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Wisdom Does Not Change: Sages, Saints and Science Share the Way

Part 1 of a 6-Part Series: We are not as in control of our lives as we assume

We experience the sun differently each day; but its heat does not change. In the same way, we experience busy thoughts each day, but wisdom does not change. We use those thoughts to make sense of our various outlooks, but we need our quietude to find wisdom.

Part 1 of a 6-Part Series

We are not as in control of our lives as we assume

In the online course, “Buddhism and Modern Psychology”, Robert Wright examines what triggers the mind to become activated in certain ways—after a scary movie compared to after a romantic movie, for example. He also describes how neurological studies have verified that the triggers that activate contemporary minds emulate responses that developed for survival living. Modern-day compulsive behavior patterns such as say ‘retail therapy’, or addictive habits are ancestral drives that have become redirected. The drives that urge us to over-consume and accumulate are the same drives that once prompted us to gather fruits, fetch water and hunt. Additional extant urges include protecting ourselves, caring for others, finding mates and other essential functions. Each urge is for a particular situation, such as to run from a lion, challenge a rival, protect a child, etc. Neurologists describe what generates such intuitive urges and motivations as Modules. Whichever Module has most preeminence helps define how you activate the part of ‘you’ that you display.

Modules compete for control of consciousness, and thus affect behavior. But Wright claims that there is no distinct ‘CEO of the mind’: we do not exercise overriding control over indefatigable, unchanging perceptions, preferences, drives and habits. Rather the mind is made up of competing mental modules, each with its distinct emphasis and agenda to take over. Far from being regulated by our conscious decisions, modules function like a committee that has no Chair or Roberts Rules.

But our minds aren’t designed only for personal responses; we are socially engineered. Our module-directed responses translate into ego-driven social behavior. In this respect, competing modules act like clamoring reporters who demand the attention of a celebrity. Imagine the celebrity as our conscious mind and the reporters our modules. For a while a predominant module commands the attention of conscious thinking. While it does so, the conscious mind deals with it in much the same way as a celebrity fields questions—with good PR. And like a celebrity’s bravado, the job of the ego-driven consciousness is to present a predominant module as if it were a whole person. Persistent, familiar and rewarding modules that help sustain us favorably (for better or worse) become predominant. Also modules that respond to urgent environmental factors such as danger leap to the fore. Dominant modules, however are let go willingly if satisfied. I might feel bad about how I treated someone, for example and make amends; this relinquishes my guilt-carrying module and its behavioral outcome.

After an unconscious process of multifaceted neural selections, the conscious mind gets delivery of our limited rational choices. But in “Buddhism and Modern Psychology” Wright explains that there is another way of functioning. Using Buddhist precepts he asks “Can meditation make us not just happier, but better people?” Wright describes how our self-willed, conscious mind need not be the sole commanding operator. We can also utilize an influential Quiet Mind that promotes inner equanimity with less self-directed thinking. Contemplative quietude releases egotistical willfulness and allows us, for example to become more truthful about ourselves. In a contemplative state we can become more disposed to change and open to fulfilling adjustments. To achieve this we can utilize some simple, proven undertakings to reveal how conscious effort alone does not fulfill us. And this theme will be explored in the next essay.

Review & Commentary