Over at the Atlantic, Evolution of God author Robert Wright wonders why he feels “happy” after a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat. It doesn’t seem that complicated to me: a week away from work, computers, phones, texts, tablets, noise, writing, stores, appointments, meetings, transactions, traffic, acquisitions, machines, and routines should have this effect. Still, Wright struggles to make sense of it:
I’m not sure how to explain this irony of detachment-induced warmth. Maybe, though in theory you’re distancing yourself equally from positive and negative emotions as you meditate, you’re actually cheating, and doing selective distancing. Or maybe a feeling of affinity–with our environment, with other creatures–is a kind of default state, and we revert to it when more transient and superficial feelings, both negative and positive, are stripped away.
But that doesn’t make immediate sense to me in terms of evolutionary psychology, my basic paradigm for viewing the mind, and I’m not sure it even accords with mainstream Buddhist doctrine.
If Wright would shift his focus away from minds and inner states, he might realize that external conditions have created the sorts of stresses, anxieties, and attachments to which Buddhism is an historical response. He should be asking himself what it is about life in post-Neolithic and late-capitalist societies that makes Buddhist meditation so desirable (and effective).
Stress, disorder, suffering, dislocation, anomie, and alienation are not natural, timeless, or universal human states. These feelings become widespread, indeed pervasive, in certain places and certain times for particular kinds of reasons.
It seems to me that the locus of the problem is not inner psychological space — this is simply where symptoms manifest. The underlying disorder is to be found in the conditions of economy, society, work, culture, materiality, and kinship that are peculiar to post-Neolithic societies. These can be adjusted in ways that obviate the need for detachment, transcendence, and distance.
While I have nothing against Buddhist meditation and know several people for whom it works wonderfully, I’ve also noticed that the desire for serenity and clarity is itself suggestive. Why does the desire exist? What underlies the impulse? Why does the yearning arise?
There are in fact evolutionary and historical answers to these questions. Suffering isn’t simply an internal default state — it grows in particular kinds of soils. Wright isn’t seeing because he is looking in the wrong places.