What a Wonderful World

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Robert Wright on Meditation, M... Tim O'Reilly on What's the Fut...

meditate.jpg EconTalk host Russ Roberts took a deep, different, and quite personal turn in this week's episode, in which he welcomed Robert Wright to discuss his newest book, Why Buddhism is True. Roberts admits to being a regular practitioner of mediation, though having begun the practice with his usual skeptical bent.

Since this week's episode was so different, we thought we'd try a slightly different tack here as well. Rather than reflect on specific topics from the conversation, this week we're more interested in your own experiences with mindfulness and meditation. What does mindfulness mean to you, and how do you strive for it? Is it just a catch-phrase for the self-help section of your local bookshop, or are there real and lasting benefits for individuals? For communities?

1. Do you meditate on a regular basis? If so, how long have you been practicing? Why did you start? What challenges have you faced, and what benefits have you reaped from the practice?

2. For those of you who don't meditate, has this week's conversation prompted you to consider it? Why or why not? Are you skeptical about the benefits both Wright and Roberts attribute to the practice, and again, why?

3. If you're a regular practitioner of meditation (or any other practice for mindfulness), can you suggest some of your favorite references and/or techniques?

4. Do you believe suffering is an inherent part of the human condition? Why?

5. Why is (or has?) wonder become so devalued in society today? What efforts might we make to bring more wonder to our own lives? What has struck you as wonderful recently?

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Greg Wilson writes:

I have never tried meditation, but Russ's comments and openness to it opened my own eyes about the possibility.

I appreciated Russ's challenges of some of Robert's positions which I thought were extreme. He repeated 'natural selection' at nauseam, and made it clear through his responses there was zero willingness to embrace the idea of intelligent design let alone a creator.

One of the things that makes this podcast one of my favorites is your willingness to experiment, but handle each subject in an intelligent and professional manner. Having made that statement, I didn't care for this particular episode.

George Balella writes:

I never had any significant training in meditation. But I literally just came in from my backyard and I was basically meditating. Mostly listening to and being amazed by my senses. A cool balmy breeze on my face, the taste of a good zinfindel in my mouth, the smell of fall in the air, the sounds all around... amazed by the fact that a small bird a half a mile away could somehow perterb the atmosphere such that some how his sound is transmitted to my eardrum and perceived by me along with the highway sounds in the distance, a train horn miles away, the dogs playing in the house and more birds and sounds all around. We spend way to much time not respecting and thinking about the amazement of our existence and sadly... to me... so often explained away by people and their fundamentalist religious indoctrination. To me meditation is about not religion but finding God on your own terms... embracing existence.... now I need to listen to the episode.

Martha Amis writes:

I have meditated for many years - initially Transcendental Meditation, but for the past year, Centering Prayer meditation developed by the Trappist monk, Thomas Keating. In addition to meditating twice daily for 20 minutes, I am part of a small group of 5-8 people that meet weekly for a group meditation. Starting the day with meditation brings a calmness and focus to the day's activities and an inner conviction that all is well, despite external events. Closing the day with meditation creates a soothing place within that fosters restful sleep. After listening to this podcast on Tuesday, I went to our regular Tuesday night group meditation and in talking afterwards to one of the participants, I mentioned the podcast, book and author. My friend said, "I just bought that book and my husband started reading it right away!" I love serendipity....
Many thanks for this podcast. I dearly love all the variety Mr. Roberts brings to his listeners.

Amy Willis writes:

Martha, Might you have any reference links or book recommendations for either Transcendental or Centering practices?

And THANKS for sharing about our podcast with your group!

George, I'm anxious to hear what you think of the episode!

Martha Amis writes:

Amy, I am including two links, each of which contains good information about TM and Centering Prayer, respectively, including relevant books.



Tom Bogle writes:

As I listen to this episode, I can't help but expect Russ to be a speaker at the next Voice & Exit conference. ;)

Now, let me pull more economics into this. I have long held this idea that the theory of comparative advantage, when examined at a personal level, implies that any two human beings can find some way in which one can improve the life of the other, and vice versa. Now, I recognize that this assumes zero discovery and transaction costs, which is impossible. However, from the discussion, I would argue that meditation and mindfulness practices are an effective way that each of us can reduce our own discovery and transaction costs in developing interpersonal relationships.

James Tomson writes:

Hi all,

I enjoyed the episode. I grew up meditating (unfortunately, with a teacher associated with the Transcendental Meditation organisation/cult) and while I don't practice anymore, many of the takeaways Russ and Robert describe I feel have stayed with me. However, some of the ideas Robert was talking about in terms of changing the world and 'meta-consciousness' and so on have me a little worried. It sounds pretty close to some of the cult-like elements of Tibetan Buddhism, much of which is coming to light. I in fact have a close personal connection with a woman who was involved in a Tibetan Buddhist group. She did hours of meditative practice which transitioned to religious indoctrination regarding the enlightened, 'can do no wrong because there is no right or wrong' status of her teacher/lama (in the group you use the term 'Rinpoche' or 'precious one'). Ultimately, she experienced and witnessed abuse by the lama and the broader group.

This book may be a bit over the top in places, but gave me a new perspective on the possible dark side of the cult like aspects of religious (and even 'secular') Buddhism. https://www.amazon.com/Enthralled-Guru-Cult-Tibetan-Buddhism/dp/1511543469

Russ, I'd love it if you explored this further. I think it really touches on some of the themes of your show (liberty, economic systems, competing narratives).

George writes:

As a long-time fan of Russ Roberts (as both podcaster and author), Robert Wright (esp. The Moral Animal), and Insight Meditation, this podcast was especially interesting for me. Here's my take at answering the questions:

1. I've been meditating for a number of years, most often for an hour first thing in the morning. It's a lot easier to make it part of the schedule if done first thing, since something is always coming up for all of us. I started with TM because of a particularly stressful job. However - and critically - I moved from TM to Insight Meditation once I realized that Insight Meditation is one of the best things an individual can do to try to see their own stories or "Narratives" (as Russ put it) -- and the way one's own stories get in the way of one's perceiving reality more clearly.

2. (n/a)

3. I would suggest than anyone interested in Insight Meditation try a week long silent mediation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. IMS is where Wright did many of his retreats -- I've done quite a few there as well. It's non-denominational and all religions are welcome because they don't address religious beliefs at all. Like many others have said, you really need to experience the impact of meditation rather than have someone talk to you about it. For me, my first retreat started something like this: 1st day Boring; 2nd day Boring; 3rd day Insight: "Oh my god, most of my actions in life are ruled by fear." 4th-7th days: realizing these emotions are just part of the human condition and nothing to over-personalize. That said, your mileage may vary.

4. Regarding "Suffering" -- initially I was a bit turned of the "Suffering is part of the human condition" line I'd always heard repeated. However, at IMS I learned that the original word ("Dukkha") can be translated as both "suffering" or "unsatisfactoriness." I do believe that unsatisfactoriness is indeed part of the human condition. A couple of quick examples, we have the hedonic treadmill, we have the fact that negative emotions generally make a stronger impact on us that do positive emotions -- sometimes called Bad Is Stronger Than Good in the psych literature. I happen to agree with Wright that much of this can be explained via Evol Psych but, regardless of the cause, the results seem to be ever-present.

5. Wonder, of course, is in us and not in the object. I'm not sure it's recently been devaluated in today's society. There's probably a good deal of survivorship bias in past literature / poetry that deals with Wonder and is popular today, which might make it seem like people were filled with more Wonder in the past. For example, see Mary Oliver's poems. That said, the always-on nature of our iPhones, email, etc. does make it harder to take the time to notice. Anyway, that's my 2 cents.

In closing, I think one of the best "why I meditate" explanations was recently offered by former Econtalk guest Yuval Noah Harari in an interview with Ezra Kein. As in much of his other writing / commentary, Harari focused on Reality being something different from our commonly accepted Narratives. That interview is here.

Paul Garrison in Austin Texas writes:

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Dave writes:

1. I meditated for a regular basis over lunch times for a month, and I did it because I heard about all the research saying it was so beneficial.

It did nothing for me.

As the month progressed, I looked more and more into these studies, and instead found that they were almost all either funded by some Buddhist center, composed by authors who were part of Buddhist organizations,or were composed of citations to papers that were completely funded by Buddhist centers. I had and have an extremely difficult time trying to find some author who is neutral. In all, the experience left me a little bitter about having wasted some lunchtimes over the course of a month, which brings me to another point: due to the relatively "low cost" (scare quotes for the TANSTAAFLers out there) of meditation, I feel that critiques or counterarguments to the validity of meditation are extremely difficult to bring up in the conversation and have people take seriously.

2. As you can guess, I am extremely skeptical about the benefits. I was actually kind of hoping to hear Russ' typical quibbling over methodological approaches to how the meditation studies are done, especially because I have a hard time even hearing _any_ criticism about meditation (which actually makes me even more skeptical of it). The only criticism broached was the point regarding passivity. During the only critical point Russ brought up regarding meditation's passive nature, I was actually expecting the conversation to start discussing methods of active meditation, instead of actually suggesting that there is not _enough_ passivity in the world and therefore the criticism isn't valid (I apologize for the bastardization of that discussion, but that was how I took the response).

I apologize for only posting an answer to the first two questions, but I feel like someone has to at least provide some sort of opposition or differing viewpoint here.

Adi writes:

Longtime fan of Russ and especially EconTalk. I'm glad Russ did this podcast and it's very encouraging to know that he is also a practitioner.

I am a technologist and consider myself a very rational and skeptical person and am a religious agnostic. I was introduced to Vipassana during a 10 day silent retreat (Goenka style) and had a breakthrough similar to what Robert described. I especially like the experiential aspects and most of the explanations. I've been back to 2 more retreats but am now searching for deeper explanations and a somewhat more accessible style of Vipassana.

I've fallen out of practice of daily meditation and hope to do a silent retreat in the near future to reconnect with the practice.

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