Sam Harris has written an excellent new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion that I highly recommend to anyone interested in a hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation. This post contains highlights from the book combined with updates on my own evolving understanding Buddhism and meditation.
Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses. Arianna Huffington’s recent book Thrive articulated meditation’s many benefits with great mass market appeal. As a fan of meditation, I’m excited by how many new resources there are. There’s no doubt that folks who’ve turned away from organized religion still need a kind of purpose that’s hard to develop on your own, and meditation can be seen as a tactical tool in the quest for developing a higher understanding about life. But it feels inevitable that there’ll be a backlash, as people take up the practice expecting a cure-all. As Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Meditation said to improve everything!” Yup — that’s a recipe for disappointment. Eventually, we’ll end up somewhere in the happy medium in terms of meditation delivering on the realistic expectations of its practitioners.
I first learned about meditation a decade ago. I distinctly remember the moment. I was sitting in my bedroom and felt a twitch in the tiny muscle below my left eyebrow and above my eyeball. I walked into the bathroom, put my face close to the mirror, and waited. Sure enough, a minute later, the same muscle spasmed. Some quick research that night revealed that this is a classic sign of stress. It figured: I was exceptionally busy with entrepreneurship and school, and I was exceptionally unskilled at managing busyness. I hopped on Amazon.com and bought the first book I found on stress reduction. That book introduced to me to meditation.
For several years thereafter, I meditated sporadically, in search of stress relief. I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and focused on the inhale and exhale of my breath. After 10 or 15 minutes, I opened my eyes, and felt calmer. There’s a growing literature that suggests that what I felt was real: simple mindfulness meditation generates positive health benefits such as reduced blood pressure and etc.
Even though meditation is an essential component of a Buddhist practice, I’ve never known much about Buddhism. As a bit of personal history, I was baptized Catholic but was atheist by my teen years. I remained open to the idea of “spiritual” experiences, though. I’d had some experiences in nature that induced feelings of awe, which is the most concrete, secular type of spirituality I can think of. For example, staring up at the stars in a rural village outside Beijing or hiking in Kenai Peninsula in Alaska and stopping on a mountain of shale and looking out over the vast land. I’ve also experienced moments of extreme present-ness: I vividly remember hearing a teacher tell a story once of returning to his native war-torn Lebanon as a child on Christmas eve, driving through the rainy streets in his parents’ car on the way to his childhood home, and during that drive, looking out the window and seeing the reflection of Christmas ornaments in the puddles of water. It was the happiest moment of his life, he said. When I heard the story, I got goosebumps.
For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:
Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.
Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.
Buddhism: What Resonates, What Doesn’t
Yes: Happiness Must Come From Within
Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within. Here’s Harris:
our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment. …
The Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha, usually translated from the Pali, somewhat misleadingly, as “suffering.” A better translation would be “unsatisfactoriness.” Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is.
Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? Everything we want to accomplish—to paint the house, learn a new language, find a better job—is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope.
Agreed. Good things happen, bad things happen, everything arises and passes away. True harmony must be something steadier.
Yes: Self-Transendance (Or, Using a Window as a Window, Not a Mirror)
The more important idea of many Buddhist teachings — and the primary emphasis on Sam Harris’s book — is the illusion of a separate ego. Harris focuses on the quite secular project of “self-transcendance”:
The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.
I need to re-read these passages of the book and do quite a bit more practice to fully understand this idea. It’s not simple! But it feels potentially quite profound, and an area I’ll explore in the years ahead.
Yes: Understand via Experience. Observe Yourself. There is No Book with Answers.
Buddhism asks its students to observe themselves and come to their own answers. You learn by experience. As Larry Rosenberg wrote in Breath by Breath, another good book on the topic, Buddhism isn’t about beliefs — it’s about first hand knowledge. By observing the impermanent sensations on your body, for example, you learn about the impermanence of thought patterns. The historical Buddha was a man who woke up and offered thoughts on the illusion of ego and the path for true harmony. Contrast his life story to the Christian narrative of Jesus — who’s billed as the son of the creator of the entire freakin’ universe. There’s a humility to Buddhist teachings that’s attractive. Although there are celebrity spiritual gurus alive today, in the Vipassana retreats I’ve been on there is a kind of disavowal of higher spirits or gurus. The unpaid “civilian” teachers wear sweatpants and t-shirts. There are no candles and no prayers. Only attention to your breath and your body.
Not So Much: Reincarnation and Other Claims About the Cosmos
The Buddha made several claims about the cosmos that are fanciful. E.g. Reincarnation, karma, and so on. Harris argues that you can ignore them and still profit (spiritually, that is!) from the other claims about self-mastery. I’m persuaded that’s the case.
Not So Much: Focus on Self to the Exclusion of Needy Others
Buddhism strikes me as self-absorbed. In a Christian church, there’s wonderful emphasis about how Jesus taught us to help those in need. You never hear that theme in talks about Buddhism. To be sure, there are teachings about compassion and a type of meditation called metta that promotes loving kindness, but it’s never felt as foundational to me as the idea of liberation of one’s self, transcendence of one’s ego, and achieving “perfect equanimity,” as S.N. Goenka says over and over again. Here’s Harris on this point:
The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems. But it is not a compelling one. The world is in desperate need of improvement—in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception—and yet this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.
Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing.
Okay, but it’s hard to do both at once.
Not So Much: Apathy and Passiveness, Instead of Passion
Can you really change the world and still be Buddhist? Is making the world a better place even embedded in the idea set? Harris again:
There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves
We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.
I’m not so sure these two can be squared. The classic change-the-world entrepreneurial vision requires a huge amount of passion, often with extraordinary highs and extraordinary lows along the way. It requires commitment to goals.
Advanced Meditation: Beyond the Retreats
More serious meditative practice intrigued me because I was interested in achieving a higher degree of self-possession beyond simple relaxation — being able to better control what I think and when, to cut short unhelpful thought cycles, to be present in a new moment even if something lousy happened just prior, to quiet the monkey mind in bed so I could sleep better, and perhaps ultimately achieve some of the higher Buddhist ideals of harmony. Breathing for 5-10 minutes certainly calms you down, but doesn’t sculpt the mind. It doesn’t shift your “doggy mind” to the “lion’s mind” of deep steadiness. Occasional breathing exercises is like going on the occasional jog in the park: the result will be positive but very different than lifting weights in a gym under a trainer’s watchful eye.
Harris writes, “No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.” Exactly. I needed to train.
To more seriously train my mind and jumpstart a regular practice, a couple years ago I attended a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat, followed by a 3 day silent retreat. I wrote extensive blog posts about each retreat. As I wrote in my 10 day retreat reflection, the peak of the experience came around 80 hours in, when I began to understand the difference between being “lost in thought” and being hyper observant of what thoughts I was having. It wasn’t that I had no thoughts; I had thoughts because I was fully conscious, but I felt in control of my thoughts.
This is one of the most helpful analogies I’ve come across about what it means to be totally present in meditation, via Harris:
Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives.
The power of your mind:
Become sensitive to these interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else—something that no longer supports your current emotion—allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.
Since the retreats, I’ve maintained a regular practice, meditating for 4-5 days a week for on average 20 minutes each sit, totaling about 500 hours of meditating in my life. For the first year after the 10 day, I was obsessed with not skipping a day. “Daily practice” is an idea pounded into your head by meditation teachers, and most apps that track your sits (I use Insight Timer) display how many days you’ve consecutively logged time. I sought to do it daily — even if it was for a throwaway 3 minutes at 11:57 PM. My reasoning was that if I focused on daily practice eventually it would become so ingrained that even if I did miss a day, I’d be conscious of the skip, and pick it up the next day. Today, that is indeed the case: when I’m getting ready to sleep, if I haven’t meditated, I’ll think about it, and sometimes choose not to meditate. That, to me, is the habit formation I was looking for. Missing a day here or there isn’t a big deal and having that attitude relieves yourself of the practice feeling like a burden. If I’m traveling and exhausted, and I know sitting for 10 minutes won’t work very well, I’ll just skip.
Everyone should do a 10 day retreat at least once in their life, even if you never meditate again. A silent retreat will almost certainly be a mind bending experience. No using any technology, not reading, not writing, not speaking — that alone will be hugely impactful, even if you get nothing out of the meditation aspect. Being alone with your thoughts for such a length of time is an experience unlike any other.
My meditation practice has certainly promoted a greater degree of mindfulness (being intentional with my attention) in my day-to-day life when I’m not on the cushion. With a subtle attention to my breath and bodily sensations, I can return to the here and now more easily, and calm the monkey mind more than I could before. But has it made me happier? In this worthwhile, skeptical take on the meditation boom on NYTimes.com, Tony Schwartz, author of the excellent Power of Full Engagement, reflects on his years of meditating and says:
Building the capacity to quiet the mind has undeniable value at a time when our attention is under siege, and distraction has become our steady state. Meditation – in the right doses — is also valuable as a means to relax the body, quiet the emotions and refresh one’s energy. There is growing evidence that meditation has some health benefits. What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.
It’s a fair point.
All in all, I found Harris’s book super provocative and I highly recommend it. Below the fold are a couple other interesting paragraphs from Harris.
On theory of mind and why movies are so compelling:
One of the most important things we do with our minds is attribute mental states to other people, a faculty that has been variously described as “theory of mind,” “mentalizing,” “mindsight,” “mind reading,” and the “intentional stance.” The ability to recognize and interpret the mental activity of others is essential for normal cognitive and social development, and deficits in this area contribute to a variety of mental disorders, including autism.
The neurologist V. S. Ramachandran seems to have been thinking along these lines when he wrote, “It may not be coincidental that [you] use phrases like ‘self conscious’ when you really mean that you are conscious of others being conscious of you.”
This very likely explains why most of us find movies and television so compelling. The moment we turn our eyes to the screen, we are in a social situation that our hominid genes could not have foreseen: We can view the actions of others, along with the minutiae of their facial expressions—even to the point of making eye contact with them—without the slightest risk of being observed ourselves. Movies and television magically transform the primordial context of face-to-face encounters, in which human beings have always been subjected to harrowing social lessons, allowing us, for the first time, to devote ourselves wholly to the act of observing other people. This is voyeurism of a transcendental kind.
On differences in consciousness:
We’ve all had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly noticing our own reflection in the glass. At that moment we have a choice: to use the window as a window and see the world beyond, or to use it as a mirror. It is extraordinarily easy to shift back and forth between these two views but impossible to truly focus on both simultaneously. This shift offers a very good analogy both for what it is like to recognize the illusoriness of the self for the first time and for why it can take so long to do it.