Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On the desire for heaven or nirvana in contemplatives

In Buddhism the goal is to achieve nirvana, or enlightenment, but an enlightened person is not supposed to have any attachments. How is this reconciled? Is having the goal of enlightenment not an attachment? In Christianity the goal is to go to heaven, but to get there you should be selfless and focused on helping others. But is it not hypocritical to claim to care about others when the reason for this is the goal of getting yourself to heaven?  This is the same problem. Both practices have as their ideal a selfless existence driven by compassion, but this state comes with fantastic rewards.

If we look to the cognitive and neural sciences there is considerable evidence that the human brain pays a lot of attention to goals. Similar to our language ability, our ability to represent complex goals seems to be one of the defining features that separates us from all other animals. This ability, that allows us to survive, create technology, plan wars, etc., can also be a problem because, although we are very clever at achieving goals, research also shows that we are not good at choosing goals. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view as our evolutionary goals were quite simple - get food, get mate, defeat enemy, feed children, stay warm, etc. In other words, from an evolutionary perspective, choosing goals was not complex and to other animals; what differed was our ability to achieve those goals in ever more complex and efficient ways. So today people are sick from too much food, too much sex on the Internet, and too much stress from the pursuit of false goals that have been programmed into us by our consumer society.

We cannot eradicate goal driven thinking, our brains were designed around it. Instead, I believe that Christianity and Buddhism can be understood in terms of our ability to choose goals. Arguably, the main reason we are poor at choosing goals is that we never stop to think about it. We are programmed to move fro goal to goal with little or no thought. We are designed to fanatically peruse goals, not to question them. If we look at the saints and bodhisattvas they were not devoid of goals, but they taught austerity, which can be understood as the limiting of goals. Likewise, simplicity, silence, humility, poverty, and chastity were not meant as punishments, they are ways of limiting our choice of goals and training the mind to resist taking up goals. Contemplation teaches us to take time and think deeply about our goals. Meditation teaches us to silence the goal driven part of our brain entirely (although, as the Buddha found, this cannot be indefinitely maintained and is therefore not, in and of itself, a solution).


The Dalai Lama referred to the desire for enlightenment as enlightened self interest. In computational terms we can think of it as a virus. We put this goal into our goal processing system to disrupt the system, to slow it down and to limit it, in order to create space for contemplation and to allow us to set goals according to the fruits of contemplation.  

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