The Highest Good We Can Serve
The Effective Altruism movement aims to answer the question "how can we use our resources to help others the most?". Well, let us ask: what is the most we could ever help someone? In the quest for human progress, what would it mean to go all the way? What’s the highest, most altruistic goal we could shoot for, both as individuals and as a society? I venture that it is precisely this: to end (or fully minimise) suffering for every person on Earth. (The suffering of other sentient beings I consider a slightly separate issue and will exclude from this post for the sake of brevity).
If there are states of mind and brain that correspond to minimal suffering and maximal psychological freedom, awareness, happiness and love, should we not be prioritising dissemination of these states to as many people as possible, in line with the goal of Effective Altruism to help as many people as possible, as much as possible? A strategy for reaching this goal becomes obvious when we consider that there exist reliable, systematic methods to attain these mind-states; methods of training the mind that can be easily and often freely transmitted from human to human through verbal instruction.
The task of alleviating psychological suffering, even partially, meets the framework of a high-impact problem as described in an Introduction to Effective Altruism:
- Great in scale (just about every single human is subject to unnecessary psychological suffering)
- Highly neglected (techniques to alleviate suffering are esoteric and practiced only by a tiny majority), and
- Highly solvable (techniques and tools exist to alleviate suffering, and allocating funds towards their dissemination will increase their adoption - especially since they are mostly free or very cheap!).
Over and above meeting people's basic physiological and financial needs - which dominates the focus of modern philanthropy - we are faced with a 7-billion-instance problem of individual human psychology, and how to alter it to minimise suffering and maximise its positive aspects. Because once everybody on Earth is clothed, educated, working and fed, what then? We in the developed, materially abundant West know that there will still be widespread mental affliction (as evidenced by an epidemic of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression).
Eradicating human suffering is perhaps the highest goal we could ever serve, and would have a significantly positive knock-on effect for our fellow sentient beings on Earth (truly happy people are always benevolent). And while it is certainly ambitious, certainly what Peter Diamandis calls a "moonshot" goal, I am convinced that it is more achievable at this moment in history than ever before, and will explain why in this article. All over the world, momentum is growing towards it's realisation, and I hope that in time we will come to consider total psychological freedom our birthright.
It might be helpful if I make clear the fact that most of humanity's suffering is internal, borne of our mental responses and reactions to sensory stimuli, not the stimuli themselves (e.g. a colleague being unpleasant is upsetting because of our reaction to it; the sights and sounds of the colleague are not intrinsically unpleasant). This shifts our focus for suffering-alleviation from external, material circumstances (which, again, dominates the focus of modern philanthropy) to internal (i.e. subjective), psychological ones. Remedying psychological suffering has the potential to bring far greater human flourishing than any material change.
Happily, in this century we have the resources to bring both types of change, but I feel the need to write this article for fear that psychological suffering, ignorance and confusion is perhaps our planet's most neglected problem, the root source of so many other issues, and also because it is one with existing, readily implementable solutions. We need only to disseminate these solutions.
My argument can be summarised thus: if freedom from psychological suffering is actually possible, we should pursue this goal for every human. If it is not, then minimising suffering as much as possible is the next best goal we can serve.
I've made my case that this problem is great in scale and highly neglected, so let's look to the third requirement for a high-impact problem: highly solvable, and consider the evidence for psychological freedom from suffering.
The Evidence for Psychological Freedom (both Total and Partial)
We can take "total alleviation of suffering" to be synonymous with total psychological freedom: enlightenment, awakening, nirvana, the Self, unity with God, etc., since anecdotes of these experiences attest to the cessation of any negative mind-aspects and speak explicitly about positive ones, e.g. "infinite awareness and/or love". Naturally, for those of us who have never experienced such insights, it is an open question whether alleviation from suffering can ever be made total. But even in the case of partial alleviation, humanity will find boundless peace and love.
This is not a place to discuss the specifics of awakening, which are discussed and referred to within almost every religious and spiritual tradition using just as many conceptual frameworks, save for highlighting that there is significant anecdotal evidence that they exist, have been attained by various individuals across diverse times and places, and that those who attain them are adamant that they are the highest good in the world. It is often very difficult to disentangle an instance of awakening from the cultural and/or religious context in which it occurred. Indeed, we cannot be sure if the introspective practices of different traditions culminate in the same type of psychological freedom. But if these suffering-free states of mind (for want of a better description) are possible and achievable, is not their dissemination to as many people as possible one of the highest goods we could ever serve?
On the question of whether they exist, I will point to some resources:
Cosmic Consciousness (seminal systematic study of instances of full awakening throughout history), Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (a Western doctor's account of completing the Buddhist path), Why Buddhism is True (general discussion)
A Buddhist Perspective
As pointed out by evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright, we are incredibly fortunate to live in a universe in which awakening to the true nature of reality seems to be synonymous with the alleviation of suffering, which is the basic premise of Buddha's teachings. Insight leads to freedom.
While psychological freedom from suffering, or awakening, is a common aspect of many religious and spiritual traditions, a secular Buddhist (i.e. meditation focussed) framework is worth individual consideration for the following reasons: it contains a systematic meditative procedure for attaining full awakening (total psychological freedom / alleviation of suffering), one which provides rapid progress on path towards awakening compared to other techniques. There are also numerous anecdotal accounts from meditation practitioners - Buddhists and more recently secular Westerners -who have completed this path to attain full awakening. From the outset, Buddhist philosophy is very explicit about the existence of, and strategy to attain, enlightenment, or the alleviation of suffering.
If all this focus on enlightenment sounds a little mystical, let me highlight that those who have purportedly attained it describe it far more like a clear and all-embracing understanding of existence/reality/mind/consciousness, as opposed to entry into some heavenly or transcendent realm/state.
“The other world is this world, rightly seen” - Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.
In particular I would like to point out the technique of vipassana meditation within Theravada Buddhism. Vipassana meditation systematically cultivates the insight that leads to the cessation of suffering. It can be taught to anybody with a reasonably healthy mind and body within a 10 day course, at very little cost: a big factor in our requirement of high solubility. The first "glimpse" of awakening / nirvana in the vipassana tradition is known as "stream entry", and some Westerners have reached it within only a 10-day course.
Partial Freedom: the Next Best Thing
It is very hard for us to conceive of what life would be like for an enlightened person. Do they still have bad days, get annoyed, irritable and sad? How do they feel when their loved ones pass away? Can we ever really be free of suffering? If we could, would that make us inhuman in some way? Well, happily, I think the question of whether alleviation from suffering can be total or not is actually irrelevant to our task of simply minimising it.
Even if freedom from suffering is not possible or readily achievable, which could ultimately be the case, this does not mean huge alleviation of psychological suffering isn't possible. Or perhaps we can alter our perspective so much as to make even significant suffering fully bearable (e.g. Buddhist practitioners seem to be able to "ride out" suffering very well with their knowledge that it is inherently transient). Either way, it is undoubtable that the everyday waking experience of most people on Earth is very, very far from an expression of their full potential for love, awareness, happiness, peace, altruism and creativity. That is what we can begin to realise - to awaken - with a global movement of insight practitioners and consciousness explorers. And that remains one of the highest goals we could pursue regardless of whether it can ever be completed.
As already discussed, insight meditation is a direct method for alleviating suffering.
Would allocating funds / resources to different meditation organisations / retreat centres be one of the most positive impact donations one could make? It surely depends on how these organisations spend the money, and whether it directly results in more people learning to meditate. Meditation retreats are often free and run by volunteers, funded by donations, which does provide a mechanism for growth as more people attend courses. Indeed we can already see that one vipassana meditation organisation (S.N. Goenka's) has attained worldwide reach within half a century (not plugging this org, just pointing this remarkable growth trajectory, which is also an evidence-proof that vipassana meditation is working for many people).
Would money be better spent on meditation research, to solidify the scientific evidence of its efficacy and thus lead to wider acceptance and adoption? Or to research the existence of enlightenment states and their effect on suffering alleviation? I think, ultimately, this will be very important, since scientific evidence is one of the few arguments that can capture the support of governments and large organisations.
Perhaps we need only to spread the word, begin meditating ourselves and be vocal about its benefits, allowing word of mouth (and digital media) to grow the movement. Should we fund meditation instruction in schools?
It would be great to see some research on how to best allocate funds for maximum alleviation of human psychological suffering / maximal contribution to human flourishing, insight and psychological freedom. Maybe somebody at Effective Altruism or Open Philanthropy could initiate this? Please, do leave comments with your suggestions for how we can use the Effective Altruism framework to alleviate human psychological suffering. I have done my best to present my ideas, based on my experience and research.
Which other tools will be the most useful in bringing us to the goal of minimised psychological suffering? To list a few promising avenues
- Psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy. Here's a link to multiple essays on whether psychedelics can be useful for spiritual practice that aims towards awakening. They certainly catalysed many to turn to Eastern practices in the 60's: less likely to bring lasting psychological change but can direct people towards the path of insight. Hindered by stigma and illegality. I think it's important to be open to augmenting spiritual practice with pharmacological aids: most people don't have the willpower or strength of Buddha, and these compounds turn to be valuable companions on the path, properly respected. Nice related discussions here and here.
- Neurohacking: using biofeedback technology, pharmacology, diet and many other techniques to optimise brain function. A rapidly advancing field. With neurofeedback devices, for example, we can train our brain waves to match those of experienced meditators, for example, boosting meditative progress. This podcast covers neurohacking from multiple perspectives.
- Holotropic breathwork. Simple breathing technique of extended hyperventilation developed by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. It amazes me that this is not more widely practiced, since breathwork therapists report all the psychotherapeutic experiences and healing - even cessation "nirvana" experiences - from something as freely accessible as breathing.
- Mind-body practices: yoga, qigong, tai chi, martial arts...
- The Wim Hof Method, whose aim is to make practitioners "Happy Strong and Healthy". Amazing anecdotal reports on the WHM Facebook page.
- Flow states - in work, sports, creative and artistic expression, anything, really!
All of these can be supplementary to someone's pursuit of psychological freedom. No doubt there exist many more strategies, techniques and treatments, some of which have not even been invented / discovered yet!
Aside from the large-scale allocation of resources towards this goal, there is a way that each of us can contribute to it: by attaining insight ourselves. The motivation to do this for the betterment of others is beautifully captured by the Buddhist concept of bodhicitta: the being who awakens for the benefit of other beings. By cultivating insight, freeing ourselves from delusion and thus suffering, everyone we interact with will be lifted, if only slightly, towards the goal. Each of us can serve as a beacon for our fellow humans, a signpost towards the endgoal of total freedom.