There isn't a named philosophy that I subscribe to completely.

I do feel there's an implicit, coherent system of my own that guides my actions—I've actually been thinking about trying to articulate it through writing and art, in part just to get a better understanding of it myself—and it definitely has been influenced by several schools of thought throughout my life.

In teenage years, I read the Gospels, and three things stuck with me: 1) the emphasis on not judging others, and how that saves one from being judged; 2) the bit about birds and flowers that don't have to plan for tomorrow, and are taken care of by God; and 3) the simplicity of "love God, and love people" as the highest commandment.

Tao Te Ching had a big poetic effect on me. Some passages felt like a sacred truth I've always known and haven't been able to articulate—they made me so happy I'd laugh a little—and at the same time, I couldn't quite tell what they meant. So one of the main things I got out of it is the general sense that there is a way things are, and it's simple but ineffable.

The Russian writer Victor Pelevin first presented Buddhist ideas to me, mixed together with a darkly funny, absurdist, political sensibility. Later, in my 20s, I read a few academic books on Buddhism. The main ideas that stayed with me are the impersonal treatment of causes and consequences (karma), the prescription to not cling to experiences, and the notion of the not-self.

A combination of meditation, psychedelics, life experiences and talks by Terence McKenna made me seek more freedom from ideologies and rigid systems of thought, and emphasize direct experience instead. The same mix highlighted the notion that everything is an experience that flows—thoughts, feelings, notions of oneself, etc. all arise and pass away, never staying the same—and the main thing to do about all of these is to pay attention.

In terms of learning about spiritual/philosophical systems, what I'm looking for are wholly new ways of relating to the world—ideas which are hard to grasp using the frameworks I already have, but which could loosen these frameworks up or give me new ones.

So I'd love to get an insight into ancient religions of Sumer, Egypt, Rome and Greece; I'm really curious about Gnosticism; I'm fascinated by the way people like Philip K Dick experienced reality; I'd like to know more about what the alchemists were up to, and what the majority of Newton's work was about; Hermeticism is another big chunk that I am barely aware of. Jung's work seems like a sort of a middle-ground between all this weird stuff and a modern-day rational sensibility.

(Come to think about it, instead of hoping that Bob interviews people on all this, I really should do it myself.)

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Nikita, you might be interested in Stephan V. Beyer: https://independent.academia.edu/SteveBeyer/CurriculumVitae

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Thanks Philip! Added to my list.

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Jan 19, 2020Liked by Robert Wright

Robert, Thanks for the invite. I do have a sharable item.

This fall I attended a course offered by the Center for Buddhist Enquiry, and was introduced to the work of Bhikkhu Analayo, a German-born scholar, teacher, and monk. The practice that he teaches aligns very closely to many of the insights you have introduced your readers to - from the fields of neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and philosophy of the mind. But he comes at it from a deep inquiry into the history of Buddhism. Starting over twenty years ago, he began to delve into the ancient records of the principle schools of Buddhism, looking for commonality instead of difference. From this sifting he has assembled what he believes were the core practices of Mindfulness - the routines and disciplines of individuals who were, essentially, the neuroscientists and researchers of ancient times.

He is a remarkable guy, and his teachings have begun to "rewire" my mind. One of the things that I have found extremely powerful is his approach to death. It is reported that he sleeps in a coffin, and I have heard him say that every night as he lays down to sleep, he rehearses the moment of his own coming extinction, imaginatively, of course - and it causes him to giggle. (When he told this story, he giggled, involuntarily, and the crowd joined in, hesitantly? reluctantly? or perhaps, with relief?)

In my own practice, I have come to imagine my own looming "personal extinction event" in an “asteroidal” sense: that some piece of the cosmos is hurtling my way, and what am I going to do?

Analayo has helped me see death as something that requires a bit of intellectual creativity, and the notion that there is an "asteroid" with my name on it makes me giggle too. Just like in the science fiction trope, the trajectory of this chunk of inevitable annihilation is a known fact: it’s heading right for me, but alas, I have no idea when it will arrive. And yet, its destructive capacity is total, experts tell us. And it has great potential to set off mindless panic, which is not very helpful. So: Asteroidal. The adjective, the narrative, and the practice.

I am not exactly sure why this gives me a deep sense of ease - it may be that the word "death" has been so overloaded with baggage that the convoy carrying it has almost unstoppable momentum. Analayo's teachings go to the very heart of stopping the momentum - fueled by the insane fear of pain, discomfort, anxiety. And these days, with the spectre of global extinction events, driven by technology-induced climate change, of madness in our international relations -

the contrapuntal, relaxed tone of a "personal extinction event" seems to fit right in, on a scale that I can understand, absorb, and integrate.

I have now signed up for Analayo's latest offering - Mindfully Facing Climate Change:

An Online Course - which can be found by Googling it.

I highly recommend a Nonzero interview with Analayo!

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I found the concept of reification to be really useful to understand the Buddhist concept of no self. Reification is the mind's tendency to make concrete dynamic systems. Buckminster Fuller said it best in the title of his book, "I Seem to be a Verb." In essence, viewing human beings as dynamic systems that are constantly changing rather than static objects. I found Walter Truett Anderson's book, "The Next Enlightenment: Integrating East and West in A New Vision of Human Evolution" St. Martin's Press, 2003 to be an insightful read. I am not sure if Mr. Anderson is still alive, but he would be a great guest. He also wrote a history of Esalen published in the early 1970's.

A recent book is Professor Chris Niebauer's "No Self No Problem, How Neuropsychology is catching up to Buddhism" 2019. Niebauer is a Psychology Professor at Slippery Rock University which is a state university in Pennsylvania. The book has some fascinating insights looking at the right and left hemisphere's of the brain, and how that controls experience.

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Jan 21, 2020Liked by Robert Wright

wow ! that is interesting - human beings as a dynamic system rather than static objects - need to explore this further.

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Jan 19, 2020Liked by Robert Wright

As a young person more cognitively bullish than I am now, I studied philosophy to postgrad level. I eventually quit for many reasons, amongst which was my interest being repeatedly vitiated by how undecideable most philosophical questions really turn out to be, at least if you're willing to maintain an epistomological bar higher than knee level. I remember reading Stephen Schiffer's *Remnants of Meaning* and thinking that if it was lifetime-career level hard to just figure out how symbol/word meaning works, then when it comes to the great questions of life, we're obviously going to not-travelling to go to the same nowhere that has been the destination of our post-axial age journey.

So if I have a 'philosophy' of life now, it's more like a quilt constantly being patched (with the patches themselves barely constituting a whole).

I don't think there are any new & shinier philosophical systems I want to hear about. But I'd enjoy witnessing guests being pressed more on why they really settled into one at all. None passes muster as being 'true' (not even Buddhism, Robert). The requirement is clearly a matter of psychology, but it strikes me as unnecessary. It's pretty easily relinquished, so why don't they (especially meditators) just drop the whole damn thing?

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Jan 26, 2020Liked by Robert Wright

The most practical and comprehensive modern version of Buddhist teaching I found is one of zen master Thich Nhat Han. He took five buddhist precepts: not to kill, not to steal, ect., and covert them to “five mindfulness trainings”, which give guidance to mindful and ethical behavior throughout modern life, on quite broad scale. They “represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic” as he put it.


I try to practice them.

As for whom to interview - Culadasa (John Yates), author of “Mind Illuminated” would be super cool. His book is the best guide of meditation I ever seen and he probably can be asked a whole lot of life major questions.

Also, as a marketing suggestion to the whole Nonzero enterprise you could invite to the “Wright show” one of Wachowskis filmmakers. You wrote they had read and been kind of inspired by “Moral animal” before making Matrix now they can pay you back :) I hope they have enough spiritual things to share.

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Oh yeah, I second the Wachowski suggestion. The siblings might not have made anything as philosophically challenging as the first "The Matrix" film, but I reckon either one of them would be unhinged enough to make for a trippy chat. Have you ever had the pleasure of meeting them, Bob? It seemed like they were a fair way away when you brought up the connection in the "Why is the Buddhism True" book. . .

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Never met them. Emailed with one of them briefly, but didn't get the sense that he was up for an extended conversation...

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Jan 25, 2020Liked by Robert Wright

On the topic of a spiritual/philosophical system that guides me through life, I would have to say there is no one particular system although I would have to say probably Secular Buddhism if pressed. My pilgrimage to my 70s now has been something of a long strange trip. Raised Catholic with stops along the way with psychology graduate degree as a licensed psychotherapist (psychology as a sort of secular religion or priesthood or humanism if you will), EST Training; Unitarianism; Hindu based Siddha Yoga/Swami Muktananda; Channeling (Seth and Edgar Cayce) finally led me to Buddhism which eventually led me to settle into what some call Secular Buddhism or Atheistic (of the agnostic type) Buddhism of the Stephen Batchelor variety.

I have come to conclude that there are no “Truths” with a capital T. There are only empowering and disempowering beliefs that are at best interim truths (small “t”) that result in better or worse outcomes. Sort of if one thinks they have found “THE TRUTH” they almost certainly are mistaken.

The good news from this journey is a human being who knows they don’t know is a very different type of human being than one that thinks they know. I am comfortable now not knowing although I am interested in knowing more or at least hearing what others at least think they know that might make a difference in some way. I continue to know that I don’t know what I don't know, the knowing of which might make a huge difference.

At age 72, I am most personally interested in aging, dying and death. How to navigate this last developmental stage with minimal downsides. That said, I continue to be interested in making a contribution that might make a difference for others while I am still here or after I am gone.

People I think you might interview are the following:

Werner Erhard = Founder of EST now known as Landmark Education as well as The Hunger Project http://www.wernererhard.com/est.html

Matt Dillahunty = well-known atheist advocate and The Atheist Experience TV Show

Ira Byock, M. D. = Author of Dying Well, A Few Months To Live, Palliative and End-of-Life Pearls, The Best Care Possible

Peg Sandeen = Executive Director of Death With Dignity or

Kim Callinan = President and CEO of Compassion & Choices formerly the Hemlock Society

Don Miguel Ruiz = Author of many books… The Four Agreements is his most famous with 8 million-plus copies sold, Toltec spiritualist, neoshaministic approach to transformation

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It's the life of the academy for me: trying to remain curious and to seek new knowledge, whatever strange paths it might lead me down. The European Enlightenment philosophers who rarely left their stuffy rooms inspire me to keep on thinking, questioning, writing, reflecting. And the early Mahayana school of Buddhism, with its emphasis on emptiness and ultimate v. conventional reality, keep me busy in my overthinking of what really is real.

Some heads who it'd be worth your time talking to, all in the area of Buddhism and Philosophy: Jay Garfield - great all-round educator of all strands of Buddhism, co-wrote that paper a couple of years back about US Christians being less afraid of death than Buddhists who meditated on it regularly; Sonam Thakchoe - lectures in Buddhist Philosophy at the University of Tasmania; Mark Siderits - has done a lot of deep thinking on the non-self doctrine, control, emptiness; James Stewart - has written about Buddhist non-violence and how this relates to out treatment of animals, also knows a fair bit about the connections between Buddhism and Ancient Indian Philosophy.

Bob, I know your question was a more general one and all the above heads might steer you dangerously close to making just another "Waking Up/Making Sense" podcast, but that could be for the better. I've not heard Sam Harris mention any of these thinkers, so you might end up exploring a different set of views than those he's keen on. Also, you've got to tee up an interview with that guy. I want to hear you hash out this new tribalism you're worried he's pushing people toward. Thanks for the newsletter, the podcasts and the chance to say hey - Cheers!

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Jan 21, 2020Liked by Robert Wright

I would also add British novelist, translator & journalist Tim Parks. His newish book, How I Lost My Mind, is a worthy read.

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Jan 19, 2020Liked by Robert Wright

Two issues I would like to be discussed; what is the essential difference between Buddhism and Hinduism. Secondly a query which has intrigues me recently - why did Buddha have nothing to say about yoga - both as a practice and philosophy. [ Maybe he did and I am not aware]

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This may interest you: https://tricycle.org/magazine/is-yoga-buddhist/?utm_source=twitter (I'm putting it in this week's Readings section.)

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At the core of my philosophical outlook is not a system but rather a curiosity, a question, which can probably be best summed up as: "what is real?" In my twenties I was drawn to Jung, and around the same time but persisting much longer, Taosim (experiments with the I Ching were formative and fascinating); only in the last few years has Buddhism arrived as the "truest" (to borrow your term, Bob, with all of its caveats) framework for my experience and the question that is at back of it at all times. To that effect, I think it would be interesting to hear you interview the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, whose new book *The Case Against Reality* raises some of the same questions, and comes to similar if also very divergent conclusions, that you do in *Why Buddhism Is True*. I think it's no accident that both of you find a cogent metaphor for our relationship to reality in *The Matrix*.

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Re Donald Hoffman: Done! (Several years ago): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RBEWShMZYo

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Very cool thanks! Glad to see you included this conversation in the most recent newsletter, too.

Also, what about bringing Evan Thompson back in to talk about his new book, Why I Am Not a Buddhist, which takes your book to task in a very interesting way. I'd love to hear you two "debate" or at least discuss your different takes on the question of what science can tell us about Buddhist (philosophical, ethical) thinking and practice.

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I just now discovered this thread via the video post - I love these thoughtful, reflective conversations between Bob and Nikita. A few curiosities of mine - one, that no women have commented on this - are there few women interested in the topic? Few female Nonzero subscribers?

Regarding the topic itself, it had crossed my mind more than usual in the past few months, as I attended a retreat in August (my second year in a row), threw myself into three months of intense yoga practice and yoga teacher training, and came out of these experiences with a lot on my mind about mindfulness, Eastern spiritual ideas as co-opted by modern yoga practice (or appropriated! - a term that I, like Bob, do not espouse), Buddhism, wellness, crystals, ...whatever! And yet, I have no answers and don't feel any better. I cried on most of the drive home from the retreat. All the mindfulness I've been taught in years of therapy makes me frustrated. I wonder if my chakras (or whatever) are misaligned, then wonder why that would even matter? I cannot subscribe to the Buddhist ideas of oneness and the non-self - those things just don't fit my world and self views. Fellow yogis gave gifts of crystals and stones meant to ward off negative thoughts and promote love and yet...my mind still spirals and I'm still lonely. I grew up Jewish and identify as Jewish, but I don't actively practice and Judaism brings me little comfort.

I love learning about these things via your videos and other avenues, and I contemplate them myself at times, but the bottom line is, nothing works. I'm still depressed, lonely, and don't feel a part of anything. I admire that you guys and many others find comfort in these belief systems, and I am often jealous. I don't expect answers. I just wanted wanted to give another perspective and throw out the open-ended question of, what do you do when none of the systems you hear about help?

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"I'm still depressed, lonely, and don't feel a part of anything. ... What do you do when none of the systems you hear about help?"

I had two reactions to your message. (Well, three: the first is I was happy to read something real—more real, I think, than what all of us have written in this thread before.)


I recently had a thought about the feeling or not feeling "a part of anything". I've never been a part of any kind of a large group, and even small groups (like communities of friends who all navigate life together) haven't been a part of my experience for the last ~10 years. When I hear members of such groups talk about the importance of community, I think "That'd probably be nice", but when I interact with a group of that sort, I don't feel real connection.

That said, I put real effort into maintaining and developing one-on-one relationships, and I have quite a bit of those, each special and important. And each of these relationships helps the other ones, because what I learn in one of them, I bring to others; each of my friends has a kind of an indirect relationship with the rest of them—because they have a relationship with me, and I am largely a product of all these interactions.

So my recent realization is that I do have a community, and it's been a huge positive influence on me. The fact that these people are really different—some very rational, some barely coherent in their thought, some very "normal", some are probably undiagnosed schizophrenics—helps me a lot. I think a community united by an ideology or a religion would work worse for me.

So, what's working for me is a sense of belonging not to a united community, but to specific, separate, different people.


The other kind of connection I try to maintain is with myself. The way these two kinds of connections are nurtured is the same: I try to stay true to the experience.

In the context of a relationship, this means: 1) feel what you feel, express yourself clearly; 2) try to understand what the other person feels, help them express their feelings and thoughts; 3) let the relationship be what it is, develop in a natural way, instead of trying to make it into something you'd like it to be. So, stay true to yourself, the person, and what's happening between you.

In the context of relating to oneself, this means: 1) feel what you feel, express yourself clearly (to yourself); 2) try to understand the parts of your experience that aren't directly accessible (e.g. difficult emotions, confusion, pain, lack of motivation); 3) let the processes within and around you be what they are, develop in a natural way, not forcing yourself to be what you've been told you should be, or approach life in a way that some book, or guru, or a culture says is correct.

My laptop is about to die, so I'll have to stop here without making a conclusion.

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Laura, glad you weighed in. You wrote:

"I admire that you guys and many others find comfort in these belief systems, and I am often jealous..."

The reality for me is that my meditation practice is not based on belief, or truth claims, or even its instrumentality. For me it's all about experience - more specifically, awareness of experience. I know this sounds vaguely redundant - but from my "experience", the question that keeps arising is: "What is it like to be human?"

So your question about what to do when "none of the systems...help" - sounds like you are successfully experiencing a basic aspect of human experience: "Life is confusing! Easy to feel lost! & so many guys mansplaining stuff !!!" To me these insights/questions are deeply instructive. Keep going!


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