There is no "I"
July 3, 2011 11:48 PM   Subscribe

Meditation, explained by Sam Harris. (slyt)
posted by Taft (49 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
What's lucien? I had this on closed caption with the sound off and it said "the world we see is lucien."
posted by Xurando at 4:57 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess my secret is out...
posted by lucien_reeve at 5:39 AM on July 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


Good answer & bare-bones discussion of meditation and "the self". I'll have to look more into what this guy has to say - only heard of his book titles in passing up til now. Thanks for the pointer.

lazenby, sounds iike you've found something offensive in what he says to your beliefs. I'm not hearing "vacuity", but a typical non-dogmatic Buddhist meditator.
posted by sea at 6:07 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Turns out Zen works a lot better for me personally, not to mention Focusing and a few bits and pieces from Tibetan Buddhism, but I collected my favorite under-the-radar contemporary Vipassana teachers along the way: Dan Ingram, Kenneth Folk, Shinzen Young, Vincent Thorn.
posted by zeek321 at 6:24 AM on July 4, 2011 [7 favorites]


I was reading Contingency Irony and Solidarity by Richard Rorty recently and was struck by this passage in conjunction with ideas about meditation and ego:
[...] the traditional picture of the human situation has been one in which human beings are not simply networks of beliefs and desires but rather beings which have those beliefs and desires. The traditional view is that there is a core self which can look at, decide among, use, and express itself by means of, such beliefs and desires. Further, these beliefs and desires are criticizable not simply by reference to their ability to cohere with one another, but by reference to something exterior to the network within which they are strands. Beliefs are, on this account, criticizable because they fail to correspond to reality. Desires are criticizable because they fail to correĀ­spond to the essential nature of the human self - because they are "irrational" or "unnatural." So we have a picture of the essential core of the self on one side of this network of beliefs and desires, and reality on the other side. In this picture, the network is the product of an interaction between the two, alternately expressing the one and representing the other. This is the traditional subject-object picture which idealism tried and failed to replace, and which Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, James, Dewey, Goodman, Sellars, Putnam, Davidson and others have tried to replace without entangling themselves in the idealists' paradoxes.
So if we are these networks of beliefs and desires rather than selves which have them, what is left when we quiet the network's incessant chatter? And who or what is doing the quieting?

(also pretty interesting in this context: Thomas Metzinger on the illusion of self)
posted by fleetmouse at 6:29 AM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is NO SELF till someone takes my parking space in front of my house.
posted by Postroad at 7:17 AM on July 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


fleetmouse, I had a great snappy response to your quote, asking "when does an area of increased concentration become a node?", but I put that against the question you ask, and my mind went 'whoa'.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:00 AM on July 4, 2011


benito, your snappy response baffles and delights me. I'm not sure if you're coming from information theory, psychology, the physics of liquids, chemistry, or something else pretty much over my head. :-)

Anyways, thanks a lot. If I ever manage to still the chatter the first thing to disturb the peace will be the thought "dude, I'm a node"
posted by fleetmouse at 8:12 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Harris employs one of the simplest meditation practices there is. (His intellectual personality and flat affect might be a turn-off to some people.) But if you practice Tibetan Buddhism, with all of its colors and syllables and deities, you still get pretty much the same effect. The endless internal chatter quiets; the sense that "I" am a self that resides behind the eyes and "has" a body...that phenomenon is ameliorated; and the sense that this body is independent from everything else: this changes. I'm not sure Harris touched on this last point, the Buddhist idea/experience of interdependence (or, perhaps, oneness). And, in his determination to not oversell the experience of meditation, he chose not to touch on the experience of bliss that can arise during practice.

But he is a reasonable spokesman for the large number of atheist Buddhists out there. Forms of Buddhism involving deities, like the most widely practiced religion in Japan ("Pure Land" Buddhism) and Tibet have many followers who believe in their deities, and pray to them. However, in esoteric (rather than popular, or exoteric) practice, these deities do not have be ontologically "real," but, rather, projections of inner psychological tendencies, and a network of interrelated characteristics.

In other words, although harder to explain than it is for one who practices Vipassana/Insight Meditation, it is possible to be a non-theistic Buddhist of any type. In fact, the absence of a God is a defining attribute of Buddhism for many theologists.
posted by kozad at 8:12 AM on July 4, 2011 [21 favorites]


Thanks for this, Taft. As a casual Sam Harris fan, I've always wondered about his practice of meditation. I'm glad he seems to be pointing toward writing a book about it at the end...it seems like a logical step in his writing.
posted by nosila at 8:40 AM on July 4, 2011


...it seems like a logical step in his writing.

He seems as ready to prematurely assert authority over this as all the other things he has made incompetent claims about over the years.
posted by mobunited at 8:53 AM on July 4, 2011


Just giving Harris on Wikipedia another go. Interesting that his supporters have suppressed his musings on killing ideological opponents and his belief in psychic powers. I guess they couldn't hide his special contempt for Islam, however.
posted by mobunited at 8:58 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


He seems as ready to prematurely assert authority over this

How is the prospect of a guy who's practiced meditation for years writing a book about it the premature assertion of authority? Shouldn't you wait until he writes the book before you judge it?

Just giving Harris on Wikipedia another go.

Oh. Well, that answers my question.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:02 AM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


..it is possible to be a non-theistic Buddhist of any type. In fact, the absence of a God is a defining attribute of Buddhism for many theologists.

I find it a defining attribute of buddhism. I often describe myself as a "heathen atheist buddhist" but non-theist is probably a better description. I would have difficulty describing how non-theism differs from atheism.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:17 AM on July 4, 2011


Once you put aside the ego, selfhood, science, body/soul stuff and you decide to try meditation, then for the easiest approach,

GO HERE AND JUST DO IT
posted by Postroad at 9:20 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


[early threadhsitting considered harmful, please reconsider. thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:22 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh. Well, that answers my question.

Well, if you're into Harris-class explanations, I suppose it might. Were you to read more deeply, the way he doesn't, you would note that I mentioned his dalliance with Psi, which I understand embarrasses people. I also recall his thorough pantsing by Scott Atran over the subject of religious extremism, something which Atran is a recognized expert in. The TL;DR version is that Harris ran with inaccurate but popular statements about Islam and continues to indulge that along with other types of counterfactual nonsense about psychic powers and a bizarre claim that Buddhism isn't really a religion, which I know seems okay to white college boys into their doobies, and this gets play on the Blue.

I suppose one can say that in his mixture of profitable "Clash of Civilizations" garbage and atheism is at least more graceful than Hitchens', but it is similarly contemptible in its mercenary nature, disgusting effects and reliance upon deception.
posted by mobunited at 9:31 AM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can explain some of the Harris dislike. He professed to be a skeptic who was using his skepticism to dismantle various belief systems, and at a conference was asked a direct question about his belief in reincarnation, and he waffled and was clearly uncomfortable. (I think - I saw the video years ago and this is by no means a direct quote - he said, "Let's put it this way; I've seen some weird shit").

So what happened is he had sort of aligned himself with the Hitchens/Dawkins aggressive atheism camp and then revealed that he kinda maybe sorta believes in reincarnation. So he ended up looking hypocritical to the atheists and just another believer smugly dismissing the belief sets of others to the theists.
posted by neuromodulator at 9:34 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


[early threadhsitting considered harmful, please reconsider. thanks.]

Well said jessamyn.

Delighted to see Vipassana meditation being discussed. I wish he'd speak more practically about the benefits, equanimity and compassion for example, as well as, if done without insight, the harm, such as nihilism, feeling disconnected.

Goenka.

Purpose & Method of Vipassana Meditation

Should anyone wish to take a Vipassana course, they are free online or free at a Vipassana meditation retreat.

One person's experience.
posted by nickyskye at 9:37 AM on July 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


I know nothing about the echo-chamber snarlings about why Sam Harris may or may not be an impure apostate-who-must-be-castigated, but as a naive user, but I appreciate his description of what the state of meditation can achieve, and I like his emphasis on the simple as versus the layered in terms of the "how to."
posted by blucevalo at 9:47 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


apostate-who-must-be-castigated

This sort of hyperbolic, religious language to dismiss any rational discussion of numinous experiences among atheists is, I imagine, very much what Sam sees as the The Problem with Atheism.

mobunited: As for his somewhat controversial (read: uncompromising) criticisms of Islam, I find them all rather intellectually honest and refreshing. While I don't doubt that most moderate Muslims are peaceful, I do very much doubt that the religion is not violent at its core. Deserves contempt, if you ask me.
posted by stroke_count at 11:15 AM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I saw this recently and it almost made me want to try again. Except I know I can't meditate. I'm just too damned twitchy and mentally self-defeating.
posted by Decani at 11:17 AM on July 4, 2011


Buddhism without Beliefs, a book by the ever perceptive Stephen Batchelor, is an excellent guide to an atheistic approach to meditation and buddhism that is free from any of the ritual /religious aspects that many forms exhibit, and I suspect rather better than what this guy might write.
posted by dowcrag at 11:20 AM on July 4, 2011 [10 favorites]


Oh, readers of this thread might be interested to read a follow-up to this discussion. The noted atheist and biologist Jerry Coyne has posted a response on his blog. And Sam noted the good points raised, and answered the question that Coyne posed: What's the point of transcendence?

Really thought-provoking stuff, on both sides. Even if Coyne's commenters can be disappointingly dismissive.
posted by stroke_count at 11:27 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seconding Stephen Batchelor's thoughts and writing.
posted by nickyskye at 11:34 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hrmmm. Thinking a bit about this and need to dig a bit deeper. While I somewhat agree with Harris that "spiritual" and mystical experiences are important, I'm rather disappointed that he comes down close to the same camp as Depak Chopra and others who write polemics about atheists having an inauthentic and stunted worldview. I'm still mulling over ideas about identifying as atheist primarily because such counter-cultural forms of definition do have political and social meaning in the world. No matter how much I sugar-coat it, my monism identifies me as an atheist WRT to the dominant culture, even if I do not identify as such myself.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:11 PM on July 4, 2011


As for his somewhat controversial (read: uncompromising) criticisms of Islam, I find them all rather intellectually honest and refreshing. While I don't doubt that most moderate Muslims are peaceful, I do very much doubt that the religion is not violent at its core. Deserves contempt, if you ask me.

This is why I think of Sam Harris as a carrier of a highly virulent and disgusting psychological disease. Because as I noted earlier, Sam Harris' opinions were noted as based on falsities, and rebuked by a known expert in religious extremism -- a man who, unlike Harris, has actually interviewed the radical Muslims Harris lectures about -- Scot Atran. Perhaps you don't know that Harris built his opinions on serious misapprehensions, but you should know that since he has been informed of his mistakes, his continued adherence now makes him the supporter of a lie -- it stops being a mistake once you know better.
posted by mobunited at 12:25 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, great links stroke_count and dowcrag. Thank you.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:34 PM on July 4, 2011


While I somewhat agree with Harris that "spiritual" and mystical experiences are important, I'm rather disappointed that he comes down close to the same camp as Depak Chopra and others who write polemics about atheists having an inauthentic and stunted worldview. I'm still mulling over ideas about identifying as atheist primarily because such counter-cultural forms of definition do have political and social meaning in the world.

I don't think this is about the words you use to define yourself to others, but how you actually see your self in relation to the universe, and what you see as the nature of the universe. I consider myself an atheist in that I don't believe in supernatural beings, but I think many people (ironically Sam Harris among them, with his "science of morality") have grossly overstated the power of scientific materialism/reductionism to offer a complete understanding of the universe as it is
posted by crayz at 1:12 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would have difficulty describing how non-theism differs from atheism.

I might know what you mean and feel the same way. I'l try:

"Atheism," suggests to me that I've made the choice and live my life based on the absence of a deity when the truth is the opposite. There's nothing there for me to not believe in, if that makes sense. No one designates themselves as an aunicornarian.
posted by cmoj at 1:52 PM on July 4, 2011


For or against, Sam Harris' business is selling Sam Harris. This has nothing to do with meditation or Buddhism.
posted by sneebler at 2:29 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


This thread seems to split between people who are interested in meditation and people who ought to be because it might help with their anger management issues.
posted by fleetmouse at 2:43 PM on July 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


cmoj, that's not quite how I feel, but like I said, it's hard to articulate. I'm more of a pantheist so I can believe in a supreme power without there having to be a supreme being. My buddhist experience is dealing with "gods" as secondary, non-supreme beings, representations of an intangible supreme force.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:35 PM on July 4, 2011


I'm a Tolle fan, this is a very long, but excellent talk IMO


posted by absentian at 5:00 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


A correction on the title of this post that says: There is no "I". In Buddhism the basic idea is not that there is no I, it is that there is no self-existing, no inherently existing I.

Neither the self nor the other exist independently of their interdependent parts. It is attachment to the sense of a solid self or solid other that is considered to be the root cause of the experience of suffering.

An I, oneself, or the other exist, according to the Abhidharma (Buddhist metaphysics) as a product of dependent origination.

To become aware of interdependent arising of the self and other, the typical basic Buddhist meditation is that of exploring the elements that make up one's parts, the Five Skandhas -form (the five senses and the consciousness that goes with them) - feeling (experiencing the continuum from pleasant to unpleasant, the roots of attachment and aversion)- perception (discernment, roots of agreement and disagreement) - concepts (volition, tendencies) - consciousness (based on the previous four).
posted by nickyskye at 5:16 PM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


if we are these networks of beliefs and desires rather than selves which have them, what is left when we quiet the network's incessant chatter? And who or what is doing the quieting?

To understand that "I am X" is to make a fundamental distinction between X and the context of X. The act of making distinctions is part of the "incessant chatter" in the network you're talking about quieting. Once quieted, the distinction therefore goes away; to the extent that "I" still refers to anything at all in that state of perception, it refers to the totality of X and its context.

In other words: I do not become nonexistent simply because I can no longer perceive a distinction between myself and my surroundings. The entity doing the quieting is still me; I just feel much more spread-out than usual.
posted by flabdablet at 6:34 PM on July 4, 2011


It might also pay to contemplate the utility of the idea of "I". Why do we bother making the distinction between ourselves and our surroundings?

It seems to me that this distinction is probably among the first things any of us ever learns, and that it has to do with what is controllable. I lie on my back in my baby basket, and wave my little fist in the air: look! I can wave it to the left! I can wave it to the right! But no matter how much I try, I cannot induce that bottle on the table to come over here and stick itself in my tiny gob. My fist then becomes part of me and the bottle becomes part of not-me.

In a state of deep meditation, control is deliberately abandoned; meditators becomes completely passive with respect to their surroundings. In a state where no physical control is required, the self/other distinction becomes useless and can be allowed to disappear.
posted by flabdablet at 6:45 PM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


A fairly accessible explanation of the doctrine of no-self at Freeing the Goose or anarchobuddhism.com or whatever it's calling itself today.
posted by Wataki at 7:03 PM on July 4, 2011


And there is no "I" that controls or feels more or less spread-out than usual.
posted by Wataki at 7:13 PM on July 4, 2011


Somewhere in that otherwise admirable exposition, the consideration of a collection of things as a thing in itself slipped from being optional to mandatory, and the question of the non-locality of perception got pretty effectively begged.

It seems to me that direct perception of the Universe as an undifferentiated whole is undoubtedly useful, and something that many people would benefit greatly from. But it also seems to me that to insist that the undifferentiated point of view is somehow less illusory than any other is to miss the point.
posted by flabdablet at 7:37 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


It might also pay to contemplate the utility of the idea of "I".

Ha ha! Yes, and that's a very Rortyan way of phrasing it too.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:48 PM on July 4, 2011


But it also seems to me that to insist that the undifferentiated point of view is somehow less illusory than any other is to miss the point.

I'd agree. Believing that one has achieved any special sort of insight is not a particularly helpful orientation to life. Not only that, experiencing "special" "spiritual" insights can be a distraction in the path of practice that purports to lead one to direct experience of reality. (OK, I was tempted to throw in the adjective "non-dualistic," but this is not Spirituality.com. The labeling of practices and beliefs is just a natural human tendency. Look at all the labels thrown around in the gender-related 400-comment thread above!)
posted by kozad at 11:05 PM on July 4, 2011


For a description of Zen Buddhist meditative practice, I'd recommend Kaoru Nonomura's book "Eat Sleep Sit", about his experiences at Eiheiji. Ultimately, there is no explanation, just description.
posted by jet_manifesto at 1:36 AM on July 5, 2011


I tried meditation for years, but found myself having a hard time relating to many of the Eastern schools of meditation, as there was too much of a culture gap.

That's when I found "Sit the F*ck Down and Shut the F*ck Up" by Samuel L. Jackson. It changed my life!

The only problem I ever have is sometimes I find myself going the f*ck to sleep during practice.
posted by markkraft at 7:40 AM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Of course, once you've sat the f*ck down and shut the f*ck up, it sometimes helps to have a mantra.
posted by markkraft at 7:45 AM on July 5, 2011


I was expelled from high school and then dismissed from college the year after. I spent some time soul searching, and one of the byproducts was a healthy dose of meditation.

I spent 3 or 4 months meditating DAILY. It was a spectacular experience. I eventually gave it up because I found that the mindset tended to dilute my ambitions. I became pretty complacent and lost quite a bit of my motivation and drive to achieve my dreams.

But there have been definite advantages. I've learned to instantly, instinctually recognize my emotions as they bubble up and simply observe them. I learned how to hold my reactions to things until I've had sufficient time to figure out the appropriate response.

I highly recommend trying meditation if you're at all curious. At the very least, you can say you tried it and it sucked after a half hour.
posted by davezor at 11:42 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and if you're curious, Sam Harris has an excellent write-up of psychedelic drugs and what he thinks about them: Drugs and the Meaning of Life
posted by davezor at 11:44 AM on July 10, 2011


Mindfulness meditation: A primer and some thoughts
posted by homunculus at 10:18 PM on July 25, 2011


Meditation Is A Powerful Painkiller
posted by homunculus at 10:25 PM on July 25, 2011


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