Sam Harris' Final Plea to Meditate

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

My guy Sam Harris released a podcast episode recently where he pleads with his listeners to look past their skepticism of meditation. While I have been on the meditation bandwagon for a few years now, I thought his argument was convincing. I transcribed it, as I thought it was a good writing example for how to change the mind of someone who’s sticky to their ideas. And I thought I’d share it in hopes of getting more lovely people on the meditation train. Hop aboard.

Listen to Sam Harris’ conversation with Richard Lang here. 

There are specific insights into the nature of mind that I consider to be the most important things I've ever learned. And they're not a matter of simply believing something new. And they're certainly not matters of faith. And the fact that some of these insights have been best described in Eastern traditions like Buddhism doesn't make them Buddhist no more than the fact that Isaac Newton was Christian makes the laws of motion somehow Christian. And these insights are not merely important for one's well-being. They're important intellectually, they clear up philosophical and ethical and even scientific confusion. 

And the truth is, I've been very slow to appreciate this. I've been slow to understand just how much intellectual work has been done for me by the fact that I've had certain experiences in meditation and these experiences have made certain features of the mind obvious. So there are questions about things like freewill or the hard problem of consciousness or the nature of morality that people continually get hung up on. And I often can't see the basis for their confusion. And more and more, I see that this basis is not conceptual, it’s that they can't actually notice certain things about their own experience. Take freewill, for instance. This is a topic I've covered a lot. People find it endlessly bewildering. The truth is we have every reason to believe that freewill is an incoherent concept. It just doesn't make sense in a deterministic universe and it doesn't make any sense if you add a dose of randomness to the universe either. And this has been obvious for probably 400 years. And yet I keep running into smart people who think that free will is a real intellectual problem. That we know we have it in some sense. Well, we have some purified version of it and we find ourselves at a kind of intellectual stalemate when debating it philosophically or scientifically. 

Now, of course, there have been people on the podcast who have agreed with me. People like Robert Sapolsky and Jerry Coyne. But even in agreement, they are taken in by the illusion of free will. The reality is that if you can pay sufficient attention to your mind, the illusion disappears and it becomes obvious that everything is just arising on its own, including one's thoughts and intentions and other mental precursors to action. There is just no fine grained experiential correlate to the common notion of freewill. That's why I say in my book on the topic that the illusion of freewill is itself an illusion. There is no illusion of free will. So being a better observer of the nature of one's own mind isn't just a matter of improving one's well-being, though that is one of the core purposes of meditation. It's also an intellectual project. It's a matter of bringing one's first person understanding, one's subjective experience into closer alignment with a third person. Understanding that is an objective understanding of how the world is. And meditation is the training that allows you to do this. 

Consider the analogy that I've sometimes used to the optic blindspot. You all know you have a blind spot in your visual field and I'm sure most of you were taught to see it in school. You made two marks on a piece of paper. You closed one eye. You stared at one of those marks and brought the paper closer until the second mark disappeared. There's a very simple procedure subjectively that allows you to see something right on the surface of consciousness that you would otherwise spend your lifetime overlooking. And the blind spot was actually predicted based on our growing understanding of the anatomy of the eye. And then someone developed the simple procedure by which one can find it, right. So in seeing the blind spot, you're actually seeing something subjectively as a matter of direct experience that reveals a deeper truth about the eye. 

Well, I can also say that the non-existence of an unchanging self in the middle of experience, an ego, the feeling that we call I is also predicted by the structure and function of the brain. The feeling of being an ego in your head, a thinker, in addition to the next arising thought, can't be one's true point of view. And in fact, the feeling that such a self exists is the same feeling to which people attach this notion of freewill. There is no self who could enjoy this spurious power of freewill. And this was directly suggested by what we know is going on in the world and in the world inside our heads. There's no account of neuroanatomy or neurophysiology that would make sense of an unchanging self freely exercising its will. And meditation ultimately is a very simple procedure that allows one to discover the absence of this fake self directly. 

And here you can see that reasonable sounding objections from skeptics aren't reasonable. Consider the one I just mentioned. Right. What if you're wrong? What if you're just fooling yourself? How is this different from believing in God? All right, well, okay. Imagine if someone said this to you about the optic blindspot. Right. You've run this experiment and you can do it again right now. You can interrogate your conscious perception of the visual field directly. Right now. And see that dot on the page. Disappear and reappear and disappear and reappear. You can do this on demand. You can do it a dozen times in the next 30 seconds. 

And what if you found yourself talking to an otherwise brilliant person, a professional philosopher or physicist? But this is a person who clearly had not picked up a piece of paper, much less put a mark on it to do the experiment. And then imagine that when you explain the procedure to them, they had an argument for why there was no point in doing it or they said they had bad experiences with paper in the past. Their mother was really into paper and they just have bad associations with it. Or maybe they claim to have done the experiment, but from everything they say about their experience, you can tell they were holding the paper wrong or they had failed to close one eye or they didn't know which dot they should be looking at. Perform the blind spot experiment now, or just remember clearly how decisive it is and take a moment to imagine hearing these kinds of objections from smart people. 

And then you'll get a sense of what my experience is like in these conversations. And the truth is, this analogy isn't sufficient because you also have to imagine that seeing the blind spot directly is much more valuable than it is, right? Imagine that seeing the blind spot significantly improved your life. Imagine I gave you a capacity to let go of negative emotions more or less immediately. And whatever it allowed you to understand other things intellectually and ethically that you couldn't understand before. If you add that component, you'll get a sense of why I've been banging on about the importance of meditation, even in situations where the person I'm speaking with seems less than interested. The podcast I did with Adam Grant and Richard Dawkins last year are good examples of this. I'm riding my hobbyhorse about meditation to the evident frustration of my guest. The reality is there's not many people in a position to do this. There are not many people who understand the science and the relevant philosophy and are committed to fully coming out from under the shadow of religion who know down to their toes. We have to get out of the religion business and who yet understand what consciousness is like beyond the illusion of the self. And if you've heard me talk about this before, you'll know I'm not holding myself up as a perfect example of this understanding. I still consider myself a student of it. I'm merely practicing this understanding. 

And again, the recommendation I make about meditation is not narrowly based on the peripheral scientific claims for it that have been so hyped in the media as a tool of stress reduction or for improving one's health. It probably does reduce stress, and that's probably good for you, but that's not its core purpose. It's a much deeper interest psychologically and intellectually than that. Now imagine hearing that someone is playing grandmaster level chess just to reduce stress. Right. That's not likely. The whole motivation. Whether or not chess can reduce stress in the end. 

So if I've established any credibility with you as a thinker, as an honest broker of information and as a critic of religion. Please take this for what it's worth. There is something to understand here. More precisely, there's something to experience here that will change your understanding of many other things. And the fact that traditional efforts to have this insights have tended to occur in religious contexts and in new age and cultist contexts, the fact that some people who talk about the illusion of the self. Turn out to be New Age fraud's, for instance. That's inconvenient. Yes, it's distracting. But it's irrelevant in the end. James Watson's user interface issues as a person and his resulting professional problems have no implications for the actual structure of DNA. So in this episode of the podcast, I want to give you one more look at the kinds of things I'm talking about almost entirely in the waking up app. And to do that, I want to introduce you to Richard Lang. He was a longtime student of Douglas Harding, who I've mentioned several times. 

Douglas was an architect by training and then devised his own very creative way of talking about the nature of awareness. He really stepped out of every traditional way of teaching and came up with his own metaphors and procedures. And the core of his teaching surrounds this experience of what he called having no head. And he wrote a book by that title on having no head. And I've long thought that while there are some liabilities with this way of teaching and practicing and I discuss some of those with Richard here, but it is a uniquely accessible way of unmasking this experience of selflessness. Many people get it who I'm convinced would not get it by being given more traditional instructions. Now, what they make of it is another thing. It's quite possible to not see its significance initially. And again, I talk about that with Richard. But introducing Richard in this context seems especially apropos because Douglas Harding and his teaching were at one point singled out for criticism by some very smart people. In fact, by my friend Dan Dennett and his collaborator Douglas Hofstetter in their book The Mind's I. And I wrote about this in my book, Waking Up, because this was really a crystal clear moment of, again, very smart people who consider it their full time job to think about the nature of the mind, having no idea what they're talking about when it comes to a first person method of investigating it. 

So before I bring Richard into the conversation, I want to read the section from my book, Waking Up titled On Having No Head. The basic insight is this that Douglas noticed that from the first person point of view when he looked out at the world, he did not see his own face. He did not see his own head. Rather, where he knew his head to be, there was simply the world. Right. So when he was looking at another person's face and they were looking back at him. And he was feeling implicated by their gaze because he knew what they were staring at. They were staring at his face. He noticed that as a matter of direct experience, there is no face there. And he found that he was simply the space in which they were appearing. I'll give you the quotation that Hofstetter and Dennett excerpted in their book and then criticized. Just give you a sense of the intellectual impasse here. So as the quotation from Douglas Hardin, then I'll give you Hofstetter is reaction to it. What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular. 

“I stop thinking a peculiar, quiet and odd kind of alert limpness or numbness came over me. Reason and imagination or mental chatter died down for once. Words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was. My name, manhood, animalhood, all that can be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the now that present moment. And what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouser legs terminating downwards and a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in absolutely nothing whatsoever. Certainly not in a head. It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing. This hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness, vastly filled in. Nothing that found room for everything, room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills and far above them, snow peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void. And and this was the real miracle. The wonder and delight utterly free of me. Unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence. Body and soul lighter than air, clearer than glass altogether released from myself. I was nowhere around. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden. I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed, to this marvelous substitute for a head. This unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is rather than contains all things. For however carefully I tend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected or a clear mirror in which they are reflected or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed. Still less a soul or a mind to which they are presented or a viewer. However shadowy, who is distinguishable from the view nothing. Whatever intervenes. Not even the baffling and elusive obstacle called distance. The huge blue sky. The pink edged whiteness of the snow. The sparkling green of the grass. How can these be remote when there's nothing to be remote from? The headless void refused his own definition and location. It is not round or small or big or even here as distinct from there.”

 OK, so that's the end of Harding’s quotation. And then here is my follow up text, Hardings assertion that he has no head must be read in the first person since the man was not claiming to have been literally decapitated from a first person point of view. His emphasis on headlessness is a stroke of genius that offers an unusually clear description of what it's like to glimpse the non-duality of consciousness. Here’s Hofstetter’s quote, reflections on Hardings account. So now I'm quoting Hofstetter in the book he co-authored with my friend Dan Dennett. 

“We've here been presented with a charmingly childish and solipsistic view of the human condition. It is something that at an intellectual level offends and appalls us. Can anyone sincerely entertain such notions without embarrassment? Yet to some primitive level in us, it speaks clearly. That is the level at which we can not accept the notion of our own death.”

OK, so back to me. Having expressed his pity for batty old hardon, Hofstetter proceeded to explain away his insides as a solipsistic denial of mortality, a perpetuation of the childish illusion that, quote, I am a necessary ingredient of the universe and quote. However, Hardings point was that I is not even an ingredient necessary or otherwise of his own mind. What Hofstetter fails to realize is that Hardings account contains a precise empirical instruction look for whatever it is you are calling I without being distracted by even the subtlest undercurrent of thought. And notice what happens the moment you turn consciousness upon itself. This illustrates a very common phenomenon in scientific and secular circles. We have a contemplative like Harding, who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity. And we have a scholar like Hofstetter, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind, who dismisses him as a child. 

OK. So that's a very clear illustration of the intellectual impasse. And upon hearing my conversation with Richard Lang, many of you may still be stuck on Hofstetter, his side of the impasse. You might just think. What are they talking about? Of course, I can't see my head. What are you crazy? Yeah, if that's where you're stuck. All I can do is encourage you to keep looking.

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You can get one month of the Waking Up app for free (this is no doubt the best meditation app out there), by clicking this link.

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