reach a state of mindfulness, there's a second sense in which you have to escape self
involvement remember? To look at something mindfully. So look at it objectively. To look at it not,
from your ordinary subjective perspective. So a true test of mindfulness would be say, to think of
someone you don't like, and see if you can just kind of look at a feeling of dislike and not get
caught up in it. Not let it carry your train of thought away. So that you don't wind up rehearsing a
litany of grievances against the person. Or plotting revenge against the person. Then, then you're
closer to a state of mindfulness.
It's a common aspiration to carry mindfulness out of the meditation hall, into the real world. To
carry this attitude of kind of, non-reactivity into your ordinary life.
One reason that's hard is because life is full of things you do react to. Psychologists have done
studies where they show people pictures of various kinds of objects and things. And sometimes
they ask them, how do you feel about this and the people say well, I like it, I don't like it
whatever. Sometimes the methodology is subtler. There's a, there's a more kind of [INAUDIBLE]
of figuring out whether people. Are having a positive or negative affective reaction to the
thing, whether they are or are not feeling a favorable or an unfavorable feeling to it. And, the
general finding is that people do have affective reactions to a whole lot of things. In one study,
they actually asked people to morally evaluate Everyday objects, ask them if these things are
good or bad in a moral sense. And people were pretty willing to do that. As Paul Bloom who was
one of the co-authors of that study explained to me recently. Paul is a well known professor
of psychology at Yale, and here's what he said. >> The paper's titled something like is a
refrigerator good or evil. And so we just had a list of items. Now some of the items were meant to
have veillance.
They were, like a thumbscrew.
Or a vaccine. [INAUDIBLE] thumbscrew. Bad vaccine but [INAUDIBLE]
refrigerator. Sock. Cloud. [SOUND]. And you know? People would, would, would, had no
problem at all. I mean we thought at first that they'd find the question nonsensical. How good is
it? How bad is it? They readily answered all of them. And there're, there was considerable
consensus. >> Now none of this is to say, that most things in the world elicit a strong positive or
negative affective reaction in us. In fact you can look around at things in your environment
now. There are plenty of things. We don't have any particular reaction. You might say I kind of
like that. Or it's mildly annoying. But, it's you know, it's far from overpowering. However, it is the
case that the things that occupy our awareness do tend to be things that we feel positively or
negatively about in a somewhat strong way. So if you're walking down the street And you see an
enemy or you see a friend, somebody you feel bad about or good about. Or, you smell some
horrible odour, or some sublime smell from a restaurant, that will get your attention. That will be
what you focus on. And this makes sense when you think about it, because the brain is designed
to get us to focus on things that matter to us. And the way the brain encodes the extent to which
things matter to us, is to assign them a positive or negative feeling. And the more they matter,
the stronger the feeling. So it, it, it just makes sense that you're awareness would tend to be
occupied by these kind of meaningful things. Things that do elicit a strong a reaction. And it also
makes sense that the, the, default mode network would tend to, to inject these things into your
consciousness that also you feel somewhat strongly about, they matter to you. For, for good or
for bad. And this points to the basic challenge of mindfulness. The idea of mindfulness. is to take
an objective attitude. In some sense the detached attitude toward the things you're paying
attention to and yet your brain is designed to pay attention to those things it is hardest to be
objective and detached about.
So here's an experiment you might try when you're walking down the street. Try to pay attention
to things that you don't normally pay attention to. Now what those things are will depend on what
demographic you're in. So suppose you're a young heterosexual male. And you're probably in
the habit of paying attention to young females and especially if you find them attractive or
intriguing, paying even more attention to them, and you probably pay some attention to young
males. kind of size them up, compare them to yourself maybe they are after all in some sense
the competition. Well, try paying attention to like elderly people.
One thing you'll find is that it's hard and it's not natural to pay attention to these people becaus
you don't care that much about them. But you may also find if you do pay attention to them it's
easier to appraise them calmly. You're, you're less involved, you have less at stake, and for that
reason you may look at them more objectively. You know, my brother, when he reached an
age where he felt that women were no longer paying attention to him said, you know, it's not
that they think I'm unattractive, they just don't realize I exist. And that's kind of true. You know,
our, our unconscious mind I think often excludes from our awareness the things that we're just
not that interested. So all of this explains why it really is hard, and in some sense unnatural, to
just walk down the street. With a truly mindful attitude toward everything we're paying attention
to. And this subject came up in my conversation with Paul Bloom. What we've kind of said is that
everything you notice, you have an affective reaction to and eh, that makes sense in the sense
If it is not relevant to your Darwinian prospects for good or bad. There's no reason to notice it in
the first place. >> That's right.
That's right, I mean stripping the effective reactions away from our perception seems so
profoundly anti-Darwinian. It is, and I know you've made this point before, but it seems like that
the strongest way to give the middle finger to our selfish genes. [SOUND]. Which, which is, you
know, we're going to take away this sort of taint, everything and, and for normally, you know, the
whole world is colored by, by whether it's good for us or bad for us.
And, and, and to try to live without that seems interesting. >> That is, I think what kind of
hardcore Buddhism aspires to do. I would just add a couple of asterisks to that. First of all, when
I associated a Buddhist perspective with the things that Paul had said, I didn't mean to say that
everything he had said was phrased exactly in a technical sense, the way a Buddhist scholar
would phrase it. So for example, when he talked about stripping perception of affective reaction,
you might say it's actually more like training your perception on the affective reaction. And in that
way, sometimes kind of de, depriving the reaction of its power. And for that matter more
broadly. I want to emphasize that whenever I speak of detachment or getting a critical distance
from a feeling, that terminology can be misleading because there's a sense that when you're
observing something mindfully like a feeling. You're actually getting quite close to it, closer than
usual. because ordinarily, our reaction to a, kind of, negative feeling like anxiety or fear, they
want to push it away. They want to think of something or do something that will rid us off it. And
to view it mindfully, it's kind of to be unafraid of it. To be willing to just get up close to it and,
and look at it and then sometimes it will tend to loose it's power.
So in that sense, talking about distance from, detachment from, can be misleading. And for that
reason some people prefer terms like non-attachment to terms like detachment. The final thing I
would say about that exchange with Paul is that when I refer to a hardcore Buddhism. I don't
mean to suggest that there's anything harsh. In the mindful sensibility, and I also certainly don't
mean to suggest ever that there's no pleasure to be found in it. And in fact you see this
sometimes on meditation retreats. A lot of people on retreats report how much pleasure there is
to be found. Which is interesting because a meditation retreat is a place where it's relatively
easy, relatively easy. To get into a kind of mindful frame of mind. And one reason is just because
that, you know, a lot of the stuff that annoys you in life is not there. You're not getting emails,
some of which may agitate you, you're generally off the grid, you're not hearing any news about
the world. So, so it's easier to sink into a mindful Point of view.
And, people have been to retreats can tell you about things like mindful eating. When I first went
to a meditation retreat I went into a dining hall, I couldn't understand you know, why do so
many people have their eyes closed as they eat? Before long I got the picture, which is that if
you close your eyes and focus. On that moment of eating, you're not looking, ahead to, to the
next bite you're going to take. You're not being distracted by the default mode network which is
pretty quiet and you're not having a conversation because these are silent meditation retreats
nobody's talking. If you do that, you can find a pleasure in, in one moment of eating that is pretty
much unprecedented in my experience. Similarly, people on meditation retreats often report and
I can vouch for this, that your appreciation of beauty can reach a new level. Including the beauty
of things that normally you might not even notice like the, the pattern of grain in wood, which if
your default mode network were bubbling along, you just might not even see. So we're going to
close by revisiting our friend Yife, the Buddhist nun as she describes what it's like to meditate,
because her description sounds to me very much like what you would expect it to feel like for the
default mode network to start to quiet down. >> When you meditate it, it's just like
there will watch, you know, in the water, if you let the dust just settle down.
So water become maybe clean and also very peaceful. >> Mm hmm. >> Or even stilled.
So you've heard the water's still. The surface like a mirror and you would reflect the surrounding
as things they are. So meditation is a help, is to help us to see things as they really are. >>
Speaking of Yife, in the final segment of this lecture we're going to get back to a question that
she originally raised earlier. When she said that, during meditation, she gets this sense that her
feelings are not real. I promised I'd get back to that question, and that's what we'll do now. We're
going to ask, what does it mean for feelings to be real or not real? To be true or false. How can
we tell when our feelings are trustworthy, and when they're not? [BLANK_AUDIO]
Can Our Feelings Be Trusted?
So now, we're going to talk about feelings. And I know we've talked a lot about feelings already,
but feelings are very important and, and not just for the obvious reason but also because one of
the main things this course is about is whether the Buddhists' prescription helps us see the world
more clearly. And one of the main parts of the Buddhist prescription is this idea of viewing the
world mindfully and that can change your relationship to your feelings. You know, there can be
feelings that used to govern you and they no longer will in the, in the same way. There are
feelings that maybe used to mediate your interaction with reality in a way that they no longer
will. So, if we're going to find out whether this changed relationship to your feelings actually helps
you see the world more clearly, well, it would help to know what was the relationship between
these feelings and reality to begin with. Were the feelings themselves reliable guides to reality in
some sense? Were they trustworthy? Does it make sense to say that some were true and some
were false. These are the kinds of questions that we're going to grapple with now. And we're
going to pay particular attention to two feelings. Feelings that I think it's safe to say we're all
familiar with. One is anxiety and one is rage.
Now the Buddha talked a lot about what he called feeling tone or hedonic tone. The idea was just
There are pleasant feelings, there are unpleasant feelings and there are what he called neutral
feelings. Now the Buddha was not talking about emotions. In fact, in the Buddha's teaching
there's no word that translates as emotions. He did talk about individual emotions like fear. But
he did not address, emotions as a category generically. He was just talking about, kind of, raw
feeling. The basic ingredients of feeling. It can be positive or negative. Pleasant or
unpleasant. But certainly that does pertain to emotions, because after all emotions contain those
ingredients. And in fact, most emotions are overwhelmingly either positive, like joy, or negative
like fear or anxiety. Some emotions maybe are kind of complicated mixtures of positive and
negative, but in any event these feeling tones are essential ingredients in our emotions.
Now one question the Buddha didn't ask, and really couldn't ask, given when he lived, is what is
the evolutionary function of feelings? Why are there positive and negative, pleasant and
unpleasant feeling tones?
Somebody who did address that question was a biologist, a biologist named George Romanes
who was writing a couple of decades after Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. And here's what
he said. Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of
processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism and so evolved for the
purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other. Well, that, that
makes sense that, that these basic feelings are fundamentally about approach and avoidance or
at least were about that in the first instance when they arose. It's certainly consistent with human
experience, right? If, if there's something you want to avoid like a rattlesnake that's giving you
a bad feeling, this feeling of aversion, if there's something you approach, like food, it gives you
this good feeling, feeling of attraction,
and we assume that in our primate relatives there are probably these kinds of feelings that are
also correlated with approach and avoidance. And for that matter, this may go all the way down
to very, very simple organisms. It may be that these water fleas, when they gravitate toward the
blue light that shines down from above in this video, actually feel attracted to it. And who knows,
when the blue light turns off, maybe they feel let down.
In any event, what seems pretty clear is that feelings are about motivating behavior. In the case
of humans, they may motivate behavior in a very direct way, so if your hand winds up in an open
flame, you're going to feel the pain, retract it very rapidly.
Sometimes feelings influence human behavior in a much more indirect way. So you might think
of someone you don't like. And you start thinking about all the things that they've done
wrong. You have this litany of grievances against them. And that may have no immediate impact
on your behavior. But then down the road, when you're talking to someone about them, you,
you've got your arsenal ready. You can say all these nasty things about them, and undermine
their status. And that seems to be one thing the human mind tends to do. But one way or another
directly or indirectly, feelings, they kind of reach out and grab us, they influence our
thoughts, they influence our behavior, we feel their impact.
Now maybe this is what Yifa the Buddhist nun meant. When she said, well, I can tell now, when I
meditate, the feelings aren't real.
After all in mindfullness meditation, you know, the feelings don't reach out and grab you in the
same way. They, if, if after reflecting on them, you make the decision not to let them reach out
and grab you then they don't have the impact. They may not feel substantial and, and weighty,
the way they normally do. So maybe she just meant that suddenly these feelings just kind of feel
ethereal, they have no impact. She could also have meant though, that, that the feelings, in
some sense, are not true.
And that raises the question of what does it mean to say that feelings are true or false?
And it could be various things. One way to look at that question is from this very Darwinian
perspective that we're in the middle of now. You know, if, indeed, the, the purpose of feelings is
to steer the organism away from things that are bad for the organism. And to steer towards
things that are good for it.
Then you might say that feelings are judgments about things in the environment. About whether
good or bad for the organism. And judgments about behavior. What behavior is appropriate in
light whether these things are good or bad for you. I mean, remember, probably when feelings
arose, it was in organisms that weren't smart enough to think, well, this is good for me, I should
approach it. This is bad for me, I should avoid it. So feelings are kind of the encoding of actual
judgments about the environment, about behavior, and judgments can be true or false. So, that's
one way we, we could look at the truth or falsehood of feelings. Now you might say, well wait a
second, how often are feelings going to be false. I mean after all isn't natural selection very good
at doing its job? Aren't our feelings going to pretty reliably steer us towards things that are good
for us? At least by natural selection's lights, and steer us away from things that are bad for
us. Well, natural selection is good at what it does but it's also true that sometimes the
environment changes so that organisms wind up in the environment that natural selection did not
design them for and humans are a good example. Look around you does this seem like a hunter
gatherer village to you? No. We're looking in a we're, we're living in a radically transformed
environment that's nothing like the environment we were designed for, and that can
influence whether feelings are in this sense true or false. In other words, whether they are or are
not accurate judgements about things in our environment and about how we should react to
them. We already earlier alluded to one example of this, powdered sugar donuts.
I, I noted that powdered sugar donuts are really not great for me. Raises the question, why am I
attracted to them? Well because in the environment that humans evolved in, sweet things were
generally good for you. Fruits. There wasn't junk food. So this sweet tooth that made a lot of
sense in that environment, can, in this environment, lead us to do things that aren't so great for
us. Another good example is rage. If you ask an evolutionary psychologist, well what, what is the
story with rage? What is rage for? They'll probably say something like this.
In the environment of our evolution, in a hunter gatherer village It was very important that you
sent the message, that you were not to be exploited or taken advantage of. That if people tried to
steal your mate or steal your food or whatever, or disrespect you, there would be a price to be
paid. So, it was actually worth getting in a fight with people over these things. And that wasn't just
to send a message to the person who had exploited you, that they shouldn't do that again, but
remember, in a hunter gatherer village your whole social universe is there, it's the
audience. Everyone you're going to be dealing with on a regular basis from here on out is
watching what happens when someone tries to take advantage of you, so it's all the more reason
that it's worthwhile from the, the point of view of your long term interests to, fight somebody over
your honor or, or over respect. Even if that incurs some damage to you, as long as they pay a
price too. Now let's look at rage in the modern environment. Let's take an example like road
rage. Okay now, let's just ponder the, the absurdity of it by Darwinian lights. Okay, you know,
you're sitting there, the person the rage is directed toward is someone you're never going to see
again, so there's no value in sending a message to them. Everyone who's watching this, the
other drivers, they're also someone you're never going to see again. So there's no point
whatsoever in pursuing this rage. And there's considerable danger. Because after all you are in a
moving vehicle. And yet people succumb to this rage. So this is a good example of a case where
changed environment takes a feeling that maybe at one point could be described as a reliable
guide trustworthy, in some sense true, embodying true judgments and, and suddenly it just
doesn't make any sense at all.
One final example, and in a way more complicated example is anxiety.
Let's take public speaking, okay? Now anyone who's done it has probably felt at least a little
anxiety. A lot of people have felt a lot. And sometimes it's crippling anxiety. Now the anxiety
itself, you could argue, makes sense, and, and was, in some sense, designed by natural
selection to surface in such cases. At least it is true that, you know, what people think of us
matters, and mattered during evolution because our social status, and how many friends we had
was correlated with our chances of getting our genes into the next generation. So it makes sense
that you would be anxious about impressing people. But what's not natural is to suddenly find
yourself speaking to dozens or hundreds of people that you've never met before. That's not
something we were designed to do. So while the anxiety could be productive in getting you to
prepare well it could also go way overboard. So if you have trouble sleeping the night before or
if you stand up to speak and suddenly just can't find the words, that's an example of, of anxiety
being counterproductive and, and the feeling is no longer being a reliable guide to how you
should act. And again, that's because the environment has changed since human
evolution. Now, we had already seen some senses in which feelings can mislead us as we have
seen, feelings can make us see a snake that's not really there. Fear can do that. And feelings
can kind of mislead us in the pursuit of happiness. They can make us think pleasure is going to
last longer than it lasts. But in those cases you, you could at least say that the feelings were
functioning as designed by natural selection. Doing the job they were supposed to do. Because
whether or not they led to happiness, they were at least kind of taking care of the organism,
getting it to err on the side of caution when there's a threat, keeping it motivated and
working. But, in the case of rage and anxiety in the modern environment, we're seeing
cases where the feelings aren't even working well from the point of view of natural selection.
They're, they're, they're not reliable guides to reality even in that kind of minimal sense. And
they're, they're in that sense, in a certain sense not, not truthful. They do not reflect accurate
judgements about what it makes sense to do in response to things in the environment.
Now some people would say that this is all the more reason to be mindful. If feelings can't be
trusted as accurate, then it makes sense to evaluate feelings mindfully, objectively, and decide
which ones you're going to let get traction. Decide which ones you're going to engage with. In
other words to, to view feelings with discernment. And, and this is a lot of what in Buddhism is
referred to as wisdom.
Understanding which feelings it makes sense to engage in and which feelings it doesn't.
Now I want to emphasize the way we've defined the truth and falsehood of feelings here is just
one of many operational definitions you could kind of trot out. It's not the only way of looking at
feelings. So for example, you might say in the case of road rage, well, but wait a second. Was it
at least true, that this person had committed some transgression. So in that sense your rage was
warranted. You, you can ask that question. And in a way when you ask it, you're veering into
questions of moral truth.
And I kind of think that maybe moral truth could be what Yifa had in mind when she said
sometimes feelings seem not real. She may have, may have meant they're, they're not real in
the sense that they don't align with moral truth, feelings like anger and hatred. In any event,
moral truth is something we're going to be paying more and more attention to as the course goes
on. Certainly at the end when we talk about enlightenment when we ask, what is
Buddhist enlightenment and does it deserve that term, does it align a person's mind with
truth? Not only in the sense of an objectively clear vision of reality, but also in the sense of moral
And we're going to start edging into questions of moral truth even in the next lecture when we're
going to look at the Buddhist claim that the self, you know, this thing inside me that I think of as
running the show, that the self is in some sense an illusion. As strange as that sounds, we're
going to see that there's a fair amount of evidence in psychology to support the idea that the self
is in some sense illusory. And that has really pretty radical implications, potentially, for how we
live our lives, how we view our feelings, which feelings we choose to let govern us and which we
don't and also the question of how we align ourselves with moral truth. [BLANK_AUDIO]
Resources for Week 2
• Gethin, pp. 79-84 (second part of chapter 3), 163-201 (chapter 7)
• The Satipatthana Sutta (the Buddha’s discourse on the Four Foundations of
Mindfulness); if you want a modern
interpretation of this ancient text, try Joseph Goldstein’s new book, Mindfulness: A Practical
Guide to Awakening.)
• My video dialogue with Judson Brewer:
• My video dialogue with Shinzen Young:
• Bikkhu Bodhi lectures on the eightfold path and meditation (lectures 7 and
The Buddha’s Discourse on the Not-Self
So there was a pretty famous Buddhist monk from Thailand named Jung Chaw who in the 20th
century did a lot to spread awareness of Buddhism in the West. And he once warned against
doing what we're about to try to do. I'm about to try to explain the doctrine of not-self or non-self
or no-self. The idea that, in some sense, the self, this thing we think of as being inside of us,
does not exist. And Jung Chaw once, once wrote that if you try to understand the doctrine in
this way, by having somebody lecture about it or read about it, that your head will explode.
Now, I assume he was exaggerating. I guess we'll find out soon enough. But, he was pointing to
an important distinction between two different ways of trying to apprehend this pretty hard to
fathom idea. One is the way he warned against. You know, reading about it, hearing about it.
And the other is an experiential understanding of the doctrine. That is, sitting down and
meditating, and eventually, maybe coming to kind of feel the truth of the doctrine, see the truth of
no-self, become convinced that there is no self in you. And it's certainly the case that most
people I have seen who seem convinced that the doctrine is valid that the self in some
sense does not exist are people who actually grasp the doctrine during meditation, and some of
them say that it was transformative and has changed their lives. And, and their perspective on
not self is a very important one. So eventually we're going to be hearing from some of them and
hearing about some of these experiences that convinced them that the self does not exist. But
right now, I'm going to try to describe the doctrine in, in you know the way that Jung Chow
warned against. I'm just going to do it by what he called intellectualizing.
I want to emphasize before we start that he was right. It's a very hard, infuriatingly hard, doctrine
to grasp in some ways. And, it's even hard to understand what exactly the Buddha meant by
the not-self idea, and scholars don't, don't agree on exactly what he meant. And in fact, as we
will see, the kind of mainstream interpretation of what he meant may not be true. I'm going to, I'm
going to kind of start by giving you more or less the mainstream the kind of standard
interpretation. But as we'll go on to see, that, that may not be valid, and it really matters which,
which interpretation you buy into. Now, the Buddha laid out the idea of not-self in a famous
sermon: The Discourse on the Not-Self, that is said to be the second sermon he delivered after
his enlightenment. Remember, the first one was the Discourse on the Four Noble Truths. And
then, according to tradition, he gave this discourse on the not-self. And it's a tribute to, it's a
testament to the importance of the not-self idea in Buddhist thought. That tradition holds it to be
the second sermon he delivered. Another testament to the importance of the doctrine is that,
supposedly, in fact this is written in the account of the discourse, the monks in attendance were
instantly enlightened once they heard this teaching about the not-self. Okay. So, what does, what
does the doctrine mean? Let's, let's, let's start to wrestle with that. This is the word in in Sanskrit
for not-self this is the word in the closely related ancient language of Poly. In both cases the an
just means not. So this means self. And the question arises what exactly did the Buddha mean
by the self? After all it's a word you can use in a lot of different ways and this was a long time
ago. Who knows how exactly it was being used then. There are two ways to go about figuring out
what the term meant. One is to kind of delve into the prevailing Indian philosophical discourse of
the time and, and, and try to gather what the word would have meant to the Buddha. That's not
what we're going to do. We're going to take what is in some ways a more straight-forward
course, which is we're going to try to infer what the Buddha meant by self from his argument
against the self. So an analogy would be: if you were an archeologist from a future civilization
and you came across this term Santa Claus, and you didn't know what it meant, and then you
came across a lecture I had delivered arguing that Santa Claus doesn't exist, and something I
said was that Santa Claus couldn't exist because no man can visit a million homes or more in a
single night. Well then, if you were this archeologist, you could infer this Santa Claus character
must have been someone who was thought to visit a million or more homes in a night,
right? That would be a valid inference. And we're going to do something comparable in, in
assessing the Buddha's argument about not-self, and we're going to infer from it the properties
he associated with the self, and how he seems to have thought of the self. Now, I want to, before
we get into that, give you kind of a broad overview of the structure of the Buddhist argument.
These are what are called the five aggregates. And according to Buddha, Buddhist thought, they
together constitute everything there is about a person, including the person's body, the person's
mind, the person's experience. Everything is in one of these five aggregates. I'll run over them
quickly, although the details don't matter much for today's purposes. Okay. Form, in principal,
actually a applies to anything physical in the world, but, but in this context you can just think of
it as being the body, the person's physical body. Feeling we've talked about. You know, pleasant,
unpleasant. As we've said, by this term the Buddha did not mean emotion. Emotion, would,
would be over here in mental formations,
along with various other things: desires volition. You know? The, the, kind of the energy
that motivates willful action, and thoughts and so on. perception, of course. You know? You
know what perception is.
You know? The trouble with talking about consciousness, is, it's kind of hard to define. People
have different conceptions of it. We won't get too deeply into it. But, you know, it refers to the
phenomenon of subjective awareness. And the reason I've chosen to, to kind of draw it like this,
give it a kind of privileged place in contact with all of these other things is because, you know, the
awareness is of these things. These things can be the, the contents of consciousness, so to
speak. Which isn't to say that these things are not in contact among themselves. So for example,
a perception can have a feeling associated with it and so on. So what the Buddha basically does,
according to the standard interpretation of this discourse on the not-self, is he goes through
these aggregates. And he goes through each one and he talks about the properties that the
aggregate seems to have, and he says these properties are not compatible with the properties
we associate with the self. The, the, the self could not be, you know? Show me where the self
is. Could it be here, here, here, here, here?
And he concludes: no, it, it couldn't be, given what he asserts about the nature of these
aggregates. So what does he assert? Well, there's basically two properties that he says you'll
find in all of these aggregates.
One of them is impermanence. Now as we know, you know, the Buddha saw impermanence
everywhere, I mean literally everywhere. Every, everything was impermanent so certainly the,
the five aggregates would be impermanent. And he, he goes around with the monks he says,
okay what about form what about feeling, is it permanent or impermanent? The monks say it is
impermanent, and he says, well in that event, if it is impermanent, if this is characterized by
change, is it proper to call it self? And they say no, it's, it's not.
And so we can infer from that, that he must have thought the self had a property roughly the
opposite of impermanence. That's not necessarily to say that the self would last forever. But, he,
he seems to thought of the self as something that persists through time. And that is consistent
with the way we use the term. RIght? I mean when I think of myself, I think of a self that
was intact when I was 12 years old, and it's the same self I have now. I've changed a lot since I
was 12, I'm, in, in, in a lot of ways. But, fundamentally, there was some essence in me, I kind of
think, intuitively, some, some essence in me that accounts for kind of continuity of identity. So we
do think of the self, in a common, sensical way, as being something, kind of solid, a kind of
essence that endures through time; its structure endures. and, the Buddhist said, no. There's too
much flux. Everything is changing all of the time in all of these aggregates, so, it, it's hard to
imagine a self being there.
So, one thing he's saying the self is, is kind of, you know, it has this kind of substantial
persistence. There's one other thing we can infer about his conception of the self from
the argument he delivers here, and that is that the self is associated with control. And the way we
know that is that the second basic argument he makes after the impermanence argument is, he
says, he goes around the aggregates and he says, like feeling for example. He says, if feeling
were self, then feeling would not lead to affliction, and, and the deal would be that you could just
say, may my feelings be like this, or may my feelings be like that. In other words, you could just
control them. He says the same thing about the, the form, the body, you know. If it were self,
you'd be able to control it. It would be under control. Okay? And by the way you may not, you
may not buy these arguments but, but for now the main thing is just to, to lay them out. They're
not, not intuitively clear to everyone.
It's important, there's a distinction here that needs to be made, okay. When the Buddha talks
about control, he's not, he's not saying, apparently, what we might guess that he would say
about the self and control. You know, you might guess he'd say the self is the CEO. It's the thing
in control. It's the thing that asserts control. In this sermon at least, he's saying the self should be
under control. That seems to be part of his definition of the self. It, the self's house should be in
order. Now that may mean that there is also a controller within the self. For all we know, what he
says in the sermon doesn't exclude that. And in fact, there's another sermon in which he kind of
suggests as much, another discourse, and that's where it's getting into just a little. I personally
find, find it kind of amusing. It involves this character named Augavesinna, who's kind of an
annoying character. He denies the Buddha's teaching on the self. He says, no feeling is self,
perception is self, mental formations are self.
And he confronts the Buddha, he seems to think he can win a debate with the Buddha. Now, if
you want my advice, it is do not debate the Buddha on matters of Buddhist doctrine. The
Buddhist scriptures are full of cases where the Buddha encounters someone who doesn't
understand the doctrines or wants to deny them, and they sometimes challenge him. They never
win. But in this case he is he is challenged. Augavesinna is sure that he can win this debate with
the Buddha, so he takes him on. he, he, he, he repeats. Yes this is self, this is self, this is
self. Exactly what the Buddha denies. And here's how the Buddha handles it. He says, okay, tell
me, A ugavesinna, a king, and he even names some kings, a king, does a king have the power
within his domain to say who should be executed, who should be banished, and so on? And
Augavesinna says, yes, yes he has, and he should have that power. And the Buddha says, well
tell me, do you have the power to say of your form, of form, of your body, you know, let my body
be like this, let my body be like that.
And Augavesinna then falls silent. He doesn't say anything. The Buddha asks him
again. Augavesinna still doesn't say anything, and at this point the Buddha brings out a rule that I
didn't realize existed. He says, he says you have to understand there is this rule that if someone
refuses to answer a legitimate question asked by the Buddha three times in a row, that person's
head will be split into seven pieces. And as if to drive this point home, a spirit appears above
Augavesinna's head, wielding an iron thunderbolt, and threatens to split his head open. So far as
I know, this is the closest that anyone has ever come to actually having their head explode as, as
Jung Chaw warned while trying to apprehend the not-self concept. And, and it actually didn't
happen in this case. He gives in, he says you're right, my, I don't have control ultimately over my
body, and so on, and so on, and so on, and so on. So, in this case, the Buddha is invoking the
kind of, what we would call today the CEO metaphor, the closest thing to it. The king he does
seem to be kind of associating in a certain sense of the self with the controller and not just
asserting that it should be itself under control. But in any event what's clear is that the Buddhist
says the self is about control. The self is about, kind of, persistence through time. A kind of solid,
some sort of solid core that persists. And these things are lacking throughout the
aggregates. And, and that's the end of the story. Now, a lot of people find this a little unsettling. I
mean, we think of ourselves as having these, these selves, you know, and we, we think there is
a CEO in here. It's me, it's myself, I am in charge.
And we also think that, you know, I have endured through time. You know, it, it's the same CEO
in some sense that it was when I was 12. Well, if this interpretation is, is true and I've given you
kind of the standard interpretation of the, of the Buddha's foundational discourse on the not-self,
then there's bad news. Then, then, you know, if, if, if that is your conception of the self and if you
like it. That the, the self is that there isn't the control within you that you would maybe imagine or
hope for and there is not not the permanence of self that you might have imagined. Now, you
may in addition to not buying this or resisting it, you may wonder, well why does this
matter? Let's suppose it's true. This just doesn't seem like news I can use. What do I do with this
idea that the self doesn't exist? Okay, well that's where we're going to address in the next
segment. And we are going to explore the alternative interpretation to the interpretation I've just
given you. And as you'll see, that may be in a way more user-friendly interpretation, maybe an
interpretation that, that does you more good, that you can get more out of.
What Did The Buddha Mean?
In the first segment of this lecture, we saw two things.
First that the, the Buddha and his famous discourse on the not self, says that you will not find the
self in any of these five aggregates. And second that this is considered a very, very important
fact. Now, what may not be clear to you is why is this considered so important? I mean what is
the connect between this, this idea that there is not a self, and the Buddha's larger mission of
ending suffering, ending duḼkha.
You know, after all, supposedly he delivered this discourse right after the discourse about the
Four Noble Truths. And these monks were enlightened upon hearing this, this discourse but it's,
it's kind of not clear why. Why exactly is the doctrine so important? It doesn't take long to explain
why logically this teaching might have lead to the enlightenment of the monks so we'll just spend
a couple minutes on that. But then that is going to lead to an interesting question. Is it possible
that when the Buddha said, you won't find the self in these 5 aggregates, he did not mean to
deny the existence of the self altogether? That is the view of some scholars. Maybe not a
majority, but of some scholars. I think it's at least a plausible view worth hearing, and it may have
important implications, because some people may find this a more useful teaching. Than the
more conventionally accepted teaching that the self does not exist. As for the question of how
the Buddhist teaching lead to the enlightenment of these monks to their liberation from
suffering. Well here is an important clue, these five aggregates are sometimes called the five
aggregates of clinging. You probably remember this term clinging from an earlier lecture when
we talked about the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha's diagnosis of the human predicament. He
said that the source of our dukha, our suffering, the unsatisfactoriness of life. Is craving for
things, and clinging to things that are not going to last forever. Now normally when you think
about clinging to things, you think about things that are kind of out there in the world. I used my
own favorite example, powdered sugar donuts. And you imagine yourself kind of clinging to the
donuts themselves. But when you think about it, the clinging is going to have to be mediated by
the aggregates. I mean there can't be direct contact between your mind and the donuts,
right? The way, the way you apprehend the donuts is, well first of all you have this perception of
the donuts. Whether you see them, feel them, taste them.
The perception may be associated with a positive feeling, and that leads you to crave and to
cling to the donuts. And even leaving aside the, the way that, that things in the outside the
clinging for, to things on the outside of your body can be mediated by these aggregates. There
are things just floating around in here that you might cling to, for example opinions, which would
be in the realm of mental formations. You know, if you cling to them, you'll, you'll, you'll wind up
arguing with people needlessly. You may get sad when people reject your opinions, and so
on. That's a form of attachment, of clinging. So, basically all forms of clinging, the
Buddha apparently concluded, could be taken care of if you could just get these monks to quit
clinging to these aggregates, okay? And the way he accomplishes this is, there's, there's a kind
of refrain in this sermon. He, he goes from, from aggregate to aggregate and says that you know,
in conclusion this is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself, he says that. That kind of three-
part refrain about all of the aggregates, and apparently the idea is that once the monks realize
these things are not part of their selves. These, then they will, they will let go of them. Now I'm
not sure it would happen so automatically in my case. If you've convinced me that in some sense
my self is in any of these things. I don't imagine my desire for doughnuts just vanishing
miraculously. But, that is said to have happened. To put a slightly finer point on the logic of
this, what the Buddha says, he explains to the monks, look, a really, you know, a disciple who
gets the picture, upon seeing that, that this is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself. Will
become disenchanted with each of these five aggregates, and upon being disenchanted, he will
become dispassionate. And upon losing the passion, upon becoming dispassionate, he will be
released, he will be liberated. That's what the Buddha says, he will be liberated.
Now, this leads to a question and possibly a paradox.
The Buddha says that you let go of all this stuff and you will be liberated. Okay, but where are
you once you're liberated on this map?
I mean, didn't, didn't we say that according to Buddhist teaching, these five aggregates constitute
everything about a person, and everything about a person's experience. So, I don't, I don't quite
understand, you know, how you, you know, this person steps away from all this and remains
intact, in theory. Right? It sounds to me suspiciously like there actually is a self. And, this self is
being, liberated. In any event, it's kind of hard to reconcile this with the basic Buddhist
teaching that these five aggregates constitute everything there can be about a person, or a
person's experience. The idea that you let go of them entirely. And you're still around and you're
liberated. It's not, it's not obvious to me how that works. Now, of course, there are ways of
resolving paradoxes. Paradoxes arise in various religions, or philosophical systems and thinkers
come along who, who purport to resolve them.
You can do that here. Thinkers have thought about this.
I, I think, you know, we will get into this later, but I think a particularly auspicious possibility is to,
to think about the possibility that, maybe consciousness is what is liberated.
There are other Buddhist teachings where you, that, that kind of seems to be the idea, but the
fact is that in that one sermon, he talks about clinging to consciousness and then letting go of the
clinging. So it seems like there's something that winds up outside of the system. Well, there's an
alternative to trying to actually resolve the paradox. We can, we can just ask the question of you
know is it possible, that the interpretation of this, this discourse has been wrong all along? Maybe
he did not mean to assert that there is no such thing as a self at all. I mean, after all, in the
sermon, he never says flat out, there is no self, no such self exists. And, you might, you might
reply, well, okay he doesn't say that, but we know that in Buddhist thought, these five aggregates
constitute everything there is. So when he goes through and says no self here, here, here and
here he's saying, self can't exist. But, fact is, he never says in the sermon, these five aggregates
constitute everything about a person and the person's experience. Now both of these things
certainly did become Buddhist teaching. That, that these are exhaustive categories. And that the
self does not exist. I, there, there's no doubt about that. But as for the question of what was
meant by this first sermon, there is the real possibility that the idea was not to deny the existence
of self. Okay well, what was the idea? Well one possibility is that he just looked, you know,
he looked at these monks, at the trouble that they were having.
Kind of dealing with things and he found they were all entangled with these feelings and, and,
and mental formations they were attached to their body. And he thought well maybe if I put it to
them this way, you know, these are not part of the self.
Maybe that will be a constructive way to think about it, you know? It's not that he's asserting
a metaphysical doctrine, it's, he just, says maybe I should tell him you know, you don't have to
own this stuff. And, in a way when you look at, the way he phrases it, that's kind of plausible. I
mean, he keeps saying you know, this is not mine, this I am not, this is not myself. That's a very
kind of pragmatically useful way to put it, you know? I don't have to own this, I don't have to
identify with this.
So that is, that is a real possibility. That this was more of an instrumental doctrine. A pragmatic
doctrine than an assertion of metaphysical truths. Now I don't I don't have a firm conviction one
way or the other, as to what was meant. In this, in this discourse, I would have to, to go
through reams of Buddhist teaching to arrive at some sort of confident opinion. However I do
know someone who has gone through reams of Buddhist teaching, we've already met him in an
earlier lecture a Bhikkhu Bodhi who has translated reams of Buddha's teaching including this
particular sermon. And this question of how we should take this doctrine of not-self came up in a
conversation I had with him. And what he says is really interesting and on point here. >> And I
would not say that the teaching of non-self means that there is no self, or that we don't have a
self. Though I would not say that, when I explained it in that way, that it implies that we do have
a kind of, you know, absolute, unconditioned, indescribable self. The way some of the vedantan,
you know, the Hindu interpret, interpret as a Buddhism. >> Mm-hm. >> Try to interpret the
Buddhist teaching of non-self. What I would say is that the Buddha uses different modes of
discourse depending on the context. And so when he's speaking within what I would call a
contemplative context, within the context of, insight contemplation, or within the context of the
aspiration for liberation.
Then he takes us at the primary obstacle to the attainment of liberation is the grasping or clinging
to the mental and physical components of our being as a self. With the primary obstacle, you
could say is the view of self that arises in regard to the mental and material constituents of our
being. Or to the clinging to the notion that I am. That there's some kind of true, substantial core at
the center of our being. And so in order to debilitate and to eliminate that clinging to the view of
self. And to the notion of a substantial I. The Buddha teaches not that there is no self, but that all
of the objects of clinging are not self and the objects of clinging or what he sums up and what are
called the five aggregates. Or the five constituents, bodily form, feeling, perception, mental
functions or volitional activities, and consciousness. So within that framework, that liberative
framework, or that framework of contemplative insight, the Buddha teachers that one should
contemplate all the constituents of being as not mine, not I, not myself.
But in other contexts but I would call the context of ethical action or the context of karma and its
fruits. The Buddha teaches again not that there is a self but he will use the language of selfhood
saying that for example one is responsible for oneself. >> Now reinforcing Bhikkhu Bodhi's view
of this is the fact that there is a discourse in the teachings in which the Buddha says that it is
unwise to hold as a true and established view, either that the self exists for me or that the self
does not exist for me. And another thing that may lend some strength to this view. Is the
contention of some scholars that the teachings generally taken as earliest, do not include the flat
out assertion that no self exists. And one of the scholars who has made this argument. Is named
Peter Harvey, and he wrote a book called, Selfless Mind. It's about this whole early Buddhist
conception of the self. And he framed this whole issue in a really interesting way. Here's what he
wrote. A philosophical denial is just a view, a theory, which may be agreed with, or not. It does
not get one, actually, to examine all the things that one really does identify with, consciously or
unconsciously. As self, or I. This examination, in a calm, meditative context, is what the not-self
teaching aims at. It is not so much a thing to be thought about, as to be done. So, in a way, we're
back to [UNKNOWN], who insisted that we shouldn't try to intellectualize about this no-self
thing. Because, basically he was saying quit talking about it and just sit down and do it.
And, I've gotta say that in some ways I like the, the conception of the teaching that we're
talking about here, more user friendly than the teaching as it's conventionally interpreted as
being this kind of doctrinaire thing. I, I, I think it's in some ways useful and for some people will
be useful. To think of, of the Buddhist teaching. It's just a way of framing the issue
productively as, as kind of instrumental and, and, and pragmatic. And here's why I think that. If
you look at the liberation of these monks that happens in the course of the discourse on the not-
self, it's not nec, necessarily very appealing sight I think for, for, for many of us. Because
remember the Buddha says they should become disenchanted from every aspect of the mind
and experience and, you know, that, that word disenchanted is sometimes translated as
estranged from. One translation has it as revolts by, so in any event we seem to be talking about
a pretty thorough alienation from everything here. And I don't know many people who would look
forward to that and this is a reminder by the way that In these discourses, the Buddha is typically
talking to monks. They often began with the, his greeting the bhikkhus, which means
monks. And, you know, that's a very special audience. Remember, in those days, these, these
monks were people who had, they had left society, in search of truth and liberation. They were
willing to undergo very harsh austerities in search of truth and liberation. In fact so harsh that the
Buddha presented the eight-fold path, which as we've seen is pretty arduous, as a, as a
moderate thing. As a, as a middle way. That isn't as demanding as what these monks were used
to. Well, for an audience like that, they want full out liberation. And so, you know, an extreme
teaching makes sense. For a lot of of people, you know, at least, certainly, to start with, they
would like to have more modest goals. And so, that's what I like about seeing the teaching of not-
self as saying basically look, there's nothing in here that you have to own. There's nothing in
here that you have to identify with. This particular hatred, this particular jealousy, this particular
sorrow. You don't have to think of it as yours. And in fact, Buddhism offers a technique,
which we've discussed, mindfulness meditation, that may help you in a certain sense, weaken
the connection of these things, in a certain sense even disown them. At least to the extent of not
letting them getting the kind of traction they used to get and control your, your, your thoughts and
your subsequent behavior. Now, you know, at the same time you know, anybody is, of course, is
free to go as far as they will, all the way to the sort of liberation that the monks sought. But this,
this interpretation of the teaching leaves room for, for anybody. It says, you don't have to own
anything here, and if you want to own nothing, You know, good luck.
now, it is still the case, even if this interpretation of that sermon is right, there is no denying that
the idea of not self in the sense that the self does not exist, did become part of Buddhist
teaching. And it did include this, this emphasis on the concept of control that we saw in the
teaching. In other words you know, the, the self as this controller, as this CEO, is, is thought to
not exist. So Buddha [UNKNOWN] who was a, one of the very most important Buddhist thinkers
who lived centuries after the Buddha, said, deeds exist, but no doer is found. And this idea of
deeds without a doer has become part of the idea that the self doesn't exist. Things happen, you
do stuff, but there's no CEO in there. Meditators often report, those meditators who get so far into
the practice that this all makes sense to them. They talk about thoughts without a thinker
they see these, these, they see their thoughts, but they become convinced that they're they're in
some sense not not the thing that generated the thoughts.
And they also by the way, these meditators, often put a lot of emphasis on the other thing we
saw in the Buddha's discourse, imperm-, impermanence. They, they, while meditating are quite
taken by the fluidity of things and this feeds into their idea that there's no, no substantial core
there. A lot of these meditators, who say they have experientially apprehended the idea of not-
self, say it's been very important, made them happier, maybe better people. In some cases they
say it's been absolutely transformative.
We're going to be hearing from some of these people, hearing what the experience is like the
experience of not-self and and, the sense in which it has made a difference. But I want to be in
position to assess the, the validity of their apprehension. In other words I want to ask not just has
it been a, a useful experience for them but does it comport with what science is telling us about
the structure of the mind. So before we hear from them, we're going to turn to the, the question of
what modern psychology has to say about the self, and we're going to do that in the next
segment of this lecture. And we're going to find that, actually there's more support for these
meditative apprehensions than you might imagine. [BLANK_AUDIO]
Modern Psychology and the Self
So now we're going to shift to some new terrain. We're going to move from ancient Buddhist
thought to modern psychology. And by modern psychology I mean psychology starting roughly in
the second half of the 20th century. But we're going to stay focused on something we were
looking at in the context of Buddhist thought, which is what to make of this thing that we call the
self, what if anything it is. And we're going to see some experimental evidence that the thing we
think of as the self the, the conscious me, the thing I think of as running the show, may not
be running as much of the show as we think it is. We may be attributing more power to it than it
really deserves. Now, in a way, this idea goes back to pre-modern psychology. Because of
course, Sigmund Freud became famous for saying that, you know, that, our behavior is actually
controlled to a considerable extent by all these unconscious forces, and the conscious mind isn't
as in charge as we think it is. So broadly speaking, you could say that the experimental evidence
we're about to see is an affirmation of a Freudian world view, but I want to emphasize broadly
speaking, because when you look at specific ideas that Freud came up with about how exactly
the unconscious mind influences. The, the conscious mind in behavior and, and what the
dynamics of that are. Some of those ideas don't look very good in light of modern thought. And
also, though Freud was very skeptical about the power of the self, some psychologists today
would say he really wasn't quite skeptical enough. Freud had basically, a three part model of the
mind. There was the id, which harbors these dark animal impulses.
There was what he called the super ego which corresponds more or less to the conscious, and
then in the middle of things was the ego, the self. And it's true that he emphasized that the
self isn't as in charge as it thinks it is. But he did put it right there in the middle. And he did
attribute some autonomy to it. Some independent power to it. And there, there are psychologists
who especially in light of some of the experiments we're going to look at. Would say that even
that model gives kind of, too much credit to the self. And some of these psychologists are
working on a model of, of the mind which we will come to which really has no place for the self at
all. Okay, now in the, kind of modern history of doubt about the power of the self, there is one set
of experiment that really are kind of the landmark and these are known as the split-brain
experiments. You may well have heard of them, especially if you've taken an introductory
psychology course, they've gotten a certain amount of publicity, and they're certainly very
memorable, because in a way, they have some very strange results.
Now these experiments involve people whose hemispheres the, the two halves of their brains
had been disconnected. Most of us have something called the corpus callosum, a bundle of
fibers that connects the two halfs, halves of the brain, but these people had, had their's surgically
severed in most cases to control seizures, and when, when this procedure was first done, you
know, it seemed kind of miraculous because it didn't seem to have much effect on
behavior, aside from controlling the seizures, which is kind of surprising. You'd think that
something connecting the two halves of the brain, is this really important thing. Who knows
what'll happen if it gets cut. Well, not much noticeable happened. But then in the 1960's, some
researchers, in particular, Michael Gazzaniga came up with a kind of experimental apparatus
that got split-brain patients to behave in some pretty strange ways. Now, to understand what he
did you have to understand first of all that the way the brain works, information in the left half of
the visual field, enters the right hemisphere and information on the right half of the visual field
enters the left hemisphere. I don't know why natural selection did it that way. I don't think I would
have, but that's the way we're set up. So, it's possible, if the two halves aren't connected, as in
these patients To put information in one side of the brain that just stays there and doesn't go to
the other side. So, for example, one kind of thing they did is they would flash a word like nut in
the left half of the visual field, which means it entered the right half of the visual field of the
hemisphere, the right hemisphere. And the way they could tell that it didn't get to the
left hemisphere is they would say to the patient, what word do you see.
And the patient would say, I don't see a word. Now, here's the explanation for that. In most
people, it's the left hemisphere that houses the language faculties, so that's the half of the brain
that does the talking. So that's the half of the brain that was reporting that it saw nothing.
But, they had a way of determining that the word nut had made it into the right hemisphere,
because the right hemisphere controls the left hand, just as the left hemisphere controls the right
hand, and they found that if they let the patient rummage through a box of objects, the left hand
would cease upon a nut. Okay, even though you ask the patient. What word do you see? The
patient say's I don't see a word. There clearly is somewhere that the, the presence of that word
registers, and then in turn motivates a behavior, the seizing of the nut. Now this is kind of strange
when you think about it, because, you know, ordinarily if a word enters your brain, it enters this
conscious field and, and if it influences you to do something, you think of yourself as deciding to
kind of do something in response to the information. And you can share the information with
the world, right, you can talk about what you've seen. In this case that's not what's going on. The,
the person can't talk about the, the information and, the person seems to be not conscious, but
here not conscious of the information, but here we have to be careful, because we really have no
way of knowing that the right brain is not itself conscious. We know that the conscious left half of
the brain didn't see the word, but there is no way for that half of the brain to know whether the
right brain is actually experiencing things subjectively and the right brain can't say, so we don't
really know and it's funny. People have different intuitions about this. Some people tend to say,
well of course it's conscious, the right, the right brain is going to be conscious. So it was
conscious before they cut the brain in half, right? So naturally there's going to be some
consciousness there. Other people find it weird, almost creepy, to think that you know, if you're
identifying with the left half of the brain. You're the thing that does the talking as usual, to think
that there's somewhere in your body, some conscious being that you can't communicate with,
inhabiting the same body, that's, that strikes some people as very strange and very
paradoxical. Okay, there was a second finding from these split-brain experiments that, that adds
a, a kind of, a second dimension of strangeness. If you flash an instruction on the left visual field,
so it enters the right brain, like it's, you say walk, the person will follow it, the person will get up
and walk. And then if you ask the person, where are you going?
Remember the answer is going to come from the left brain, which doesn't know the correct
answer as to why it got up and started walking.
And the left brain tends to come up with an answer. The, the person will say something like oh,
I'm going to get a soda, and apparently, we'll believe it. That is, the left brain will believe the story
even though it was fabricated on the spot.
And that's kind of strange when you think about it. Then there was a third finding that is a little
more complicated than, than these, these first two. This involves kind of both halves of the
brain at the same time and, and both hands. So what they did was, they presented to the left
hemisphere the image of a chicken claw.
And the right hemisphere saw a picture of a kind of a wintry scene with a lot of snow.
And then they let both hands choose from among a number of pictures.
And the hand associated with the left hemisphere, which had seen the chicken claw, chose a
chicken obviously, you know reasonably enough, and the hand associated with the right
hemisphere, which had seen the winter scene, the snowy scene, chose a snow, a snow shovel,
which also makes sense. And then they asked the person, okay, why did you make these
choices? And remember the answer's coming from the left brain. And, and the person ,first says,
well the chicken claw goes with the chicken, and, that's you know, the left brain knew both of
those things, knew about the chicken and the chicken claw. And then the person looks down at
his hands, and see's that one of the hands unbeknown to the left hemisphere has chosen a
shovel and says, well, you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed. So the person came up
with this, with this story that makes sense. You know, it's coherent it's, it's just not true. Okay, so
what's the main take away from that set of experiments? I would say, two basic things. First of all
those experiments suggest but don't prove by any means that the conscious self is capable of
greatly over estimating the amount influence it's exerting on behavior. Secondly, the experiments
suggest, but again don't prove, that the conscious self can promulgate and apparently believe
wildly untrue stories about the actual motivation of the person. Now, the reason I say suggest,
but not prove, is that, remember, these were not anatomically normal, so we're not really
seeing the conscious self work as it's normally wired. The findings are certainly very suggestive,
but it's hard to conclude much with confidence about the self as it normally exists. The most we
can say is, is that this left hemisphere which some people do think is the seed of consciousness
and does seem to be the seed of language at least in, in most people.
that, that is capable of these kinds of, of delusions. At least when it is, when it is severed from
the rest of the brain. So, how can we study anatomically normal people? Well, it's, it's a little, it's
harder to come up with such exotic results, as we saw in the split-brain experiments. But
psychologists have managed to establish that people are sometimes not conscious of the actual
motivation of their behavior. And that they may actually kind of come up with stories about the
actual motivation when they don't know the real motivation. So a kind of classic in this field is a
study that was done several decades ago by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson. It involved
pantyhose, four pair of pantyhose that were arrayed in front of people for them to examine the
way a shopper would examine pantyhose, and one thing they found is that people had a strong
tendency to choose, when asked which was their favorite pair of pantyhose to choose the pair on
the far right. For whatever reason, people tend to do that in that kind of set up.
The people weren't aware that that was influencing their judgement because when they were
asked, well, why did you make choice, all the people who had chosen the one on the far
right didn't say, well, because it's the one on the far right. They came up with other reasons,
they would talk about the texture of the pantyhose, or you know, I like the way it's slightly more
opaque than the other pantyhose. But, in fact, all the panty hose were identical. They we're the
same brand, same model. So, you know [UNKNOWN] subjects hadn't been told this, but clearly
these people were kind of straining to come up with a reason for having done what they had
done for a reason they didn't understand.
Now a lot of experimentation, has been done on unconscious motivation or motivation that we're
not aware of using subliminal techniques. That is, presenting information in a way that does not
enter the conscious mind, but still does influence behavior.
typically, you would flash the information so briefly on a screen say, that the person is not aware
of having seen it. But sometimes it does influence behavior. One study in particular that I think is
worth talking about. Now, subjects were brought in, and they were told, here's a hand grip. The
harder you squeeze it, the more money you're going to make. And on each trial, it will be
randomly determined, whether what you earned. Whether the maximum payoff was a penny or
a, a, pound. This is in England, okay, so it's a penny or a pound. A pound is of course a whole lot
more than a penny.
Now, as the subjects looked at the computer screen. Where they were going to see a guage
of how forcefully they were, they were squeezing the grip.
Before they gripped, the, the grip, a pattern appeared on the screen. It was just a, a kind of,
abstract, circular pattern.
For a fraction of a second, but long enough to see and then that would be replaced in the, in the
same circumference by an image of a coin it would be either a penny or a pound and then that
would be replaced again by the pattern that was initially there, so the image of the coin
was sandwiched in between the two appearances of this pattern. And in some of the trials, it was
done subliminally. With the, the coin was shown so briefly that there was no conscious
awareness of having seen the coin.
What they found in, in those cases is that even when people weren't aware of having seen the
coin, when the pound was shown, the people did tend to squeeze the grip. Harder, so, first of all,
there was, there was that influence. Again, evidence that, that unconsciously things we're not
aware of can, can influence our motivation. But there's another interesting dimension to this
study because it was a brain scan study and they were scanning a part of the brain. That's
associated with motivation and emotion and they found two things first of all they found that
when they did leave the coin up their long enough for it to inter consciousness so people actually
aware of whether they had seen a penny or a pound then what they found in this brain
region. Was that it got more active when a pound was shown than when a penny was
shown. Okay, this is when they're actually conscious of, of the, of seeing the coin. And, and they
did squeeze harder in the case of seeing the pound.
What's interesting to me is they, they found the same asymmetry.
In the case of, of the subliminal presentation of the coin. So when people aren't aware of having
seen the coin, they aren't consciously aware of it, that same brain region shows that asymmetry
that is, when the pound is shown, there's more activity in that brain region than when the penny
is shown.
Now what this suggests, and this is just one interpretation, but it's plausible and interesting, is
that maybe, you know, that the conscious perception just doesn't matter at all in a situation like
this. In other words, the real motivational action is happening there in the physical brain. And the
more activated this particular region gets, the harder the person is going to squeeze the
grip. This region gets activated, sends a signal to squeeze the grip. And in some cases, the
person becomes conscious of, of the activity in the brain, because it's that strong, or it lasts that
long or whatever. And in those cases, the person may kind of, in a sense, become aware of the
motivation and even own it. The person may say, and I don't know [UNKNOWN] if, you know, in
this experiment, they didn't ask this question apparently, but the person could conceivably say,
well you know, I felt. You know, when I saw the coin it, you know I, I, I obviously decided to
squeeze harder. I felt motivated so I squeezed harder. But maybe the, the conscious experience
of seeing the coin actually didn't add anything to the motivation at all. And all the action is in the,
the strictly physical machine. This interpretation of the findings is not one that the authors of the
paper themselves put forward. The did emphasize that as they put it, consistently, the same
basal forebrain region underpinned subliminal and conscious motivation. But they didn't get into
the various possible interpretations of, of that really interesting fact. Now before we finish up this
lecture, I want to bring up one more finding from this split-brain stuff. There's a kind of
experiment you can do with people, where you show them like dozens of pictures, and the
pictures tell a kind of coherent story like. Guy gets up in the morning, gets ready to go to work,
goes to work, and then, you show them a second bunch of pictures including a lot of the ones
you, you showed them the first time. But, also including some other ones. And you ask them,
with each picture is this, was this in the original group? Did we show you this the first time
around? And there's two kinds of new pictures that have been added to the series. One is
pictures that, that weren't shown to the person but make sense and fit into that plot line. So it
would be a different picture of the same guy getting ready to go to work or a different picture of
him driving to work or something. And then, there are also pictures that don't make any sense in
terms of the narrative. The guy's out playing golf. He's going to the zoo or something like that.
Now, what happens with anatomically normal people whose, whose brain hemispheres are still
connected, is they say you know, the, the, the, pictures that are obviously don't fit, they, they
easily reject. You know, no, he wasn't at the zoo, no he wasn't playing golf. But, a fair number of
the pictures that make narrative sense that fit into the storyline they'll say yeah, yeah, I saw that,
even though they in fact didn't.
Now, when they do this with split-brain patients, they find that the left brain does that same
thing. Does what an anatomically normal person would do. But when they, when they show
these pictures to the right brain and then, and then have the, the, the right brain kind of
discard pictures in the second round that weren't part of the first round, what they find is that the
right brain is, you know, strictly accurate. It not only discards the pictures that obviously don't fit,
it also discards the pictures that make narrative sense, but weren't part of the original series of
pictures. So what this suggests is, first of all, the right brain is, is, is about literal truth and, and,
and detailed orientation, it sees in the trees but not necessarily the force whereas the left brain is
more about kind of the gist of the story, the overall plot line and it may even be willing to live with
a certain amount of embellishment, if the embellishment fits the story. And, that makes sense in
a way because the left brain is after all responsible for telling stories to the world. It generates the
language. It's the part of the brain that is going to say, well I saw a guy you know, he got up, he
went to work, and so on, and the main thing is that you get the story line more or less right, and
it's coherent. That's much more important than paying attention to every single detail as you
observe the guide. The main thing is to have a story to tell that's more or less true. Okay, and so
it, in that sense, it, it makes sense that the, the left brain focuses on the overall plot line. But
remember, the left brain doesn't just tell stories about other people. About a guy who got up and
went to work. The left brain also tells stories about ourselves to the world. It, it, it does kind of,
the presentation of ourselves to the world through what it says about us. And, and what it says
that implicitly reflects upon us. And you know, we've already discovered that the left brain
is capable of, apparently, of buying into massive fabrications. So you know, it's worth exploring
a little more, what kinds of stories in anatomically normal people, we do tell about ourselves, and
how true the are, or are not.
And in the next lecture we're going to do some of that. We're going to look at our presentation of
ourselves. The stories we tell about ourselves. How true are they, or aren't they.
And it's going to turn out that, that subject ties into a much large subject that we're going to
spend most of the next lecture on. And that subject is this emerging theory of the mind, that I
eluded to earlier. That a growing number of pyschologists are buying into. And this is a theory of
mind called the Modular Theory of the Mind. And some versions of it have no place at all for the
self. At least not, in anything like the way we've normally conceived of the self. So, you know, if
you ask the question, well wait, if the Buddhists are right, you know, there are deeds, but there is
no doer. There are thoughts, but there is no thinker then, then, how do the deeds get done, what
decides what deeds get done, how do the thoughts get generated. Well, the theory we're going
to talk about in the next lecture is the best candidate I'm aware of in modern psychology for
answering that question. So I'll see you next time. [BLANK_AUDIO]
Resources for Week 3
• The Buddha’s Discourse on the Not-
• Gethin, Chapter 6 (pp. 133-62)
• My video dialogue with Miri Albahari:
Delusions about Ourselves
>> So in the last lecture, we saw some evidence that human beings are very inclined to have a
story about why they do the things they do. And that sometimes, they seems capable of
generating false stories. So, for example, if shoppers are unconsciously drawn to products that
happen to sit on a particular part of the shelf and you ask them, why do prefer that product? They
tend to come up with the claim that it has some special property that other products don't have,
when in fact all of the products on the shelf have exactly the same properties. And they seem to
believe this when they say it. It's as if we're designed to convince the world that we have
coherent motivations, and in the process we convince ourselves of that. Now, this raises a
question, I mean as long as we're going to shade the truth in this one regard, why not shade the
truth in other ways. As long as we're going to claim that we have a coherent motivation, why not
claim that we have pure motivations. That we're, that we're good people. And why don't we, in
other respects, burnish our reputations. After all, you can imagine ways that during evolution if
our ancestors could impress people and preserve a good reputation, that could help them get
their genes into the next generation. So, maybe there's a, kind of a built in tendency to do this
kind of self promotion. Well, as we're going to see, there is a fair amount of evidence that people
pretty naturally do self promotion. And there are some psychologists who think that, actually, one
of the main functions of what we ordinarily think of as the conscious self is to assist in this kind of
self promotion effort. One of these psychologists is named Rob Kurzban and he's at Penn, the
University of Pennsylvania. And I had a conversation with him about this recently, and as you'll
see he starts off by giving me the bad news about myself. >> Okay. So, are you saying that the,
the me that I think of as me is not in control, the Bob?
>> Yes, I sort of think of the me that you think of as Bob as a little bit more like a press secretary
or public relations department, which is sort of broadcasting things out into the world that are
useful for Bob. You know, maintaining your reputation and so on but really there's a lot of
decision making going on that you have no conscious access to but none of us, sort of, really
know about. What this means is that we don't know always understand the motive behind our
own, our own actions. And this unitary sense of self is more, again, it's kind of broadcast media
as opposed to all these bits and pieces that are, that are doing the actual work. >> Another term
for those bits and pieces that Rob Kurzban referred to at the end there is modules.
As I've suggested, there is this thing called the modular view of the mind, which doesn't include
a self as we ordinarily conceive of a self, and Rob is an adherent of this view, of this theory. And
in fact, he wrote a book whose subtitle is Evolution and the Modular Mind. The title of the book is,
Why everyone else is a hypocrite. Now in this lecture, we're going to talk about the modular view
of the mind, but I want to start by spending some time fleshing out the idea that what we think
of as the conscious self is largely in the public relations business. As we'll see, this idea fits very
naturally into a modular view of the mind. And it also, of course, fits naturally alongside this
general Buddhist theme that we tend not to see things clearly, we have illusions, certainly
including illusions about ourselves. In 1980 psychologist named Anthony Greenwald coined the
term beneffectance to describe the way people naturally present themselves to other people. It's
a compound word. First half comes from the word beneficial, meaning that we tend to present
ourselves as helpful, as beneficial to others. The second half of the word comes from effective,
so we present ourselves as capable, competent, successful. And a lot of evidence has piled up,
a lot of it since he coined the term, to suggest that he was on to something. So for example,
along a lot of dimensions of skill, ranging from social skill to athletic skill, most people when
asked will describe themselves as above average. You know, when you do the math, it can't be
the truth that most people are above average. And this kind of view of our self turns out to be
very resistant to actual evidence. So there was one study where they looked at 50 drivers who
had recently been hospitalized because of car accidents, and in more than two-thirds of
those cases, the police had determined that they were at fault. And they asked these people, you
know, they showed them a spectrum from very poor driver to expert driver, and they asked them,
where do you fit along this spectrum? And then they, they did the same thing with a control
group, people that had no black marks on their records. They asked them to rate their driving
ability. And the two groups rated themselves almost identically. In both cases it was near the
expert end of the spectrum.
Now, one thing that, that allows us to resist that kind of evidence is the way we kind of naturally
interpret negative outcomes. There's, there's a human tendency to explain away
negative outcomes as being due to something other than yourself. Being due to luck or some
other aspect of external circumstances. And this is the tendency that keeps hustlers in
business. By hustlers I mean people who play sports or games for real money. And one reason
they can, they can find people who will lose to them on a sustained basis and yet keep playing, is
these people convince themselves that they're actually at least as good as the person who keeps
beating them, it's just that they keep having bad luck. You know, it's, it's the shot on the 17th hole
that, that one more yard and it wouldn't have hit the water. Or in backgammon it's one single roll
of the dice explains how they lost.
These things may be true, but what they're not noticing is that when the other person loses, they
have similar explanations and maybe, sometimes even when the other person's winning, they did
it in spite of a lot of bad luck. But we don't notice the bad luck that other people have. So we
have this tendency to, to not focus on ourselves in explaining negative outcomes but to focus on
ourselves when the outcomes are positive. And this happens, not just in individual context, but in
team context when we assess how much we contributed to a team effort. And there's one study
of academics who had co-authored papers, and of course getting a paper published in a
journal is a success in itself, so they asked these people, well how much of the overall effort
were you responsible for. You know, when there were multiple authors, did you do 20%, 40% of
the work, and it turned out in the, in the average four person team, where papers had four co-
authors, the total of claimed credit was 140% when they added up the evaluations of the
people. So, in a four person team the average person was claiming more than one third of the
credit for the outcome. Now, this finding covers both halves of the word beneffectance. In other
words, to say you contributed a lot to a team effort is both to say you're effective, you're
capable. It is also to say you were helpful to your teammates, whereas some of the other findings
apply only, say, to the effective half. If you think that you're athletic skills are superb, that's about
just being effective. And then some findings apply just more to the beneficial half. So, for
example most people think that they do more good things than the average person and do fewer
bad things. So, we all believe apparently that, that we're morally upstanding by and large and,
and possibly more, more morally upstanding than we actually are.
Now one dynamic that facilitates all of these kind of self serving beliefs is selective retention. The
way the memory filters out certain things. So for example, it turns out that we are more inclined
to remember events that reflect favorably on us than events that reflect unfavorably on us. That
doesn't mean we don't have any negative memories. I mean there are certainly some things that
are, that turn out disastrously that you, you need to remember, so you don't repeat the
mistake. We do have painful memories. But even so, there's a difference between the negative
and the positive memories. [BLANK_AUDIO] The studies show that the positive events
we remember in greater detail than the negative events. So it's, it's as if we are
preparing ourselves to tell in glorious detail the good things, the things that reflect favorably on
us, whereas the, the negative memories don't seem so designed for retelling. They're to
remember and maybe not share. And by the way, when it comes to other people, you don't find
this asymmetry. We remember events that reflect unfavorably on other people in, in just as
detailed of fashion as we remember the events that reflect favorably. Some of the stuff may not
shock you because people are actually fairly aware of some of these human biases. But, they're
much more aware of them in other people than in themselves. And they've done studies that
show even this. So, one study took eight of these kinds of biases of the sort that I've been
describing. These are biases that are pretty well documented. For example, one of them was
this, this tendency of ours to kind of take credit for positive outcomes, say that was due to skill, to
hard work, whereas the negative outcomes we may blame on unclear instructions, or the fact
that we were over worked or something. So it listed this and seven other things and presented
them to people and, you may be able to, to predict the outcome. Most people along all eight
dimensions, most people said they suffered from less of these biases than the average
person. So, we're even biased about how biased we are. And it's kind of remarkable when you
think, think of it I mean, here you, you put people in a situation where they are forced to reflect on
this apparently deep seated human tendency toward a self serving bias. And even that situation
doesn't, doesn't get them to really, fully account for the bias in themselves. So, all told I guess
you can see how, you know if, if, if one of the lessons of Buddhism is that we see things
unclearly, we have illusions, including illusions about ourself. Well, there's a, there's a fair
amount of, of evidence to support that view, certainly in this sense.
Now, I'm want to emphasize there are individual differences among people. So, for example,
there is such a thing as low self-esteem. People who will deflate themselves in the course of
presenting themselves rather than inflate themselves. And, by the way, there are evolutionary
explanations that are, that are plausible as to why we might be designed to have self esteem that
can go up or down depending on what happens to us.
And for that matter there are all kinds of personality differences between people that might also
lead us to, you know, lead some people to do less self inflation than others or to do none of
it. But the fact that people differ in this respect, and some people don't do the self inflation,
doesn't mean that they're not suffering from illusions. So they did a a study for example, where
they, they took people who'd scored high on, on the extraversion scale, extroverts. And they took
people who had scored highly on the neuroticism scale. And they had both of them keep diaries
about in particular, things that they had strong emotional responses to. And then later they had
them to recall what had happened without being able to refer to the diaries. And it turned out that
the extroverts remembered more positive events than had in fact happened, and the neurotics
remembered more negative events that had, than had in fact happened. And I just want to
emphasize, both of them were suffering from illusions, okay? So, so neither had a, a clear view
of things.
So in various ways, the kind of behavioral programming we have, as it plays out and gives rise to
certain inclinations there are various ways it can lead to illusion, to unclear vision. But one way or
another, it's very common that, that it does, and that we're not left with a truly objective
perspective on ourselves and things that happen to us. So I hope now you can understand why
Rob Kurzban thinks that the thing we think of as the conscious self is largely in the public
relations business. And I hope you can, you can imagine why he might even think that this is a
built-in tendency engineered by natural selection. And he's certainly not alone in that view.
In 1989, the anthropologist Jerome Barkow wrote, it is possible to argue that the primary
evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management rather than, as our
folk psychology would have it, a decision maker.
Now so far as I know, he may have been the first person to really clearly state the idea that this
thing we think of as the kind of executive self was in fact designed by natural selection to be a
kind of propaganda machine. So I quoted him saying this in a book I wrote five years after he
said it The Moral Animal, my book on evolutionary psychology. And then I added afterwards that
there is the possibility as well that the thing he referred to as folk psychology, in other words, this
apparently false intuition that the conscious self is the decision maker, that maybe that intuition is
also a product of natural selection, because it facilitates the propaganda operation, the public
relations operation. Because after all, if I'm going to try to convince you that I did something for
the most high minded motives, well it helps for me to believe that I was there when the decision
was made. I made the decision, and I know what, what, motives govern the decision. That will
help me more convincingly portray myself as being the kind of person I want to portray myself
as. And for that matter, there would, there would be other benefits to, to believing that, that you
are the, the CEO, that the conscious self is the CEO. And, and one of these gets back to the
beginning of this segment where I emphasize, you know, coherence of motivation. You can
certainly imagine how, during evolution, it would be to our benefit to present ourselves as
others, to others as, as, as having, you know, rational, logical reasons to do what we do, you
know? I mean, if you imagine, if you think back to the split brain experiment I described in the
previous lecture, if you remember the guy who got up and started walking, and they said where
are you going? And he said, I'm going to get a soda, even though that was not the reason he had
gotten up and, and started walking. Although, so far as his left hemisphere knew, and that's what
was doing the talking it could've been the reason, but it wasn't the real reason. Well, somebody
who says something like that, I'm going to get a soda, you know, somebody you can do business
with, some, someone you'd be willing to have as a friend, as an ally as a collaborator. Because
he, you know, he seems to have his, his act together, whereas if, if he had said, you know, it's
weird, I just get up, I do stuff, I don't know why. I, I get up and I walk places. It doesn't make
sense to me. I might do any given thing on any given day. Well that kind of person you're, you're,
you know not going to want to be on your team. So, that's another reason that it's at least
possible that this intuition about the CEO self is whats called an adaptation in biology. That is to
say it was designed by natural selection because it helped ultimately to get genes into the next
generation. Now I want to emphasize, this is just conjecture. It's you know, it's we're, we're, you
know, it will probably be a long time before this matter gets settled. But I do think it's important
conjecture, because of all of the illusions that Buddhism emphasizes, there's probably none more
important that the fundamental illusion about the self along these very lines.
And I know also that this conjecture has kind of been floating around a little during this course. I
mean, in the, in the last lecture we were hinting at it a little, but I do think it's worth dwelling on
because it is important. And by way of dwelling on it just a little longer, I want to share with you a
little bit more of that conversation with Rob Kurzban a part of it where we kind of rift on this
idea. >> I mean an interesting question that I don't really know what the answer to is, why is
that? So why do we all seem so confident that there's one central author of our actions that
persist through time and it's the same guy that, you know, was there when I was a kid, and
will be there when I'm an adult, I guess, when I'm an old person. And that it has this persistence
over time. And it certainly feels that way. And I get, I get that. Like, I feel that way too. I feel like
there's a me in there somewhere.
But I, yeah, go ahead.
>> Well, I was going to say, I mean, it, it, it seems to in a way follow from the idea that its
function is to be the press agent, right? I mean, if it's, if it's in our interest to prevent, to, to
present a story about ourselves as these coherent, in charge individuals guided by a consistent
set of values then, you know, if that's the story it make sense for you to present, then that's the
story it makes sense for you to believe, and that is the story of a coherent, in charge self,
right? >> Yeah, that's exactly right, and I think you put your finger on something which I think its
really important, which is that these stories that we spin are basically responding to the fact that
other people value certain kinds of things in others. For example, they want other people to be
logical, consistent, coherent, predictable, and so on. This means that the stories you spin have to
have those properties. I mean you can imagine a world in which it's not like that, where you
know, we just like random people, or, I don't know, unpredictable for whatever reason. But that's
not the world we live in. And so the stories that we spin tend to have these properties that make
us, kind of, good, sort of social agents, that make us, coherent, and, and, parsable and
understandable and comprehensible. And so exactly as you said, I think that's what the press
agent is up to. It's sort of Making us appear as though we're good people to have around. >>
Now, I want to draw your attention to something Rob said early on in that segment, where he
referred to one central author of our actions that persists through time, by way of describing the
way we normally think of the self. Okay, there are two themes there. When he talks about an
author of our actions, he's talking about control. The idea is there is this CEO, this decision
maker, things are under control. And when he talks about persistence through time, he's of
course talking about a self that, that has some coherent persistent over time. The me that was
me when I was 12 is in some sense the same me as now, and so on. And if you'll think back to
the first discourse of the Buddha, which we described in the previous lecture those are
exactly the two themes that the Buddha emphasized, right? He said, if you think that, that
things are really under control, you know, that, that, that is our conception of the self, but if you
think things are under control, take a look. Things aren't under so much control. And he said,
basically, if you think that there is this self that persists through time, why is it that there is so
much flux and impermanence in the things we call the self.
the, the things that constitute the self in, by, in popular reckoning. And I just think it's kind of
amazing that, in the 21st century, a psychologist like Rob Kurzban who, who claims no special
conversency in, in Buddhist doctrine, hasn't read the first Discourse on the Not-self,
reaches fundamentally the same view of things that the Buddha reached about 2500 years
ago. Which is that the two, two of the aspects that are most deeply embedded in our notion of
the self, our intuitive notion of the self, are probably illusions. The, the self doesn't persist
coherently through time, there's, there's, there's more change than that, and there is no single
author of our actions. Of course, this raises the question of well, what is authoring our actions? I
mean, some, something determines the things we do, the thoughts we think, and so on. Well,
this brings us back to the modular view of the mind, which as I said, offers an answer to that
question, and that's what we're going to turn to in the next segment.
What Mental Modules Aren’t
So I've been promising to talk about this thing called the modular view of the mind or the modular
model of the mind, and I've suggested that maybe you could answer the big question which is if
the conscious self is not the thing that's directing behavior and directing our thought, well then,
what is doing that job? And, the answer that comes from the modular view of the mind, is nothing
in particular. It doesn't mean nothing. It just means no single thing, is doing the job. Rather, there
are a number of these things called modules, and they kind of take turns exerting decisive
influence on our thought, our feelings, our behavior. And there's no conscious self kind of picking
the module that gets to be in charge at a given moment. It's more like the modules are seizing
control of the system. Here's the way it's been put by Michael Gazzaniga. All these modules are
not reporting to a department head, it is a free for all, a self organizing System. And Michael
Gazzaniga you may recall is the person who did the split brain experiments that we discussed in
the previous lecture. And what he said there does capture the spirit of a lot of thinking about,
the modular mind, but I want to emphasize these are early days in the development of these
views. about, about modules in the mind. There's no consensus on a single, highly detailed
modular model of the mind, and in fact different people may even mean slightly different things
when they use the word module. So I want to spend a couple of minutes just looking at different
things that the term module can mean by way of clarification. The, the emphasis on modules
took shape back at the beginning of what you might call modern evolutionary psychology during
the 1980s.
Because there were critics of evolutionary psychology which think why do you need to talk about
the role of, of genes in, in shaping The, the human mind, I mean the human mind is just basically
a blank slate. Think of it as a general purpose learning machine. It comes into the world with very
little in the way of contents, and then it gets filled up through learning, generalized learning
processes and then you have a mature brain and you're done. in the evolutionary psychologists
said no, no you have to have a lot of specific kind of built in functional mechanisms. And here
they got some support from artificial intelligence, because AI had been learning since really the
late '50s and '60s how hard it is to design into machines even functions that we kind of take for
granted. Mental functions that seem just relatively simple like facial recognition, we don't spend a
lot of time puzzling over how we manage to, to recognize people's faces. because it seems to
just happen but these people in artificial intelligence had found to get a computer to do
something like that, you need to build a lot of highly specialized software. And the evolutionary
psychologists said that's the reality of it. As, as, as the brain has evolved over time, a lot of
specific equipment has been added by natural selection. And they came to use a metaphor for
this, the Swiss Army Knife.
The idea was just look, just as a Swiss Army Knife has different blades for different functions The
human mind has different modules to perform different tasks, and to that extent, the metaphor is
valid, but I think that the metaphor has cons as well as pros, and in fact, I think there are so
many ways in which modules aren't like the blades of a Swiss army knife, that, that the way I like
to use the metaphor Is, is to drive home the, the senses in which it's misleading. So, I'm going to
quickly list three senses in which modules are not like the blades on a Swiss army knife. First of
all, if you look at the blades on this knife, each blade occupies a particular part of space. It's very
well defined. Whereas, modules are not so localized. It's not like my facial recognition module
is like right here and no one, nowhere else. It probably draws on other parts of the brain and in
some cases we, we know this for a fact. there's, there's something known as the theory of
mind module and this was actually hypothesized a few decades ago. By evolutionary minded
physiologists, and the idea is that this is the machinery that let's us infer what people are thinking
or feeling based on what they say, how they act, their body language, their expressions. And this
idea has picked up a lot of support.
In fact it looks increasingly as if, with autism one of the things that is happening is that this theory
of mind module is not functioning normally.
And they're done brain scans of people while they're performing, you know, theory of mind tasks,
trying to infer what people are thinking. And it turns out that there is an identifiable part of
the brain that is, that seems to get active when people are doing this. But it's no one part. It's, it's
a distributed network across the brain. So, so modules are not these localized things. Okay,
second sense, In which modules are not like the blades on a Swiss army knife. Is if you look at
these blades, they're not interacting with each other, they're not communicating with each
other. Whereas modules are going to have to do a certain amount of interaction and
communication. So, for example, you know, if you see somebody you know, Well, your
knowledge of them is probably going to be fed into the theory of mind module as you try to
interpret anything that they now do or say.
That means that there has to be some communication however indirect between the facial
recognition and the theory of mind module. You know, once you've recognized The
person somehow, knowledge about the person has to be fed into the theory of mind module,
there's going to be interaction among modules. The third sense in which the blades on a Swiss
army knife are not like modules; is if you look at these blades, they're all just tools right? If there's
no user, if there's no person who decides how they're going to be used. They just sit there and
don't do anything. They don't do anything at all by themselves.
And, you know, if you remember what it is we're hoping to get out of, out of the modular view of
the mind, this, this isn't enough, you know? I mean surely there are modules like this that are
mere tools, but we're going to have to. Find some modules, if this theory is going to deliver what
it promises, we're going to have to find some modules that are more than just tools. Modules
that, determine how we behave, what we think, what we say, because after all, that's what we
now think of the conscious self as now doing. So, if these modules can collectively perform
the task we think the conscious self is performing. Then some of the modules going to have to be
more than tools. They're going to have to mobilize some of the modules that are tools. You know
like the facial, recognition module, right, I mean, as you, as you walk down the street. After all
there's a number of faces you could, you could look at to see if you recognize them. Well
something has to, has to decide which faces you're looking at men, women, old people, young
people, who are you going to focus on? And then if you see somebody that you know, how are
you going to react to that person? Okay, decisions have to be made. And if they're not being
made by the self And the modular theory of the mind is going to explain how they are
made. We're going to have to find some modules that are more than mere tools. So that's the
question we're going to turn to in the next segment. We're going to start looking at some
things that, that, that look like modules and could perform some of the tasks that we think of the
conscious self as performing. And if we can find enough of these modules and, kind of, figure out
how they work, maybe we'll wind up having no explanatory need for a, kind of, CEO conscious
self at all. [BLANK_AUDIO]
What Mental Modules Are
So in the previous segment of this lecture we talked about mental modules. I said they're
different kinds of modules, and I said that there's a particular kind of module that we're looking
for. We're looking for modules that aren't just tools, like the blades in a Swiss Army Knife, but are
in a sense command modules. That is they can, they can take control of the mind for at least a
while. Because if there are such modules, that would help explain how the mind could operate
effectively without there being a single unified self in control. The idea is that there might be a
number of these command modules and they would kind of take turns running the show. Well,
I've got good news. I have found such modules, or at least I've found somebody who says that
he has found such modules. His name is Douglas Kenrick. He's a psychologist at Arizona State
University and in 2013 he co-authored a book called, The Rational Animal, which puts forth a
modular view of the mind, a modular model. And the book argues that when it comes to our
social behavior, we're pretty much always under the influence.
Of one of seven modules that, Kendrick and his co-author call sub-selves. Now, sub self is an
interesting term. The prefix, sub, of course, means under. So this might suggest that there is one
unified self at the top. Of the hierarchy. And it determines which of the seven modules or subcells
is in charge at any given time. It delegates authority. Well, it turns out that, actually, that's not
what Kenrick meant to convey by the term as became evident in an exchange I had with him
recently. >> With these sub cells or modules, I might view these sub cells as almost kind of mega
modules or mega modules because they mobilize a lot of smaller modules. >> They're higher
level modules, but I'd say that's as high as it gets. There isn't another one at the top. There isn't
another kind of decision, there isn't like a president in charge of all this. >> Right. >> All there
are, are there's you know, a Secretary of State and a Secretary of Warfare and you know. >>
Right. >> And then a Secretary of you know, Mayday. >> Okay, so Kenrick says these modules
are like cabinet secretaries. That raises at least three questions. First of all, what are the seven
cabinet positions? What domains. Are these modules in charge of. Second, what determines, if
there is no president, what determines which module is in charge at a given time and third what
difference does it make which module is in charge? What exactly are the changes in behavioral
and mental disposition that different modules. Usher in. Well as far as the question goes, you
know, what are the seven Cabinet positions. Kenrick is an evolutionary psychologist, so he
approaches his question from an evolutionary point of view. And he says, well basically in the
realm of social behavior, there are seven main kinds of challenges in his view. That our
ancestors had to meet in order to get their genes into the next generation. So you would expect
natural selection to build a mind that attends to these seven areas of challenge. And that's how
he comes up with his list of seven modules. First, there's a self protection module, which, indeed,
would be a valuable thing from natural selection's point of view. In other words. The ability to
fend off harm if other members of our species want to harm us.
second, if the object of the game is get genes into the next generation, it would help to be able to
attract mates. It would also help to be able to hold onto mates, and then there is what Kenrick
and his coauthor called the affiliation. Module that has to do with making friendships and making
alliances and so on. There's the kin care module, in other words taking care of other people who
share a lot of your genes. That makes sense in terms of. Natural selection. There's a status
module. Certainly people do seem inclined to seek status and to display status. And that does
seem to be correlated with getting genes into the next generation during evolution. And then
there's a kind of anomalous module.
The disease avoidance module which just means, you know, basically staying away from people
who seem to carry germs. Now, I want to emphasize, this is just one possible module or view of
the mind. It's not a consensus view among people who take a module or view of the mind. But it
does make sense as a basic division of mental labor and it certainly gives us something to get a
handle on in terms of just thinking about these modular models of the mind. Now we can look at
specific proposed modules, ask how they would work and see how valuable this kind of model
actually is. So let's focus on the first two modules, self protection and mate attraction, and let's
ask the second and third of those three questions I just outlined, okay. Second question is what
is it that determines which module will be in charge at any given time. And here I think Kenrick's
answer is pretty much the answer that you'd get from a lot of people who subscribe to a modular
view of the mind. The basic idea is, that which ever module is most highly activated by
information in the environment, will tend to become dominant for some period of time. So one
example is.
If somebody is running toward you waving a machete saying I'm going to kill you, then that
would, you know, the self protection module would kick in and you might start running away and
screaming help, help help. That's a pretty straight forward example of a module becoming highly
active and then dominate and kind of controlling your behavior. In fact, it's such a straightforward
example that you might ask, wait a second, do we really need all this fancy module talk? I mean
I've, I've always known that fear makes people do things like run away. How much value is really
added when we, when we call this thing a module? Well, it's a good question, but I would
ask you, just reserve judgement and see how far we can go with these, with this model and see
what it looks like after we flesh it out. A little more. For now, let's move onto the third of the three
questions. What difference does it make which module is in charge? How does a module change
our behavioral and mental disposition? And here I think what's interesting is how subtle some of
the changes can be. And this came through in an experiment that Kenrick did along with a
number of. Collaborators one thing they were looking at in this experiment. Is how do people
respond to advertising. They created an ad for a meuseum. And they created two different
versions of the ad with two different tag lines. One of the tag lines was visited by over a million
people each year. And the other tag line was, stand out from the crowd. Now those are two very
different angles that you would think might appeal to different kinds of people. But one question
that Kenrick and his collaborators, and his collaborators were interested in was, well, could you
change which ad pitch will appeal to a given person by changing which module is in charge at
that moment. So they came up with a way of activating either the self protection module or the
mate attraction module. They showed people scenes from one of two movies, either a scary
movie, The Shining with Jack Nicholson or a romantic movie called Before Sunrise.
Then after the people had seen parts of one of these two movies, then they saw the ad. And then
they were asked questions like, well how inclined would you be to visit this museum? And it
turned out that people who had seen the scary movie, were more inclined to visit the museum
when they saw the tag line, visited by over a million people each year. Perhaps because you
know, there is safety in numbers so if your fear module is activated, if Jack Nichols is chasing
you with an ax, you'd rather be around a lot of people who might be able to help. But in an event,
that was the finding. And it turned out that seeing the romantic movie inclined people to go for
the tagline stand out from the crowd, which could be because when we're in courtship mode,
we're trying to distinguish ourselves from other people. Could also be because when we're in
courtship mode, in mate attraction mode, we are looking for an intimate environment to be alone
with the person. But in any event, what's interesting here is that here's something that you might
think is a more or less fixed part of a person's personality. In other words, they're going to go for
one tag line or the other. There's two kinds of people. And I imagine that's the way advertisers
might think of it, that these two ads would appeal to two different kinds of people. But no, it turns
out that actually it, each, each ad can appeal to one person it just depends on which you, you are
at the moment. It depends on which module is in charge at the moment.
Now there was another experiment that, that looked at a very similar idea. In other words, it
looked at something we might expect to remain pretty constant and then, and then it examined
how you might actually make it, make it change.
And this is this involves something that economists call a time discounting rate or future
discounting rate or in even more technical terms. An inter-temporal utility function. What this
refers to is your willingness to forgo reward in a short term for a greater reward in the future. So if
I say to you, look, you can either have $10 today or you can have $15 in a month, which do you
want? How you answer this question, and other questions like that, determines what your time
discount rate is. And economists have long said that, you know, people will, different people
have different such rates. But the models of economists have tended to assume that any given
person's time discount rate would remain a constant. You know, from day to day and week to
week. Well, it turns out not to be the case, and one way we know is because of an experiment
that was done by Margo Wilson who was a very important figure in evolutionary psychology and
passed away a few years ago. And she did the experiment along with her long time collaborator
Martin Daly. And what they did is, they took men and they showed some of them pictures of
women who had been judged as attractive on one of these websites where people go and judge
men and women as either hot or not hot.
And they showed other men pictures of other things, either women who hadn't been judged as
attractive or pictures of men or pictures of cars. Or whatever. And it turned out that, when men
had seen these pictures of attractive women, they were then more inclined than they
otherwise would have been to, want their money now. To not be willing to forego immediate,
reward for a greater reward in the future. And the, kind of, common-sensical
evolutionary explanation of this is that, you know, when the mate attraction module is activated,
when you're in courtship mode, you want to put on a display, you want to have all your resources
there to show off in front of the woman.
Now this you know, if this is the strategy it doesn't seem to be orchestrated at a conscious level
because remember they're just looking at pictures of attractive women. And, and there's no way
they'd think consciously I'd certainly like to impress this picture of a woman whom I will never
actually meet.
That doesn't make any sense, right?
And the fact that the mere picture of a woman does trigger this kind of strategic
response reminds us that we were designed by natural selection for an environment that's
different from the current environment. In other words, it was an environment in this case. Before
the invention of photography. So during evolution if you ever saw a, an, an image of a woman,
there was a real woman there. So our, our, our minds are designed to, in some ways at
least respond to images of, all images of women as if they were real women. Now there was
another experiment Where a feature that you might think is a pretty more or less constant
property of a person's mind turned out to change in response to the activation of the mate
attraction module. In this experiment psychologists took high school males. And they had them
fill out a survey about their career aspirations. Some of them filled it out in a room full of other
males. Some of them filled it out in a room that included both males filling it out and some
females filling it out. And it turned out that the, the boys in the room that included girls their age
were more inclined to have. More ambitious career aspirs, aspirations and in particular to, to rate
income, making a lot of money as an important goal associated with their aspirations. Now, I
doubt that this was some kind of enduring change in their actual aspirations. It could well be that
what was happening was that their minds were being prepared for a kind of self advertisement, a
kind of display. In other words, in the event that they wound up talking to the females in the
room, they would be all prepared to talk about how they were going to conquer the world and
make lots of. Money and so on. But if that indeed was the strategy, it, it, it, doesn't seem to have
been a conscious strategy, because after all, the surveys they were filling out, the girls weren't
going to see, and the girls couldn't see the surveys from where they were.
And moreover, these, these the people in the experiment had been told not to talk to one
another, so there wasn't even a prospect of talking. To the girls in the short run. So again this is a
case where this doesn't seem to involve conscious orchestration of a kind of strategy. There's no
conscious decision to usher in a particular module and yet it happens nonetheless. By the way,
in both of these last two experiments, the experiments were performed not only on males, but
also on females. But the, the effecting question was not found in the case of the females, and
that's in keeping with the view in evolutionary psychology that when it comes to, kind of, romantic
psychology, sexual psychology. There will be some differences between, between men and
women. You could have just as easily done experiments that would highlight distinctively female
features of the mate a, attraction module. Just so happened that these. Focused on male
features. Okay, so we've seen three things that you might think would be more or less constant
features of a person's personality and wouldn't, wouldn't change a lot. What kind of ad pitch they
respond to, what their career aspirations are, and what their timed discounting rate is. In all three
cases, there can be significant change in these. Without some kind of conscious self deciding to
make the change.
Now, you might look at this and say, you, you still might ask the question, do we really need all
this module talk? Can't we talk about these people just being in say, a romantic mood? Well, I
don't think so. I mean I, I, I doubt that the, the people who were taking the survey, the guys who
were taking the survey in the presence of the girls were really entering what we normally call a
romantic mood and I doubt that was true of the guys who were shown the pictures of. The
women. I am of the view that there is probably some change in affect, some change in feeling
that is associated with these shifts of module, but I don't think the, the word mood is going to
always be appropriate. Another reason that I think the term module makes sense. Is because,
you know, we're talking when you add it all up, we're talking about a-a-a kind of diverse array of
changes in our very mental orientation, our frame of mind. And that includes our, our perceptual
framework because if you remember from the first lecture, we talked about an experiment. In
which first psychologists showed people a part of a scary movie, in this case it was Silence Of
The Lambs. And then they showed them pictures of males in a different ethnic group, and these
were facial expressions that had been judged as neutral. By objective observers but the people
who'd seen the scary movie judged the, the faces to be threatening and angrier. So, so our very
kind of perceptual field is, is changed when, when modules change. Now, I don't want to
oversimplify here. For, for one thing we should keep in mind that there are always going to be
individual differences. You know, different people are different and whenever you hear the
results of any psychology study put in this form condition a leads people to exhibit behavior x and
condition b leads them to exhibit behavior y. Well that is an over simplification. We're always
talking about a statistical generalization, it isn't the case that every one who saw the scary movie
went for the ad pitch
visited by over a million people each year. You know, different peoples modules will be
activitated By somewhat different things and also will play out somewhat differently in the effects
that they have. There's another sense in which I want to be careful not to over simplify and that is
just that as these models get fleshed out. There are a lot of subtleties and wrinkles and
paradoxes that are going to, to have to be ironed out. I mean, for example. in, in the model we've
been describing. in, in the book that, Doug Kenrick co-authored. They have these seven
modules. And one of them is the status module. And you know when you think of it, the status
module is probably going to be activated in the context of other modules. In other words, if you're
in mate attraction mode you may well do some kind of status display. For that matter when you're
in affiliation mode. And you're trying impress people so that they'll become your friends or
whatever. You may engage in a status display, so you have to ask well, what's going on
here? We rapidly vacillating back and forth between two modules? Or is it the case that one of
these seven main modules can become, in effect a sub module of another of the main modules
or what? These are some of the questions. That will have to be addressed. Also it is the case
that, that when a module does have a kind of a sub module that it employs as a, as a tool.
The effects can be kind of paradoxical in the, in this sense. You know, you might think that the
affiliation module being all about friendship. Would involve you know, patting people on their
backs, saying nice things to them. Cementing your friendships but an evolutionary psychologist
might argue that actually one of the tools employed in the process of regulating a friendship is, is
anger, the emotion of anger or you might say the, the module. That anger entails, and this, this
subject came up recently in a conversation I had with Leda Cosmides. She was a pioneering
figure in the early days of evolutionary psychology and she is as responsible as anyone I
would say, for convincing people in evolutionary psychology. That a modular view of the mind
really made sense from an evolutionary point of view. And here's how, how this part of the
conversation went. >> We've been doing research with Aaron Sell about this and
coming out of a period that anger is triggered when somebody does something that makes you
realize that they're putting much, much too little weight on your welfare than you think you're
entitled to. As a function of the kind of relationship you have with the person. But when that is
triggered, when the anger towards that person is triggered, certain things should
happen. Because if anger is a system that's designed for interpersonal bargaining, for trying
to get the other person to put more weight on your welfare in the future, then
you should have certain motivations to communicate certain things to the person. Like. You
imposed a really big cost on me. You may not think you did but you did. And you did it for a small
benefit to yourself. How could you do that? I've been a very good cooperator with you, I've been
a good friend to you. I've done a lot of things for you in the past. Which is expression of, you
know, that I deserve to be treated better than you were treating me. >> Now, to further
complicate things, when you think about it a friendship isn't the only context in which the anger
module might be deployed.
People get angry at, at their mates, at their romantic partners and that kind of makes sense. If
indeed the, the terms of a relationship might be re-negotiated from time to time. So it, it, it would
be mistaken to think of, of what can recalls the main retention modules being all about buying
roses and giving foot massages and stuff like that. In fact there's another example of that, which
is jealousy, you know. From an evolutionary psychologist point of view jealousy is a functional
thing that, that comes into play and Leda Cosmedis talked with me about that as well. >> We've
evolved super ordinate programs that solve the problem of shutting down certain mechanisms
and activating other mechanisms in ways that are very well coordinated for solving. A particular
adaptive problem. And sure, you can think of sexual jealously that way. I mean the ideas that
would shift your attention. You're suddenly going to be paying attention to things like
simultaneous absence. You know, if your spouse and the person you suspect are. Both not here
at the same time. That's going to [LAUGH], seem. Know, usually we don't notice simultaneous
absence. >> Right, right. >> Most people in the world are absent right now.
I, I don't [LAUGH], I don't notice, I just. It's going to focus your attention in different ways, you're
going to have episodic memories, you're going to retrieve episodes from the past where, huh, if
you're a man, huh, she got really, dressed up at that, for that party, and she usually doesn't do
that, but he was going to be there. What's, you know. You start reevaluating past episodes, so
there's memory retrievable functions that are changing, inferences are changing about what
people's behavior means. It might be goals that are activated for mate guarding, for keeping
track of where your spouse is and what they're doing and who they're talking to.
And it's very hard to, to shut that off. It's very hard if you have to study for a calculus test to do
that when your whole sexual jealousy system is activated. By, I would say, by design. That
doesn't mean that you're not thinking or not processing information, it's that you're processing
information in a particular way. That's well suited for solving that adaptive problem, and part of
that emotional state is to deactivate other kinds of adaptive problem, mechanisms that are
designed for other kinds of adaptive problems. >> So, in sum, it's all very complex. Any model
that's going to be able to do justice to the human mind, which is, after all a very complex thing is,
is bound to. Ultimately have to accommodate a lot of complexity and I think that's what we'll see
as these models evolve.
But the main thing to keep in mind and this applies regardless of whether you buy the module
language per se. Or whether you'd rather talk about these things as systems or modes. Or even
in some cases just moods and, and emotions. The main thing is that what we're seeing is that
very significant changes in our state of mind, our behavioral disposition, can be ushered in
without our consciously choosing to change our state of mind. Now we've long known this about
things like jealousy and anger you know, it's kind of obvious that these things just kind of seem to
seize control sometimes. But I think we're going to become more and more aware of what
subtle changes can be ushered in without our actually choosing them. So for example when,
when the people came out of that movie, the people who had seen the romantic movie and then
chose one of the two ad pitches, it's a pretty subtle change of mind but I don't think they, they
conscientiously chose to flip the switch on some new module. And probably weren't aware in fact
that a change in disposition had actually happened. So it, it's looking very much like the kind of
conscious mind isn't very often choosing what frame of mind we're in. And this too came up in
my conversation with Leda Cosmides. You don't choose the module, the module chooses you
almost, you know? >> Right, right. Except that, what is the you anyway? >> Now, when Leda
expresses skepticism about the idea of a you, she's speaking from a kind of evolutionary point of
view. Because from that point of view, it's not obvious why the mind would consist of anything
other than modules, right? Because if you ask, well how did we get from being one celled
creatures, which our distant ancestors were, to being human beings, the answer is we
evolved. And we evolved nervous systems, and in particular we involved a part of the nervous
system known as the brain, and the brain evolved in increments. In bits and pieces and chunks,
but according to the theory of natural selection, every significant chunk, every increment you
know, evolved for a, a reason.
Generically the reason is that it helped us get genes into the next generation but there was a
more specific reason as well.
You know, the, the idea is, is that this part of the brain would help us attract mates better than
the average member of our species or help us take care of our offspring better than the average
member of our species or help us make friends or protect ourselves or whatever. And, from an
evolutionary point of view, you know, that's what the whole evolution of mind consists of. The
accumulation of these functional. Units. These things you can call modules. And it's not obvious
why at any point, something that you would call a you would, would suddenly show
up. Something that you would call a, a self, as it's commonly conceived.
In any event. With Leda's skepticism about the you, you know we are, we are getting back to the
Buddha who of course had a similar skepticism. More specifically if you remember his discourse
on the not self there were two themes in particular that he emphasized. First of all. He seemed
not to see how you could claim that there is some kind of coherent self that persists through
time. There seemed to him to be too much flux too much impermanence. And a modular view of
the mind helps explain why that would be because there is no single coherent self. There are a
number of, of. What you could call sub cells or modules or whatever that kind of take turns
running the show. The other big theme in that discourse was the Buddha saying, look if you think
you have, you know conscious control, or very much, of what's going on in your mind, you know I
think you're wrong. And the modular view helps explain why that would be the case, as
well. Because our state of mind at any given time is not, generally speaking, the result of
conscious choice. But rather, it's the result of how the information in our environment. Comes
into our minds and, and at a, at a typically unconscious level. Shifts our frame of mind. Okay, so
this very important part of Buddha's doctrine makes a lot of sense, in, in, the context of the
modular view of the mind.
And in the next lecture, what we're going to talk about. Is how the the modular view of the mind
helps makes sense of Buddha's practice. In particular meditation and more
specifically mindfulness meditation, we're going to ask whether a modular view of the mind helps
explain what's going on in the course of mindfulness meditation, and why it works the way it does
We're also going to continue to flesh out the modular view of the mind. For example, we're going
to ask, is it the case that there can be conflicts between two modules, if they're both kind of
strongly activated? And might this explain why we sometimes have issues of self-control, have
trouble controlling the appetite?
and, if so, what rules if any, ultimately determine which module wins. And we're going to ask
whether mindfulness meditation can actually change the rules about which module wins. So in
the next lecture we're going to talk about the modular view of the mind and mindfulness
Resources for Week 4
• Robert Kurzban, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, chapters 1-3
• Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, chapter 13. Download link
• My video dialogue with Rob Kurzban:
• Principle 4 in “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,” by Leda Cosmides & John
Choosing ‘Selves’ Through Meditation
Okay, so in the last lecture we fleshed out this module review of the mind, this idea that there's
no chief executive in your brain but rather there are a lot of modules that take turns
exerting dominant influence on your thought and your behavior, and we saw that this view
dovetails pretty nicely with this Buddhist idea of not self. The idea that there is no kind of solid
self at your core that persists coherently through time and keeps things under control. So there is
a pretty close corresponds between this particular model within modern psychology and this
particular Buddhist doctrine. Okay. But what about Buddhist practice? What about
meditation? Can the module review of the mind illuminate meditation and, and, and, and help
explain what's going on when people meditate what's going on in their minds? Well, I do think
there are some illuminating connections between the module review of the mind and meditation
and in fact, in the last lecture, there were buried, a kind of clue about the nature of that
illumination. It was in something that Rita Casmedy said you may remember, she's a pioneer in
evolutionary psychology and also in developing module reviews of the mind. And she was talking
about a jealous state of mind and describing it as a kind of a modular mechanism that
coordinates various, you know, thoughts and perceptions to a specific end. And she said
something, and I want to flash back to it here, that, that, that may give you a clue about this
connection between meditation and the module review of the mind. >> That is, that's taking over
from the point of view of the state that we're usually in where there's not a specific kind of
coordination that's going on. But a lot of different mechanisms are bubbling up and down in terms
of their activation. >> Okay, so she talked about mechanisms bubbling up and down in different
levels of activation. Now I'm hoping that as I repeat that phrase, you may be thinking of a phrase
we heard earlier, in, in an earlier lecture.
I'll pause now and give it a chance to spring to mind, The phrase is Default Mode Network. The
Default Mode Network, as you may recall, is this thing that gets activated when the mind isn't
engaged in anything in particular. It's not absorbed in, in any task. It's kind of just the mind
wandering. And we also saw that the default mode network gets quieter during meditation. That's
what brain scan studies have shown us. And if you've done much meditating at all, you
probably know that sometimes the default mode network doesn't quiet down easily. You may sit
down to meditate, try to focus on your breath and, and suddenly your, you're thinking, oh I hope
didn't offend that person yesterday when I said that thing, or, oh, that was an attractive person I
met the other day, I, I, wonder if maybe he or she would go to dinner with me, I, I wonder where
we could go, what kind of clever things I could say, what would happen after dinner. Now, as
Rita's phrasing may suggest, somebody who, who has a module review with the mind might
be inclined to view the default mode network as just a bunch of modules kind of trying to get your
attention. I mean, trying metaphorically, presumably they're not conscious, but they're kind of
vying, competing, for your attention. So when you think I wonder if I offended that person
yesterday. That would presumably be a module in, in, in the realm that Douglas Kenrick in the
last lecture, called the affiliative module. In other words, the, the, the, the larger module in charge
of kind of making and, and, and keeping friendships and doing various other things, and
navigating the social landscape.
And when you're thinking about having dinner with attractive person in, in rehearsing what you
might say, then that presumably is part of the, mate attraction module. Now I want to take this
opportunity to qualify something that I, I said in, in the previous lecture. There, we talked about
modules being activated by information out there in the environment. You know, we you, you
might, you might be in the presence of someone attractive and that activates your mate attraction
module, for example. But as some of these examples suggest, for example, thinking, oh, did I
offend that person? It isn't always a case that information right in your immediate real-time
environment is what triggers a module. I mean, the information came into your system at some
point from the environment, but, but apparently modules can kind of ruminate on
information. The information works itself through the process before it actually gets presented to
your consciousness in a, a particular form. Now, this quieting of the default mode network can
happen with various kinds of, of meditation. It can happen with mindfulness meditation and with
concentration meditation, as we discussed earlier. Concentration meditation is particularly
effective at quieting the default mode network in the first instance because if you're focused on
something, that's a good way to kind of short circuit the default mode network, which after all
is something that, that kind of perks up when you're not focused on anything. And for that reason
in mindfulness meditation you often start with concentration mediation, but at some point in
mindfulness meditation once you've established kind of the concentration and the equilibrium
then you head off in a different path from the concentration meditator. And we've, we've talked
about that and, and here you see a particular connection between meditation and, and
modules. A kind of second connection between meditation and modules that applies specifically
to mindfulness meditation. Because remember mindfulness meditation as we described it,
consists of looking at things, things inside your mind and also things in the outside world, in a
kind of a new way with you might say more objectivity, less attachment and, and carrying that
view into everyday life ideally, beyond, you know, outside of the, the meditation hall. And one of
the things that you, you, you may view in a new way that, that is of special consequence is your
feelings. As we said you view your, your feelings with less attachment and they may not get the
same kind of traction with you. They may not have the same kind of power to drag your mind in a
particular direction. Well the other thing we've learned about feelings very recently is that feelings
are what trigger modules. So if you show people a scary movie, it seems to activate a self-
protection module by making them feel fear and if you show people a romantic movie, it seems
to give them feelings that activate a, a different module and make them behave differently. And
this is also true with, with some things we were calling sub-modules in the last lecture. For
example, jealousy is a very strong feeling that triggers a kind of certain a certain set of, of
modular operations.
Now, I would contend that, that actually this is, there are always feelings kind of associated with
modules. And that if when you start meditating and, and these modules are bidding for your
attention. If you pay close attention, I think that you'll see that the way they bid for your attention
is with feelings. So, for example, if, if you're suddenly thinking did I offend that person the other
day, well that's a kind of a negative feeling that gets your attention and the, the way to make it go
away, the natural way to make it got away, go away is to come up with a solution to the
problem. So, if you say, I know what I'll do, I'll send an email to that person extensively about
something else but in the course of it, I'll refer to the conversation we had in a way, that'll make it
clear what I intended and that I didn't intend any offense and then the bad feeling goes
away. The module has done its work, and you can, you know, you, you, you, you're now
vulnerable to some other module, right?
And similarly, if you're fantasizing about that dinner you're going to have with that attractive
person, well, that's it, that's a good feeling, for the most part, and, and, and it's, it's a
pleasant thing to think about, and that keeps you thinking about it. So I think that, that, that by
and large feelings are the things that give modules power over you. So you could view mind from
this, both mind from as meditation and mind from as you carry it out into the world as a way of
kind of determining which modules do and don't get to be in control by being mindful of the
feelings that usher modules in, that trigger modules you can, you can influence which modules
win, and which modules lose. Now, is this a useful way of talking about mindfulness? I mean,
after all, we've already said something kind of related. We've said earlier in the, in the course that
mindfulness does give you some control over feelings. You, you decide which feelings get
attraction, which don't, and we've said that feelings can change your perceptions. We saw that,
that fear can make you think that something that's not a snake is in fact a snake. Does it do any
good to, to, to kind of describe this in terms of modules rather than in terms of feelings that
trigger the modules? I think there is some value, because I think it drives home that when your
being mindful, your influencing you know, whether an entire frame of mind sets in, that influences
thoughts and perceptions, and that can influence those thoughts and perceptions, in really sublet
ways, and for a really long time. So a good example of this, I think, is hatred.
Now, hatred from the point of view of an evolutionary psychologist, is among other things a
feeling that defines enemies, okay? If you hate someone, they are, they're an enemy. You can
be angry at someone who is a friend, but if you hate them, they are not your friend. And natural
selection seems to have equipped the human mind to deal in particular ways with enemies and
in particular ways with friends. And behavioral scientists have, have discovered one very
interesting feature of, of the different ways that we look at enemies and friends and it's
this. When our friends do something good, we attribute it to their inner essence. This is just he
kind of thing they do. They're good people, okay? If they do something bad, we attribute it to
some external factor, some, some circumstance. We say oh well, it was just peer group
pressure, or they hadn't had sleep in days, so they weren't really themselves.
And by the way you may recognize this as a way we think about our own behavior, right? When
we do something good that's us and when we do something bad there is some external
explanation for it. Well, when we think about our enemies it's actually the opposite it turns
out. When they do something bad, we attribute that to their essential nature. That's the way they
are. They are bad. When they do something good.
we, we, we explain it away in terms of something external. Well, they were just doing it to please
so-and-so who happened to be there or they were coerced into doing it or whatever. Now
presumably, this this feature exists in our mind was designed by natural selection presumably, to
among other things encourage us to talk about enemies in this particular way. When we talked
about enemies to other people it's in our interest in kind of strategic terms to talk about them
in very unflattering terms because it's in our interest to undermine the stature, of our enemies
who, who are people that can do us harm and the more stature they have the more harm they,
they can do us. So this may be very much a propaganda tool but it does seem to be the case
that in order to spread the propaganda more effectively we actually believe this. We actually
believe that the enemy, our enemies are these people who who, who do bad things by nature
and good things for other reasons. And one reason this can be really important is because
when a nation is deciding whether or not to go to war it really matters how the people in the other
country and the leader of the country are framed. And, and this helps explain why people who
are trying to encourage you to go to war will tend to frame the, the, the leader in the country they
want to invade as, you know, as evil as possible. So, the Iraq war in 2003 was a good
example. People who supported the war in America, some of them at least, not all of them,
compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler and who, of course, is is evil as it gets. And if you're, if
you're going to try mh, to really firmly entrench hatred in someone's mind, that's a good
comparison to make. And once you frame the, the leader of, of the, of the nation you, you hope
to invade as an enemy, once you've got that frame firmly set, it's very hard for him to get out of
it. Because i, if he does anything good, or anything accommodating, it'll be attributed to external
circumstances but whenever he does anything bad, it will be taken as more evidence of how bad
he is. Now hatred is a very strong emotion. You, you know it when you feel it and it's very
dramatic but I do think that the kind of frame that it creates, the enemy frame, can be sustained
with, with subtler feelings of antipathy. It's not like every time you think of, of your enemy, you fly
into a rage.
no, it ca, it can be a lot subtler than that and that's one, one reason mindfulness meditation can
be valuable. And, and a mindful attitude can be valuable because you pick up on, on feelings
that are sufficiently subtle that you might otherwise miss them. So, I guess I'd say that in some,
the, the case for viewing mindfulness meditation in the context of this modular view of the mind
is, first of all drives home that is a whole frame kind of being installed in your mind.
And you can influence which frames it is through mindfulness, and, and that this frame
can influence your perceptions very subtly, it's a lot subtler than seeing a snake that's not there.
And the feelings that sustain the frame can be pretty, pretty subtle and in fact you may become
aware of them only if you are carrying a mindful attitude in, into the world.
Now in a way this brings us back to the not self doctrine, we saw earlier that the Buddha's kind of
famous discourse on the not self is amenable to, to differing interpretations. There's the, the full
bodied interpretation that he was emphatically denying the very existence of, of the self.
We saw that there's also a kind of minority interpretation that, that, that views his aims as, as
somewhat less ambitious.
And there the idea is that, that one way you could look at that discourse is a saying you know,
there's no part of your mind that you, that has to be part of your soul. There's no feeling you have
to own, there's no thought you have to own and you can, you can choose which things to let go
of. Well, to translate that into modular terms you might say that, that, that the idea is you know,
there's no module you have to own, or there's, there's no module you have to be. because
remember, modules are these things that are, that are in some sense kind of trying to become
the self for a while, right? And that's one reason that Douglass Kenrick in the in the previous
lecture, was referring to them as subtle. So as for the deeper notion of, of not-self, the idea
that the self really does not exist there are people who have meditative experiences that
convince them of the truth of this doctrine. They say they have seen the absence of a self, kind
of in themselves, I guess I should put that least selves in, in quotes maybe, but, they, they,
they, ha, have experientially come to know the doctrine of not self. Now, near the end of this
lecture, we're going to look at whether the module review of the mind helps, make sense of
what's going on in the minds of these people as they have these experiences. We're going to
look at some of the kinds of reports you get from these people. But first we're going to take a little
detour and I think it's, it's going to be a detour that, that, that helps us answer this question
about what's going on in the minds of these people. Or [INAUDIBLE] at least helps us, helps us
frame it a little more firmly.
And what we're going to do and this is in the next segment of this lecture is we're going to look at
the issue of, of self control. Of controlling our appetites. And we're going to ask well, how does
self control happen if in fact there is no self? [BLANK_AUDIO]
‘Self’ Control
Now if you were in a mood to push back against this modular view of the mind and I'm sure some
of you are in a mood to push back against the modular view of the mind. One thing you could say
is, okay granted, some times these these frames of mind set in and I'm not really aware of it
happening. And maybe they're triggered by feelings okay that does happen and maybe
sometimes I could see a movie that would affect my subsequent behavior in ways I don't even
really understand. Fine. But there's some times when I, the Chief Executive Self, I make a
decision. So I may be tempted to eat chocolate, or a powdered sugar doughnut, but sometimes, I
say no, I'm not gonna do it. It's not in my long term interest to do it. Well, isn't that proof that the
self, the chief executive self actually exists?
Well, I may have bad news for you, I asked Rob Kerspon that question. You may remember him,
he was a strong proponent of the modular view of the mind, wrote a book about it, we heard from
him a couple times already. And his view is that, no, ultimately, the fact that sometimes we seem
to be the ones consciously making the decision. That fact is not ultimately mean that the self
exists. Here's how the exchange went when I asked him about this. Tell me what's wrong with
this common way of describing a situation involving me.
I really wanted to have the chocolate, and I really felt drawn to it. But, I knew that if I did it today, I
would do it tomorrow, the next day, next day. Eventually, I'd gain weight and I wouldn't be able to
sleep at night if I ate so much chocolate, and so I decided not to eat the chocolate. So you think
that's actually an inaccurate way to describe what's going on in my brain? >> Yeah, I think that
from, again, from a lay standpoint it's fine to talk like that. When you're talking to your family at
the dinner table, it's fine. But I think eventually psychology as a scientific enterprise, it's gonna
have to move on from sentences that have pronouns like that. So, those sentences are gonna
have to be something like, there were certain systems in your head which are designed to be
motivated to eat high calorie foods. And those systems have had certain kinds of, you can call
them motives, or beliefs, or representations. And then there's other parts of your head that have
motives associated with long term health. And those systems had certain beliefs about
chocolate, and what's a good thing to bring about. And so those modules inhibited that behavior
that was being facilitated by the short term modules. And so in that description, there's no word I
in there. There's no pronouns. That are sort of covering the whole self. >> Okay, so this whole
issue of conscious decision making is important because, after all, we make a lot of important
decisions. We decide should I buy a car? Which car should I buy? Which college should I go
to? Which job offer should I accept? And in addition, there are a lot of issues of self control, in
the traditional sense, that are more consequential than the question of whether to eat some
chocolate on a given day. So there's the question of whether I should have a drink even though
last time I had one drink, had a bunch of drinks and would up making a fool of myself. Or should I
smoke this cigarette, or should I cheat on my spouse, these are really important questions, it
would be nice to know can this thing that feels like the reasonable me make decisions? Or at any
rate, is there some sense in which reason can enter the equation, the process by which
decisions are made. And is it possible that mediation can empower reason, can magnify the role
of reason in these decisions. So this whole thing is worth grappling with. Now one question I
asked Rob Courson is ff really, as you say, this all boils down to just kind of modules fighting it
out and the more powerful module winning. Then why do we have to go through this whole ritual
of listening to the reasons on both sides of whether you eat the chocolate or whether you do
anything else? Is that just kind of for show or what? And he had two answers, kind of two
somewhat conjectural explanations. They're both very interesting. First of all he said, well it
makes sense that reason would play a role in here. It makes sense that natural selection would
design the brain so that when the module that is kind of concerned with long term health or long
term interest, comes up with a reason on its side of the argument. If the reason makes sense, if
there's merit to it, then sure, that reason should enter the equation. So it makes sense that our
brains would be designed that way. To give some kind of credit to good reasons. Now, Rob isn't
saying that it's the way it feels which is that, I am this conscious judge adjudicating. I, the chief
executive self, hears out the two parties, decides which one has more reason on its side and
then makes the decision. He's not saying that happens. But he is suggesting that somewhere in
the system is some algorithm or something that kind of evaluates the merit of reasons.
And that leads to another question I have which is why is this process conscious? Why does this
all have to enter consciousness? Because after all, presumably you can design a computer
program that evaluates the merit of logic or something and wouldn't necessarily have to be
conscious. So why is it that we have to spend all the time hearing about the pros and cons of the
decision before the module with the most power winds up winning. I mean, even granted that a
module's generation of a valid reason gives that module more power in Rob's scenario, why do
we have to hear about the whole thing? Why don't we just let the decision-making happen and
then we just hear the verdict? Well here, I think the second question or the explanation that Rob
had, in response to my question enters the picture. So when I said, why does there have to be
this conscious rehearsal of the pros and the cons? He said, well there's a second possible
explanation of that and here's the explanation he gave. >> People want to come up with reasons
to justify their behavior to other people. Again, this goes back as a public relations thing. So the
production of reasons inside your head, my guess is that a large part of the reason that that goes
on is because if someone ever challenges you or asks you why you did x, y, or z. You wanna
have that in your hand. And you don't wanna take actions until you have some reason ready to
go, since people ask you about it. The social world pings you and says, what was the story with
that? That you have something ready to go. I think this is why the marketing people are telling
me that consumers need only one reason to buy a product. Is that basically, it's not that one
reason dominates all the other features of the product. The price, or the quality, or whatever, the
brand, who knows. But it's that as long as you have one reason, you can't look like an idiot
for making the choice. You can always tell the other guy who asked you why you bought that
particular microwave is well, it has the gizmo. >> So the idea here is one reason. We go through
this rehearsal of reasons so that will be prepared to to give reasons for our behavior if we're
challenged. And I imagine this is especially important if you've done something that if found
out. Might meet with real social disapproval or possibly even retribution from an offended
party. So for example, if you're having an extramarital affair. Now the way you might think of this
in modular terms, the decision of whether to have one would be, there's a module that seeks
short term sexual gratification. Then there's a module that's concerned about your long term
reputation, or is concerned about eventual retaliation. You know, and they're both coming up with
reasons for their position. Well, one reason that the module advocating the affair can't come up
with is the truth, which is, you know, I wanted short term sexual gratification. Right? That's not an
acceptable answer in society
for violating a norm. You have to have a better reason. So, we come up with reasons like, oh if
you knew how emotionally distant my spouse was you'd understand why I did it, and so on.
And this explains why these reasons would be rehearsed consciously, right? If the purpose of the
reasons is to be shared with others in the event that we have to give reasons, then it makes
sense that it would be the conscious mind
that observes and rehearses these reasons because after all, it seems to be the conscious mind
that does the communicating with other people. So the idea here is an analogy I guess would be
suppose there is a corporation and instead of two contending modules you have two contending
vice presidents. They have very different ideas about strategies, about what they wanna do on a
particular issue and so they go to the Office of the Public Relations director and they each give
the reasons that they have for advocating their position. And a lot of the point of this exercise, it's
not that the PR director is necessarily going to declare a winner, but rather he or she is just kind
of hearing the reasons so that they'll be prepared to share the reasons with the world when when
the time comes. Now on the other hand this does suggest a second way that reason could
matter because after all, if the policy that one vice president is advocating is going to lead to
huge blowback
and the reason the vice president is giving for it just is not going to carry the day out there with
the public then that counts against the argument that the vice president is making. So you can
imagine this PR director saying, no, I'm sorry, that one is just not gonna fly. If you don't have a
better reason than that that we can publicize after we do this, then that counts against the
argument that
so in theory, there could be two separate senses in which reason matters. First of all, as Rob
Kurzban suggested, you know you would expect the brain to be designed that such that it pays
attention when there are good reasons that it's not in your long term self interest to do
something. And secondly, to the extent that the reasons you would give people to
justify something controversial you've done, are not gonna fly, are not gonna be accepted. Then
that too counts against kind of the module that is advocating that particular course of
action. Okay, so reason can matter. But on the other hand, with certain issues of self control, in
particular, true addictions, reason seems to play a less and less prominent role as time goes
on. You may deliberate earnestly before you start drinking, and then later develop a drinking
problem. And, as you become an alcoholic, you do, you kind of skip the deliberation issue. You
just drink. You may have a rationale, a standard rationale for doing what you do, but the time for
actual reason to enter the equation kind of seems to pass. Or with any addiction, with heroin
addiction or whatever. So it seems as if modules in a sense gain more power with victory. So the
module that's advocating doing this thing that may lead to short term gratification. It seems to get
stronger as it kind of wins victory after victory. Your grandmother may have said, be careful
about succumbing to temptation that first time because it's gonna get harder to resist. They're
after harder and harder and harder. Well, that actually is the way the system seems to work
and one question is, why is it designed that way? Why is it that modules are given more power
with victory? I mean you could imagine a system where they just take turns, you know and the
deal is, well, this module won last time, the short term gratification module. Now the more
responsible, far-seeing module is gonna get to win this time around, but that's not the way it
works. Now, why is that?
Well, my own pet theory is that actually this is kind of a logical way for natural selection to have
designed a modular system of motivation. Cuz after all, if you imagine these modules are being
built up over time and probably the short term gratification modules often existed in
evolutionary time before some of the modules that looked farther into the future and worry about
long-term consequences. So the modules are being stacked upon one another and if there is
indeed not a chief executive self to adjudicate among them then there have to be rules for how
power is allocated among the modules. And when you think about it, it does make sense that
one rule would be that modules that succeed in achieving gratification are given more power next
time around. So for example, if back during evolution there's a module that seeks short term
sexual gratification, and you imagine where there's a situation where it's kind of saying yeah,
yeah, go for it, approach her. And there's a module that's saying, no no, you'll be rejected, you'll
be humiliated, people will make fun of you. Whatever.
Well, if indeed the module advocating advance prevails and you're not rebuffed and there is the
sexual gratification. Then in natural selection's terms, that's success. So the gratification is
evidence that this module's council was in the terms that natural selection cares about, this
module's counsel was, you know, wise, so to speak. I mean, at least conducive to getting genes
into the next generation. Similarly, to revisit an example we gave earlier in the course, if there is
a module that's saying, yeah, you know, those trees off in the distance, I think I think they could
have real fruit, let's make the effort, let's go. Well if you go and you get to the trees, there is
fruit. You taste the fruit. It's good, it's sweet, it feels gratifying. Well, then that module, it makes
sense that that module would have more power next time around because it's got a good track
record now. It was right this time, and so it makes sense to go with the past winter. Now, in a
modern environment these rules of the road, the rules that give more power to a module seeking
short term sexual gratification if it achieves the gratification or more power to a module that
seeks a fruit. If you get the sweet taste of fruit, these same rules can lead people to be addicted
to pornography or addicted to junk food. But in the environment they were designed for, these
rules actually made sense. And so too with things like alcoholism, various kinds of drug
addiction. These are the result of novel features of the environment that allow people to
intervene directly in the chemical reward system that back during evolution, it wasn't so easy to
intervene directly on, directly in. So all of this drives home that self control can be a very
important question and raises the question of how can we achieve it and can meditation in
particular mindfulness meditation play a role in helping us get the system under better control?
Well there's somebody who, who has really looked into that and it's somebody we've already
seen Judson Brewer who as you may recall did an important study a brain scan study
showing that the default mode network does get quieter, during meditation. It turns out he also
does work using mindfulness meditation to help people overcome chemical addictions such as
And Judd Brewer recently explained to me how this works. You get them to view the craving
differently, is that they key? >> Yes, so we use an acronym with smokers in particular, we use
this acronym RAIN where the have to recognize what craving feels like and they have to allow it
to be there. So often, we push away unpleasant things and craving's unpleasant so we try to
push it away. And so we don't allow it to be in our body and if we can't allow it to be there, we
can't really investigate it, we can't really allow it to do it's thing and come up do it's stance and go
away. So the A is to allow, the I is for investigate and I think of this as really getting curious. What
is craving feel like in body right now?
And, it can even, when you're really curious about something, that actually flips the valence from
unpleasant to pleasant because the craving which was unpleasant, flips the curiosity, which is
pleasant, and it can help us kind of stay with the object. And for the end we use a noting
practice. So this is simple Mahasi style noting where people can note craving as it comes and
goes of tightness, tension, clenching, burning, rising, you know as the craving comes and goes
away. So we use this other people use this idea of urge surfing, where you can ride out your
urges. The RAIN acronym very much helps people get on top of that wave and ride it instead of
getting sucked into the craving they're using. >> So whereas normally, Pete, you would have the
feeling that if you got a craving, you've got to either succumb to it, surrender to it, or push it
away. What you're saying is actually you can do neither. You can sit there and by observing it, in
effect weaken it.
>> Yes. And you weaken it because you don't feed it. So it's interesting in the language of the
Buddhist time, the dependent origination where craving is this key link and this feeling tone
comes up. You crave something, you act on it, and by acting on it, you kind of reify a self concept
which, then, spins back around and kind of changes the way you interact with future situations
that are similar. And they actually describe clinging what another translation of which is
translated as clinging is also sustenance or fuel. So, in an essence you're fueling that fire every
time you act on craving. And so what we teach people to do is just be with the craving. Notice
that it's physical sensations in their body and mental restlessness or whatever. And that if they
don't act on it, they don't fuel it and they don't feed it. And when you don't feed it eventually, if it's
a stray cat, if you stop feeding the stray cat, it doesn't come to your house anymore. If you stop
adding fuel to a fire, it eventually burns off. >> Okay, so the cat keeps coming to your door. Now
that's an interesting metaphor to a psychologist, because it suggests the dynamic of what
psychologists call operant conditioning. The classic example of that is just a rat that presses the
bar, food comes out so the rat keeps pressing the bar. Now, if you quit giving the rat food in
response to pressing the bar, then eventually, the behavior is, as psychologists say,
extinguished, and the rat no longer presses the bar. Well, the prospect being raised here is that
basically the dynamics of operant condition work with cravings so that when you kind of look at a
craving mindfully, that's like the rat pressing the bar without the food coming out. Because if you
look at it mindfully, it doesn't get a grip on you, you don't follow it. You don't smoke the cigarette,
or have the drink.
Or whatever. And I guess in this metaphor then kind of just pushing, pushing the craving away
would be more like, you know, not letting the rat anywhere near the bar in the first place. And you
know that could work, that could be an effective self control. I would imagine that it winds up
having different properties. From the mindfulness therapy that Judd Brewer is talking about. And
it may be that if you just keep pushing the craving away, then when the craving does arise in full
bodied form, maybe you're less capable of resisting it. I don't know, it's an empirical question. But
one, one other interesting question related to this is whether you could view a lot of other
exercises of mindfulness as basically operant conditioning. So for example, when you feel rage if
you pound your desk and yell at someone, which after all, feels kind of good when you're in a
is that the reward that reinforces the behavior, you know. Is that, in other words, has the module
been deemed successful. If you scream and nothing bad happens, nobody retaliates.
Is that defined as success in natural selection's terms? Or, if you feel hatred, and as a result, you
go around talking in very unfavorable terms about the person you hate, Which after all, feels
good, right? I mean especially if it turns out the person you're talking to shares the opinion, or
you feel you persuaded them that this person you hate is a bad person. Well is that, is the talking
about the person you hate, a reward for the behavior? And by design, again, is the idea that the
module that generates the behavior or the hatred has succeeded in natural selection's terms if it
leads you to successfully kind of denounce the person. That, to me, is a very interesting
question. It's a speculative question, for sure. But I do think it's possible that yes, it makes sense
to think of modules, in a not quite literal sense, as kind of organisms that operate according to
the principles of operant conditioning. And to think that when we exercise mindfulness, we may
have the ability to alter their behavior via the principles of operant conditioning. So that when we
look at a feeling like hatred or rage mindfully, and so it doesn't translate Into the behavior that it
would normally translate into. Then we are draining the kind of long-term power from that
module rather than letting it amass more and more power. Okay, so so far in this lecture we've
seen three kinds of connections between mindfulness meditation and the modular view of the
mind. First of all, the default mode network that gets quiet during mindfulness meditation, and for
that matter during other kinds of meditation, can be viewed as, and maybe is best viewed
as, different modules kind of vying for your attention. Okay, second, by being mindful of feelings
we can, in principle, determine which modules are and are not allowed to kind of take over the
mind. And then third, by exercising this mindfulness we can affect the long-term power that
different modules have. We can drain power from some modules, and maybe empower other
modules. Okay, now let's turn to what is, in some ways, a deeper connection between meditation
and the modular view of the mind. In the final segment of this lecture, we're gonna hear from
some people who have had meditative experiences that convinced them that the self does not
exist. And we're gonna look at those experiences in light of the modular view of the mind, and
see if that tells us anything about what's going on in their minds when they have these
experiences. And even whether these are kind of valid experiences of insight.
The Experience of Not-self
Buddhist meditation is sometimes called a mystical form of enlightenment. What does that
mean? Well, it depends on who you ask, but William James, the great American psychologist
who we heard from in the first lecture, said that there are two hallmarks of a mystical
experience. He said that, that first it is noetic, and second, it is ineffable. By noetic he meant that
there is a sense that knowledge has been imparted. That, that some deep insight has been
apprehended. And by ineffable he meant that it's hard to express exactly what the experience
was like. Why the person is so convinced of the truth of this deep insight. And if you want an
illustration of what exactly James meant by inept ability, one thing you can do is talk to a kind of
serious Buddhist meditator who has had the experience, while meditating, of not-self. And by
that, I don't mean the kind of modest version of not-self that we've talked about. Where, you
know, you, you say well I don't have to identify with that particular feeling. That feeling doesn't
have to be part of myself. I mean full on, extreme not-self, where the person becomes convinced,
that there is no self in there. If you ask such a meditator to kind of describe the experience, often
what you'll hear is, sorry, I can't describe it. Sometimes you find somebody who is game, who'll
give it a shot and even then, when they start talking about it you kind of see what James meant
by ineffable. It, the, that it does, def, defy really clear articulation. Well anyway one person, who
agreed to talk to me a little about, about such an experience is Rodney Smith. He's a very highly
regarded meditation teacher. And the author of a book called, Awakening. And I asked him to try
to recall the very first meditative experience he had when he became convinced of the truth of, of
the not self doctrine. >> In words, [LAUGH] which already throws me way off stillness.
There was no contention, okay? And therefore, it was a, there, it felt, stillness was not a
contained state. It was infinite. Infinite stillness, because there was no distance. Infinity comes
into play when there isn't any distance. It's the only time it comes into play.
So when there is no object that is counter to yourself, or yourself that is counter to an object,
then there is infinity. So I would say infinity, I would say stillness, and, and universal
awareness. >> Now, by universal awareness, he doesn't mean that he was aware of the whole
universe. He just means that he got the sense that awareness, is kind of a property of, of the
universe, in a, in a sense. And what he had previously thought of as himself, or his own little
realm of consciousness was actually just kind of a particular part of this larger expansive
awareness or, or a point of access to it. >> It's like, here's an example. If you take the air around
you, alright. The air around you is 360. It's everywhere. This doesn't apply any pressure, it's
there. Okay, now make the air awareness. Alive. >> Mm-hm. >> That's what it feels like. It feels
like you're being surrounded internally and externally by something that is not self-generated. >>
Not every meditator who has had this not-self experience would describe it the way Rodney did,
but there were two themes in what he said that are pretty common in these reports. One, is just
the idea that there, there's a sense that you're awareness, your consciousness is, is in fact not
something that's really defined by a self. I've heard the term owner-less consciousness. As a
reference to this.
And the other thing when, when Rodney talked about there being no sense of, of opposition
between any self and any other other object.
That would fall under the, under the heading of kind of transcending the, the subject object
duality which is another, another thing you hear.
Both of those things are very hard for me to wrap my mind around. and, and I would say do
qualify for what William James called ineffable, in, in some sense. But I do think that there's a, a
more straight forward way to try to get a sense, for what people mean by not self. There's
another avenue we can take. And that is to ask meditators who have had this experience, to talk
a little about what thoughts, what their thoughts seem like during mediation. We've talked about
feelings and how meditation can give you a kind of different relationship to your feelings. Well
we, we haven't really talked about much about what thoughts might seem like to the very serious
meditator. And I think that can be a fruitful path here. So I talked about that to, to Joseph
Goldstein. Who's a very important thinker in, in American Buddhism and has played an important
role in really the development of American Buddhism over the last few decades. About 40 years
ago, having spent some time in Asia, he came back and founded, along with Sharon Salsberg
and Jack Cornfield, the insight meditation society, that has become a very important institution in
kind of spreading awareness of, in particular vipassana meditation. He's also written a lot of
books including The Experience of Insight about vipassana meditation. Anyway I did raise this
question of kind of thoughts with Joseph. What, what thoughts seem like during meditation. >>
So, one little exercise to do. This kind of, it's kind of a fun exercise. Es, especially if you're sitting
in a group, just to play it a little bit and to imagine that every thought that's arising in your mind is
coming from the person next to you. I just [LAUGH]. Notice, if that would make a difference in
how you're relating to the thought. >> Mm-hm. >> And, and I, it, it can, it can give you a sense
that, the identification with thought, is extra.
>> Okay. >> The thought, the thought itself is appearing, disappearing. Like a sound.
But being identified with it, is something we're adding. >> Okay, so then in meditation, there can
be the sense that thoughts are just kind of coming out of nowhere so to speak. Almost like, like
voices although it's not like you're. >> Yeah. >> Hearing things maybe literally but it's more
like. >> Correct, correct. >> As you might guess the way he put that reminds me of the modular
view of the mind and the modular view of the mind, the conscious mind doesn't really generate
the thoughts But rather the thoughts are generated by some modules outside of the realm of, of
consciousness. Michael Gazzaniga an adherent of the module review of the mind, who we've
mentioned and, and who did those split brain experi, experiments that we talked about earlier
has put it this way. Gazzaniga has written it's a dog-eat-dog world going on in your brain with
different systems competing to make it to the surface to win the prize of conscious
recognition. So, as he puts it, whichever notion you happened to be conscious of at a particular
moment, is the one that comes bubbling up. The one that becomes dominant. Normally we don't
see the bubbling up, right? We don't see a thought kind of enter the conscious realm. Rather we
can identify with it immediately apparently and just thunk that the conscious mind generated the
thought. And maybe meditation, by kind of calming the mind, making the mind still. Lets you
actually see the thought emerging consciousness before you identify with it. In any event, once I
kind of saw the parallels between what Joseph Goldstein was saying and this modular view
of the mind, I kind of pressed him on the point and, and, and tried to kind of crystallize the
parallels. Let me see if I have this right. During meditation. You, you could begin to see that, or,
or come to believe that. Whereas you might have thought, all your life you're thinking,
thoughts, the thing you think of you as, is thinking the thoughts. It's closer to being the case that
the thoughts try to capture you. The thing you [CROSSTALK] >> Yeah. >> Think of as
you. Right, I mean, they, they, they come from somewhere. >> Right. >> Somewhere in your
body. Somewhere in your brain. But [CROSSTALK] >> Yes. >> But. Okay, so far, so good. But
then at this point I started leading the witness a little farther than he wanted to go. >> But. >>
Yes. >> But whatever part of your body, your brain, you're thinking of as you, is more like the, the
captive of the thoughts, the thoughts reach out and try to grab it and carry it with them. >>
So. Well I think that. That's kind of an interesting way to describe it and it certainly feels like
that. But I, I would phrase it a little differently. It's just that the thoughts are arising. >> Mm-
hm. >> And there is a strong habit of mind to be identified with them. So it's not so much that I
think they have the intent to reach out and kind of trust. >> Yeah. Yeah. >> But rather, rather it's
just this very strongly conditioned habitual identification. This is how we've lived our lives. >>
Mm-hm. >> And it, it takes a practice to break that condition. You know, to be mindful of the
thought rather than to be lost in it. >> Okay, so Joseph says it, it's, it's going too far to think of the
thoughts as actually alive and trying to capture your attention. And I think that's going too far
too. But he also said that that's what it feels like. And that makes sense, in terms of a modular
view of the mind. If a module, having reached a certain level of activation, succeeds in propelling
a thought into your consciousness, it might seem that the thought has a certain vibrance.
In any event, Joseph's basic report that during mediation often it seems like you are not the one
thinking your thoughts. That report is quite common, I have heard a number of
meditation teachers say thoughts think themselves, now, I'd say that's not exactly right. I'd say
modules generate the thoughts, but again, it, it might seem to you like the thoughts think
themselves because the, the modules are kind of outside of the realm of, of consciousness so
the thoughts seem to enter consciousness of their own accord. So anyway, once I led the
witness a little too far I kind of, I kind of backed off a little and, and, and took another shot at, at
the subject with, with Joseph and tried to kind of get clear on exactly what, what, what rendering
of the basic idea he would accept. But, but let me just put it this way. Thoughts become to seem
much more like. Active things, than the things you know, than passive things. In other words,
they're actors in your consciousness that you've got to deal with, and you're in the habit of going
along with them, but that's not necessary. >> Correct.
And they become a lot less active, when we see them for what they are. When we're not pulled
into the drama of them. You know, it's sort of like going to the movies. We, we go to the movies
and there's a very absorbing story, and we're pulled into the story. And we field so many
emotions and you know, we're excited, or afraid, or in love, whatever.
And then maybe in a moment we sit back and say, oh, this is just lights. These are just pixels of
light projected on a screen. >> Mm-hm. >> Right. And nothing. Everything that we thought is
happening is not really happening. >> Mm. >> It's the same way with our thoughts. We get
caught up in the story, in the mind's drama of them. Forgetting they are essentially insubstantial
nature. >> Now, this may remind you of something that Yitha, our friend the Buddhist nun said
earlier not about thoughts, but about feelings, and in case if you don't remember, here is a
flashback. >> It's just like you are watching a movie, the movie is, it's a kind of a, in a picture by
picture, in motion and you, you grasp it as real. But, when you you know, take a one by one, a
piece by piece, it's not real.
>> So, I think it's interesting that both thoughts and feelings are being described here with that
same metaphor of a movie.
And maybe there's connection between these two things. I mean what Joseph said suggested
that when feelings are running strong the thoughts seem kind of more tangible and, and more
part of you.
And as I said earlier, there is the view that even when feelings aren't running really strong, still
thoughts tend to have a kind of an affective quality. Some, some kind of feeling tone associating
within. And if so, it could be that the feeling associated with the thought is kind of what, what
attaches it to you, what makes it feel part of yourself. What inclines you to, to kind of own it. So,
the feeling tone of a thought then becomes a kind of cement.
that's, that's mere conjecture. But, I think it's kind of plausible conjecture. Certainly it would
explain why it is that, that as you meditate and the mind gets more calm and still and the feeling
seem to lose their, their power. Then the thoughts also seem less tangible.
And a little more remote.
In any event the, the kind of practical upshot of this is pretty clear.
>> So when we have that basis of wisdom about the nature of thought, then we have more
power to choose. Okay, which thoughts are helpful. Which are going to serve me, serve others,
then react on them, which are not so helpful, those we can more easily let go. >> Okay so that
brings us back to the more modest version of, of not self, in other words, just thinking well, there
are these feeling I don't have to own or there are these thoughts that I don't have to own or
consider part of myself and you, and you, you view it that way but without really letting go of the
concept of a self. But it could be this, this modest version of not self leads kind of naturally to the
more extreme all in composing version of, of not self. In other words you start out thinking well I
don't have to own that thought, I don't have to own that feeling. And then you, you, you might
start to think well then in principle I don't have to own any of them. And the implications of that
might dawn on you.
Anyway I ran this idea past Joseph. So we've said, you don't really have to identify with your
thoughts, even if you're in the habit of it. We earlier said you don't really have to identify with your
emotions, even if you're in the habit of it. And this is you know, you can kind of see how you start
looking at all aspects of subjective experience like this. You could be led to doubt the very
existence of self. And this, this is the logic to some extent of the Buddhist's argument. For the
non existence of self, right? As framed in the context of what are called the five aggregates. >>
Yes, yes. >> The way, the way Buddhist thought divides your experience in these five
aggregates, some of which we've talked about. >> Yes. >> That's the logic of the argument,
right? There's nothing in your experience. That you have to, that you are really intrinsically
identified with. >> Exactly. >> Okay, so there's there's a kind of organic connection between the
modest and extreme versions of the, of the not self doctrine, in at least a kind of logical,
intellectual sense. In other words you realize that you don't have to identify with some of your
thoughts or feelings and then you realize that well, in principle you don't have to identify with any
of, with any of them. But what about experientially? What about the feeling of not self? Is it the
case that if you start out kind of, feeling through meditation, that, wow, I don't, I don't really have
to own this particular feeling or this particular thought. Does that naturally lead you to get where,
say Rodney Smith was? and, and have the experience of full-on not self. Well, in a way, Joseph
Goldstein seems like a good example of this. So, do you mean, you, you have a sense of
distance from your consciousness itself?
>> I wouldn't, I wouldn't so much say use the term distance as non-identification with. >> Mm-
hm. >> There's the experience of consciousness, and every object of thoughts, emotions,
So there's the experience without being identified with them. >> Okay. >> And that's when we
begin to get a sense of the selfless nature. >> Now, that doesn't sound exactly like Rodney
Smith's description of the experience of not self, but it's kind of moving in that direction. It does
sound this theme of ownerless consciousness.
And that raises a, a question. You know, when you are not identifying with your
consciousness where is the you that's not identifying with it, right? When you're seeing not self
don't you have to be seeing it from some perspective well I, I guess you have to be there. I mean
I guess this is what, what William James meant by ineffable. But it does remind me of a question
raised by Leda Cosbys, the pychologist we heard from earlier when she was talking about
mental modules which she was calling mechanisms. And she was talking about how pervasively
they influence our perception. And here's what she said. >> There's always some psychological
mechanism doing something. It's creating our experience of the world. It's creating our
perception of the world.
it, it, that's why I wouldn't say that domain specific mechanisms color our perceptions, I'd say that
they create our perceptions. But there's no such thing as perceiving the world in a way that
doesn't involve carving it in some, carving it conceptually into pieces. There's no right activity
from nowhere. >> Okay, in the next lecture, we're going to ask whether there is a view from
nowhere, and if not, what the closest thing to that is. Or, to put it another way, we're going to look
at the Buddhist concept of enlightenment from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. And
we're going to do some other things in that lecture, after all, it's the, it's the final lecture. I'm going
to try to, to wrap up a number of the threads that have been running through this course. And
render a kind of evaluation of key points of Buddhist thought from the standpoint of modern
And I'm going to look again at the question of whether Buddhism offers a spiritual world view that
is valid. And viable even in an age of science. [BLANK_AUDIO]
Resources for Week 5
• Kurzban, Chapter 8
• My video dialogue with Joseph Goldstein:
• My video dialogue with Rob Kurzban: (also cited under
Week 4)
Not-Self as Interconnection
Okay, well, this is the final lecture of the course and I'm hoping that some of the threads that
have been running through the course are going to come together in a satisfying way, because
this is their last chance to do that.
now, at the beginning of the course I said that we were going to look at what I call the naturalistic
part of Buddhism. We weren't going to talk about reincarnation, or deities. We were going to talk
about Buddhists ideas about the mind and about reality. And we were going to try to assess
some of those ideas from a scientific point of view. And I hope it's clear that we have done some
of that. So, for example this Buddhist emphasis on impermanence the idea that kind of
everything is impermanent, especially pleasure in that our failure to reckon with that and see it
clearly, causes suffering and, and, and a certain kind of undercurrent of unsatisfactoriness in
And we saw that there's a pretty plausible account from evolutionary psychology. Why pleasure
might be designed, by natural selection, to be very impermanent, fleeting to, to evaporate
quickly, and why that by design might leave us unsatisfied, and why our minds might be
designed to kind of not get the picture, to really not see that clearly.
We also looked at the, the not-self doctrine, the idea that in some sense the self as we normally
think of doesn't exist. And we saw that indeed, modern psychology provides reason to doubt that
at least conscious kind of CEO in control self really ex, exists. There, there's reason to wonder
whether the self that we kind of naturally think of existing does in fact exist. And we also saw that
a particular modern kind of theory of the mind, the modular model of the mind actually helps
explain some of the texture of meditative experience and also suggests that certain meditative
experiences in particular those associated with kind of seeing not self.
May indeed be, kind of, an accurate view of the workings of a modular mind, okay? So, in, in
various way we've kind of given some corroboration, some validation to the Buddhist view of
In this lecture, I want to consolidate that, and, and extend it.
And the way I'd like to frame what we're up to here is that I want to take a question that's been
kind of hovering over the course and, and put it in particularly dramatic form. I want to ask the
question, is enlightenment really enlightenment? Okay, so, I am referring of course to this, this
idea that at the culmination of the Buddhist path there is this, this state, this experience, known
as enlightenment even if it's rarely attained and it involves a, a kind of perfectly clear vision of
things. And also nicely is accompanied by liberation from suffering.
So the question I want to ask is, you know, does enlightenment really deserve its name? Now,
this may strike you as kind of a mute question. You know a question that doesn't have a lot of
practical significance, because after all, how many of us are realistically, you know, hoping
to attain actual enlightenment in the course of out lifetimes. And it's true that I don't think a lot of
us probably will, and speaking for myself, certainly.
On the other hand you know, if you are seriously pursuing the meditative path in a Buddhist
context then in theory you are trying to get closer at least to this thing out there known as
enlightenment. And if indeed this, this, this, this however hard to attain thing known as
enlightenment that it's at, at the end of the path does bring kind of, utter clarity, does bring you
know, contact with profound truth, even ultimate truth then it's reasonable to think that maybe the
incremental steps that we make along the way are at least bringing us clearer vision and closer
to the truth. So there is that kind of significance. That kind of practical significance to the question
of kind of what this enlightenment thing is and whether it really corresponds to deep truth.
Now, there are obviously some challenges in trying to, to kind of get a grip on enlightenment. For
starters, figuring out exactly what it is, what would the experience of enlightenment be
like. Because after all as we've seen, one of the characteristics of mystical forms of
enlightenment, is that they are very hard to articulate, as a rule. People have the sense that they
have perceived the truth but, but it's not so easy to describe that truth. So once we find these
people who have had the experience of enlightenment, they may not be able to communicate
clearly to us. The other problem is finding these people who have had the experience of
enlightenment. Because after all it's not like there's some, you know, Buddhist agency that
issues certificates to people have, who have attained enlightenment. So these people can just
flash their credentials and we'll say, oh, you're enlightened, can you talk about it? You know,
who's to say? Who's, who's enlightened, you know?
But I do think, we can at least start to flesh out the experience of enlightenment by talking to
people who are clearly very serious meditators, who've done a whole lot of it, seemed to have
some deep experiences, and in particular experiences that do correspond to kind of Buddhist
core ideas and concepts, okay? We've, we've obviously done some of that but we're going to do
a little more of it today during the, the, the, kind of the first half of the lecture. And we're going to
focus in particular on two things that we haven't really looked at yet. First, we're going to look at
an aspect of, of the idea of not self and the meditative experience of not self that we actually
haven't covered yet.
Then we're going to look at a concept known as emptiness that we also haven't looked at.
And you know, then I think we'd be prepared to address some questions that, that I raised at
the beginning of the, the course even beyond the question of whether Buddhism presents kind
of, a clear picture of reality. I also raised two other questions. I asked does the Buddhist path get
people closer, not just to a clear view of, of, of things, of their mind, of the world out there, but
does it bring them closer to moral truth? And I also asked, does this,this thing I'm calling
naturalistic Buddhism, does it maybe qualify as a kind of spiritual, or even religious worldview? I
want to get back to these questions and I think it'll help, help to set the stage for that assessment
by, by, by fleshing out this, this idea of enlightenment in this particular way.
So in this segment of this lecture, we're going to talk about this other side of not self that we
haven't talked about. And then next segment, we're going to talk about the idea of
emptiness, and then we're going to try to, try to bring it all together.
So, so far, the aspect of kind of, the not self idea and experience we've talked about, is what you
might call the interior version. Okay, in other words, we've talked about kind of, looking inside
your mind viewing ideas and feelings more objectively maybe than people normally do, and kind
of, not identifying with him. You know, we've seen, that's part of the not self experience. It's
saying that you don't have to own all of these things. You don't have to, to see them as part of
But there's another kind of, half of the not self experience. That I would call the exterior part of
the experience. And that involves kind of, getting the sense that the bounds of your body are
more kind of permeable, and porous than you might have thought. They're not so, the
boundaries are not so solid. And there's more kind of, interaction with the world out there in a, in
a sense. More fluid interaction than you might have appreciated. And before we talk about the
actual experience of that exterior version of not self I want to set the stage, by shedding a little
light on, kind of the logic behind the experience of not self.
And I want to do that by hearing just a little bit of a conversation I had Sharon Salzberg, who's a
very well known meditation teacher and author, and she co-founded along with Joseph
Goldstein, whom we've already met, the Insight Meditation Society, and also along with Jack
And here's something that Sharon said to me in the course of a conversation about this. >> You
know, all those times, many, many times, sometimes many times a day, we think, I should be
able to control this you know, because there's, there's a sense of control that, that we think we're
entitled to as a separate self.
And so it's more an understanding I think that we live in an interconnected universe. That of
course I'm distinct from you and it's not that we kind of morph together in some soup, you know
but that the truth all along has been that we live in an interconnected universe. Like sometimes in
sitting in a room with people, we could do it now in some way, I ask people to reflect, who all has
had some affect on a fact that you're sitting here right now?
Somebody gave you a book. Somebody read you a poem, >> Mm-hm. >> Somebody told you
about this experience. You know, and people just bring to mind this, it's really like this moment
of, this confluence of connections and relationships and interactions and-. >> Okay, so that helps
set the intellectual context of this experience.
Of the exterior side of, not self and it points to a part of the Buddhist argument for not self that we
haven't really, talked about. And that has to do with what you might call kind of the pervasiveness
of causal influences on our behavior. We normally think, of ourselves, as kind of acting on the
world. But, the, the point here, the point that Sharon's making, is that actually the world acts on
us a whole lot. And that helps explain a lot of what we do. A lot of our behavior and our, and our
thoughts are the consequence of things that have impinged on us, right? And when you think
about it that way if you think about our behavior as kind of output, in response to all these input,
then it's kind of, there's kind of less room for a kind of autonomous self that's actually generating
and initiating a lot of behavior and, and thought, okay? And this is a sense in which Buddhism is,
is very modern. In, in, in having the same emphasis on kind of causal influences that modern
behavioral science has, okay? Now, what is the experience of this like in meditation? Well, I've
actually had a little glimmer of it a couple of times while on medication retreats, and I remember
the first time this happened. I, it was days into the retreat, and I was sitting there, and I felt, you
know, like a tingling in my foot. And I heard a bird singing, and suddenly, it just wasn't so clear to
me what the difference between those two was. I don't mean I couldn't distinguish between
them. You know, one was a tingling in my foot, one was a bird. But, what I mean is, it just
seemed to me that the tingling in my foot was no more a part of myself than the bird that was
singing. I mean, after all there was both of them were kind of sending signals up to here and that
was influencing the way I thought and I felt. It might be a good feeling, might be a bad
feeling. But in both cases I'm like getting, getting a signal from somewhere, and at that moment I
mean obviously one of the signals is originating from inside my body, but at that moment that
seemed like kind of an, an arbitrary separation. It didn't seem like there was really a fundamental
Kind of, structurally between what the two things were doing with my mind.
And that's kind of, about as far as I've gotten. I haven't had this kind of full on experience of
what I'd call a exterior, the exterior part of not so, but when I have shared this experience with
kind of more serious mediators who have had more profound experiences, I have found that this
does resonate. They do recognize this as kind of a milestone on the path to the kind of
experience they've had. And one example is, is Joseph Goldstein whom we've already
heard from and this came up in a conversation I had with him. >> You know, so the boundaries
can really dissolve the experience. At those times, the boundaries are very dissolved. But, it's not
in a it can be in a very peaceful way.
>> And, and can that entail, like say hearing a, a, you know, this, a bird song or something and
thinking well, that's no less a part of me than, than the signals I'm getting from, from what is
within, what is normally called my body. >> Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean that is in that quality
of openness, and the sound arises, so the bird for example, there are times in meditation where
we don't know,
we don't make the distinction of inside and outside.
Its just the sound being none.
Yeah and so that boundary, very much can dissolve at times. But also people don't need to be
afraid that, somehow they're not going to be able to navigate in the world because, as soon as
we get up from the sitting we come back to kind of our ordinary perception and-. >> Right. >> So
there's no pro, there's no problem in this and it's actually quite freeing. >> Now Joseph's
right. You can certainly you know, get up I'm sure from the cushion after one of these
experiences and have no trouble dealing with the world. On the other hand I do think there's
some people who carry more of the experience with them after they get up from the medication
cushion than others.
And a good example of that is somebody named Gary Webber, he has a very kind of interesting
story. You may remember the study we talked about that showed that the default mode
network gets quite when very adept mediators meditate. When Gary participated in that study, he
was recruited to participate because he has done a whole lot of meditating. But when he kind of
went in for the brain scan and they said, okay meditate the default mode network seemed not as
quiet as you might expect for somebody that's serious of a meditator. And finally he said well, let
me just try it without meditating. And then they found that his mind seemed very, very
quiet. Okay? And this is consistent with his own account of his meditative history. What he says
is for decades, he meditated, he did contemplative practice of various kinds for hours a day, and
then finally passed through a kind of threshold after which he doesn't have many of the kind of
self-referential thoughts that most of us have. Exactly the kind of thoughts that, for example
would show up via the default mode on network, you know? What am I going to do today? What
is that person think of me? Just a whole category,major category of thoughts
that he doesn't by in large experience.
And he, he chronicled this in a book called, Happiness Beyond Thought.
And I want to to, to share with you just a little bit of the conversation I had with him that relates to
this kind of exterior version of the not-self experience. There's a, there's a line in the introduction
to your book related to this, it says basically something like the bad news is that you don't exist,
the good news is that you're everything, what does that part mean? >> Well it's kind of a logical
consequence, you're nothing, which would disappear you can then be everything. But you can't
be everything unless you are one. Which logically follows, that's the case. In everything case, it's
obvious, but, but if you are nothing, instead of just disappearing and becoming a void. You find
out that in some strange way you can actually, you actually see this, you perceive it this
way. That, that everything is all one thing, this is a cliche, mystical statement. But it really is
perceptible when you can deeply sense that everything is all one thing. >> Mm-hm. >> And it's
somehow, strangely it's inside of you.
>> Yeah. I mean, I would say I have, I have had a meditative experience where the bounds of
my self in a certain sense suddenly seemed a lot more permeable. >> Absolutely. >> That, that
is like the place where the birds' song enters my body, my, my sensory apparatus no longer
seemed like such a, a fine dividing point, you know, and things like, like that. >> Exactly. >> But
that's very di, but I don't, you know, that was like a one-time brief experience, not sure what to
make of it. You're saying that as you walk around every day, or are you saying that you, you, in a
way, identify with everyone else as much as you identify with yourself?
>> Yeah, that's how I would say. But it's a little, a little a little different from that. But that's not far,
far different. I, I don't identify with anything. I mean there's just nobody here to identify with either
me,- >> Mm-hm. >> Or with anybody else. There's just, it's just an empty still presence here
which is there. >> So the problem with saying you identify with everyone is the very beginning of
the sentence, you. [LAUGH] >> Exactly. There, there's nobody, there's no you there to do to
identify. >> Now, when, when Gary says if you're, if you're nothing then you're everything
basically, that may sound kind of cryptic, but I think I, I have an inkling of what he
means. Because in that experience that I had, that I just recounted for you I remember that, you
know, one reason it was, kind of, easier to think of the bird song as, as much a part of me, as the
tingling in my foot. Is that I wasn't thinking of the tingling in my foot as very much a part of me to
begin with, right? Becasue I was, I'd been meditating a lot. And, and I had this kind of, more
objective view of, of my, my feelings. And I was identifying with them less. So tingling in my foot,
bird song, they all seemed like, well not, not all that much a part of me. So, in other words, it was
through kind of disaggregating that the self internally
that it became easier to kind of see things outside the body as, as, as much a part of you as, as
the things that were now disaggregated.
Now, one interesting thing, really important thing, about this exterior version of the not-self
experience is that it has moral implications, and here I want you to listen to what, what Gary
Webber has to say. >> If everything is one thing, and we're all in this together, not all of us that's
everything is one thing, then why should I do something if I wasn't hired to do it, to [UNKNOWN]
this why would I do something bad to you? >> Okay now I want to emphasize that, that what
Gary's talking about is not feeling waves of empathy for his fellow human beings in fact I wouldn't
call Gary especially warm and fuzzy.
As a person now there is, there is that part of Buddhism that,that specifically cultivates empathy
and commpassion. There is, there is something called loving kindness meditation. In fact,
Sharon Salzberg is, is, is kind of a leading promulgator of that. But what Gary's talking about is
different. It's just the perception that since there is no separation between you and the world out
there, there's just a feeling that any logic there might have been to harming anything in the world
out there no longer applies. And I got very much the same sense from talking to Judson
Brewer. As you may recall, he's the one that conducted the default mode network experiment,
and what I may not have told you is that he is himself a very serious meditator. And he's had I
think some pretty deep experiences. And here's an exchange I had with him. If everyone, if
everyone meditated, meditated intensively would there be any wars?
>> I guess that I would ask that as a question. You know, why would, why would someone want
to harm themself? >> Mm-hm. >> So, in that sense, it doesn't, I don't think that there would be,
because it's kind of like, well, you know, why would you cut off your right hand? It's kind of
useful. >> Mm-hm. >> So, I think if people really saw the non separation
how could they? >> Okay, so that's what I would call the exterior part of the not self experience, it
is a kind of a, a logical extension in a way, of the interior part. But it does really accentuate
an important moral implication of the not-self experience. It might not be so clear otherwise. And
that is just that.
it, it gives people the feeling that not harming things. At least it can give people this feeling. I
can't vouch for everybody. Can give people the feeling that, that not harming things is just the
logical thing to do. So this is, you know, you might almost say that it's an example of, you know,
selflessness in a kind of literal sense of not, not self, just not feeling the self, not experiencing
the self, leads to a kind of selflessness in a more moral sense. Okay?
now, in the next segment, I'm going to talk about this experience that, that is known as
And then, for the rest of the lecture, I'm going to try to tie these, these two things together with
some, some other things and see where we wind up.
Essentialism and Emptiness
Okay, one very important idea in Buddhism that we haven't talked about yet is a concept known
as emptiness. And, the, the basic idea is that the things we see out in the world are in some
sense emptier than they seem. Now, this doesn't sound like a very upbeat idea. I've never seen
somebody burst into a room saying, I'm so happy, I just finally grasped the emptiness of it
all. But, serious meditators who have kind of had the experience of emptiness say it's actually
very pleasant.
Now this idea, the idea of emptiness is not as well known as say the idea of not self, you don't
hear as much about it. But I think it's. It's very, very important and is really kind of critical in fully
com, coming to terms with what the experience of enlightenment might, might be like.
Now a reason you don't, you don't hear so much about this idea as you do about something like
not self. Is that you now, not self is kind of common to various schools of, of
Buddhism. Whereas, emptiness is most closely associated with what's called Mahayana
Buddhism. The most basic distinction that scholars make between kinds of Buddhisms is
between Theravada and Mahayana. And as a philosophical doctrine the idea of emptiness is
developed within the Mahayana tradition.
however, as a meditative experience I think it's common to both. I've talked to, to lots of
mediators in the Theravada tradition, and what they described. Sounds like emptiness they may
or may not use that word sometimes they use the word formless but it turns out their basically
talking about the same thing. Okay, so what is the experience of emptiness like? Well like not
self it's very hard to describe so I think its worth kind of laying the intellectual foundation for it. By
quoting from a very well known sutra, the Samadhiraja Sutra.
And part of that sutra goes like this. Know all things to be like this. A mirage, a cloud castle. A
dream, an apparition. Okay, now so far it sounds like the Sutra is talking about and out and out
hallucination. Like, like the movie The Matrix. Where the idea is that none of this stuff is real. And
there are strands of Buddhist thought that do carry things in that direction. But I wouldn't call that
the, the mainstream. Interpretation of the idea of emptiness and to get closer to the mainstream
interpretation, let's just look at the next line in the Sutra.
Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen. Okay, so it sounds like the idea is that if
you see say an apple, the qualities are real You know it, the redness is real the stem is real the
shape is real.
But there's something about this sense of kind of appleness, you know, the, the perception of
essence of apple that is in some sense kind of not real or is im, imposed by you, I guess. Now
what would it be like to have that experience to see things as, as kind of lacking their essence
and. And what might be going on in the brain if you have that kind of perception. Well, there's,
there's actually a kind of a clinical condition that, that I think sheds light on this question. It's
something called Capgrss delusion. It's a very serious cognitive disorder. And I don't mean to
imply by the way that, that the perception of emptiness in this Buddha sense, is any kind of
disorder. We'll, we'll get back to the question of whether it's a true and valid experience or
not. But I do think that Capgras delusion is a very useful. Way of of trying to get a sense of what
maybe going on with the perception of empty. Okay. So what is Capgras delusion? it, it's when
people look at someone, very often, a loved one or close friend and they become convinced that
the person is an impostor. Okay? They, they don't deny that the person on the outside looks
exactly like say, their mother.
But they are convinced it's not their mother, kind of on the inside, so to speak, okay? Has the
visual qualities of their mother, but it lacks what you might call essence of, of mother, I guess.
now, what's going on in the brain when, when this happens. There are various theories. One of
the, the leading theories is that there has been a disruption between the part of the brain that
processes emotions. And the part that does the visual processing. Okay, so, so the visual
perception of the person is not being infused with the emotional content. That it normally carries.
It's just a theory.
There's some evidence for it. But in any event, it's pretty clear that people with Capgras delusion
are, are lacking some of the, the emotions that, that they generally associate with, with the
person. They're not feeling what they would normally feel towards their mother. And this is a
reminder of what an important role feelings can play in our everyday perception of the world. I
mean, you might think that, that perceiving a face, recognizing a face, is a strictly cognitive thing,
right? That you could teach a computer to do. And, in fact, you can teach a computer
to recognize faces with a pretty high degree of confidence.
But we humans apparently have a more complicated system for really positively identifying
things. And it involves more than individual perception it involves this this infusion of feeling.
Now, to, to start trying to connect this to this idea of emptiness. One question is Could the same
dynamic that seems to be at work with Capgras delusion in principle, could that apply to the
perception of non-human things, like, say, my house for example, okay? You know, I think if I
stopped and paid attention when I'm looking at my house, I'd see that I have feelings that
always accompany My house, it's my house after all. And it may well be that if one day I looked
at my house and just didn't have my feelings that I normally have. It would really feel strange, I'd
be going like it looks like my house but there's just something off here. There's something wrong
you know. And you know that may be true of a number of perceptions that we have.
One question is could this go beyond things we own? I mean, obviously, you know, I have
special feelings about my house, I have somewhat special feelings about my car, I guess. So it's,
it's kind of easy to imagine in those cases that, that if you could somehow shut off the affect, the
feeling, your perception of the thing would change profoundly. But what about just, just objects in
general? Cars generically, just, just items that don't belong to you. well, we've already seen in
this course that psychologists have found that actually people do have affective responses, you
know, positive or negative, to just everyday objects. It seems to be part of human nature. Okay
so maybe, if it was the case, that when you look at various kind of everyday things that you see
and you, you, suddenly didn't have the, the, the, the reaction of feeling, the affective reaction that
you normally have to these things. You know, that however subtle the reaction. May normally
be. It, it may be the case that, that things would look a little strange to you. You know, you might
look at a pine tree and, and not get that pine tree feeling and go, you know, yeah, it's got the
needles and everything there just seems like, like there's something off here. It just, it just, you
know, doesn't seem to have essence of pine tree. Now all of this leads to my own pet theory of
what is going on in the brain. When there is the perception of emptiness. Okay, and you may be
able to guess it by now. I think maybe what's happening is that things in general
are evoking less of an affective response than they normally would. And as a result, things in
general seem a little empty, seem to, to possess less in the way of essence. They, they don't
kind of project their identity as strongly as they normally would.
And certainly this this, this theory is, is at least consistent. With my own kind of brush with
experiencing emptiness. I mean, I guess that's what this was. I'll tell you about this experience I
had on a meditation retreat. And you can judge for yourself, but this was on my very first retreat,
and I was walking through the woods, and this was days into the retreat. And certainly, my kind
of affective res, reaction to things had died down really considerably.
And I looked at a weed, a particular kind of weed. It's a kind of weed that had afflicted both front
yards that, that I had, you know, wou, in the houses that, the two houses I had lived in. In. Both
of them had, had this kind of weed as kind of their, their, the main affliction of the art as I thought
of it then.
And suddenly, I just thought you know, why have I been doing battle with these weeds? I mean
this, this doesn't, this is exactly as beautiful as, as the grass, as this plant, as the flowers. It's, it's
nice. What's. You know, why have I been you know, thinking of this thing as kind of, kind of evil,
you know. It lack essence of weed. Now one thing that was true of this experience I had that
is consistent with reports you get from serious mediators about the apprehension of
emptiness. Is that, you know, the weeds just didn't stand out as strongly from other plants. And,
and you hear this. That things don't seem as separate from other things in the visual field as is
ordinarily the case. And this came through in a, in a, in an exchange I had with Rodney Smith,
this meditation teacher whom we've seen earlier in the course.
And I just seen this exchange, I kind of try to sneak my little pet theory about what is going on the
brain when there is a perception of emptiness. I try to kind of insert that in the conversation and
you'll see how he reacts. >> You don't lose the shape or colors of things, it's just that the spaces
between doesn't, no longer divides. >> Mm-hm. Do you have [CROSSTALK]. >>
[INAUDIBLE] >> Do you have less strong emotional reactions to some things than you might
otherwise have? Do you invest them less with, kind of emotional content? >> That would make
sense, wouldn't it? That if things weren't as substantial as you believe them to be. Then your
reaction to things would also simmer. You see? So that happens. You see all the states of
equanimity and all of those things come through the realization that things aren't what we thought
they were. >> Now, in a way, Rodney is corroborating my little theory about what's going on in
the brain when you have the perception of emptiness, but in a way he's not. Okay, so he is
saying yes. >> There's a correlation between kind of a weakened affective response to things
and a perception of emptiness. But in his view, the way it works is you have the accurate
perception of emptiness and that leads to the weakened affective response because a strong
affective response wouldn't make sense if you're seeing things as empty. I'm kind of seeing
things the opposite way. I'm, I'm suggesting that what comes first is the kind of lesson affective
response. A less strong feeling in reaction to seeing something and that then gives you the
sense. That the thing is, is, is empty of essence. Now I want to emphasize that I'm not saying
that the perception of emptiness is necessarily invalid, because of that you know, just because
it's caused by a weakening of feeling. I've tried to emphasize in this course that in general I don't
think feelings are especially reliable guides. To reality. And to, to clear perception. So could well
be the case that the, the, the, the perception of emptiness is in some sense a true
perception. Even though it's caused by just a, a, a kind of dampening down of feeling, and we'll
get back to that. Now, one psychologist who was, talked about essence from a non-Buddhist
point of view is Paul Bloom. An we've already heard from in this course.
He thinks that people are, by nature, essentialists.
What he means is that it's, it's just kind of part of our nature to see things as having a kind of
interior you know, essence an interior nature that we can't. See but we can sense and to kind of
have the intuitive idea that that's really what gives them their identity. So he thinks that yes,
people, they see a pine tree and there is, however subtle, this kind of perception of essence of
pine tree, of, of pine tree-ness. And he talked about all of this in a book he wrote called How
Pleasure Works. Now, Paul thinks that the essence is that we are tribute to things. Depends on,
in some sense the story behind him, okay? So maybe you've got a bottle of wine and you've
heard this is very rare.
You know, cabernet sauvignon from some special year, and there aren't many of these
bottles. It's very valuable.
And that will give the bottle a kind of a, an aura or, or it'll give you a sense of essence that's just
different from what you kind of perceive and feel if it was a bottle of, I don't know. You know,
Boone's Farm or something. I dunno if they still have Boone's Farm, but, but, that would have
been the cheap wine in my day.
and, you know another example Paul gives is a tape measure that somebody actually paid
$49,000 for, even though it looks like a tape measure you could pick up.
In a, in a, in a garage sale. But this one belonged to John F Kennedy. That was the story behind
it that, that gave it you know, this, this kind of special essence, you know? And, and, and you can
imagine what it was like. What it, what it may have felt like for this The person who paid money
for the tape measure. I mean, you may not be a Kennedy aficionado in, in particular, but you, you
probably have some special enthusiasm that would lead you to have a comparable
perception. Maybe you're a baseball fan, and if you saw Babe Ruth's jersey in some museum,
you'd have this feeling. You know, like, that's almost like not ordinary cloth that's made
of. There's something it's, there's a kind of an aura. There's some special vibe going on
here. And that's what Paul means by, you know, perceiving an essence by virtue of the story
behind things.
And to get a sense, for how this story behind things affects the feeling you have about
things. Imagine that we kind of withdraw the story behind things. So suppose you walk up to this
guy, he just paid $49,000 for Kennedy's tap measurer. He's holding it in his hands and gazing at
it lovingly and you say. Actually there's been a mistake. That tape measure belongs to the guy
who was installing the sink in the bathroom down the hall. We're going to have to, we're going to
have to Fed Ex Hugh Kennedy's tape measure tomorrow. Well, you can imagine, you know, he
would have a dramatic shift of feeling toward the tape measure, the story is withdrawn. And the
feeling changes and it would no longer have this, this essence of Kennedy in it. Now, Paul
makes an interesting claim.
He believes that although in these cases, you know, these are special items with special stories
he believes that every day things, just generic things, you know, tape measures in
general. Generic things in a certain sense come with stories
and those stories do inform or kind of perception of, of essence. And this came through in a
conversation I had with about his book several years ago.
There's no such thing as a simple pleasure. There's no such thing as a pleasure that's untainted
by your beliefs about what you're, what you're being pleasured by. So in your food case, if you
hand me something and, and, and I taste it part of my knowledge is this is food that somebody I
trust is giving to me. It's food.
I would taste it differently. Than if I found it on the floor. >> Mm-hm. >> Or if I paid a thousand
dollars for it. >> Mm-hm. >> so, or, or take it to painting. It's the paintings. It's true that, that often
you could look at a painting and not know who painted and the circumstances and so, and just
appreciate it largely based on what it looks like, but at the same time, you know it's a painting. >>
Mm-hm. >> You know it's a painting. You typically know it's a painting at an art museum, but you
know it's a painting. It's not a natural occurrence of paint splashing onto a wall. Somebody made
it a sometime for its display. And that colors things. So I think we always experience some,
something. And I would say this would apply to the simplest of sensations. At, a orgasm, drinking
water when you're thirsty, stretching, anything.
It's always under some sort of description. It's always viewed as an instance of some sort of
category. >> It's always an implied narrative. >> Exactly. >> Okay, so, Paul's view is that the
story we tell about something. The category we put it in shapes the perception of its essence. I
want to emphasize that doesn't mean that there's no role for feeling here. The way I would. Tell
the story is that, you know, the, the guy who, who paid for Kennedy's tape measure, you know,
first came the, the narrative that it's Kennedy's tape measure. That gave him a feeling about it,
and that shaped his sense of the tape measure's, essence. And I don't think that Paul Blum
disagrees with me. About it kind of working this way. I know hat in a later conversation, he
agreed that if, if you could give somebody a kind of a variant of Capgras delusion such that when
they walked into their office, they didn't get the feelings they normally get when they walk in their
office. It would seem really strange. They would not perceive kind of essence of. Office and they
might be kind of freaked out.
So, in sum my view is we have these interpretations of things, these narratives about things,
these conceptions of where they fit in and that, shapes our feelings about things.
and, and that in turn, shapes this perception of essence, and in some sense, maybe the stronger
the feeling, the stronger the sense of essence. And, if that's the case, then it stands to reason
that through meditation, which can after all, make you less effectively reactive to things. You
could come to see things as having less in the way of essence, being in a sense more
empty. Now I kind of tried this, this theory out much as I tried it out on Rodney Smith earlier. I
also kind of injected it into a conversation with Beku Bode the Buddhist, monk, and scholar
whom we meet earlier in the course.
And here's how that exchange went. When we do interpret, we bring interpretation to something,
and thereby attribute essence to it. Some of that interpretation, involves how we feel about it, so I
might, you know, my enemy is a bad person. My, my home is a warm, cozy place. Part of the
essence I'm attributing to things is coming from my feelings, right? >> Exactly, exactly.
>> And so, it kind of follows that if you're following the Buddhist path in extreme form, if you
truly seek liberation and you're, you're, you're, you're kind of divorcing yourself in a sense from
feelings of attraction and aversion.
That then, things in the outside world would not have these strong emotional connotations. And
that might be part of your perception that they lack essence. [BLANK_AUDIO] >> Again, I'd have
to nuance my response to this.
Because if one takes that too literally, one might come away with the idea that the ultimate aim of
Buddhism is to become a completely unemotional, emotionally flat, emotionally deprived au,
automaton. [LAUGH] As, as my mother used to say. [LAUGH] As far as I'm concerned, between
a, an enlightened Buddhist and a, and a vegetable there's no difference. [LAUGH] Is this why
you become a Buddhist monk? To become a vegetable? [LAUGH] But I would say that in my
opinion, in my experience that. >> As one continues to practice, you know, 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, more delightful way. So it's not that it's just turning, turning one
You know, just a flat an, an emotionally dead automaton. >> Right, but. >> You know. >> Doesn't
part of the freedom come from the fact that you are not attaching these affective connotations,
these judgemental affective connotations to things you see? So, in other words the la. Not
attributing essence so strongly to things, it can be a source of freedom. >> Definitely, it brings,
or, I'm sorry, it brings a freedom from kind of emotional disturbances that arise from, you know,
usually as we usually live, sort of swinging between the two poles of. Attraction towards what's
pleasant, what's agreeable, what promises delight, and then repulsion towards what is seen as
threatening, as unpleasant. Now, I think that what Deacon Body said there is more or less
consistent with this idea. That less affect, less affective reaction does bring less, a
lessened perception of essence, and that this could account for the perception of emptiness. I
want to reiterate that that doesn't mean that the perception of emptiness is in any sense
inaccurate. We'll return to that.
And in fact it may be that the perception of empitness has some kind of some positive kind of,
moral effects. And, and we'll, we'll get to that. For now I just want to emphasize again.
That that to say that you’re perceiving kind of the emptiness of things in some sense,
doesn't mean it’s a bland perception, it also doesn't mean that it’s a, its an unpleasant
experience. And on this point let’s hear again from Gary Weber. You’re saying I gather that there
is a kind of pleasure you can derive.
Via your sense that does not constitute emotional involvement of, of, maybe of a problematic
kind, or in any event, it, it doesn't, it doesn't const, you're not feeling that kind of emotional
involvement. >> That's correct. You haven't lost your nerve endings. I mean, you still. I mean, a
green tea tastes, still tastes like green tea. Red wine still tastes like red wine. You don't lose
that. What you lose is the carry forward of that sensation. This is a fantastic glass of wine, or
this is, or this is, listen, this is great Meier. You start getting into emotional content about it, past
just a sensation. >> Yeah, but some people would say if you don't at least say, hey, this is a
good glass of wine. Then, like, what's the point of living, right? I mean, that's, this would, you
must encounter this question, right? I mean, if you're not getting emotionally involved enough
to like it, [LAUGH] you know, then, then why be that way? >> It's, it's a much cleaner
perception. >> Mm-hm. >> If I'm tasting a glass of wine, and I'm trying to impress some
restaurant critic or something, or some friend of mine who's a great. One fancier. Then I made
the story go. I made an expectation for how this one should be on how I should expect it to
taste. And so it really blocks my clear simple perception of that. And so by getting this spot out of
the way, this emotional block out of the way, I do much higher likely, directly preceding whatever
the sensation is. >> Now I should add that Gary actually doesn't like to use the work emptiness
to describe his experience. And the reason is because he says that in his perception, the world is
actually, it's very vibrant. It's actually kind of full of energy.
But the experience he describes does correspond to the, the classic kind of experience
of. Emptiness of formlessness. He says that individual things in his environment do not, kind of,
project a strong independent identity. He doesn't react to them with, with strong kind of feelings
or distinctive feelings. He, he sees a kind of a continuity among them.
So in other words, he, he doesn't see things, I take it as having individual distinctive essences
but he does feel kind of collective essence or, or fullness to things. And I think that points to one
reason that it someways it may be better to use the term formalist. Then the term emptiness for
this experience. But, in any event, whatever you want to call it, apparently to judge by
Gary's experience carrying this experience into your everyday life can be a very pleasant
thing. >> So when you finally do reach this space, when there are all kinds of words that you try
to language, I, I've used. Words like empty fullness, or full emptiness, or it's a space you can't
imagine putting anything into to improve it, or take anything out would make it any better. Just is
an absolute complete satisfied full space. >> Okay, did you hear that word satisfied. Now as you
may recall. A fundamental idea in, in Buddhism is that life as normally lived involves kind of
recurring, you know, unsatisfactoriness. But that in principle, enlightenment, liberation can lead
to the complete cessation of that unsatisfactoriness. Now, Gary Webbert doesn't claim to
be liberated, he does not claim to be enlightened.
But his accounts of his experience are consistent with the idea that really sustain and dedicated
contemplative practice can really make a dent. In you know, Dukha. The, the, the word for kind
of, suffering and unsatisfactoriness. And his experience is consistent with the idea that this,
this path can also lead you to see the world much more clearly. Okay, so now we've talked about
the. Idea of emptiness and also earlier about this exterior part of the not self experience and I
think this leaves us in a position to now grapple with the question of kind of what exactly
enlightenment is. Does it correspond to our perception of, of profound truth maybe even ultimate
truth? Maybe even moral truth. So that's where we will head in the next segment.
Buddhist and Darwinian Enlightenment
Okay, so in this lecture we've talked about two seemingly pretty deep meditative
experiences. One I've called the exterior version of not self. The other one is called emptiness or
formlessness and I've said that if you're among the many of us who have not attained
enlightenment and you're kind of wondering well what would it be like and trying to imagine it. I
think these two experiences would be good candidates for kind of basic elements of the
enlightenment experience. And we, we've already talked earlier in the course about some other
candidates for that. I would say that the the interior version of not self, that is, looking within
yourself, seeing thoughts, feelings, and so on, but no, no real self. I said that's a good candidate
for basic ingredient uh,of enlightenment.
And so is the apprehension of impermanence. The kind of deep sense that yes,
impermanence and a kind of fluidity kind of pervade reality.
So I'd say if you were doing like a presentation on enlightenment, and I guess in a way that's
what I'm doing now and you needed actual bullet points, you know, elements of enlightenment.
I would nominate these four. Now obviously, different people have different views about what
enlightenment is. But I think if we're going to try to kind of flesh it out, wrap our minds around it,
these are These would be for me, kind of the basic four dimensions, based on talks I've had with
people who have had much deeper meditative experiences than me. And also based on, kind of
my understanding of Buddhist doctrine. So, with these four in place these four elements
of enlightenment in place, we can, we can now proceed to try to answer the big question. You
know, is enlightenment enlightening? In other words, do these four, kind of,
elemental experiences tend to get people closer to the truth? About things.
now, it probably won't surprise you that I'm going to address this question from a Darwinian
standpoint, okay. That is to say, I'm going to keep in mind the kinds of
biases and perceptual distortions that natural selection seems to have. Endowed us with, and
that's going to inform my conception, of what a truthful apprehension of the world would be. Now,
to pave the way for that analysis, I'd like to get back to a theme that I brought up at the very
beginning of the course. I said that in some ways I thought that, kind of the Buddhist meditative
path, was a rebellion against natural selection, against natural selection's agenda against the
values, implicit in natural selection.
so, I would like to look at these, some of these elements of enlightenment from that
standpoint. And talk about the sense in which they are part of a rebellion against natural
selection, and then I think that'll, that'll help us get clear on whether the rebellion is really on this
of the truth. So let's start out with what I call the exterior version of not-self. Now as we've seen,
that involves a kind of diminished sense of separation between you and the people and things in
the world, right? In fact, there's such a sense of continuity that you begin to think that to harm
others would be to harm yourself. In other words you start to doubt, that there's any real
difference between kind of your interests and their interests. Well, you know from natural
selections point of view this is absolute heresy. I mean if there's one idea that natural selection is
kind of built into us,it's that, you know, this is my body, it stop right here, it has interest. They are
not necessarily the same as the interests of other beings, and they're definitely more important
than the interest of other beings, right? That just follows from the logic of natural selection. I
mean if indeed inside me are these genes, that were selected because they were good at getting
copies themselves. Into the next generation. Then, job one for these genes is going to be taking
care of this vehicle for the genes, this body. And, that means they're very likely going to build into
my brain the idea that taking care of this body is much more important than, kind of, any other
bodies getting taken care of. In other words, my interests are paramount. I am, in some sense,
special. Now this, this biases is kind of built into all animal life, and you see it in all kinds of
ways. You see it in animals eating each other for example. In our species you do see it
sometimes in people killing each other, sometimes in somewhat subtler ways, you know people
Of vying to displace one another instead of hierarchies and things like that. Sometimes you see it
in very subtle ways, you know. So if you're trying to hail a cab, right and, and you notice that
someone, someone next to you is also trying to hail a cab, when you naturally reach your
arm higher than their arm because you want to get the cab.
And you know, implied is the idea that well, it's more important than, that you get the cab, then
that they get the cab. Even though you don't know like, this is some physician who needs to get
to the hospital, and save somebodies life. So, this exterior version of not self, this perception
of fundamental, continuity of interest, between you, and, and all of life.
really, it just, it involves transcending one of the most basic, kind of precepts built into us by
natural selection which is just that we are special. Now I think that the, experience of emptiness
or formlessness. Has this same property of, kind of, transcending or even, defying, you might
say, the basic idea that we are special. But I think the logic, in this case, is a little bit subtler, so
let me kind of go over it. Now, emptiness, it is the experience that things don't have essence,
right? They don't have this strong, kind of, affective value.
there, they don't, you don't have strong feelings, distinctive feelings about these individual
things. Well let's back up and ask what are feelings for in the first place? You may remember
from an earlier lecture. That seems to be the case that the very beginning, you know, kind of the
dawn of feelings,um, in the, in the, in the living world.
the, their mission, the mission of feelings, was to take care of the organism, specifically to get it
to approach things are good for it, to avoid things that are bad for it, right? So in other words
feelings are judgments about the environment from the perspective of that organisms
interests. So, if some very simple, organism kind of feels kind of a bad vibe about something that
is a toxin, then it shies away from it. That's good for the organism, but it's just not the case that
that toxin is bad in an universal sense. It's not bad for all of life or anything. So that particular
judgment, is only from the point of view of that organism, and it implies the fundamental
mission of taking care of just that organism.
Now, that organism shying away from a toxin is not a matter of great, moral consequence. And,
and, in fact, that's true of a lot of the kind of affective judgment's that a lot of his make in the
course of everyday life. So, for example, I have kind of a good feeling about split level
houses. They you know, there's like, a, an essence of split level house that, that, that gives me a
good feeling. I assume that's because I actually lived in one. When I was six years old.
And then there are houses that I might look at. Kinds of houses and I, they might give me a bad
vibe. Maybe I think they're ostentatious or whatever
in any event it doesn't matter all that much, that I have those feelings about houses and other
people have other feelings. That's not a matter of great consequence. However, when we start
making these affective judgement's about other people, when we start kind of attributing essence
to other people. Then matters become more consequential. So, you know, I think that my friends
are good. I mean, they, they give me a good feeling, you know. There's kind of, essence of good
person that they seem to kind of exude. Whereas I think that my rivals and enemies are bad
and when you think about it, you know, I mean it feels like real. It, it feels like, like that, that's a,
you know, there's, there's almost, there's objective truth to that.
But it really can't be the case that there is, right? Because, after all, my friends have rivals. And
those rivals, look at my friends and they get this negative essence when they look at them,
And my enemies have friends, and those friends look at my enemies, and they, they get this kind
of positive vibe, right? So, obviously, somebody is wrong here, right? We can't all be
right? There's a, there's a contradiction somewhere. And the contradiction is really just built into,
the system by natural selection. I mean, you know, if this planet is full of people whose kind of
perceptual machinery was designed based on the premise that each of them is more important
than all of the rest of them well, then, obviously contradictions will arise, right? Because that is
itself an internally contradictory premise. It can't be the case that they're all more important than
everyone else. Now, I would say this, this tendency toward essentialism, toward, you know,
attributing essence to things. Becomes even more consequential when you move away from
judgement's about individual people and start talking about judgement's about groups of
people. Okay, so, for example, racism is a for of essentialism. It's like looking at an ethnic group
and attributing just, some sort of bad quality to the whole group and having that feeling, about the
group. Nationalism is a form of essentialism. You know, it's the idea that, hey my nation,
my national group of people has this like good thing in them. Other nations, you know other
national groups, not so much. And when there's tension between two national groups then, then
the other national group is going to have you know, actively bad kind of essence, right? And the
deeper the conflict gets, the more pronounced that judgement's going to be. The better your
national group is, the worse the other national group is, right? And the same is true of groups in
general, right? Whether it's you know, it can be racial groups and national groups religions,
ideological groups, whatever. As tension develops and a conflict gets deeper and deeper, you
know they seem worse, your group seems better.
this, this us versus them machinery is, is very powerful and it kind of governs our attribution of
essence to groups sometimes in a very destructive way. I wouldn't say that, that we are by
nature racists or, or anything like that, or even by nature nationalists or whatever. I would just say
we are by nature group sets. Okay, we have this us versus them machinery. And it's been
studied a lot actually by psychologists. And one of the best known, studies, and in fact, one of
the best known psychological studies period of the 20th century possibly was initiated by a
football game that took place, few hundred yards from where I'm standing. It was in Palmer
Stadium Princeton University. Palmer Stadium is no longer standing because all things are
impermanent but this was in 1951. It was a game between Princeton and Dartmouth and it was
just kind of a famously rough game. Princeton had a, a nationally famous player, an all
American, named Dick Kazmaier and he left the game with a broken nose and a
concussion. Dartmouth had a player who left the game with a broken leg. There were lots of
penalties. There was much discussion afterwards about who had been most who had been more
culpable, which team and, and it became kind of a controversy and two psychologists, one
at Princeton, and one at Dartmouth, decided to do a study. So, they got students who had
actually seen the game, and then they also got some students and showed them films of the
game, and with all of these students on the Princeton and the Dartmouth side. You know, they
asked them to go through and, and fill out this survey about, you know, which team had been
more responsible, you know, for starting the, the stuff, for sustaining it. Whatever. Now, they
found that Princeton students tended to think Dartmouth was more responsible.
For the problems and Dartmouth students had a different view that of course does not surprise
you at all you could have predicted it that's how universal this bias is. We just take it for granted,
but what's interesting to me about the study is the way these two psychologists framed their
findings okay? Because they emphasize that in their view the actual perception of the world, that
the mere perception of the world
involves inherently imposing meaning on the perceptions.
Here's what they wrote.
It seems clear that the game actually was many different games and that each version of
the events that transpired was just as real to a particular person as other versions were to other
An occurrence on the football field or in any other social situation does not become an
experiential event unless and until some significance is given to it.
An occurrence becomes an event only when the happening has significance. And the happening
generally has significance, only if it reactivates learned significance's already registered in what
we have called the person's assumptive form-world. Okay. So, the, the very act of perception
Seems to involve imposing meaning on things. Imposing form on them. And we've already seen,
earlier in the course, one of the mechanisms by which we impose meaning in situations very
much like this football game. What we've seen is that when our allies do good things, we attribute
that to their natures, their essential natures, and when they do bad things, we have some
other explanation for it, about why it doesn't really reflect on them. With our enemies, it's the
opposite. They do bad things, we attribute that to their essential nature. When they do good
things, that's not so reflective of them. so, there's this mechanism built into us, by which we
maintain our beliefs about the essences of our enemies and our friends. Regardless of what they
actually do. So it kind of makes you wonder about the reliability of our judgment's in these
matters, right? And the authors of this study, were so aware of how much of the meaning in the
world we impose on it in the course of perceiving it that they raise the question. Of whether in the
absence of this process, the, the football game itself even really exists. In brief, the data here
indicate that there is no such thing as a game. Existing out there in its own right which people
merely observe. The game exist for a person and is experienced by him only, in so far as certain
happenings have significance in terms of his purpose.
Out of all the occurrences going on in the environment, the person selects those that have some
significance for him from his own egocentric position and the total matrix. So, it's almost as if
they're saying that the real world out there is formless until we impose form on it, until we impose
meaning on it. And, as we've seen, I think the, the imposing of that meaning involves attributing
essences to things. Which in turn depends on our assigning kind of affective value to those
things. Now they're not saying, the authors of the study aren't saying that you know, you can't if
you're viewing things in a perfectly objective way, you can't like distinguish between different
people on the field or even the, the, the colors of the different jerseys that the two teams are
wearing. But I think they are saying that if you're truly objective, then the whole framework of
meaning, that you use to see the world would kind of fall apart. Now, what would that be like,
what would it be like if you like attained enlightenment?
And went to this football game. That would be an interesting experience, right? Let's look at two
of the elements of enlightenment. Two of these things that we think of are, are elements of
and how they would effect your perception of the game. Well, first of all, the idea of,
of formlessness, the experience of formlessness or emptiness, you know. That would mean that,
you know, you just didn't sharply distinguish between the two teams. Certainly not in any
significant way. You wouldn't you know, see even if you were a student at Princeton or
Dartmouth, you know. If you had the feeling of, formlessness, emptiness, you would, you
wouldn't see essence of good or essence of bad in either team. It would just be 22 people out
there, doing what they were doing. Similarly, what we've called the exterior version of Not Self
would pretty profoundly influence your perception. You would see a continuity between you and
the the people on the field, right? So you, you would see basically suddenly two kinds of
continuity between you and everyone else, and kind of among all of the players right? That's, I
guess what it would be like to go to a football game having attained enlightenment. So, probably,
if everyone attained enlightenment, it would be bad for attendance at football games because I
don't know why they bother going. Doesn't sound like a very interesting experience.
On the other hand, if everyone attained enlightenment, there would also be lower tendency of
wars. And genocides, and things like that. So maybe there is, there is something to be said for
that. So this perspective, the enlightened perspective, does seem to be a more benign point of
view in the sense that it leads to fewer wars and things in theory, or at least.
It's a separate question, I guess, whether it's, it's kind of literally a truer perspective, a more
objectively true perspective. If you're sitting at that football game and you kind of don't see any
difference between the teams is that, is that is that, is that kind of true in some sense, objectively
I think you could make that case. I mean, for one thing that would mean you had kind of removed
yourself from the bias through which the game is viewed by either an ardent Princeton fan or an
ardent Dartmouth fan right? In that sense, we have maybe more objective view of
things. Interestingly you would also have removed yourself from the perspective of our species in
a sense right? Because it’s in the nature of our species to choose sides, you know we see
a conflict develop between people, and we immediately try to figure out who’s on the side of
right? Who is the good person, who’s is the bad person? Which is another way of saying who
should we side with? And that seems to be because during human evolution when there was
a conflict within our society it really mattered that we kind of figured out which side it was in our
interest to, to be on, but for whatever reason that seems to be part of our, the nature of our
species. So in other words you know, to be a student at Dartmouth or Princeton means to
choose Dartmouth or Princeton to favor. And to be a human being means to, to choose one side
or the other to favor. It's just kind of built into our species, so the question arises, if you remove
yourself from the very perspective of our species.
You know, have you gotten closer to the truth? Is that in some sense more objective? You know,
I think you can make that case. I mean why should the perspective of any one species be kind of
privileged as an objective truth. I mean after all, species have different views of things
To humans you know, it's, a stagnant swamp is just not, not a nice place. It's just kind of got a,
got a negative essence. To a mosquito, presumably, it's a very attractive place, right? Has a very
positive essence. And, I mean, who's to say who's right? I mean, obviously it's true that for
human beings a stagnant swamp is a place you might want to avoid cause you could get a
disease. You could get didn't buy mosquito that carries the disease in fact.
So I'm not denying that but it's, it's the sense that, you know, our judgement, our perception of
essence is, is objectively true, right? That's what I'm questioning. And yet people, people act all
the time as if the essence is they perceive or true. People actually have arguments about which
wine is better, right.
Now, there was a Buddhist philosopher in the seventh century, Chandrakirti. And one thing he
said is that what to human being is water. Might be perceived by a certain kind of deity as
nectar. And might be perceived by a hungry ghost as pus or blood. And it might taste accordingly
to those three, kinds of beings. And the basic idea there is just that, you know, the, the meaning
of something, the very identity of something, the essence of something. Depends on the, the
particular perspective of the kind of being it is. And, I guess it's in that spirit that, that I would say
that if, if these elements of Buddhist enlightenment remove you from the perspective of your
species. yes, they, they may be moving you closer to the objective truth and so too if
they're removing you from the perspective of your own individual history as they tend to do as
Now, in some cases these experiences might remove you from the perspective of species in
general. We've seen that that, how they can, how a couple of these elements of enlightenment in
particular the the idea of formlessness or emptiness and the exterior version of not-self, how they
can undermine the very idea that you are special. And that is a, that is a bias that natural
selection builds into, to all species, right. That this particular organism is the most important one,
in the world. There's actually you know, an asterisk there. There's the exception is that, to the
extent that other organisms share your distinctive genes, then yes, you may think they're very
special, you know? You may think that your offspring are very special. That's because they're,
carrying your genes. But by and large, the idea that you are uniquely uh,special is just a premise
of natural selection. And so in that sense, enlightenment, could in theory, enlightenment, as we
conceive it, could extract your perspective from the very realm of evolved life. Now, I think we're
ready to return to that kind of enlightenment checklist. Those four, bullet points.
The kind of ingredient of enlightenment. So now let's add two columns to that checklist. The, the
truth about the world, the kind of objective truth about the world, and moral truth. And let's go
through and look at these four proposed elements of enlightenment. And see whether it seems
plausible to say that their conducive to truth, in each of these sentences. Now I know that moral
truth in particular, is kind of a famously hard thing to define.
And in particular when in, in the realm of Buddhism, there's sometimes questions raised you
know. Wait a second doesn't ultimate enlightenment involve transcending? Even the kind of good
bad duality. And it all gets very complicated. That's a very, that's a very good and
important question, but it's also like a whole nother course. To grapple with it satisfactorily, so I'm
just going to kind of glide over that and say that, you know, my rough and ready definition of
moral truth is like, first of all free of obviously distorting biases on moral judgement. And also you
know, if if it's a state of mind that is kind of less conducive to you know, killing people and starting
wars and stuff. I would call that closer to moral truth, okay. That's kind of my rough and ready
conception. So let's start at the top.
The exterior version of not-self yeah, I would say I would say that moves you closer to moral
Even aside from the fact that it leaves you spending less time, you know, killing and tormenting
other beings
it involves removing the manifestly untenable assumption that you are more special than any
other organism on the planet. We've seen how it does undermine that, that bias.
I'd said much the same thing about the experience of formlessness or emptiness. We've seen
how that too involves removing yourself from that assumption of your own specialness. And as a
practical matter it involves not attributing, you know, essence of bad to people who happen to be,
on the wrong team. And then justifying, you know, hurting, or killing them. Now, you might be
able to argue that these two elements of enlightenment are also conducive, to, to apprehending
just kind of the truth about the world, you know. The objective truth about the physical world. But
that's a subtle matter.
that, you know, I don't think I'll get into it. I don't think I'll make that claim right now.
Now the interior version of Not Self is interesting because I think it actually gets a check mark in
both columns. We've seen earlier in the course that it, it does bring you a perception of, of your
mind that seems to accord with some findings of modern psychology.
Brings you arguably a, truer perception of just the actual reality of your mind.
But I also think, it can bring you closer to, moral truth, because it can give you this kind of critical
From some of these feelings that embody, you know, kind of self-serving judgement's about the
world, self-serving attributions, of essence about the world, you know.
Finally, in permanence I don't think there is, such a, a strong case that it has moral
implications. You might be able to make the argument that it does. But, yeah, it's safe to say that
yes, ultimately, everything is impermanent. ultimately, you look at a lot of things that we think
of as things and they turn out to be processes and more in flux. Then we at first think, so, yeah, I
think we can give that a, a check-mark in the, truth about the world column. So looking at the
results of this analysis, I think I would say that in the end, there is a correspondence between
Buddhist enlightenment, as we're kind of imagining, you know, not having attained it.
And what I would call Darwinian enlightenment. Which raises the question, what is Darwinian
enlightenment? Well here's what I mean. You know, if, if you look at the influence of evolution
on our way thinking, on our way of feeling, And if you look at the kind of vestiges of the
evolutionary process that assumed the form of kind of biases and kind of distortions in our
perception. Our thought. And you asked, well what would, what would life be like? What would
experience be like if you removed all these biases?
I think it would look, something like, what we are imagining Buddhist enlightenment to, to look
And in a way, that's one of the, the main points of this course. Now, it may sound like a moot
point, right? Because, again, most of us are not very close to, Buddhist enlightenment. Most of
us cant realistically hope to get there but at the same time you know, as I’ve said, if your moving
along the meditated past, you know, in the general direction of this, this thing that is said to light
the culmination of the path called enlightenment Well then presumably, if enlightenment
is ultimate truth, even if it's a totally theoretical thing and no one's every gotten there. if, if, if it in
theory is ultimate truth, then presumably movement along this path is incremental progress in the
direction of truth. Okay?
Now this is would be actually a pretty logical place to, to stop the course. Because, because this
is a lot of what I've been trying to convey. But there is one question we've left, dangling. At the
beginning of the course, I said I was interested in the question of whether what I called the
naturalistic. Version of Buddhism you know, the version without reincarnation, deities, and so
on. Could qualify as a spiritual world view or even a religion. So in the next segment we're going
to spend a few minutes on that. And then we'll be done. [BLANK_AUDIO]
A Naturalistic Religion?
At the beginning of this course when I said that I was interested in the question of whether the
naturalistic version of Buddhism might qualify as a spiritual or even a religious world view. I, I
brought out this William James quote where James said that the animating essence of religion is
the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting
ourselves to that order. And I said kind of tentatively that, it, it would seem that, that Buddhism
offers such a thing, you know. It says that the truth about the world is generally unseen. And that
if we discover it, and harmoniously align ourselves with the truth, then we will in some sense
realize our supreme good. Well, since I said that, you know, I think we've learned a lot more
about what the truth is that, that Buddhism asserts.
So maybe we're in a better position now to ask ourselves whether it really is an unseen order in
the sense that James, meant the term. Okay. Whether it really might qualify even a, even a
naturalistic Buddhism to be a kind of spiritual or religious worldview. Well, certainly, it's unseen,
right? I mean, if, if you take this truth about reality to be the thing that becomes clear
when you've obtained enlightenment, well, most people are nowhere near enlightenment And so
are no where near seeing this truth.
But is it an order, okay? Is this truth, does this really qualify as an unseen order? Now that's an
important question, because many religions
they, they assert the existence of an order. In the sense of a kind of divinely imparted plan, say
the universe embodies this divinely imparted purpose, this plan. And then you know, the people
who are adhering to that religion that, that's where they get the meaning in their lives. Their, their
place in the plan is what gives their lives meaning. It's what gives them moral orientation, and it's
what inspires a very powerful commitment to this religious world view.
Well Buddhism, even religious Buddhism, doesn't say that there's an all powerful creator god
who, who imparted purpose and a plan to the universe. And certainly this naturalistic Buddhism
doesn't say anything about some kind of divinely imparted plan. So the, the question arises you
know, can this naturalistic Buddhism assert the existence of, of, of an unseen order
in, in somewhat the sense that other religions may mean the term and in a sense that does have
power. That does inspire commitment. Well I think you know, you can, you can argue that that
that is the case. That, that when you look at the, the order that is asserted, it, it, it does have
some of that kind of inspiration and, and that kind of potency.
Now first of all this unseen order is literally orderly, right? I mean, we, we, we've just seen that
that enlightenment, as we imagine it, would, would give you a view of the world with tremendous
kind of continuity. There would be more continuity among the different things in the world. And
there would be more continuity between you and the world. So, so, where there previously had
been fragmentation, you would now apprehend this, tremendous unity. So, this is, this is literally
an unseen order.
There is a second and maybe deeper sense in which this, this qualifies as an unseen order.
When we look at that checklist in the previous segment of this lecture you know you had two
columns, the truth about the world and moral truth. And the idea was, the path to enlightenment
is the path to both. Right. There's an alignment between these two truths, and that brings us to
something that we talked about early in this course, right, which is that, that is the Buddhist,
assertion. That if you see the world clearly Respond appropriately to it. You do align yourself with
moral truth. As we saw, this is embodied in the word dharma. Dharma ref, refers to both kind of
the natural order and the moral order, and it refers to the teachings about how you should
respond to the natural order to the way things are. And responding in that manner, in the
prescribed manner, does align you with the moral truth. So, I would say this alignment between
the truth about the world, the world, and moral truth, is itself a kind of unseen order at a very
deep level.
And you know, you, the universe didn't have to, presumably, didn't have to be built this way,
right? You can imagine a universe,uh, where learning the truth about the world brings you no
closer to the moral truth. Or, or if you respond to the truth about the world in ways that bring you
happiness. That doesn't bring you any closer to the moral truth. Or to moral behavior. That the
universe didn't have to be built this way. But according to Buddhism, it is, there is this alignment
between kind of, the truth about the world, moral truth and you know, your, your fulfillment, the
end of your suffering. So, it's really kind of the trifecta, right? Is built into this universe, and that's
kind of a, amazing thing, if true, right? Something something worth marveling at. So I guess I
would say that even though Buddhism doesn†™t talk about an order in the sense of a divinely
imparted plan that inspires awe and commitment in virtue of it being God†™s will Nonetheless,
there is a kind of order asserted in, in Buddhism that is in its own way awe inspiring. In its, and in
its own way does really bring commitment and, and does provide, you know, an, an incentive to
be devoted to the prescribed path.
Now, there's one other thing that William James said about religions. James said that religions in
general tend involve first of all a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally
stand, an uneasiness. And a sense that we're saved from the wrongness by making proper
connection with the higher powers. Well, Buddhism obviously features the first of those,
right? The sense that, that there's something wrong, right, duka, you know, suffering,
unsatisfactoriness. But what about the, the, the second thing, the sense that, that you can be
saved by, by contact with a higher power? well, certainly, especially with the naturalistic form of
Buddhism, this wouldn't be contact with any kind of deity. but, I think there is the sense among
very serious meditators that sometimes they're making contact with a, a higher form of
awareness in a certain sense. A much purer awareness than was previously available. And,
that's certainly an interesting scenario, an interesting thing to contemplate. And it suggests a
view of our evolutionary history that has almost a mythic quality, okay?
because, as far as we can tell, consciousness, subjective experience can only be created on this
planet, at least, through natural selection, right? But we've also seen that natural selection, in
creating consciousness tends to warp it. It, it tends to create these various distortions that we've
talked about in, in perception, in cognition and certainly, in moral judgment. And it's interesting to
think that maybe natural selection, having created consciousness and warped it in the first
Nonetheless eventually gives rise to these kind of self-reflective beings, that would be us, human
beings, who figure things out and manage to kind of rid themselves of, of these distortions. Many
or even all of these, these distortions you know, they, they kind of manage to, to liberate
consciousness in a certain sense from, from the, the, the, the distortions that its, its creator
initially imposed on it.
Now of course, you know, again most of us are not going to, going to attain a, a pure form of, of
awareness. Presumably that's the kind of thing that, that would be associated with
enlightenment. If you ever got there. But, I do think there are very serious meditators
who wouldn't make any claim to having been enlightenment, to having been enlightened, who,
who nonetheless have had a sense of contact with that kind of purity of awareness, you know,
moments. In meditation where you feel you're really in touch with the real truth about things, and
that you perception is just no longer kind of distorted by the normal distortion, and I think those
experiences those those those moments of seeming contact with the real, the real truth about
Do inspire commitment to the practice that is some ways comparable in its power to the
commitment that is inspired in other religions by kind of their version of, of of, of a connection
with higher powers. So this is naturalistic version of Buddhism a religious worldview, is it a
spiritual worldview? I'll let you make the call.
I would say that if you look at the way William James framed the thing it does ar, arguably
qualify. You know, there is the, the, the belief that there's an unseen order and a fairly profound
sense in that, in that yes, our supreme good lies in adjusting ourselves to the order. Also that
yes, there is a sense that there's something fundamentally wrong in the human condition,
something fundamentally awry And that the remedy lies in, a connection with, in some sense, a
higher power. Not a higher power, in the sense of a deity, but a higher form of awareness that is
itself, very powerful. So, I would say, you know, as a naturalistic kind of substitutes for religion go
this one is, you know, not bad.
I'd also say that even if you're not looking for a substitute, you know, even if you've already got
your own religion in a traditional sense This the, you know, this kind of naturalistic Buddhism
probably also works as a kind of a supplement, right. I mean the practice of meditation and the
basic philosophy that we've seen accompanying it I think is compatible with various religious
And I would, I would even say that there's a kind of a synergy between it and, and the major
religious traditions. I think all of these traditions have kind of themes and precepts that really
resonate with the world view we've been describing.
I mean, my own upbringing was in the Christian tradition, and so, you know, I think of, for
example, Jesus saying, basically, you know, why are you so focused on this, this speck in the
eye of this other guy when you've got, you know, a, like a log lodged in your own eye. In other
words, the idea is that, you know here you are obsessing over this, this minor perceptual
distortion that other people may have when you've got a pretty major one yourself. That's
obviously a very consistent with kind of this, this world view, we've been describing and I know
that all the major religions, you know, have these kind of thematic synergies with this world
view. Anyway, whatever you want to call this world view we've been talking about over these last
six weeks. You know, this meditative path, informed by Buddhist philosophy. Whether you want
to say yes, it's a religion, or no, I don't think it qualifies as a religion, but it's a spiritual world
view. Or you just want to say it's a therapeutic perspective. Or whatever.
I would say the following.
If you look at the human condition from the standpoint of modern psychology, and in particular,
evolutionary psychology. And you look at the way our evolutionary history has afflicted us with
perceptual distortions and moral biases, and dissatisfaction, and out and out suffering, and you
ask well is there a world view that address this problem? Well there are a lot of world views, and,
and many of them do it effectively. There are religions, there are therapeutic traditions, but, I am
not personally aware of a naturalistic world view that addresses the problem as straightforwardly,
and as honestly, and as unflinchingly, as the one we've been talking about. Now, I, personally,
am going to keep exploring this worldview for some time to come in one sense or
another. Maybe some of you will too. But whether or not you do that. I want to thank you for
sharing in my exploration of it. I've gotten a tremendous amount out of teaching this course, out
of preparing the material for presentation. But also, more importantly out of the online interaction
with students, and, and you know, getting the feedback about the ideas And the way I presented
them and I can honestly say that as a result of all that, I am now seeing things more clearly than I
was before, so thank you for that.
Resources for Week 5
• Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works, Chapter 1. Download link
• Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, Chapter 18. Download link
• My video dialogue with Bloom about his book:
• My video dialogue with Sharon Salzberg:
• My video dialogue with Bhikkhu Bodhi: