Some atheists are uncomfortable with Sam Harris because he practices meditation and uses the word “spiritual”; this allocates him to the woo pile of public figures, along with Deepak Chopra and Oprah. Truth be told, I can’t stand the word “spiritual” either but I accept the context in which Sam uses it and I think he is about as far from a woo meister as you can get.
As you may know, Sam Harris recently released a new book called, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion and made the first chapter available free to read or listen to from his web site.
He also recorded a Big Think talk called, Divorcing Mindful Meditation From Religion, where he advocates for the secular form of meditation that he covers in more detail in his book. I find the way Sam explains the value of mindfulness helpful when he distinguishes between thinking (to plan or reason) versus being lost in thought, for highly analytical people tend to reject mindfulness because they misunderstand what it entails and think that it means they must ignore their ability to plan, reason or even think:
The enemy of mindfulness and really of any meditation practice is being lost in thought, is to be thinking without knowing that you’re thinking. Now the problem is not thoughts themselves. We need to think. We need to think to do almost anything that makes us human – to reason, to plan, to have social relationships, to do science. Thinking is indispensable to us but most of us spend every moment of our waking lives thinking without knowing that we’re thinking. And this automaticity is a kind of scrim thrown over at the present moment through which we view everything. And it’s distorting of our lives. It’s distorting of our emotions. It engineers our unhappiness in every moment because most of what we think is quite unpleasant. We’re judging ourselves, we’re judging others, we’re worrying about the future, we’re regretting the past, we’re at war with our experience in subtle or coarse ways. And much of this self-talk is unpleasant and diminishing our happiness in every moment. And so meditation is a tool for cutting through that.
It’s interrupting this continuous conversation we’re having with ourselves. So that is – that in and of itself is beneficial. But there are features of our experience that we don’t notice when we’re lost in thought. So, for instance, every experience you’ve ever had, every emotion, the anger you felt yesterday or a year ago isn’t here anymore. It arises and it passes away. And if it comes back in the present moment by virtue of your thinking about it again, it will subside again when you’re no longer thinking about it. Now this is something that people tend not to notice because we rather than merely feel an emotion like anger, we spend our time thinking of all the reasons why we have every right to be angry. And so the conversation keeps this emotion in play for much, much longer than its natural half-life. And if you’re able, through mindfulness to interrupt this conversation and simply witness the feeling of anger as it arises you’ll find that you can’t be angry for more than a few moments at a time.
Be sure to watch the entire talk on Big Think; as always, Sam Harris is an engaging speaker and if you like what you hear in this talk, you may be interested in hearing what he has to say about one of my favourite topics, how the self is an illusion, in an earlier Big Think episode.