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C O U R S E 
Buddhism and Modern Psychology
Robert Wright, Princeton University
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
The Evolution and Purpose of Feelings
Notes taken on January 20, 2015 by Edward Tanguay
does the Buddhist prescription help us see the world more clearly?
one of the main parts of the Buddhist prescription is viewing the world mindfully
this can change your relationship to your feelings
there are feelings that perhaps used to mediate your interaction with reality in a way they no longer will
but does this changed relationship to your feelings help you see the world more clearly
what was the relationships between the feelings and reality to begin with
we will consider two feelings: anxiety and rage
the Buddha talked quite a bit about hedonistic tone
pleasant feelings
unpleasant feelings
neutral feelings
not talking about emotions
he did not address emotions as categories
he's talking about raw feeling
positive or negative
pleasant or unpleasant
most emotions are either overwhelmingly positive or negative like joy or fear
feeling tones are essential ingredients in our emotions
what is the evolutionary function of positive and negative feelings?
our base feelings are fundamentally about approach and avoidance of phenomena in our environment: approaching a rattle snake feels bad, approaching food feels good
we assume our primate relatives have these feelings as well, and this may go down to very simple organisms
it may be that even water fleas "feel" at some level attracted to the blue light, and when the blue light turns off, they feel let down
feelings are about motivating behavior
direct way
hand in an open fire
indirect way
think of someone you don't like
have a litany of grievances against them
feelings influence our thoughts
we feel their impact
Buddhist assert that when they meditate, they are aware that feelings are not real, i.e. they can get their thoughts around them, and change them
when you get outside them, meta-think around them, they may not feel substantial the way they normally do
you sometimes hear that feelings are not "true"
what does it mean that feelings are true or false
it can mean various things
if indeed the evolutionary purpose of feelings is to steer the organism away from things that are bad for the organism
and steer it toward things that are good for it
in this case, feelings are judgements about what is good and bad for the organism
and judgement about behavior
it is most likely the case that base feelings in humans arose in more primative organisms that weren't smart enough to logically think through whether something in the environment is good or bad for the organism
in this way feelings are the encoding of primal judgements about the environment
and these judgements can be true of false
natural selection is in general good at forming organisms to have appropriate feelings for their environment, but the environment can change, and in the case of modern humans, our environment has changed radically since feeling were baked into our psyche
and we find ourselves in situations that natural selection did not design us for
look around you, does this look like a hunter/gather village to you? no.
we're living in a radically transformed environment that is nothing like the environment we were designed for
this can influence whether feelings are accurate judgements about things in our environment
a simple example is powdered sugar donuts
they are not good for my body
why am I attracted to them?
because the environment in which humans were designed, sweet things were generally good for you, fruits, and they were quite rare, so when you found them, you craved them, thus eating as much as you could to store up on them
the the sweet tooth that helped us survive in a hunter/gatherer environment can, in our modern environment of easily accessible junk food, lead us to do things that are not healthy for us at all
another good example is rage
in a hunter/gatherer environment, it was very important that you sent the message that you were not to be exploited or taken advantage of
when this happened, it made sense to got on a rage, not only to send a message to the person who exploited you, but to the whole clan audience
but let's look at rage in a modern society, e.g. road rage
the person you are sending a message toward is most probably someone you will never see again
so there is no value in sending them a message
everyone who's watching this are also people you will never see again
so there is no point whatsoever in pursuing your rage, and there is considerable danger since you are in a moving vehicle
yet as senseless as it is for us, people easily succumb to this road rage
so while a sweet tooth and a tendency for rage was once a reliable guide for living healthily in our environment, in our modern environment, for the most part, these feeling doing make any sense at all and have become inappropriate guides for us to determine appropriate behavior
public speaking
anyone who has done it has found at least a little anxiety
many people have felt a lot of anxiety
sometimes crippling anxiety
the anxiety itself makes some sense
what others think of us and what others thought of us during the eons of evolution matters since our social status and how many friends we had was correlated with the chances of us getting our genes into the next generation
so it makes sense that you would be concerned about impressing people
but what's not natural is that you would find yourself talking to dozens or hundreds of people that you've never met before
this is what causes anxiety
it's not something we were designed to do
so while the anxiety could be productive in getting you to prepare well
not being able to sleep the night before or during your speech not being able to find the words are examples of anxiety being counter productive
this anxiety is no longer being a reliable guide for how you should act
feeling mislead us
make us think a rope is a snake
can mislead us in the pursuit of happiness
suggest that pleasure is going to last longer than it lasts
while some of our feelings merely cause us to err on the side of caution when there is a threat
others such as rage and anxiety do not make sense at all in our modern environment
some say this is all the more reason to be mindful
decide which ones you will let get traction and that you will engage with
this is what Buddhism refers to as wisdom
Buddhism makes the claim that the self, that thing inside of you which you think is running the show, is itself an illusion, and there's a fair amount of evidence of psychology to support the idea that the self is in some sense illusory, which has radical implications for how we live our lives, how we view our feelings, which feelings we choose to let govern us, and which we don't.