On meditation and mindfulness – part 1

You can find a video version of this post here.

I’ve tried meditation and mindfulness a few times in the past, including when I was at one of my lowest points with depression and anxiety (I wrote more about this here). Recently, I’ve started again, and have even been mildly intrinsically enjoying it (positive on the -10 to 10 scale!). I’ve been doing the daily meditations on Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, which a friend gave me a free month trial for.

One of the things I’ve liked least about meditation (I’ll just say meditation from here on to refer to both meditation and mindfulness), besides not feeling any benefit, was the common appeal to spiritualism. This is not to say all meditation appeals to spiritualism of course, but the moment it approaches pseudoscience territory I disengage. This is probably why Waking Up has appealed to me.

Harris talks about why we don’t need to appeal to religion or spirituality for meditation, even though a lot of practices, techniques and insights about the self through meditation have their roots in Buddhism. Religion and pseudoscience sometimes gets things right, but then we can choose to separate that out from the rest of it. In the app, Harris says something to effect of ‘Needing Buddhism for meditation and mindfulness today is like needing Christianity for physics [I fact checked whether Christianity played a role in physics – looks at least partly true, I guess]. Just because they played a role in formulating the early ideas doesn’t mean we need to give their other ideas any credence today.’

I’m writing this partly to document how my thoughts on meditation change over time, if at all, and I aim to write again in a month or so. In particular, I’m interested in the claim Harris makes about meditation allowing you to observe that the ‘self is an illusion’. I’m curious to see whether I will come to notice this myself. At an intellectual level, I feel like I can kind of understand what he means by this. When you have no thoughts, then a thought arises in your mind, it seems fair to say that you did not call upon this thought yourself. It came in to your mind without your willing it. Is this what he means? Is it that all of our thoughts, ideas and experiences (since we don’t control the input (senses) to our mind either) are out of our control, and we are ‘along for the ride’?

This seems reminiscent of the way Daniel Dennett talks about free will (edit – it looks like Sam Harris proposed the below analogy, but Dennett also talks about free will in a similar way). E.g. think of a city. Which city came to mind? Why was it that city? Did you choose that city, or is it the first one that your mind called up without your real involvement? Are not all thoughts like this? Is this view on free will the same as Harris’ view on the self?

Other things Harris mentions which I find intriguing but can’t intuitively notice yet include the idea that you can’t feel the shape of your body, but instead feel a cloud of experience. I don’t even really know what this means, but maybe it will be trivial in time.

Another question I have is; what do these realisations mean for how you live your life? Are they necessarily good? On some naive level to me, realising that there is no self feels like it might be depressing, and maybe I’m better off in blissful ignorance.

I think we can have all of these insights without having to invoke any kind of spooky spiritual or religious overtones. Everything is explainable through science, and the way our mind works should be no different. Just as we call alternative medicine that works ‘medicine’, we should call spiritual pseudoscience about the mind that happens to be real ‘neuroscience’.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this, where I’ll hopefully be able to share more of my experience of meditation.

How I renounced Christianity and became atheist (or, my ongoing struggle with the fear of oblivion)

Above photo is me taking communion in a church some 16 years ago.

You can find a video version of this post here.

Switching from Catholicism to atheism in around 2012/2013 was a rather major point of my life, so it’s a little strange in hindsight that I haven’t spoken much about it. I recently wrote about why I think atheists shouldn’t feel afraid to tell non-atheists about why they think there are no deities, but here I want to talk about my own journey.

As I started to write this, I realised I don’t know exactly how I came to believe in ‘god etc.’ (I’ll use this as short hand for believing all the typical Catholic beliefs). As far back as I can remember, I took the existence of god etc. for granted. I found I had to ask my parents for some of the answers. Here is what I’ve been able to recall and gather.

My mum’s mother was religious, and occasionally went to Sunday mass. This rubbed off on my mum, but when asked about it today, she described herself in hindsight as being a ‘closet atheist’. It sounds like my dad’s experience was similar.

I was born in Perth where I was baptised (when pressed, my mum said that this would have been more for the benefit of my grandparents, who were all believers). I took kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan, and had my first few years of primary school at a British international school (Al Khubairat) in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Broadly speaking, both of these seemed to be fairly non-religious. However in Abu Dhabi, I took part in a Christian Sunday school at least once. As best I can work out, I went because some friends went.

We moved to Adelaide, Australia in 1999 and I started going to St Ignatius College, a Jesuit private school. I was there from year 2 to year 12. I think it’s here that any nascent beliefs I had in god etc. were solidified. My mum described it best when she said I was like a sponge and would have readily taken on what the school was teaching us.

We had compulsory mass around once a week. In later years, this became optional, but I still went most of the time since most people did. I prayed in my own time, though not consistently. I believed I was speaking to a god. I discovered in my last few years there that some of my friends were atheist, and that they just didn’t believe. We never really talked about it any more than that, but I recall feeling a little surprised and sad by this.

I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point while I was at St Ignatius, it occurred to me what it might be like if, against all odds, god etc. wasn’t real. Oblivion. This scared me, and in all honesty it still does when I’m not careful and I think about it too hard. I recall once as a child thinking about this in the middle of the night (“But if there is nothing, then that means…“) and having a panic attack. I leapt out of my bed, silently screaming “NO”, and collapsing on the floor outside my room. I never told anyone about this. I did my best to remind myself that this was silly and unlikely. I was getting heaven or hell, but certainly not nothing.

After I left school, I started studying my Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide in 2010. I would still describe myself as Catholic, and would still pray sometimes, but I stopped going to church. In 2011, my fears about oblivion were reaching a boiling point. I was having more doubts, and it was starting to seriously affect my life. Desperate, I went to mass a few times with my grandfather, but it didn’t seem to help. I decided that I needed to apply the science I was learning and find out the truth. Did god etc. exist?

I embarked on an online journey of research, reading things from atheists and Christians. I watched debates (in particular Richard Dawkins videos), and even joined an online Christian/atheist text and voice debate platform (I tried finding it to share it here, but couldn’t), where I spent several weeks/months engaging and listening. It was run by Christian preachers, but they welcomed atheists to come and debate. I described myself here as neutral and wanting to find the truth.

The more I listened and engaged, the less it made sense. As one example, I was studying geology, and I asked about how plate tectonics would fit in with a 6,000 odd year old universe. They answered that Noah’s flood smashed up the plates and they’re still moving around a little because of that. I don’t want to strawman all creationists with this one example, let alone strawman all Christians with creationists in general. This is just one example of me realising that none of the arguments for god etc. made any sense when I thought about them through the lens of science.

After this, I rather quickly realised I was an atheist. Unfortunately, this only amplified my fears of oblivion. It was now effectively a certainty – I was going to die, and I was going to be nothing. Incredibly, while writing this I’m not experiencing panic. Perhaps I’ve gotten better at separating my thoughts from my feelings, because I don’t think I’ve actually come to terms with death. As recently as about a month ago, I had a short lived (3-10 seconds) panic over this. They usually only come at night while I try to sleep now, when my mind is most free to be active and think.

Back to 2011 – I opened up about my fears to my parents and girlfriend at the time. I tried counselling, where it was suggested I was experiencing depression and anxiety. Ultimately I wasn’t prescribed medication, but it was suggested I try mindfulness, which didn’t seem to help.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what did help, but something that comes to mind is a conversation I had with my dad in 2012 about my videogame addiction (I’ve had a somewhat unhealthy relationship with videogames for years – often I’ll either play too much or not at all, with little in between), which combined with my depression was leading me to fail some university courses. We spoke about what I want to get out of life, and he said something to the effect of ‘you’re smart and can do anything you want’.

This, more than anything else, I think, put me on the path to recovery. I decided I wanted to save the world. Climate change looked pretty serious, maybe I’ll dedicate my life to that. I haven’t really told anyone this either, but part of why this mostly worked was because I decided I might just try to live forever. If I could set the world on a path of blindingly fast progress, maybe we could develop the technology to become immortal (the work of Aubrey de Grey was of interest to me here). In any case, this did seem to motivate me to go from failing my degree in 2012 to completing honours at the top of my class in 2014.

Over time, this ‘live forever’ motivation transitioned in to a ‘reduce suffering in the universe as much as possible’ motivation, and that seems to be where I remain today. I have a mission to do, and life is too short for me to spend any more time thinking about what comes after than I have to. I still go through slumps, and I suspect depression and anxiety will never fully leave me, but I am committed to this goal.

Some things I wrote about here are things I’ve never told another person. Most of it is at least stuff I’ve mentioned to very few people. I hope this inspires you to share your stories of how you came to no longer believe in a religion.

On facts and religion

I’ve made a video version of this post, available here.

I think facts matter, but sometimes I find this hard. If someone were to tell me that they believed the Earth was flat, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. If someone said that a green chair was actually a blue basketball, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. The same goes for someone telling me Zeus sits atop Mount Olympus and casts judgement on us.

But when someone tells me they believe they will go to heaven after they die if they do certain things, I instead say ‘well I don’t personally believe that’. Why? This is also false, but we feel uncomfortable with certain facts just because a certain number of people have believed that that particular fact is not true for a certain amount of time.

You can say that you can’t prove a negative (which is an oversimplification), and that it is not correct to say that a deity doesn’t exist when you can never really know for sure. The reality is that we just don’t act like this for most things. Some examples:

We can’t know for sure that Zeus isn’t on Mount Olympus and will smite us down for doing certain things, but we tend to act like he isn’t (there’s no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that eating cucumber won’t give us cancer, but we tend to act like it won’t (no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that there isn’t a tea pot floating in space somewhere near Mars, but if someone were to claim that there were, the burden of proof would be on them to prove it, not on us to disprove it.

I want to expand a little more about this last one, an analogy known as Russell’s teapot, with some quotes. Russell said:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.

In some ways, this analogy is not representative of popular modern religions. There is not a large population of people who believe it teapotism, nor is there a major organised religion behind. Believing in Christianity is not quite the same think as believing in teapotism. But where it is absolutely relevant is in the burden of proof, and how we should feel about dismissing its existence.

There seems to be a great discrepancy in society between how willing people are to say that their religious worldview is correct (many even saying that all the others are wrong), and how willing people are to say that the non-existence of deities is the most likely situation. I think we should change this. People also broadly seem happy to publicly dismiss very new religions (say formed in the last 50 years), often calling them cults. The definition of a cult is:

a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object

With all possible due respect, that sounds like the definition of a religion. The only real difference I can see is in its public perception.

I deliberated whether or not to write this post. But this hesitation is exactly the thing I’m talking about. I think people who believe the Earth is flat are wrong, so I’m happy to write about it. I think non-humans don’t deserve to suffer for human gain, so I write about that despite public resistance, and am happy to do so. I think that no deities exist, so I should write about that too. We shouldn’t be afraid to write about what we think is true and right.

For the sake of mentioning it, I was raised Catholic, and went to a Jesuit school for 11 years of my education (I used to read the Old Testament for fun, had a favourite New Testament book, and went to mass most weeks). I renounced this and became an atheist (not without some difficulty and personal challenges – perhaps I’ll write about this in the future) when I was around 19. However, I don’t think this should make me more or less qualified to talk about the Catholic god’s existence, any more than it should change how I’m qualified to talk about the existence of any particular thing.