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.