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One of the biggest lies our minds tell us is that happiness will be ours if we can just get the next thing we really want, that if we only got that new promotion or that new love interest or that new outfit, then we'd finally be eternally happy. I mean, it's true that all of those things will give us some joy, but the effects are more fleeting than we think. Many things we yearn and strive for are fragile dresses, rip companies fold.


Lovers leave or die. That means we end up grieving for the happiness we've lost and thirsting for something new. Yet again, there are good reasons rooted in evolution for all this constant striving. But it comes at an emotional cost and it's the root of lots of heartache and suffering. So in this final episode of our historical mini season, we're reaching way, way back in time to a thinker who recognized the sadness that hunger, yearning and loss can bring, and one who also offered us a way to deal with the pain. Today, we're turning to the Buddha. Welcome back to Happiness Lessons of the Ancients. With me, Dr. Laurie Santos.


Oh, man, I don't know if I can do a quick Buddha 101, I love telling and retelling the story of the Buddha.


This is Liz Angowski. She's a fellow in my residential college here at Yale and also one of my really close friends. But more pertinently, she's also an assistant professor of religion at Earlham College. Liz teaches an introductory course on Buddhism, but her particular areas of expertise are the men and women who really mastered the Buddhist teachings.


I'm interested in why particular figures can both inspire and kind of profoundly unnerve people by being too good. A friend of mine described me as somebody who studies Buddhist overachievers and the trouble they cause.


Buddhism is a vast subject, but I really wanted to laser in on one aspect in particular, how the Buddha came to understand that life is full of unavoidable disappointment and suffering.


We don't have information about the Buddha that is contemporaneous with him. We think he lived between the the sixth century B.C. and the fourth century B.C. and he was born in Limbidi, which is now modern day Nepal. The tradition holds that he was born the son of a king, or at least we think a wealthy clan leader.


And his upbringing was one of total opulence. He was born and raised in a palace, and he never had to leave that palace. He never had to see the outside world at all. And when he is born, a seer soothsayer was brought in to predict his future. And the seer reports to the Buddha's father, Śuddhodana. The Buddha will either be a chakravartin and so an emperor of the whole world or a dropout who was referred to as a sramana.


So understandably, Śuddhodana wants to keep the Buddha in the palace. He wants to ensure that his son will grow up to become a king, maybe even one that's more successful than he is. And so he surrounds him with everything anyone could possibly want. He has all of the archery equipment he could possibly need, the finest horses, etc. And then one day he kind of overhears a song about how beautiful the parks in the city are. You know, I haven't seen these parks.


I should probably go out to these parks, these pleasure groves and see what's happening out there. His father is apprehensive about this and he decides that I'm going to let him go out. However, I'm going to I'm going to clean up the streets. I'm going to remove all undesirable things, older people, sick people, etc. But what happens is the bodhisattva he goes out and the gods manifest. First, an old man, they decide that the bodhisattva should see what samsara the cycle of existence does to people, people, age and the bodhisattva, he's totally shocked by this.


You know, and he asks his charioteer, what is going on here? Like what is wrong with that man? Is it a trick of the eye? Is that going to happen to me? He cannot really process what this being is. So the charioteer explains to him, you know, that's that's an old man. This charioteer, he's hip to everything, he knows. And then they return to the palace and the bodhisattva can't stop thinking about the old man.


So he's like, I need to go back out there. I need to kind of figure this out and see. So he goes back out and he sees a sick man. And then again, we repeat this process. He sees a corpse. And the charioteer. You know, just this is a part of life. We we age, we get sick, we die. Eventually, he goes out, he sees one of these kind of shramana guys whose ascetics who's dropped out and he looks peaceful.


The bodhisattva is like, you know, I want to be like this guy.


So the dad didn't do such an awesome job, but the gods intervened to sort it out for Buddha to see all this stuff. But it sounds like seeing the suffering really had a huge effect on him.


Yeah, the idea that the bodhisattva would have made it into his thirties without ever having gotten sick himself or realized that people are aging is kind of a surprising idea to most people who read these accounts. You have to take this with something of a grain of salt. But eventually he he asks to be allowed to leave the palace. His father says no, his father doesn't want to part with him. It's actually very moving. Part of the Buddhacharita, the life of the Buddha.


There's an emotional scene between them in which the bodhisattva says, you know, if you can guarantee me that we won't part in this life because of death, then I'll stay. And because his father can't really guarantee him that there's this moment of realization that the father cannot provide really everything that he wants, which is an answer to this huge problem of not only death but death and rebirth. Something I have to frequently emphasize for folks are unfamiliar is that karma keeps bringing you back.


It's not just death. It's death. It's not just birth. It's rebirth. Right.


And so eventually he he's able to leave the palace to escape the palace, and then he's well on his way to becoming the Buddha. Just a detail that I think about a lot is that the horse that was leading the chariot that brought him out several times. To see the sights, the old man, the sick man, the corpse, the horse, he brings the body out for the eventual escape and then he dies of a broken heart because he's so sad to leave his owner.


People just love the Buddha. I mean, everyone loves the Buddha. The sadness around him leaving is really profound. And so the suffering now goes out and he says, you know, I'm going to find a teacher, someone to help me figure this stuff out. One of these Stromness after having tried out different paths, he's like, I can neither go the way of hedonism nor the way of total self mortification. These are not the ways for me.


Some accounts will say, you know, he has this memory of being at a festival that his father was throwing and he sat under a shady tree and felt some calm. And so he decides to sit under a tree and just contemplate what it is to be alive, what it means to exist.


And so then so how did he go from that kind of under the tree moment of contemplation to like because he somehow gets to life full enlightenment, right?


Oh, sure. So he takes a seat under the tree and he starts to contemplate everything he's learned up to that point and what he's seen. And then he goes through what are called the watches of the night. In the first watch, he can see everything that has happened to him in the past, as if he's reliving these past lives. Not just I know who I was in the past, but I now feel, again, whatever the suffering and pain was that I went through in that time.


From there, he sees all of the past lives of all other beings, and this moves him deeply to have compassion for all other sentient beings. Finally, he comes to the realization that the element at the heart of all of this is suffering. Life is doka. So this idea that life is stressful and it's at its most basic core, at first one you mentioned Doka.


You translate it as suffering. But what I've heard is that it's not really suffering in the way we think of it as like kind of pain. Right. You know, like kind of pain and suffering. It's kind of just like a deeper not being really satisfied. Right?


Right. That's right. Frequently with students, I'll translate it as discomfort or unease. Suffering really evokes. I think now for individuals, the idea of physical pain and mental anguish, which which it also includes for sure. But the idea is that we're suffering as a as a part of our fundamental being, you know, because largely because we can't accept that things change is there. And once he figures out Duga achieves Nirvana and then he became the Buddha.


Yeah, I think that as he realizes that all things are pervaded by suffering, he also realizes there must be a cause for this. And that, he concludes, is Tunja this idea of craving? Sometimes we think about it as thirst. My students now, they love to translate it as thirsty. Right? But the idea is that we continually crave things. And it's not just that we are craving central pleasures. We're craving, you know, experiences.


We're craving even just the sense of stability. We feel some desire for things to stay the same. And fundamentally, everything is impermanent. And so from there, the Buddha comes to the conclusion that there has to be a way for this to stop. And that sensation is the total extinguishing of suffering. And how do you get there? What is the process by which you come to the total cessation or nirvana?


Yeah, the reason I love the Buddha is that he's really nicely connected to a central topic that we talk about a lot on the happiness lab, which is this concept of hedonic adaptation or that he doneck treadmill. You can be really happy for a while. You can be satisfied in the short term, but then basically you just go back to kind of craving new stuff and you're kind of on this treadmill where you want more and more and more. And that kind of seems like this, at least the scientific version of this idea of Doka.


We're kind of never satisfied in part because we have this craving, this thirstiest, as your students would call it, this sonna. Is that right? That's the word Tonna Tanah. Yeah, in part because we have this sort of thirstiest this Tunja that is constantly telling us to go for more. And so is that kind of what the Buddhist thought like is does that kind of fit with what the science is suggesting? Yeah, I think that I mean, the Buddha's father, Ciudadanos, you know, his answer to the problem of his son potentially leaving home and leaving him is I'll just throw more wonderful, delightful things at him.


He wants to keep him distracted from what might be underlying the bigger problem. He wants to put all the bandaids on the wound rather than addressing the wound itself. The Buddha in general is analogized to a doctor. A doctor is only really a good doctor. If you can give a full account of what's wrong with someone, you don't want to look at the symptoms and then treat the superficial symptoms. You want to treat the underlying disease. And so really what is at the heart of it is the fact that we can't accept that even the most beautiful, wonderful things, the coin will flip and the other side of them will be dissatisfaction, suffering, impermanence.


It's not that beautiful things don't make us happy or material things don't make us happy, it's that they don't stay and we don't stay happy with them. They change and we change our perception of them.


I think one of the awesome things about the Buddha is that he in some ways was like a real early practitioner of self-help. And, you know, his path was like really one of the first, I think, for a kind of enlightenment or a kind of achieving flourishing. I mean, is he the sort of thought of as a father of self-help to a certain extent?


Yeah, I frequently describe it to my students as a program designed to affect self transformation. We want to think about it as something that is designed to change your perceptions and you are in charge of this program. You take it up and you execute it.


Buddhism is an important global faith with a culture and traditions built up over thousands of years. We can only scratch the surface of this in a single show. But after the break, I'll introduce you to someone who created his own program of self transformation using parts of the Buddhist teaching. And that transformation worked so well, he even stopped hating the weeds in his yard. The happiness lab will be right back. I don't actually call myself a Buddhist, partly out of respect for all of those in Asia, especially, who mean something very different by the term, but it's true that I practice certain important parts of Buddhism.


This is Robert. He's one of my favorite science writers and a respected expert on evolutionary psychology. Robert is someone you'd probably assume is pretty skeptical of the things you'd read in a religious text. But following a brush with Buddhist teachings, he saw that this philosophy totally meshes with everything evolution teaches us about how humans operate.


An obvious example is we overestimate the speed of large things approaching us. You know, better safe than sorry. So that's an inaccurate perception, but it's good at keeping organisms alive. So we have it. And, you know, one of Buddhism's main claims is that, well, A, we don't see the world clearly by nature, and B, that that is the source of our suffering and is also the reason we make other people suffer. It's an amazing claim.


When you think about it, if we could see things more clearly in certain important respects, we would become happier and we would become better people. That's like amazing if true. And I think it's basically true. Why Buddhism is true is Robert's book on the subject. And while losing Goreski looks at the cultural and religious significance of the Buddha, Robert explores the parts of the practice that are really supported by scientific research.


There are other parts of Buddhism that are more and I would say the supernatural or traditionally religious realm having to do with rebirth after death.


But my book focuses on the naturalistic claims made by Buddhism, that is to say, the Buddha's conception of human psychology. The validity of human perception is this thing that we think of as the self. You know, what is that? Buddhism developed an incredibly rich literature, which isn't all on point by any means. I mean, they have these dense psychological texts that divide the mind into a billion parts. And I a lot of it I can't make heads or tails of.


But central to a lot of these texts is, I think, a fundamentally on target view of the mind of the way it works and maybe most important of what to do about the fact that in a lot of ways it doesn't work very well if what you're trying to do is be a happy person and a good person.


I mean, one thing I emphasize, the human mind is not designed necessarily to see the world clearly.


Those traits that are conducive to getting the genes underlying them into the next generation is the traits that we will have, and that includes mental traits. So if having a slightly deluded conception of yourself or an inaccurate perception of other people or things will help get genes into the next generation, then, you know, our species will be inclined towards certain kinds of thoughts and perceptions that aren't, strictly speaking, accurate.


One of the things I like about Buddhism as a psychologist and as a psychologist who's kind of interested in evolutionary theory is that he kind of got a lot of human psychology right with these these first few noble truths. And so I wanted you to dig in just a little bit these first noble truths about this idea of Doka or suffering or Tunja it, which just like this idea of craving.


And so the first sermon that he is said to have given after his enlightenment, he lays down the four a.m. truce. Yes, what is the source of suffering? His answer is just the fact that we always want something more right and gratification doesn't last. And when you think about it from a Darwinian point of view, this makes total sense. I mean, if you imagine two animals, one of them have genes that keep the animal perennially restless. In other words, they have sex or they eat.


They feel better for a little while. And that rewards the behavior that got them the sex of the food. But then they want more, you know, the happiness, the pleasure evaporates. You compare that to an animal whose genes provide just enduring contentment after a single meal. You're then talking about an animal whose genes are not going to get anywhere because the animal is not going to live very long or is not going to reproduce very successfully. So that's just an example of how one of the very first and most fundamental things the Buddha lays down makes total sense in light of a theory that did not exist when the Buddha laid the truth down.


Nobody knew about natural selection, but it makes sense.


And also, I think nobody knew about all these lovely data on hedonic adaptation psychologically. Right, with this idea that, you know, we're always on this treadmill chasing more and more stuff. And even if you get these fantastic things in life, you just go back to baseline, even though we don't predict it right. We have these incorrect theories about the fact that we could be happily ever after. We could get this wonderful thing, you know, we get a marriage or get a wonderful circumstance and we're good forever.


The data simply suggests psychologically that's just not the case.


Right. And that is an example of delusion in a certain sense. I mean, that's another example of how we're designed not to see the world clearly. We are designed to keep convincing ourselves that the next elevation of status is the next promotion. The next big material good is going to make us happier for longer than it winds up making us happy. The mind isn't designed to bring us happiness. That's not high on natural selection's agenda. Understanding that is the beginning of seeking, you know, a more enduring kind of happiness, even though they're on a treadmill is is a tough thing to get around.


It really is. But a lot of Buddhist practice is designed to get around it.


And I think that was the one of the most fantastic things about Buddhist teachings, is that he didn't just leave us with suffering and craving and say, that's it. The mind's designed this way. We're stuck. The teachings actually go beyond that to give us a path past this. Right. How did you go from being Robert Wright, the evolutionary psychologist, to Robert Wright, the Buddhist sympathiser?


Well, in 2003, somebody convinced me to go to a meditation retreat like a seven day silent meditation retreat. You meditate intensively, like four and a half hours a day of sitting meditation, four and a half of walking meditation, maybe a little more.


Why on earth did you say yes? Like like like like did did you know about meditation? Like you curious.


Well, I guess I should admit to being something of a seeker. I was brought up religiously, lost my religion. Maybe that's it. But I had certainly flirted with meditation, tried to do it. You know, you hear about in college every once in a while, I would try it. It would never really work. I figured, what the hell, I'll try this crazy thing. The first couple of days were total. Hell, I just could not focus on my breath.


I hated everyone there because I was sure they were doing it better. Then suddenly something clicked. I had too much coffee and I had this jittery feeling in my jaw and I'm sitting there thinking, God, you can't meditate with jittery feeling in Jordan. And suddenly I just had this feeling, that weight, the feeling is down on my jaw. I'm up here. And I suddenly was observing in a way that completely neutralized it. And by the end of the week, my consciousness was completely transformed.


It was like magical. I mean, like I remember just the sheer beauty of things was amazing. I remember walking through the woods and seeing this weed called a plantain. We did I had spent a lot of time trying to kill because it had always infested yards I had had. And I just thought, wait, why have I been trying to kill this thing? It's actually, objectively speaking, it's as pretty as the other green stuff that I would say is an apprehension of the Buddhist idea of emptiness.


I had been seeing essence of weed in this thing and that had given me an antagonistic feeling toward it. At one level, something trivial was going on. I mean, obviously, weed is an arbitrary label that certain cultures assign to certain plants. Fine, we know that. But what was interesting was that I wasn't just being consciously aware of the arbitrariness. It was that I realized that my perception of the weed had been infused with this sense of essence of weed.


And when that drops out, it's a totally different world. It's hard to describe. And the Buddhist concept of emptiness is a very subtle one. But I do think it has to do with the way that feelings suddenly inform not just our thoughts, but our very perceptions of things, and when some of that changes, it's amazing how radical your perceptions can change.


It's one thing to talk about that for weed's, but it feels like that could be even more powerful when you're thinking about other negative sensations that evolution wants us to avoid, like pain or like judgments of people.


I mean, you're right. It can transform your relationship to pain. It absolutely can. Believe it or not, you can even look at pain and go. That's kind of beautiful in a way, you can look at sadness and go, that's kind of beautiful in a way. Again, these are things that are easier for me to do on a retreat than they are at nine, 30 am on a regular day. But they're possible, and you're right about that.


But it's also true that, you know, the way you categorize people without thinking about it so much. First of all, into friends and enemies, but also a long, more subtle gradations. Sometimes in ways it's unhealthy. Not good for you, not good for them. And so just as I was less judgmental of that weed, I found myself being much less judgmental of people by the end of the retreat. You know how humans are.


They size people up on the basis of very little evidence. I remember at the beginning of the retreat, seeing this guy with a Juilliard T-shirt on and thinking, oh, Juilliard, well, aren't we special? Like, you know, and by the end of the street, I was much less judgmental. And in fact, that guy at the end when the silence broke and he raised his hand and ask a question, and he was this shy, insecure guy, exactly the opposite of the way I had stereotyped him.


Needless to say, by the end of the retreat, I was I was sold.


So give me a sense of how meditation actually does that, because it sounds awesome to kind of get control over your feelings and deal with your thoughts. But how does sitting there and focusing on your breath for ten minutes a day actually help you do that?


Well, if you can make a lot of progress in ten minutes a day, then God bless you. And some people can. People's mileage varies. You know, I meditate longer than that. And and my practice still has its ups and downs. But there's an irony about meditation, which is that. If you quit running away from bad feelings and just accept them and kind of be with them, get closer to them, you can get a more objective perspective on them.


Like I recommend it. If you're feeling sad, just sit down, close your eyes in a quiet room, observe the sadness. I mean, normally we try to get away from sadness. We try to think something that'll make it go away. We try to talk to somebody who will pull us out or we just eat something that'll help or take a drug. But just sit down and go, OK, I'm sad. What is this thing like where in my head is the feeling or elsewhere in my body?


Where are the feelings? What are their contours? What are their shapes? You know, I predict before long you'll find that oddly, although you're closer to the feeling, you have a more objective perspective on it, you're in a certain sense more detached and closer at the same time. And that is the beginning of liberation from a feeling. And getting that kind of objective purchase on it is the beginning of deciding whether you're going to let it govern your thoughts and life and the rest of your day.


When I've had a chance to kind of watch my feelings in the way you're talking about, kind of sit with my sadness, it seems like it also teaches me this other Buddhist ideal of sort of impermanence. Right. You know, sometimes when you're sad, it can feel like I'm just going to feel this way forever. But if you kind of sit with it and hang out with it, you know, those things go away in this weird sense.


So, yeah, my daughters went to teen meditation retreats. One thing the teachers emphasize with them is like, think of feelings as like the weather. Yeah, it's a storm or whatever. It's high humidity, but it'll be gone tomorrow. And yeah, that can be a helpful thing. Just to think, regardless of whether you're meditating, just remind yourself this too shall pass.


I know you talk about this a lot in the book, but have these practices helped to you? Oh, I think so. People say they notice a difference. I mean, my wife says she notices the difference and she's probably the most reliable witness. When I came back from my first meditation retreat, all I had to do was.


Call her and start talking before she was glad I had gone literally. It was just the tone of my voice, she said. Just the way I was talking. I was like, oh, yeah, this guy would be much easier to live with than the guy who left for this retreat. And, you know, meditation retreats give you a taste for how radically different your everyday consciousness could be. They convinced me that that state of consciousness would be much more conducive to happiness, would make me a much better person, and would bring me a clearer view of the world, a literally clearer view of the world.


I really believe that those three things can align, and that is the Buddhist promise and. It's not easy to keep them aligning as thoroughly and as magically as they might at the end of a nine day retreat.


Once you're back in the real world, but once you've seen that, it's an incentive to keep practicing on a daily basis and to hang on to at least part of that consciousness, the story of the Buddha is one that I just had to include in this mini season on Happiness Lessons of the Ancients.


It encapsulates so much a privileged young man realized that life is impermanence and that even the richest king couldn't build palace walls high enough to fight off the sadness that this impermanence brings. The Buddha taught that the best way to deal with all this suffering is to sit with it, ponder it and experience it. I know very few of us can go on long meditation retreats, but all of us can bring a bit more mindfulness into our daily lives. It can be as simple as noticing the sensation of being in your bed or how the soap and water feel as you wash your hands.


I personally try to fit in 10 minutes of meditation a day. I do it right after I exercise, when I'm already feeling a little bit more in tune with my body.


I just plop on the floor, close my eyes and try to focus on my breath. And while that sounds really simple, it's surprisingly hard.


A previous guest on The Happiness Lab said that sitting with his thoughts during his first meditation was like trying to wrestle alive fish. But trust me, it gets a lot easier. I'm no Jedi master and I have lots of days when I don't even get in that 10 minutes. But even my Pache meditation practice makes me feel a lot better. I'm even starting to come to terms with the sad fact that nothing is permanent and that all good things come to an end, including this mini season.


So with that, I'd like to share some gratitude. Thank you so much for listening to these shows, which we really enjoyed making. And never fear. The Happiness Lap will be back with some special episodes, as well as a new season in January, where we explore how other old school happiness lessons are also backed by modern science. Until then, stay safe and stay happy. The Happiness Lab is co-written and produced by Ryan. The show was mastered by Evan Viola and our original music was composed by Zachary Silver.


Special thanks to the entire Pushkin crew, including Neil LaBelle, Carly Migliore, Heather Fain, Sophie Queen McKibbon, Eric Sandler, Jacob Weisberg and my agent Ben Davis. The Happiness Lab is brought to you by Pushkin Industries and me, Dr. Larissa Waters.