We recently presented a conversation between Robert Wright and Reverend Dr. Serene Jones at the 92nd Street Y in New York City about the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment. A lightly edited version of their conversation—focusing on the political implications of this topic—appears below.
Wright is the author of the acclaimed books The Evolution of God, Nonzero, The Moral Animal, Three Scientists and Their Gods, and, most recently, Why Buddhism is True. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of bloggingheads.tv and has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Republic. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, and is currently a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Reverend Dr. Serene Jones is the 16th president of the historic Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Dr. Jones is the first woman to head the 180-year-old institution and is the immediate past president of the American Academy of Religion. Jones came to Union after 17 years at Yale University, and is the author of several books, including Trauma and Grace.
Robert Wright: What really got my attention with meditation is the idea that you could fundamentally alter your relationship to feelings in a way that allows you to evaluate them and not uncritically obey them. I think that that’s one of the most valuable features of mindfulness. Wherever you practice it—and I really recommend practicing on social media, by the way—you don’t have to be driven by feelings.
You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, this idea that we notice and accept evidence consistent with our views and we reject evidence that’s inconsistent with them. You may have heard about how this is partly responsible for the famous political tribalism in America today. It keeps us all confirmed in our views. But I think that’s a misleading term in a way because there’s an affective component, a feeling that drives confirmation bias. If you stop and reflect right before you retweet something, for example, you can ask, does this feeling deserve obedience?
Another way that mindfulness has benefits in the political realm is that it works against essentializing. Thinking all Muslims are this, or all members of another ethnic group are that, any kind of thinking that attributes an essence to a group. Buddhism assigning essences is deeply confused.
I would say the imposition of essence on groups is very much a part of the political polarization today, the tribalism that inflicts the country now. We also do it to individual people. Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it governs the way we relate to everyone. Often, like so many of these things, it’s fine. It’s fine that I feel essence at home when I walk into my house. But we need to be aware of the times when feeling essence in things leads us to behave in disruptive ways.
Serene Jones: You do a wonderful job in Why Buddhism is True, and also in your other writings, in talking about the evolutionary roots of tribalism. We’re rife with tribalism in the world today. You make the big claim in this book that having a sense of your thoughts as you think them has huge political consequences for how we think about tribalism. The political journalist part of yourself and the Buddhist meditation part of yourself are coming together to make some very bold claims about the social consequences of mindfulness.
Robert Wright: Yes, and actually this gives me a chance to plug something I’m doing. I’ve started putting out something called the Mindful Resistance Newsletter. The inspiration behind the newsletter was that I’m not a Trump supporter and three of my four siblings did vote for Trump. From this perspective, I did get the sense early on that the so-called “resistance” is not doing itself a service in how reactive it is to Trump: the degree of outrage, the extent to which we react to his day-to-day provocations.
The idea of mindful resistance is that the everyday English sense of mindful could be useful to the resistance. Proceed cautiously, carefully, with attention to relevant factors, deliberately. I think it will be easier if you do meditate, but I do think that you can do it without meditation.
Let me jump quickly to a grander claim, which is that an earlier book I wrote, Nonzero, charted the whole history of life on earth, and how human social organization had become larger and more complex, and that we seem to be on the verge of a global community. The argument in that book was that we’re going to have to cross that bridge if we’re going to save the planet in various senses. Not just the most talked-about senses like climate change and environmental things, but there are a ton of problems we need to solve collectively as a species, maybe, if the whole thing is going to survive. Maybe the alternative is it just falling apart, descending into chaos.
Well, let’s back up again and get even grander. It’s more and more clear that there are more and more planets out there where life could have evolved. So increasingly a question is asked among astronomers: Why haven’t we heard from any of them? If you assume that they would be hospitable to life, and you assume that life got started on at least some of them, presumably, if life took the course it did here, there would be civilizations out there ahead of us. Why have we not heard from them?
One theory is that you get to this point we’re at now and then it’s very hard to cross that bridge. When you get to this level of technology, it’s actually very hard to hold the system together. This is sheerly sci-fi conjecture, but it does have a way of dramatizing the point. I do wonder whether the only way the whole thing can work—the only way to cross that bridge for humankind—is to become more and more aware of the way the human mind works. Aware of it not just in an abstract academic way, but aware of it in a way that allows them to assume more rational control of it, which is very much what mindfulness is about. It’s about what you could call meta-cognition, observing the mechanics of cognition and affect in a way that allows you to transcend the more unfortunate part of those mechanics.
I know this sounds like hopelessly optimistic, that the whole world will start meditating. I just want to say there is two assets we have to work with. One is that the beginning of the path can be strictly therapeutic. So just self-help steers people into this general vicinity of mindfulness meditation, which can, in turn, lead them to deeper realizations, and can lead them to be better, more constructive citizens.
The other piece of good news, I think, is that unilateral disarmament sometimes works.
I think if the people who are opposed to Trump are more mindful, they will be more skillful in the resistance. They will do fewer things that actually play into Trump’s hands, therefore not allowing him to consolidate his base, and they won’t distract themselves from more important things they should be focusing on.
If your goal is to get people everywhere to ultimately engage in meta-cognition mindfulness and transcend some of the more unfortunate parts of human nature, the two pieces of good news are that it can start as self-help and unilateral disarmament does work, at least in some circumstances.
Serene Jones: As a person who comes out of the Christian tradition, I’m reminded of how important nonviolent civil disobedience was in the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. That was very focused, loving, silent, noncompliance based. So there is a long tradition of this kind of thing in the United States.
We had a wonderful gathering at Union now four years ago. Half the conference were liberation theologians who were Christians and very ardent social justice activists and the other half were Buddhist who were ardent social justice activists. They came together to talk about what motivated their political engagement. They could agree on many, many things, but the point where the tension got the greatest was that the Christian activists would not let go of the notion that in order to fight for a cause, you have to believe in evil. You have to be fighting evil. If you get rid of the notion of evil, everyone is just going to give up and go watch TV all afternoon. The Buddhists were very clear about saying, our activism is no less intense, no less focused on yours, but we refuse to invoke an enemy and we refuse to use the language of evil because we don’t believe in enemies.
The Buddhists were saying to the Christian activists, you need to do some work inside yourself on the function of enemy language to the construction of who you are.
Robert Wright: Did they quote Jesus on the love your enemy idea?
Serene Jones: Yes, the Buddhists did, actually. They talked more about that part of Jesus than the Christians did. But there is a long tradition in Christianity that has been eclipsed by the present-day evangelical and liberal Christian traditions that begins with meditation. It says until you heal yourself, you can’t begin to envision what it means to heal the world. The resonance between that Christian tradition and Buddhism is profound.
I would like to close by asking you to reflect on how and when does one move from the silent space to action? One of the biggest claims Martin Luther King, Jr. makes in his Letter from Birmingham Jail is made to white liberals. He quotes one liberal from Texas as saying, “Black people just need to be calmer and wait for society to evolve, and you’re pushing it too much by being active.” He comes up with this response that the biggest problem that he confronts is the silence of good people. How does that relate to your work with the mindful resistance?
Robert Wright: A metaphor you hear in Buddhist circles sometimes is about how in airplanes they tell you, “In the event of an emergency, the oxygen bag will drop down. Before assisting a child or someone else, put it on your own face.” Save yourself, or you won’t be able to save anyone else. I think there’s truth to that, but I wouldn’t want to carry it too far.
With the mindful resistance, it sounds like encouragement to calm down. To the extent that I’m talking to people in the regular resistance, it is that. But at the same time, I would like it to be a call for any Buddhists out there who are not currently part of the resistance. So I am trying to get people engaged, but I’m aware of the danger you’re pointing to. One the one hand, I do think that doing nothing but contemplation has a good, positive effect on the world. But, I also think that, in times like this, we need activism.
In my ideal world, we would get more meditators to get involved in activism, but, more importantly, we would encourage everyone to have a more contemplative and mindful approach to public affairs in general.