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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Apr 24, 2021


[This is the fifth of many finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about two of these a week for several months. When you’ve read all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite, so remember which ones you liked. - SA]

The dark side of enlightenment

The main character of The Matrix, Neo, gets to choose whether to take the red or blue pill: whether to escape his dream world or remain inside it. Unlike Neo, we're (probably) not trapped in a virtual reality. Nevertheless, we may be living in something of a dream world. At least, that's what Robert Wright claims in Why Buddhism Is True.

According to Wright, evolution has packed us full of illusions. They range from the relatively harmless falsehood “powdered sugar donuts are good for me” to the sweeping distortion “I have a self." These misperceptions are not only inaccurate; they are dangerous. They cause unhappiness by trapping us on the hedonic treadmill and immorality by (among other things) fanning the flames of tribalism.

Wright thinks that mindfulness meditation is the real-world equivalent of the red pill. The book attempts to justify this claim, aiming for a grand synthesis of Buddhism and psychology. Wright argues that psychology vindicates two venerable Buddhist theses: not-self (our experience of an “I" is in some sense an illusion) and emptiness (the world is in some sense “empty" or devoid of “essence”). Furthermore, mindfulness meditation allows us to see the truth of these theses in an experiential way which frees us of our evolutionary bondage. Enlightenment, the end-goal of meditation, is the state of full liberation from this bondage.