Stoicism, Buddhism, And Evolutionary Psychology: An Interview With Robert Wright

Robert Wright is an award-winning journalist and the bestselling author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and The Evolution of God, which was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has taught in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania and the religion department at Princeton University. Wright draws on his wide-ranging knowledge of science, religion, psychology, history and politics to figure out what makes humanity tick—and what makes humans moral.

Robert’s latest book Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment —spawned from an impromptu silent meditation retreat—is the first book to combine evolutionary psychology with cutting-edge neuroscience to defend the radical claims at the heart of Buddhist philosophy.

We had the opportunity to interview Robert about his new book, some of the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism, meditation for the fidgety, mind-wandering types, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Robert Wright!

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Can you tell us how you decided to write a book on Buddhism? It might come off as a bit of a surprise to readers, who perhaps best know you as the author of The Moral Animal and a writer and scholar focusing primarily on science?

I did a one-week silent meditation retreat in 2003—basically on a lark—and came away a true believer. By the end of the week I felt transformed—I had way more equanimity, and a deeper appreciation of beauty, and was way less judgmental. That state of near-nirvana doesn’t magically persist, alas. You have to meditate daily to hang onto an appreciable fraction of it, in my experience. Still, the near-nirvana phase got my attention and convinced me that I should write about the experience at some point. It took a while for the point to come, but I finally got around to it.

One of the key tenets of Stoicism deals with perception—as Epictetus has said it’s not things that upset us but our perception of them. You argue in your book that, similarly, Buddhism posits that we suffer because we do not see the world clearly. Can you tell us about the role that some of our evolved responses play in our misery? And how Buddhism has helped you mitigate that?

Well, for starters, it’s important to understand that natural selection doesn’t necessarily favor clear perception or clear thought in the brains it builds. Natural selection favors the kinds of perceptions and thoughts that have gotten genes into the next generation—and if unclear, even flat-out wrong, perceptions or thoughts do that job, then certain tendencies to perceive or think inaccurately will be favored by our genes.

Fear and anxiety are good examples. In my experience, most fears turn out to be unwarranted. Still, they may make sense, in the logic of natural selection, on the grounds of better-safe-than-sorry. If one out of 500 bouts of fearing that there’s a snake in the grass leads you to avoid grass that really *does* contain a poisonous snake, then the 499 times you feared a snake that wasn’t there still make sense from natural selection’s point of view.

And also from your point of view, since it’s your life that gets saved. However: Some of our fears and anxieties aren’t justified by that kind of calculus. One of the main reasons is that we live in a world that’s so different from the hunter-gatherer environment that natural selection designed our minds for.  We wind up in weird situations that weren’t part of that environment—like public speaking, giving a talk in front of a bunch of people we’ve never met. And these weird situations may give us anxieties that aren’t in any sense productive.

So too with lots of feelings—guilt, rage, hatred, etc. In a modern environment they may be wholly unproductive or even counterproductive. (Let me know if road rage ever pays off for anybody.)

An advantage that Stoicism has for many of us in Europe and America is that it is very much a Western philosophy, and so some of the most democratic, capitalistic ideas in the philosophy (or at least that its practitioners have chosen to highlight) fit well in our modern world. Some who begin to explore Eastern philosophy are put off by the de-emphasis on the sense of self or free will and such. What would you tell someone who might be reluctant to explore this different way of thinking?

I’d say try it and see if you like it before dismissing it. Many people who do mindfulness meditation feel it makes them more skillful participants in a democracy and even more effective participants in capitalism (i.e., better at their jobs). And as for the philosophy: Buddhism doesn’t explicitly deny free will, and people often feel that meditation has given them more self-control (even if, yes, “self” should be in quotes, since Buddhism does deny the “ultimate” existence of the self).

If you go so far down the path that you have the full-on “not-self experience” (which I haven’t done yet, though I’ve had glimpses of it while on retreat), well, you will, by most accounts, find it so mind-blowingly wonderful that you won’t be worrying about your role in capitalism. And, anyway, you won’t be rendered incapable of functioning in society by it.

Have you read much of the Stoics by chance? We know you had a chance to have an in-depth conversation on Stoicism and Buddhism with Massimo Pigliucci. Did anything strike you by way of similarities of the two philosophies?

I’ve read some Marcus Aurelius and come across some quotes from Epictetus. And, yes, there are clear similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. Both philosophies advise us on how to preserve our equanimity and happiness even amid adverse circumstances. And both do that, in part, by emphasizing that “adverse” is a matter of interpretation. Both have their strengths. I think Buddhism has a richer menu of meditation practices, but I think stoicism has a richer archive of explicit guidance on how to handle particular challenges in life.  I’ve half-jokingly said there should be a fusion of the two, but I can’t decide whether it should be called Boicism or Studdhism

There’s a line from Marcus Aurelius: “When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are.” It is related to what you have argued, that we are essentially lacking cognitive empathy, not only emotional empathy. Can you describe this concept for us, and how our readers can implement it?

Cognitive empathy is just perspective taking, understanding the perspective of another person—as opposed to sympathizing with them or even feeling what they feel, which is the more common meaning of empathy. To be sure, cognitive empathy can lead to sympathy or to emotional empathy. But it has value apart from that, and I think its importance is greatly underappreciated. Whole wars have started because defensive moves were misinterpreted as offensive moves. And I think mindfulness meditation can foster cognitive empathy (as well as emotional empathy).

The newsletter you’ve created–Mindful Resistance–promoted reasoned, calm resistance to the Trump Administration. This connects in an interesting way to the Stoic Opposition which has long resisted tyranny in various forms. But this does raise an interesting philosophical question: Both Buddhism and Stoicism are at least in part about accepting things that are outside of our control, and politics are largely that. How do you find the right balance in your life as both a person and as a citizen, writer, and thinker? Where do you draw the line?

This is a commonly asked question. People worry that meditation will make you so equanimous in the face of war, injustice, etc., that you’ll quit trying to fight them. And it’s not impossible for this to happen. But for it to happen you’d have to have mustered a lot more equanimity through meditation than I’ve mustered. For me the challenge is to not be so outraged by the politics I oppose (particularly in the realm of foreign policy) that my opposition takes on unskillful and/or counterproductive form. And meditation has helped in that regard, though I still have a ways to go.

The concept of stillness and retreating inside oneself is a constant for the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius again, who urges himself to go inside himself and not run away to the sea or mountain: “constantly grant yourself this retreat and so renew yourself.” Can you tell us about your experience with meditation? We’ve read that you tried it at first and were very fidgety and it never worked out for you? Is this true?

I’m definitely the fidgety type. I think that’s why it took a one-week silent retreat for me to get meditation to work for me. Now I meditate about half an hour every morning, and occasionally I add a shorter session later in the day. Sometimes I don’t manage to reach a level of deep calm, and my mind keeps wandering—but even then I think the mind wandering is more productive than usual.

Aside from meditation, what would be a Buddhist practice or exercise that you’d recommend to the Daily Stoic community?

Meditation is the only Buddhist practice I engage in. There are lots of rituals that are part of “religious Buddhism”—prayer, for example—but I confine myself to the philosophical and psychological parts of Buddhism. I should probably take up yoga, but that’s not particularly Buddhist. And, anyway, I doubt I’ll get around to it…