How Buddhism & Neuroscience Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Bestselling Author Robert Wright

Bud­dhist thought and cul­ture has long found a com­fort­able home among hip­pies, beat­niks, New Age believ­ers, artists, occultists and mys­tics. Recent­ly, many of its tenets and prac­tices have become wide­ly pop­u­lar among very dif­fer­ent demo­graph­ics of sci­en­tists, skep­tics, and athe­ist com­mu­ni­ties. It may seem odd that an increas­ing­ly sec­u­lar­iz­ing West would wide­ly embrace an ancient East­ern reli­gion. But even the Dalai Lama has point­ed out that Buddhism’s essen­tial doc­trines align uncan­ni­ly with the find­ings of mod­ern sci­ence

The Pali Canon, the ear­li­est col­lec­tion of Bud­dhist texts, con­tains much that agrees with the sci­en­tif­ic method. In the Kala­ma Sut­ta, for exam­ple, we find instruc­tions for how to shape views and beliefs that accord with the meth­ods espoused by the Roy­al Soci­ety many hun­dreds of years lat­er.

Robert Wright—best­selling author and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of reli­gion and psy­chol­o­gy at Prince­ton and Penn—goes even fur­ther, show­ing in his book Why Bud­dhism is True how Bud­dhist insights into imper­ma­nence, delu­sion, igno­rance, and unhap­pi­ness align with con­tem­po­rary find­ings of neu­ro­science and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy.

Wright is now mak­ing his argu­ment for the com­pat­i­bil­i­ty of Bud­dhism and sci­ence in a new MOOC from Cours­era called “Bud­dhism and Mod­ern Psy­chol­o­gy.” You can watch the trail­er for the course, which you can take any time, just above.

The core of Bud­dhism is gen­er­al­ly con­tained in the so-called “Four Noble Truths,” and Wright explains in his lec­ture above how these teach­ings sum up the prob­lem we all face, begin­ning with the first truth of dukkha. Often trans­lat­ed as “suf­fer­ing,” the word might bet­ter be thought of as mean­ing “unsat­is­fac­tori­ness,” as Wright illus­trates with a ref­er­ence to the Rolling Stones. Jag­ger’s “can’t get no sat­is­fac­tion,” he says, cap­tures “a lot of the spir­it of what is called the First Noble Truth,” which, along with the Sec­ond, con­sti­tutes “the Buddha’s diag­no­sis of the human predica­ment.” Not only can we not get what we want, but even when we do, it hard­ly ever makes us hap­py for very long.

Rather than impute our mis­ery to the dis­plea­sure of the gods, the Bud­dha, Wright tells Lion’s Roar, “says the rea­son we suf­fer, the rea­son we’re not endur­ing­ly sat­is­fied, is that we don’t see the world clear­ly. That’s also the rea­son we some­times fall short of moral good­ness and treat oth­er human beings bad­ly.” Des­per­ate to hold on to what we think will sat­is­fy us, we become con­sumed by crav­ing, as the Sec­ond Noble Truth explains, con­stant­ly cling­ing to plea­sure and flee­ing from pain. Just above, Wright explains how these two claims com­pare with the the­o­ries of evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gy. His course also explores how med­i­ta­tion releas­es us from crav­ing and breaks the vicious cycle of desire and aver­sion.

Over­all, the issues Wright address­es are laid out in his course descrip­tion:

Are neu­ro­sci­en­tists start­ing to under­stand how med­i­ta­tion “works”? Would such an under­stand­ing val­i­date meditation—or might phys­i­cal expla­na­tions of med­i­ta­tion under­mine the spir­i­tu­al sig­nif­i­cance attrib­uted to it? And how are some of the basic Bud­dhist claims about the human mind hold­ing up? We’ll pay spe­cial atten­tion to some high­ly coun­ter­in­tu­itive doc­trines: that the self doesn’t exist, and that much of per­ceived real­i­ty is in some sense illu­so­ry. Do these claims, rad­i­cal as they sound, make a cer­tain kind of sense in light of mod­ern psy­chol­o­gy? And what are the impli­ca­tions of all this for how we should live our lives? Can med­i­ta­tion make us not just hap­pi­er, but bet­ter peo­ple?

As to the last ques­tion, Wright is not alone among sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-mind­ed peo­ple in answer­ing with a resound­ing yes. Rather than rely­ing on the benef­i­cence of a super­nat­ur­al sav­ior, Bud­dhism offers a course of treatment—the “Noble Eight­fold Path”—to com­bat our dis­po­si­tion toward illu­so­ry think­ing. We are shaped by evo­lu­tion, Wright says, to deceive our­selves. The Bud­dhist prac­tices of med­i­ta­tion and mind­ful­ness, and the ethics of com­pas­sion and non­harm­ing, are “in some sense, a rebel­lion against nat­ur­al selec­tion.”

You can see more of Wright’s lec­tures on YouTube. Wright’s free course, Bud­dhism and Mod­ern Psy­chol­o­gy, has been added to our list of Free Reli­gion Cours­es, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Mind­ful­ness Makes Us Hap­pi­er & Bet­ter Able to Meet Life’s Chal­lenges: Two Ani­mat­ed Primers Explain

Dai­ly Med­i­ta­tion Boosts & Revi­tal­izes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Har­vard Study Finds

Philoso­pher Sam Har­ris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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