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How To Achieve Enlightenment
First step: recognizing it's a continual process, says Robert Wright in his new book, Why Buddhism is True.
Robert Wright didn’t think of himself as a candidate for enlightenment. He had turned to mindfulness meditation, in part, to combat lifelong ADD—to focus his thoughts, give him a sense of control. So when his meditation teacher told him he could either focus on enlightenment or write a book about mediation, he was taken aback that enlightenment was even on the table.
He wrote the book, yet he hasn’t given up on liberation. Wright recounts this episode in Why Buddhism is True, which is part memoir and deep exploration of mindfulness meditation. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist realized that if he was going to start a regular meditation practice he’d have to dive in. So he began his earnest quest with a ten-day silent retreat, known as Vipassana.
Once enlightenment was mentioned Wright stepped back to contemplate what that word even means. The term has a bit of ambiguity, given all of the contexts in which it’s employed. In his book, he writes that the specific sense, the meaning of nirvana, is to rid yourself of the “twin illusions” many people suffer from: illusions inside of your mind and those occurring in the world.
The illusions are the result of dukkha, a Pali word often translated as “suffering,” though more precisely implies “unsatisfactory.” In the Buddhist tradition humans suffer because they don’t see the world, or their mind, clearly. They put too much emphasis on personal desires rather than objective thinking. We get too caught up in what we crave rather than what is. Enlightenment is freedom from such thinking. As Wright told me,
As a practical manner, I think of enlightenment as an ongoing process where you try to become more and more aware of the things that are influencing your behavior. By understanding them, to the extent that you want, you try to liberate yourself from them.
A great example of this process can be heard on the NY Times podcast, The Daily. Derek Black grew up in one of the most prominent white nationalist families in America. He believed whites are genetically superior. Relationships he forged while in college taught him otherwise. Two years after attending his first Shabbat dinner he recognized his family’s overt reliance on eugenics didn’t hold water. More importantly he came to understand that members of other races and belief systems aren’t inferior. He liberated himself from his narrow thinking.
All humans learn in a similar manner. We have genetic predispositions, but our environment, family, and peers shape our worldview. As we age we apply that worldview to our experiences, suffering when conflicting opinions arise. The Buddha realized thoughts are the problem. Enlightenment is the process of decluttering, or expanding, our worldview—even, at a point, not having a worldview at all.
That’s a tall order for most, however. As Wright puts it,
Part of what can happen with meditation is you rearrange your narratives. If you want to get into the deepest aspects of Buddhist philosophy, you’re trying to get rid of narratives altogether. But I think most of us could do with just dropping the more unfortunate narratives.
Which is what Black did, and what Wright practices. An important step in this process is understanding the difference between situation and disposition. We see a man yelling at the barista one morning. Our first thought: “He’s a jerk.” Maybe. Or maybe his father died last evening. The supposed jerk is really the victim of an unfortunate situation.
Yet we don’t view ourselves this way. Since we are aware of our situation, we normally don’t apply “jerk-ness” to our own experiences, even as we readily affix it to others. This is due to a belief in essentialism: the notion that we have an inner essence that defines us. This longstanding idea has played a role in our cognitive framework for thousands of years, at least. Problem is, it’s not true. None of us have a singular essence.
We are different people in different situations. All life is situational. We’re sweet to this person, but that person really ticks us off, for no reason we can pinpoint. Our reactions are completely different, dependent upon situation. This has real-world consequences.
Incredible research shows that inmates up for parole have a 90 percent chance of receiving it if they appear in front of a judge first thing in the morning. If they’re one of the last cases of the morning session their chances drop to 10 percent. First up in the afternoon? Back to 90 percent. Why? Because the judge has eaten. He’s no longer hungry. Situation matters.
Same with students. Children and undergrads learn better later in the day. Yet for many the hardest classes are first thing in the morning. Is the child stupid for failing? Not necessarily. The science is in on this one. Yet still, as school kicks in this month, there are seven and eight am classes, because “that’s how we’ve done it.”
Which gets to the heart of the enlightenment question. “How I’ve done it” does not equate to “this is best for me.” When we confuse the two we don’t feel satisfied. Instead of treating liberation as a life-shaking, earth-quaking event, as many interpretations of the Buddha’s enlightenment have it, we can best understand liberation as a shifting of perceptions, a different way of being in the world. One in which we don’t become so invested in things going our way, but rather seeing the way things go and adapting to the flow.
This is not to say that we don't have a say. We do. According to Wright, that means a daily meditation practice. As he says, the more time you put in, the better the results.
The more you invest, the more it translates into everyday life. If I’m meditating regularly I find it easier to catch myself before doing something that I’m better off not doing, whether that’s sending off some angry email or saying something snide to somebody. You feel the impulse welling up and you’re more aware of it. I also think you’re just more appreciative of the beauty in the world.
The heavens might not open, but perhaps you can breathe a little more easily. Maybe you smile a bit more. Enlightenment is a process and a discipline. There’s no final state to achieve. Rather, it’s a state to always aspire to in all situations. A tall order, certainly, but one that puts us in control of our emotions throughout the day.
We do have means for achieving this. It just takes a bit of work to reign in the grasping nature of our mind.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.