Most people who believe they are meditating are just thinking with their eyes closed.
Forces of digestion and metabolism are at work within me that are utterly beyond my perception or control. Most of my internal organs may as well not exist for all I know of them directly, and yet I can be reasonably certain that I have them, arranged much as any medical textbook would suggest. The taste of the coffee, my satisfaction at its flavor, the feeling of the warm cup in my hand—while these are immediate facts with which I am acquainted, they reach back into a dark wilderness of facts that I will never come to know.
... Where am I, that I have such a poor view of things? And what sort of thing am I that both my outside and my inside are so obscure? ... Am I inside my skull? Let’s say yes for the moment, because we are quickly running out of places to look for me. Where inside my skull might I be? And if I’m up there in my head, how is the rest of me me?
A surprisingly humble and sincere book. Some readers feel tricked - that Harris is smuggling in science under soft, false pretences. This isn’t fair; he has done this stuff for decades, visited lamas in Tibet, put in the work. He wouldn’t do so much insincerely; whatever his other failings, he’s actually trying to bridge the two kinds of seekers.
(That said, the cover is a masterpiece of camouflage. Look at the soft colours, the sunny logo, the sans-serif purity, the unthreatening subtitle. Compare his other books!)
Consider all the things people mean by “spirituality”:
- subjective knowledge of ultimate / immaterial reality
1b. gaining supernatural abilities as a result
- one’s deep moral or existential values
- personal growth
- feeling of awe-inspiring beauty
- introspection; close contact with one’s own “inner dimension”
- “the ability to step a little back from your emotions and thoughts, observe them as they are without getting swept up in them, and then evaluating them critically”
- sense of love towards (all) others
- the quest to see the ego and the self as illusory
With so much popular support - with so much baggage - it’s not possible to throw out the word or concept; instead we have to try and reform it. This is Harris’ mission - though in fact he focusses almost exclusively on (5) -> (8), the standard Buddhist therapy of not being hurt by distraction, bad luck, frustrated desires, a pesky inner homunculus.
And obviously he rejects (1): we are psychologising the whole thing. Paraphrased: ‘Instead of making you experience reality, meditation lets you experience your mind; instead of strengthening your insubstantial soul, you’re strengthening your mind.’
This is a healthy reconstruction in my view, but it certainly leads him to make controversial claims like “The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self”. Metaphysically profligate readers will have no fun here. (But they knew that already.)
How can a scientist (or at least a pro-science talking head) boost a practice whichs aim to reject thought? Well, in most practitioners the rejection is a temporary one. And the trick is to distinguish thinking / experiencing (which are the locus of all value, and of decisions, and of creativity) from identifying with the stream of your thoughts, from being carried away, from being permanently distracted.
I’m an unpromising practitioner. For instance, this is kind of my jam. It’s not the indescribability that bothers me - after all, any knowledge-how is indescribable (or rather describable only with millions of parameters). You can accept Hume or Parfit’s reasoning - you can have the propositional knowledge, can know that “there is no self beyond my bundle of experiences”. Meditation is supposed to be the know-how of nonessentialism, the skill of actually paying attention to the implications of this System-2 judgment.
But being ‘nonconceptual’ means no language, no premises, no reason, no jokes, no connection, no comparison. It means using none of my strengths, leaving none of my spoor. On the face of it this is a great loss to me.
I don’t know that I do suffer as a result of identifying with my thoughts; I don’t think that dissatisfaction lurks in every sensation I ever experience or also my whole life in retrospect. But the old claim, similar to Marxist or feminist ‘false consciousness’, is that I am too owned to realise I’m being owned:
beginning meditators... report after days or weeks of intensive practice that their attention is carried away by thought every few seconds. This is actually progress. It takes a certain degree of concentration to even notice how distracted you are.
Freedom from desire sounds much like death to me, for all that Harris and others argue that it can somehow coexist with passion against the suffering of others, with striving to be a better person, with chipping in to the Great Project of discovery, compassion, optimisation. Luckily the two strands of the Buddhist project seem to be separable:
- really feeling that you are not your thoughts, not a homunculus behind your eyes having them;
- not wanting things because wanting leads to disappointment.
A consolation: there’s a sense in which meditation, introspection and phenomenology are highly, maximally empirical - they involve very close attention and analysis of the raw data. It just happens that the raw data (the sense-data) are irreplicable, private, closed, and so not directly a matter for science. Empiricism before science, consciousness without self. I like this part.
Mindfulness is billed as not just cool and true but useful -
No doubt many distinct mechanisms are involved - the regulation of attention and behaviour, increased body awareness, inhibition of negative emotions, reframing of experience, changes in your view of the 'self', and so forth - and each of these will have their own neurophysiological basis.
Well, I do love self-regulation!
The following argument isn’t explicitly stated by Harris, but I find it helpful as an existence-proof for the usefulness of nonessentialism:
We are happy and perform well when we’re in ‘flow’ states.
Flow states involve “losing” yourself in a task, in a concrete, unhesitating sequence of perceptions and actions.
Therefore losing yourself can be good and helpful.
We do not directly apprehend the external world; we know it through sense-data plus massive computational modelling tricks in the brain.
We know that the brain computes the wrong thing sometimes. (Cognitive biases, optical illusions, top-down processing, hallucinations.)
So, if such a thing is possible, it could be helpful to attend to sense-data more closely, to spot auto brain errors. Maybe more than fleeting sensory illusions too.
While I don’t have a very clear philosophy of mind, I know I’m not a direct realist or substance dualist or identity essentialist, so I’ve no philosophical objections to breaking down the Self, either. Allons-y.
Does this stuff work?
Maybe. For the most important part, mental health, there is a consensus amongst positive and clinical psychologists in favour, d=0.3 or so - but unfortunately this means less than it should. It probably workson average for stress reduction - at least as much as taking a nap does, or valium, or sitting still and breathing deeply for a while. On the other end, it is definitely not the source of brain-juice-drinking power. Somewhere between these two limits we drift, deciding whether to spend time on it.
(Note also that there are likely to be types of people who are harmed by contemplation and self-negation.)
Is it worth it?
It’s an expensive project: it costs me part of my most wilful and focussed hours, maybe 3% of all my waking hours, to be spent, if I am serious, for the rest of my life.
Even if I accept that mindfulness is a source of value, there’s presumably still a tradeoff against clearer, quicker, more public sources: doing science or kindnesses or pleasures. 10 days spent in myself is 10 days not learning, not exercising, not enjoying, not helping, not meeting, in solitary. (And even on the contemplative axis it competes with Stoicism, with yoga, with writing, with psychedelics.)
It is sometimes claimed that it will increase my focus and so pay off in those narrow terms. But I’d be surprised if the effect was strong enough to overcome the high time investment.
Some contemplatives freely admit that the cost is very high: some contemplatives are not just salesmen. I met someone who claimed to be capital-e-enlightened. (He was otherwise articulate and modest.) He said it took 6 years’ work, at many hours a week. I asked him if he could say how valuable it is in other terms - ‘What else has been as good?’ He said: a decade of intense psychotherapy, or two philosophy degrees.
(One ancient text teases us by setting ‘seven years’ as the required period, but in true troll-Buddhist style it then slowly walks back this helpful definite statement.)
I was looking forward to writing a gotcha here, but Harris (and thousands of years of arhats and yogis) pre-empted me:
...the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self -[but] to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one's apparent bondage in each moment.
One [solution] is to simply ignore the paradox and adopt various techniques of meditation in the hope that a breakthrough will occur. Some people appear to succeed at this, but many fail... Goal-oriented modes of practice have the virtue of being easily taught, because a person can begin them without having had any fundamental insight...
...The other traditional response is... to concede that all efforts are doomed, because the urge to attain self-transcedence or any other mystical experience is a symptom of the very disease we want to cure. There is nothing to do but give up the search.
I’m not actually worried by this, because I suspect the full-Buddhist anti-striving thing is unnecessary and… undesirable.
Grand doubt about grand doubt
Why should an evolved creature have the power to inspect its own sense-data? If we are constantly distracting ourselves with reified thoughts, what evolutionary role did this play? At the top of this review is Harris’ droll diss about people deluding themselves into thinking they are meditating - but how can we know that we, or anyone, is not deluded? (Brain scans of inhibited medial PFCs are interesting but merely suggestive.)
This is more of a brain dump than a review: most of the above isn’t directly from Harris, I’m riffing off better rational reconstructions of this ancient one-weird-trick. His chapter warning of the history of appalling abuse by gurus and yogis is a public service and I’d be happy to see it in every self-help book.
Some aficionados are a bit snobby about Harris and his app, just as he is aggressive about the religious and cultish sides. I suppose the great benefit of Harris is abrasiveness: this is the only way to reach a certain large demographic - the ‘epistemic rationalist’, the Skeptic, the Freethinker, the parachute RCT wanter. Harris has so much credibility as a rational thug that he can bring mindfulness to its most distant, conceptualising, recalcitrant population. I am open to the idea that this is a good thing.
See also my thoughts on ways introspection fails.
Why listen to me on this topic?
- immersion in the field and/or good priors for what makes for an extraordinary claim in it;
- incredible amounts of fact-checking gruntwork, at least 5x the time it takes to just read something; or
- incredible amounts of argument-checking, which doesn't need domain knowledge.
In this case, don't trust me much. I am no mind scientist; nor have I personally experienced the claimed benefits, I just know people who have. I've only half-tried this stuff. I am sympathetic to half the implied philosophy and deeply hostile to the other half.
Luke commented on 05 April 2020 :
Sometimes I can see visual static if I focus or begin to deconstruct noises and I’ve come to think there’s not much value in that sort of thing. I know two big exceptions. People with chronic pain can deconstruct the pain (“oh it’s just tingling plus throbbing”). People with chronic hate-myself-but-not-others can come to see themselves as just another person in the world and then treat themselves better.
Karol commented on 05 April 2020 :
> ‘Even if I accept that mindfulness is a source of value, there’s presumably still a tradeoff against clearer, quicker, more public sources: doing science or kindnesses or pleasures. 10 days spent in myself is 10 days not learning, not exercising, not enjoying, not helping, not meeting, in solitary. (And even on the contemplative axis it competes with Stoicism, with yoga, with writing, with psychedelics.)’
I feel like: most things I can do in the time I’m meditating will bring me no lasting satisfaction - but meditating on the other hand feels to have potential to expose the mechanisms of satisfaction - and potential of freeing me from the loop of satisfaction seeking to some extent
Many activities feel pointless to me similarly like playing games is pointless. Even though one could argue that fun of playing is good enough in itself. It’s a valid point.
Knowing that there is no lasting satisfaction in whatever I’m trying to achieve robs it of its allure.
I can learn to enjoy the process and seek things that maximize the enjoyment. Maybe that’s one of the things that enlightment is about. Or maybe it’s possible to become independent of the seeking satifaction loop. it feels to me that’s what buddhism is claiming.
> ‘I’m not actually worried by this, because I suspect the full-Buddhist anti-striving thing is unnecessary and… undesirable.’
this is a good question
From the point of view of striving person, no-striving state is obviously undesirable. Still, I wonder how it feels like 😀 Once you’re not-striving you obvoiusly don’t regret not reaching states you were striving before. The no-striving state feels to me to be a totally new kind of experince. Like if you were color-blind entire life and suddenly you are cured. In this sense it feels more interesting than other things I could be doing.
The cost of reaching it is super high though. When i describe it like this i feel to be super far from it hehe
I have to add that I also sometimes have the thoughts of the sort: I’m a fairly capable guy. I could maybe provide myself with a reasonably stable stream of temporary satisfactions and use the kind of mediatation/mindfulness/yoga/relaxation/quality social time tools to help myself in the times of feeling low.
It has the benefit of not having to become kind of monk and meditating for several years or sth. And is more socially accepted.
Another thing is that dedicating myself to meditation feels a bit selfish.
Milan commented on 05 April 2020 :
> ‘It’s an expensive project: it costs me part of my most wilful and focussed hours, maybe 3% of all my waking hours, to be spent, if I am serious, for the rest of my life.’
This strikes me as an overestimate. One frame I’ve gotten good mileage from: I sit / am still when I’m not sure what action would be good to do next on the present margin. (It definitely took some doing to even get to a place where I can sometimes realize that I’m actually unsure about what would be good to do next, and this place continues to often be inaccessible to me, e.g. when I’m caught up in addictive internet loops.) This gels nicely with my view that a lot of cognition is unconscious / not directed willfully.
Being still gives space for this cognition to continue while stepping out of sticky/addictive behavior patterns (for a while). So it doesn’t feel like it cuts against my productivity very much, at least not at my current level of practice.
> ‘(And even on the contemplative axis it competes with Stoicism, with yoga, with writing, with psychedelics.)’
In my experience these have been mostly complementary, not competitive.