Your happiness may depend upon the answer.
What if we had a real-life archenemy? Wouldn’t that be cool?
Just like the Joker keeps Batman vigilant and motivated to protect Gotham, what if our archenemy could give us a reason to fight for a life worth living?
But, hold on a minute, what am I talking about? There is no super-villain out there threatening our livelihood.
In his book, Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright lays out a persuasive argument for how and why we are deluded into seeing a skewed and often wrong perspective of the world.
Who is the mastermind behind this evil plot?
Well, asking “what” not “who” might be more appropriate because, according to Wright, natural selection is to blame.
What if our archenemy, rather than a living, conscious actor in our lives, is instead a natural process that has been at work on our minds for millions of years?
What if this enemy has subtly manipulated our thoughts and emotions to make us nearly blind to its influence and its goal for us?
What if, as a result, our lives are not quite what they seem? What if we are all deceived into living lives that are not as fulfilling as they could be?
This has been the conjecture of Buddhism for 2,500 years. Now, science is beginning to catch up.
What’s interesting is that you only have to put yourself in natural selection’s shoes to understand why we are all confused about the nature of reality.
Natural selection is a process that shapes organisms by honing their ability to pass genes on to the next generation. As a result, we are creatures, for better or worse, that operate toward this end.
It may seem odd that a process that designed us to survive and pass on our genes built delusion into us. But, as you will see, it had good reason to.
If your goal is for a creature to pass its genes on to the next generation, how do you mold its experience of reality and its state of mind?
You might be tempted to answer, you allow the creature to see the truth of the world — what’s actually happening — so that it can act accordingly.
Well, no, that may not give the creature the greatest advantage when it comes to survival and reproduction.
Let me give you some examples.
We all have desires. Maybe yours is a promotion at work, a new home, an exotic vacation, exercising more, or eating healthy. Whatever it is, don’t you imagine how good you will feel when you finally get it? Doesn’t your mind tell you how different things will be? Isn’t there an implicit promise that your life will be, at least, a little better in an everlasting sort of way?
But it never is, is it? When we achieve our goals or get what we want, we feel a boost of success or happiness or contentment, but inevitably, our lives return to normal. And then, don’t we start desiring after a new object? And doesn’t that new object hold the same promise of a better life?
This is a delusion. And this delusion exists, from natural selection’s perspective, for a good reason. It keeps us constantly unsatisfied, constantly searching for more and better. This delusion keeps us vigilant, it keeps us moving. It keeps us scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities.
Yes, if you’re lucky, this delusion may drive you to excel, but it won’t bring you happiness or contentment, despite its promise of both. Instead, it will trap you in a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction, as is its nature to do.
To break out of this never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction, you must recognize that it exists. You must see the delusion for yourself. So pay attention. When you get something that you want, see how quickly satisfaction fades and how quickly dissatisfaction arises. It is in seeing this truth for yourself that the illusion is broken and you are set free to choose a path that is more aligned to your real happiness.
Control over ourselves
How much control would you say you have over your actions? Would you say that you choose to do everything that you do?
Probably not. You’ve most likely experienced some of the many things our bodies and minds do on auto-pilot. You’ve driven to work and can’t remember large stretches of the commute. You jump in your seat when a movie scares you. Your fingers fly across the computer keyboard without you needing to give them a second thought.
But, what if your lack of control runs deeper? What if your lack of control is more fundamental than you would ever have guessed?
Do a 30-second experiment with me.
Sit in a chair. Set a timer. Close your eyes. Clear your mind.
How was that? Did you have 30 seconds of perfect clarity?
If you’re anything like me, your mind was probably inundated with thoughts and emotions. You may have thought, this is stupid or has it been 30 seconds yet? Or maybe you started thinking about that thing that’s been bothering you. If you did this in a public place, you may have felt self-conscious or embarrassed. Or maybe you were annoyed that you couldn’t clear your mind.
Whatever happened, think of the implications of this simple experiment. If you can’t keep your mind clear for 30 seconds, what does that say about your control over it?
Even more interestingly, if you were trying to clear your mind, that means you had no control over what did pop into your mind. What does that say about the rest of your day? Do you ever really decide what you’re thinking or feeling?
Well, you might be tempted to dismiss this as a kind of trick or a curiosity, and not something that matters to everyday life. I mean, just because you can’t control your mind for 30 seconds, doesn’t mean that you never make decisions and never choose what you’re thinking about.
Maybe. But consider all the situations in which you simply go along with the whims of your mind, in particular, your emotions.
Do you second-guess the anger you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic? Do you second-guess the jealousy you feel when you see your partner talking to an attractive friend? Do you second-guess the fear you feel to give that presentation at work? Do you second-guess the happiness you think you’ll feel once you achieve your next big goal?
Yes, you might agree, we have less control over our emotions than we might like to have. But, emotions are not thoughts. We can control thoughts.
Well, not so fast. Our emotions strongly influence our thoughts. Here are a couple examples. You will tend to overestimate your probability of success when you are excited. When you feel anxiety in one aspect of your life, you will tend to feel anxiety in others, as well. You will tend to set lower goals for yourself when you feel sad. You are more likely to take risks when you’re angry or embarrassed.
If you agree we don’t have much control over our emotions and now we know emotions have a strong influence on thoughts, doesn’t it follow that we probably have less control over our thoughts than we think we do?
This is our delusion: we mostly feel like we are the CEOs of our minds — the decision-makers, the choosers. But, in truth, we have much less control than it feels like we do.
From natural selection’s point of view, it is advantageous for us to feel like we’re in control. It allows us to hold others and ourselves accountable for the actions we take, which gives us the moral authority to blame and praise people, when appropriate. This is useful for creating cohesive social groups.
Breaking away from this delusion is difficult and it can also be unclear why we’d want to. Feeling like we’re in control gives us the motivation to make our lives better, doesn’t it?
I’m not so sure about that. Besides, understanding that we have less control than we think we do has its virtues, too. When you remove the CEO-decision-maker from the equation (or, at least, move her off to the side), you begin to see life as a series of causes and effects. When you understand life in this way, the actions that you and other people make take on a whole new meaning.
For instance, this can give you the reason you need to let go of past embarrassment, shame, and regret. It can also give you a reason to forgive and let go.
That mistake you made in front of all your colleagues, wasn’t that inevitable given the prior information you had?
That insult you received in a comment on social media, doesn’t it say more about that person’s state of mind than anything else?
Importantly, accepting that we have less control than we think we do opens up the opportunity for us to have compassion not only for others but also for ourselves. Because, ultimately, we all want to be happy. Yet we all struggle to do so.
Isn’t it tragic how often we all act in ways that take us further from happiness, especially in light of how little control we have over?
But, it’s also important to remember that we aren’t stuck. This isn’t a death sentence — a guarantee of life-long dissatisfaction. In fact, when we see our delusions a little more clearly, it opens up a space in our minds to move in directions that will bring about real happiness and satisfaction in our lives. So, don’t despair.
Breaking free from natural selection
The programming given to us by natural selection is difficult to break free from, but, thankfully, we can break free and create a new perspective that better aligns with our happiness and satisfaction.
How do we break free from natural selection’s grip on us?
As Wright points out, there may be many ways to remove delusion from our lives, but none is so effective as mindfulness meditation. This simple practice gives us the tools we need to see the delusion in such fine detail that the delusion itself begins to break apart. With mindfulness, we can begin to question and deconstruct the programming natural selection has implanted in our minds.
But, like any good archenemy, natural selection isn’t all bad. It, of course, brought consciousness into existence, which may be the only thing in the universe that truly matters. Its time, however, of single-mindedly pushing our minds toward passing on our genes unopposed is coming to an end.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, we are all like Neo in The Matrix. We have a choice: take the blue pill and accept bondage to natural selection and a life of dissatisfaction or take the red pill and break free from delusion and see the truth for ourselves.
I hope you take the red pill. You will not regret it.
The ideas presented here have been informed by Robert Wright, Sam Harris, and Joseph Goldstein, among others.