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Lions Roar : November 2017
Evolutionary theory explains why maintaining the illusion of a permanent self would be a very deeply held, deep-seat- ed quest. After all, this thing that is bound by my skin—this thing that is my body—is the vehicle for my genes. Naturally, I’m going to be very devoted to keeping it intact and favor the things that are conducive to its survival. Our tendency to be so obsessed with keeping the self and the body containing it intact, and our insistence on seeing the self as ending at the extremities of the body, make perfect sense in terms of natural selection. Perhaps you’ve had a meditative experience when suddenly those bounds of self become more porous. Maybe it seems like a bird singing in the distance is actually a part of you—an experience I had on retreat that I describe in the book. I would argue that ironically the Darwinian framework underscores the validity of that experience. The experience of a greater self, or not-self, reminds us that the default perspective—that the self ends where my skin ends—is the product of a particular or- ganic, creative process whose goal is not clear vision, not a clear perception of the world. Its goal is not truth. Buddhism says we suffer because we try to struggle against or deny reality. So the antidote to suffering is insight or wisdom— experiencing reality accurately. In the basic teachings of Bud- dhism, that reality is described as the three marks of existence. These are impermanence, non-self, and suffering, or dukkha. All reality is said to be marked by these three qualities, and to deny them is illusion. However, for the purposes of evolution, denying these realities might be advantageous. Totally, totally. A hundred percent. Denying reality helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation. Of course, seeing certain aspects of reality was clearly also advantageous, but at this deep metaphysical level, there was no payoff in seeing the picture clearly, and in some cases quite the opposite. In terms of what has been conducive to genetic proliferation, it makes sense not to see and reconcile yourself to the three marks of existence. That’s the point. The point is that not seeing the truth can be conducive to genetic replication. That’s why we have so much trouble seeing it. Yet from the Buddhist point of view, accepting these realities is the very secret to happiness, or at least not suffering. Right. Of course, I don’t want to make it sound too easy. As you know, it’s not just about acknowledging impermanence, emptiness, and suffering, or understanding them intellectually. That alone doesn’t do it. That’s why there’s a whole practice associated with it. I mean, swimming upstream against the current of our evolutionary heritage is not going to be trivial or easy. ♦ Robert Wright LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2017 43