My recent collision with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show, Real Time, has provoked an extraordinary amount of controversy. It seems a postmortem is in order.
For those who haven’t seen the show, most of what I write here won’t make sense unless you watch my segment:
So what happened there?
I admit that I was a little thrown by Affleck’s animosity. I don’t know where it came from, because we hadn’t met before I joined the panel. And it was clear from our conversation after the show that he is totally unfamiliar with my work. I suspect that among his handlers there is a fan of Glenn Greenwald who prepared him for his appearance by simply telling him that I am a racist and a warmonger.
Whatever the reason, if you watch the full video of our exchange (which actually begins before the above clip), you will see that Affleck was gunning for me from the start. What many viewers probably don’t realize is that the mid-show interview is supposed be a protected five-to-seven-minute conversation between Maher and the new guest—and all the panelists know this. To ignore this structure and encroach on this space is a little rude; to jump in with criticism, as Affleck did, is pretty hostile. He tried to land his first blow a mere 90 seconds after I took my seat, before the topic of Islam even came up.
Although I was aware that I wasn’t getting much love from Affleck, I didn’t realize how unfriendly he had been on the show until I watched it on television the next day. This was by no means a normal encounter between strangers. For instance: I said that liberalism was failing us on the topic of Islamic theocracy, and Affleck snidely remarked, “Thank God you’re here!” (This was his second interruption of my interview.) I then said, “We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people,” and Affleck jumped in for the third time, more or less declaring the mid-show interview over: “Now hold on—are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that?”
As many have since pointed out, Affleck and Nicholas Kristof then promptly demonstrated my thesis by mistaking everything Maher and I said about Islam for bigotry toward Muslims. Our statements were “gross,” “racist,” “ugly,” “like saying you’re a shifty Jew” (Affleck), and a “caricature” that has “the tinge (a little bit) of how white racists talk about African Americans” (Kristof).
The most controversial thing I said was: “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” This statement has been met with countless charges of “bigotry” and “racism” online and in the media. But imagine that the year is 1970, and I said: “Communism is the Mother lode of bad ideas.” How reasonable would it be to attack me as a “racist” or as someone who harbors an irrational hatred of Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, etc. This is precisely the situation I am in. My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences—but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people.
And the tension on the panel only grew. At one point Affleck sought to cut me off by saying, “Okay, let him [Kristof] talk for a second.” As I finished my sentence, he made a gesture of impatience with his hand, suggesting that I had been droning on for ages. Watching this exchange on television (his body language and tone are less clear online), I find Affleck’s contempt for me fairly amazing.
I want to make one thing clear, however. I did not take Affleck’s hostility personally. This is the kind of thing I now regularly encounter from people who believe the lies about my work that have been sedulously manufactured by Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, and many others. If I were seated across the table from someone I “knew” to be a racist and a warmonger, how would I behave? I don’t honestly know.
Kristof made the point that there are brave Muslims who are risking their lives to condemn “extremism” in the Muslim community. Of course there are, and I celebrate these people too. But he seemed completely unaware that he was making my point for me—the point being, of course, that these people are now risking their lives by advocating for basic human rights in the Muslim world.
When I told Affleck that he didn’t understand my argument, he said, “I don’t understand it? Your argument is ‘You know, black people, we know they shoot each other, they’re blacks!” What did he expect me to say to this—“I stand corrected”?
Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group. Unfortunately, I misspoke slightly at this point, saying that hundreds of millions of Muslims don’t take their “faith” seriously. This led many people to think that I was referring to Muslim atheists (who surely don’t exist in those numbers) and suggesting that the only people who could reform the faith are those who have lost it. I don’t know how many times one must deny that one is referring to an entire group, or cite specific poll results to justify the percentages one is talking about, but no amount of clarification appears sufficient to forestall charges of bigotry and lack of “nuance.”
One of the most depressing things in the aftermath of this exchange is the way Affleck is now being lauded for having exposed my and Maher’s “racism,” “bigotry,” and “hatred of Muslims.” This is yet another sign that simply accusing someone of these sins, however illogically, is sufficient to establish them as facts in the minds of many viewers. It certainly does not help that unscrupulous people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have been spinning the conversation this way.
Of course, Affleck is also being widely reviled as an imbecile. But much of this criticism, too, is unfair. Those who describe him as a mere “actor” who was out of his depth are no better than those who dismiss me as a “neuroscientist” who cannot, therefore, know anything about religion. And Affleck isn’t merely an actor: He’s a director, a producer, a screenwriter, a philanthropist, and may one day be a politician. Even if he were nothing more than an actor, there would be no reason to assume that he’s not smart. In fact, I think he probably is quite smart, and that makes our encounter all the more disheartening.
The important point is that a person’s CV is immaterial as long as he or she is making sense. Unfortunately, Affleck wasn’t—but neither was Kristof, who really is an expert in this area, particularly where the plight of women in the developing world is concerned. His failure to recognize and celebrate the heroism of my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains a journalistic embarrassment and a moral scandal (and I told him so backstage).
After the show, a few things became clear about Affleck’s and Kristof’s views. Rather than trust poll results and the testimony of jihadists and Islamists, they trust the feeling that they get from the dozens of Muslims they have known personally. As a method of gauging Muslim opinion worldwide, this preference is obviously crazy. It is nevertheless understandable. On the basis of their life experiences, they believe that the success of a group like ISIS, despite its ability to recruit people by the thousands from free societies, says nothing about the role that Islamic doctrines play in inspiring global jihad. Rather, they imagine that ISIS is functioning like a bug light for psychopaths—attracting “disaffected young men” who would do terrible things to someone, somewhere, in any case. For some strange reason these disturbed individuals can’t resist an invitation to travel to a foreign desert for the privilege of decapitating journalists and aid workers. I await an entry in the DSM-VI that describes this troubling condition.
Contrary to what many liberals believe, those bad boys who are getting off the bus in Syria at this moment to join ISIS are not all psychopaths, nor are they simply depressed people who have gone to the desert to die. Most of them are profoundly motivated by their beliefs. Many surely feel like spiritual James Bonds, fighting a cosmic war against evil. After all, they are spreading the one true faith to the ends of the earth—or they will die trying, and be martyred, and then spend eternity in Paradise. Secular liberals seem unable to grasp how psychologically rewarding this worldview must be.
As I try to make clear in Waking Up, many positive states of mind, such as ecstasy, are ethically neutral. Which is to say that it really matters what you think the feeling of ecstasy means. If you think it means that the Creator of the Universe is rewarding you for having purged your village of Christians, you are ISIS material. Other bearded young men go to Burning Man, find themselves surrounded by naked women in Day-Glo body paint, and experience a similar state of mind.
After the show, Kristof, Affleck, Maher, and I continued our discussion. At one point, Kristof reiterated the claim that Maher and I had failed to acknowledge the existence of all the good Muslims who condemn ISIS, citing the popular hashtag #NotInOurName. In response, I said: “Yes, I agree that all condemnation of ISIS is good. But what do you think would happen if we had burned a copy of the Koran on tonight’s show? There would be riots in scores of countries. Embassies would fall. In response to our mistreating a book, millions of Muslims would take to the streets, and we would spend the rest of our lives fending off credible threats of murder. But when ISIS crucifies people, buries children alive, and rapes and tortures women by the thousands—all in the name of Islam—the response is a few small demonstrations in Europe and a hashtag.” I don’t think I’m being uncharitable when I say that neither Affleck nor Kristof had an intelligent response to this. Nor did they pretend to doubt the truth of what I said.
I genuinely believe that both Affleck and Kristof mean well. They are very worried about American xenophobia and the prospects of future military adventures. But they are confused about Islam. Like many secular liberals, they refuse to accept the abundant evidence that vast numbers of Muslims believe dangerous things about infidels, apostasy, blasphemy, jihad, and martyrdom. And they do not realize that these doctrines are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity.
However, others in this debate are not so innocent. Our conversation on Real Time was provoked by an interview that Reza Aslan gave on CNN, in which he castigated Maher for the remarks he had made about Islam on the previous show. I have always considered Aslan a comical figure. His thoughts about religion in general are a jumble of pretentious nonsense—yet he speaks with an air of self-importance that would have been embarrassing in Genghis Khan at the height of his power. On the topic of Islam, however, Aslan has begun to seem more sinister. He cannot possibly believe what he says, because nearly everything he says is a lie or a half-truth calibrated to mislead a liberal audience. If he claims something isn’t in the Koran, it probably is. I don’t know what his agenda is, beyond riding a jet stream of white guilt from interview to interview, but he is manipulating liberal biases for the purpose of shutting down conversation on important topics. Given what he surely knows about the contents of the Koran and the hadith, the state of public opinion in the Muslim world, the suffering of women and other disempowered groups, and the real-world effects of deeply held religious beliefs, I find his deception on these issues unconscionable.
As I tried to make clear on Maher’s show, what we need is honest talk about the link between belief and behavior. And no one is suffering the consequences of what Muslim “extremists” believe more than other Muslims are. The civil war between Sunni and Shia, the murder of apostates, the oppression of women—these evils have nothing to do with U.S. bombs or Israeli settlements. Yes, the war in Iraq was a catastrophe—just as Affleck and Kristof suggest. But take a moment to appreciate how bleak it is to admit that the world would be better off if we had left Saddam Hussein in power. Here was one of the most evil men who ever lived, holding an entire country hostage. And yet his tyranny was also preventing a religious war between Shia and Sunni, the massacre of Christians, and other sectarian horrors. To say that we should have left Saddam Hussein alone says some very depressing things about the Muslim world.
Whatever the prospects are for moving Islam out of the Middle Ages, hope lies not with obscurantists like Reza Aslan but with reformers like Maajid Nawaz. The litmus test for intellectual honesty on this point—which so many liberals fail—is to admit that one can draw a straight line from specific doctrines in Islam to the intolerance and violence we see in the Muslim world. Nawaz admits this. I don’t want to give the impression that he and I view Islam exactly the same. In fact, we are now having a written exchange that we will publish as an ebook in the coming months—and I am learning a lot from it. But Nawaz admits that the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community is an enormous problem. Unlike Aslan, he insists that his fellow Muslims must find some way to reinterpret and reform the faith. He believes that Islam has the intellectual resources to do this. I certainly hope he’s right. One thing is clear, however: Muslims must be obliged to do the work of reinterpretation—and for this we need honest conversation.
By Patt Morrison
(Photo via h.koppdelaney)
Dan Harris is a co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America on ABC News. He has reported from all over the world, covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq, and producing investigative reports in Haiti, Cambodia, and the Congo. He has also spent many years covering religion in America, despite the fact that he is agnostic.
Dan’s new book, 10 Percent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story, hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Dan was kind enough to discuss the practice of meditation with me for this page.
Sam: One thing I love about your book—admittedly, somewhat selfishly—is that it’s exactly the book I would want people to read before Waking Up comes out in the fall. You approach the topic of meditation with serious skepticism—which, as you know, is an attitude that my readers share to an unusual degree. Perhaps you can say something about this. How did you view the practice in the beginning?
Dan: I was incredibly skeptical about meditation. I thought it was for people who lived in yurts or collected crystals or had too many Cat Stevens records. And I was bred for this kind of doubt. My parents are both physicians and scientists at academic hospitals in the Boston area, and my wife is also a scientist and a physician. I was raised in a very secular environment. I had a Bar Mitzvah, but that was mostly because I wanted the money and the social acceptance. My parents were also recovering hippies who made me go to a yoga class when I was a little kid. The teacher didn’t like the jeans I was wearing, so she forced me to take them off and do Sun Salutations in my tighty-whities in front of all the other kids.
Sam: Rarely has the connection between yoga and child abuse been illustrated so clearly.
Dan: No doubt. And the result was that not only was I skeptical about anything bordering on the metaphysical, which I assumed meditation involved, but I had a long-standing aversion to anything touchy-feely or New Agey. Meditation seemed like the quintessence of everything I was most wary of.
Sam: For those who are unfamiliar with meditation—in particular, the practice of mindfulness that we are discussing—I have described it in a previous article on my blog and also posted some guided meditations that many people have found helpful. But, in essence, we are talking about the practice of paying very careful, non-judgmental attention to the contents of consciousness in the present moment. Usually one begins by focusing on the sensation of breathing, but eventually the practice opens to include the full field of experience—other sensations in the body, sounds, emotions, even thoughts themselves. The trick, however, is not to spend one’s time lost in thought.
How did you get started practicing mindfulness, and what was your first experience like?
Dan: Well, the thing that got me to open my mind just a crack was hearing about the science. I think that’s true for a lot of people who have given it a try of late. You hear about the science that says it can do some pretty extraordinary things to your brain and your body: lowering your blood pressure, boosting your immune system, thickening the gray matter in parts of the brain that have to do with self-awareness and compassion, and decreasing the gray matter in the areas associated with stress. That’s all really compelling. I work out because I want to take care of my health, and meditation seemed like it could fall in the same bucket. But my first taste of it was miserable. I set an alarm for five minutes and had a full-on collision with the zoo that is my mind. It was really hard.
Sam: People who haven’t tried to meditate have very little sense that their minds are noisy at all. And when you tell them that they’re thinking every second of the day, it generally doesn’t mean anything to them. It certainly doesn’t strike most of them as pathological. When these people try to meditate, they have one of two reactions: Some are so restless and besieged by doubts that they can hardly attempt the exercise. “What am I doing sitting here with my eyes closed? What is the point of paying attention to the breath?” And, strangely, their resistance isn’t remotely interesting to them. They come away, after only a few minutes, thinking that the act of paying close attention to their experience is pointless.
But then there are the people who have an epiphany similar to yours, where the unpleasant realization that their minds are lurching all over the place becomes a goad to further inquiry. Their inability to pay sustained attention—to anything—becomes interesting to them. And they recognize it as pathological, despite the fact that almost everyone is in the same condition.
Dan: I love your description. Interestingly enough, the door had opened for me before I tried meditation, in the most unexpected way. One of my assignments at ABC News had been to cover basic spirituality. So I had picked up a book by a self-help guru by the name of Eckhart Tolle, who has sold millions of books and is beloved by Oprah. I had read his book not because I thought it would be personally useful to me but because I was considering doing a story on him. Nestled within all his grandiloquent writing and pseudoscientific claims—and just overall weirdness—was a diagnosis of the human condition, which you just articulated quite well, that kind of blew my mind.
It’s this thunderous truism: We all know on some level that we are thinking all the time, that we have this voice in our heads, and the nature of this voice is mostly negative. It’s also repetitive and ceaselessly self-referential. We walk around in this fog of memory about the past and anticipation of a future that may or may not arrive in the form in which we imagine it. This observation seemed to describe me. I realized that the things I’d done in my life that I was most ashamed of had been as a result of having thoughts, impulses, urges, and emotions that I didn’t have the wherewithal to resist. So when I sat down and had that first confrontation with the voice in my head, I knew from having read Eckhart Tolle that it wasn’t going to be pretty, and I was motivated to do something about it.
Sam: Why didn’t you just become a student of Tolle’s?
Dan: I think that Eckhart Tolle is correct, but not useful. I’m stealing that distinction from the meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. I think his diagnosis is correct, but he doesn’t give you anything to do about it, at least that I could ascertain. He has sold millions of books about “spiritual awakening.” If he were truly useful, we should have a reasonable population of awakened people walking around, and I’m just not seeing them. I found Tolle to be both extraordinarily interesting and extraordinarily frustrating. The lack of any concrete advice was really the source of my frustration, alongside the aforementioned weirdness. I think Tolle deserves credit for articulating a truth of the human condition extremely well. But I also think that it’s a legitimate criticism to say he doesn’t give you anything to do about it.
Sam: It’s interesting that you mention Tolle, because when someone asks me for the two-second summary of my new book, I’m often tempted to say, “It’s Eckhart Tolle for smart people”—that is, people who suspect that something important can be discovered about consciousness through introspection, but who are allergic to the pseudoscience and irrationality that generally creeps into every New Age discussion of this truth. I haven’t read much of Tolle, but I suspect that I largely agree with his view of the subjective insights that come once we recognize the nature of consciousness prior to thought. The self that we all think we have riding around inside our heads is an illusion—and one that can disappear when examined closely. What’s more, we’re much better off psychologically when it does. But from the little reading I’ve done of Tolle, I can see that he also makes some embarrassing claims about the nature of the cosmos—claims that are unjustified both scientifically and philosophically.
However, in the man’s defense, this lack of usefulness you mention is not unique to him. It’s hard to talk about the illusoriness of the self or the non-dual nature of consciousness in a way that makes sense to people.
Dan: You know, I’ve read a little bit about non-duality, but I still don’t fully understand the distinction you’re making. I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me, but I would love to hear more about this from you. I’ve wanted to ask you this question for a long time. What is the non-dual critique of gradual approaches like mindfulness?
Sam: I think the best way to communicate this is by analogy. Everyone has had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly catching sight of his own reflection staring back at him from the glass. At that point, he can use the glass as a window, to see the world outside, or as a mirror, but he can’t do both at the same time.
Sometimes your reflection in the glass is pretty subtle, and you could easily stand there for ten minutes, looking outside while staring right through the image of your own face without seeing it.
For the purposes of this analogy, imagine that the goal of meditation is to see your own reflection clearly in each moment. Most spiritual traditions don’t realize that this can be done directly, and they articulate their paths of practice in ways that suggest that if you only paid more attention to everything beyond the glass—trees, sky, traffic—eventually your face would come into view. Looking out the window is arguably better than closing your eyes or leaving the room entirely—at least you are facing in the right direction—but the practice is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. You don’t realize that you are looking through the very thing you are trying to find in every moment. Given better information, you could just walk up to the window and see your face in the first instant.
The same is true for the illusoriness of the self. Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist, and they spend their lives looking out the window, as it were. I used to be one of them. I’d stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn’t get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.
However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts.
In criticizing this kind of practice, someone like Eckhart Tolle is echoing the non-dualistic teachings one finds in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Zen (sometimes), and Dzogchen. Many of these teachings can sound paradoxical: You can’t get there from here. The self that you think you are isn’t going to meditate itself into a new condition. This is true, but as Sharon says, it’s not always useful. The path is too steep.
Of course, this non-dual teaching, too, can be misleading—because even after one recognizes the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness, one still has to practice that recognition. So there is a point to meditation after all—but it isn’t a goal-oriented one. In each moment of real meditation, the self is already transcended.
Dan: So should I stop doing my mindfulness meditation?
Sam: Not at all. Though I think you could be well served if you ever had the opportunity to study the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen.
Dan: Joseph Goldstein, who’s a friend to both of us, recently put out this supplement to daily practice where he says, “Listen to all the sounds that arise in your consciousness and then try to find who or what is hearing them.” I find that when I do that, I’m directed into a space completely different from the one I arrive at when I’m sitting there watching my breath. I’m wondering if that is the kind of shift in attention you’re talking about. Is that what you would recommend as a way to bridge the gap you’ve just described?
Sam: Yes. Looking for the mind, or the thinker, or the one who is looking, is often taught as a preliminary exercise in Dzogchen, and it gets your attention pointed in the right direction. It’s different from focusing on the sensation of breathing. You’re simply turning attention upon itself—and this can provoke the insight I’m talking about. It’s possible to look for the one who is looking and to find, conclusively, that no one is there to be found.
People who have done a lot of meditation practice, who know what it’s like to concentrate deeply on an object like the breath, often develop a misconception that the truth is somewhere deep within. But non-duality is not deep. It’s right on the surface. This is another way the window analogy works well: Your reflection is not far away. You just need to know where to look for it. It’s not a matter of going deeper and deeper into subtlety until your face finally reveals itself. It is literally right before your eyes in every moment. When you turn attention upon itself and look for the thinker of your thoughts, the absence of any center to consciousness can be glimpsed immediately. It can’t be found by going deeper. To go deep—into the breath or any other phenomenon you can notice—is to start looking out the window at the trees.
The trick is to become sensitive to what consciousness is like the instant you try to turn it upon itself. In that first instant, there’s a gap between thoughts that can grow wider and become more salient. The more it opens, the more you can notice the character of consciousness prior to thought. This is true whether it’s ordinary consciousness—you standing bleary-eyed in line at Starbucks—or you’re in the middle of a three-month retreat and your body feels like it’s made of light. It simply doesn’t matter what the contents of consciousness are. The self is an illusion in any case.
It’s also useful to do this practice with your eyes open, because vision seems to anchor the feeling of subject/object duality more than any other sense. Most of us feel quite strongly that we are behind our eyes, looking out at a world that is over there. But the truth—subjectively speaking; I’m not making a claim about physics—is that everything is just appearing in consciousness. Losing the sense of subject/object duality with your eyes open can be the most vivid way to experience this shift in perception. That’s why Dzogchen practitioners tend to meditate with their eyes open.
Dan: So I would look at something and ask myself who is seeing it?
Sam: Yes—but it’s not a matter of verbally asking yourself the question. The crucial gesture is to attempt to turn attention upon itself and notice what changes in that first instant. Again, it’s not a matter of going deep within. You don’t have to work up to this thing. It’s a matter of looking for the looker and in that first moment noticing what consciousness is like. Once you notice that it is wide open and unencumbered by the feeling of self, that very insight becomes the basis of your mindfulness.
Dan: The way you describe it, it’s a practice. I get it. Tolle and the other non-dual thinkers I’ve heard talk aren’t telling us what to do. You’re actually giving me something clear and easy to understand. I think you could use that as a complement to and perhaps even a replacement for the mindfulness practice that stabilizes your attention and helps you recognize that you have an inner life worth focusing on in the first place.
Sam: That’s right. Mindfulness is necessary for any form of meditation. So there’s no contradiction. But there remains something paradoxical about non-dual teachings, because the thing you’re glimpsing is already true of consciousness. Consciousness is already without the sense of self.
Most people feel that the self is real and that they’re going to somehow unravel it—or, if it’s an illusion, it is one that requires a protracted process of meditation to dispel. One gets the sense in every dualistic approach that there’s nothing to notice in the beginning but the evidence of one’s own unenlightenment. Your mind is a mess that must be cleaned up. You’re at the base of the mountain, and there’s nothing to do but schlep to the top.
The non-dual truth is that consciousness is already free of this thing we think we have in our heads—the ego, the thinker of thoughts, the grumpy homunculus. And the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness can be recognized, right now, before you make any effort to be free of the self through goal-oriented practice. Once you have recognized the way consciousness already is, there is still practice to do, but it’s not the same as just logging your miles of mindfulness on the breath or any other object of perception.
Dan: I appreciate what you’re saying, but it seems to present a communication challenge or PR problem. I think most people will buy the basic argument for mindfulness. We all know that we eat when we’re not hungry, check our email when we’re supposed to be listening to our kids, or lose our temper, and then we regret these things later. We all know that we’re yanked around by our emotions. So most people will readily see the value of having more self-awareness so that they can have more—for lack of a better term—emotional intelligence. However, I don’t know that it will be readily apparent to most people why it would be desirable to see the self as an illusion. I don’t even know that most people have considered the nature of the self at all, because I certainly hadn’t. So to ask them to take the further step of considering whether it is an illusion—that requires a lot of work to even wrap your head around. That seems to me to be one of the big issues for non-dualists.
Sam: I agree. It’s a more esoteric concern, almost by definition—but it’s a more fundamental one as well. It’s the distinction between teaching mindfulness in a clinical or self-help context—whether to the Marines, to enhance their performance, or as a form of stress reduction in a hospital or a psychotherapy practice—and going on silent retreat for months in the hope of recapitulating the insights of a great contemplative like the Buddha. Some people really want to get to the root of the problem. But most just want to feel better and achieve more in their lives. There’s nothing wrong with that—until one realizes that there is something wrong with it. The wolf never quite leaves the door.
Ultimately, no matter how much you improve your game, you still have a problem that seems to be structured around this feeling you call “I”—which, strangely, is not quite identical to this body of yours that is growing older and less reliable by the hour. You still feel that you are this always-ready-to-be-miserable center of consciousness that is perpetually driven to do things in the hope of feeling better.
And if you’re practicing mindfulness or some other form of meditation as a remedy for this discomfort, you are bound to approach it in the same dilemma-based way that you approach everything else in life. You’re out of shape, so you go to the gym. You feel a little run down, so you go to the doctor. You didn’t get enough sleep, so you drink an extra cup of coffee. We’re constantly bailing water in this way. Mindfulness becomes a very useful tool to help yourself feel better, but it isn’t fundamentally different from any of these other strategies when we use it that way.
For instance, many of us hate to be late and find ourselves rushing at various points in the day. This is a common pattern for me: I get uptight about being late, and I can feel the cortisol just dump into my bloodstream. It’s possible to practice mindfulness as a kind of remedy for this problem—to notice the feeling of stress dispassionately, and to disengage from one’s thoughts about it—but it is very hard to escape the sense that one is using mindfulness as an antidote and trying to meditate the unpleasant feelings away. Technically, it’s not true mindfulness at that point, but even when one is really balanced with one’s attention, there is still the feeling that one is patiently contemplating one’s own neurosis. It is another thing entirely to recognize that there is no self at the center of this storm in the first place.
The illusoriness of the self is potentially of great interest to everyone, because this false construct really is our most basic problem in every moment. But there is no question that this truth is harder to communicate than the benefits of simply being more self-aware, less reactive, more concentrated, and so forth.
Dan: This is exactly why my book is a great prologue to yours.
Sam: Absolutely. And you’ve written a book that I could never have written. I became interested in meditation relatively early in life. I was a skeptical person, but I was only 19, so I didn’t have all the reasons you had to be skeptical when you first approached the practice. Nor did I have a career, so I wasn’t coming from the same fascinating context in which you recognized that something was wrong with your approach to life. I think your book will be incredibly useful to people.
Can you say something about what it was like to go on retreat for the first time? What sort of resistance did you have? And what was it like to punch through it?
Dan: I blame the entire experience on you. It was largely your idea, and you got me into the retreat—which, to my surprise, was hard to get into. I had no idea that so many people wanted to sign up for ten days of no talking, vegetarian food, and 12 hours a day of meditation, which sounded like a perfect description of one of the inner circles of Dante’s Inferno to me.
As you can gather from the previous sentences, I did not look forward to the experience at all. However, I knew as a budding meditator that this was the next step to take. When we met backstage at the debate you and Michael Shermer did with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, which I moderated for Nightline, I realized for the first time that you were a meditator. You recommended that I go on this retreat, and it was almost as if I’d received a dare from a cool kid I admired. I felt like I really needed to do this. It was as horrible as I’d thought it would be for a couple of days. On day four or five I thought I might quit, but then I had a breakthrough.
Sam: Describe that breakthrough. What shifted?
Dan: As I say in the book, it felt as if I had been dragged by my head by a motorboat for a few days, and then, all of the sudden, I got up on water skis. When you’re hauled kicking and screaming into the present moment, you arrive at an experience of the mind that is, at least for me, totally new. I could see very clearly the ferocious rapidity of the mind—how fast we’re hearing, seeing, smelling, feeling, wanting—and that this is our life. We are on the receiving end of this fire hose of mental noise. That glimpse ushered in the happiest 36 hours of my life. But, as the Buddha liked to point out, nothing lasts—and that did not last.
Sam: It’s amazing to realize for the first time that your life doesn’t get any better than your mind is: You might have wonderful friends, perfect health, a great career, and everything else you want, and you can still be miserable. The converse is also true: There are people who basically have nothing—who live in circumstances that you and I would do more or less anything to avoid—who are happier than we tend to be because of the character of their minds. Unfortunately, one glimpse of this truth is never enough. We have to be continually reminded of it.
Dan: This reminds me of the Buddhist concept of suffering. The term “suffering” has certain connotations in English and, as you know, it’s a poor translation of the original Pali term dukkha. The Buddhist concept describes the truth of our existence, which is that nothing is ever ultimately satisfying.
As you said, you can have great friends and live pretty high on the socioeconomic ladder—your life can be a long string of pleasurable meals, vacations, and encounters with books and interesting people—and, yes, you can still have what Eckhart Tolle describes as a background static of perpetual discontent. This is why we see rock stars with drug problems and lottery winners who kill themselves. There is something very powerful about that realization.
Sam: And this is why training the mind through meditation makes sense—because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience. To remain unaware of this machinery—in particular, the automaticity of thought—is to simply be propelled by it into one situation after another in which you struggle to find lasting fulfillment amid conditions that can’t provide it.
Dan: What’s interesting is that so many people reflexively reject this—just as I would have five or six years ago—because of their misconceptions about meditation. I think there are two reasons why people don’t meditate. Either they think it’s complete baloney that involves wearing robes, lighting incense, and subscribing to some useless metaphysical program, or they accept the fact that it might be good for them, but they assume that they couldn’t do it because their minds are too busy. I refer to this second reason as “the fallacy of uniqueness.” If you think that your mind is somehow busier than everyone else’s—welcome to the human condition. Everyone’s mind is busy. Meditation is hard for everybody.
Sam: The first source of resistance you mentioned is especially prevalent among smart, skeptical people. And I’m a little worried that the way in which many of us respond to this doubt ultimately sells the whole enterprise short. For instance, consider the comparison people often make between meditation and physical exercise—in fact, you drew this analogy already. At first glance, it’s a good one, because nothing looks more ridiculous on its face than what most of us do for exercise. Take the practice of lifting weights: If you try to explain weightlifting to someone who has no understanding of fitness, the wisdom of repeatedly picking up heavy objects and putting them down again is very difficult to get across. And until you’ve actually succeeded at building some muscle, it feels wrong too. So it is easy to see why a naïve person would say, “Why on earth would I want to waste my time and energy doing that?” Of course, most people understand that lifting weights is one of the best things they can do if they want to retain muscle mass, protect their joints from injury, feel better, etc. It’s also extraordinarily satisfying, once a person gets into it.
Meditation presents a similar impasse at first. Everyone asks, “Why would I want to pay attention to my breath?” It seems like a shameful waste of time. So the analogy to exercise is inviting and probably useful, but it doesn’t quite get at what is so revolutionary about finally paying attention to the character of one’s own mental life in this way.
Truly learning to meditate is not like going to the gym and putting on some muscle because it’s good for you and makes you feel better. There’s more to it than that. Meditation—again, done correctly—puts into question more or less everything you tend to do in your search for happiness. But if you lose sight of this, it can become just another strategy for seeking happiness—a more refined version of the problem you already have.
Dan: I’m guilty of using the exercise analogy repeatedly. My feeling—and I think you’d agree with this—is that the analogy is good enough to get people in the door. It may be misleading, but I don’t think in a harmful way. Obviously, when done correctly, meditation is much more transformative than ordinary exercise, but you need to meet people where they are. I think that mindfulness, and potentially even non-duality, has the potential to become the next public health revolution, or the spirituality of the future. In order for that to happen, you need to communicate with people in a way that they can understand. Not to keep whaling on Eckhart Tolle, but part of my problem with him is that I just don’t know that anybody actually understands what he’s saying, despite the fact that he has sold millions of books.
Sam: This raises the question of how to evaluate the results of a spiritual practice—and whether those results, however transformative they may be for someone, can be credible to others.
What constitutes evidence that there is a path to wisdom at all? From the outside, it’s very difficult to judge—because there are charismatic charlatans who are probably lying about everything, and there are seemingly ordinary people who have had quite profound experiences. From the inside, however, the evidence is clear; so each person has to run the experiment in the laboratory of his own mind to know that there’s anything to this.
The truth is that most of us are bound to appear like ordinary schmucks to others no matter how much we meditate. If you’re lost in thought, as you will be most of the time, you become the mere puppet of whatever those thoughts are. If you’re lost in worries about the future, you will seem to be an ordinary, anxious person—and the fact that you might be punctuating this experience with moments of mindfulness or moments of non-duality isn’t necessarily going to change the way you appear in the world. But internally, the difference can be huge. This gap between first-person and third-person data is a real impediment to communicating the significance of meditation practice to people who haven’t experienced it.
Dan: I agree, although, as we’ve already mentioned, there are some external manifestations that one can measure—changes in the brain, lowered blood pressure, boosted immune function, lowered cortisol, and so forth. People find these things compelling, and once they get in the door, they can experience the practice from the inside.
I would also say—and perhaps you were just getting into this—it’s hard to gauge whether some spiritual teachers are telling the truth. I’ve been privileged to meet many of these people, and I just go by my gut sense of whether they’re full of crap or not.
I have to say that with Eckhart Tolle, I did not get that feeling. I got the sense that he is for real. I don’t understand a lot of what he’s saying, but I didn’t feel that he was lying to himself or to me. Obviously this isn’t really data, but I found it personally convincing. To what end, I don’t know.
Sam: As distinct, say, from our friend with the rhinestone glasses…
Dan: Correct. I think I say in the book that I had no questions about whether Tolle was authentic, although I had many questions about whether he was sane. It was the reverse with Deepak Chopra.
Sam: Now I find myself in the unusual position of rising to Deepak’s defense—I think this happens once a decade, when the planets align just so. As I was saying before, a person like Deepak could have authentic and life-transforming experiences in meditation that nevertheless failed to smooth out the quirks in his personality. If he spends most of his time lost in thought, it will not be obvious to us that he enjoys those moments of real freedom. We will inevitably judge him by the silly things he says and the arrogance with which he says them.
But I’ve learned, as a result of my humbling encounters with my own mind, to charitably discount everyone else’s psychopathology. So if a spiritual teacher flies into a rage or even does something starkly unethical, that is not, from my point of view, proof that he or she is a total fraud. It’s just evidence that he or she is spending some significant amount of time lost in thought. But that’s to be expected of anybody who’s not “fully enlightened,” if such a rarefied state is even possible. I’m not saying that every guru is worth listening to—I think most aren’t, and some are genuinely dangerous. But many talented contemplatives can appear quite ordinary. And, unfortunately, cutting through the illusion of the self doesn’t guarantee that you won’t say something stupid at the next opportunity.
Dan: I fully agree with you. I enjoy picking on Deepak, but the truth is that I like the guy.
Sam: Let’s leave it there, Dan. It was great speaking with you, and I wish you continued success with your book.
Dan: Many thanks, Sam.
Startling, provocative, and often very funny . . . [10% HAPPIER] will convince even the most skeptical reader of meditation’s potential. (Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project)
10% HAPPIER is hands down the best book on meditation for the uninitiated, the skeptical, or the merely curious. . . . an insightful, engaging, and hilarious tour of the mind’s darker corners and what we can do to find a bit of peace. (Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus)
The science supporting the health benefits of meditation continues to grow as does the number of Americans who count themselves as practitioners but, it took reading 10% HAPPIER to make me actually want to give it a try. (Richard E. Besser, M.D., Chief Health and Medical Editor, ABC News)
An enormously smart, clear-eyed, brave-hearted, and quite personal look at the benefits of meditation that offers new insights as to how this ancient practice can help modern lives while avoiding the pitfall of cliché. This is a book that will help people, simply put. (Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love)
This brilliant, humble, funny story shows how one man found a way to navigate the non-stop stresses and demands of modern life and back to humanity by finally learning to sit around doing nothing. (Colin Beavan, author of No Impact Man)
In 10% Happier, Dan Harris describes in fascinating detail the stresses of working as a news correspondent and the relief he has found through the practice of meditation. This is an extremely brave, funny, and insightful book. Every ambitious person should read it. (Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith)
A compellingly honest, delightfully interesting, and at times heart-warming story of one highly intelligent man’s life-changing journey towards a deeper understanding of what makes us our very best selves. As Dan’s meditation practice deepens, I look forward to him being at least 11% happier, or more. (Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself)
10% Happier is a spiritual adventure from a master storyteller. Mindfulness can make you happier. Read this to find out how. (George Stephanopoulos)
I was recently interviewed onstage at George Washington University by Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post. The next day, Boorstein published an article summarizing our conversation, in which she excerpted a few quotations that made me appear somewhat sexist. I believe that these quotations are accurate, but they are also incomplete and misleading. Boorstein seemed to anticipate that they would spark a little controversy, and they have.
My exchange with Boorstein in the Lisner Auditorium had been somewhat prickly, in fact. At one point, she flatly denied that a significant percentage of Americans are fundamentalist Christians. I cited poll results going back 80 years that suggest the number hovers around 45 percent. Boorstein then asserted her authority as a journalist, having focused on these issues, studied all the relevant polls, and written multiple articles explaining them to the public. According to her, the kinds of questions I claimed had been asked and answered, and upon which I based my case—Do you think God created humans in their present form? (46 percent); Do you think Jesus will return to earth in the next 40 years? (41 percent)—hadn’t been asked at all, and wouldn’t indicate a person’s actual beliefs even if they had. I found her remarks stunningly uninformed. I did my best not to let this derail the interview, but after we left the stage I told her that she had a professional responsibility to get her facts straight. She seems to have now paid me back in print.
I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists—and many of those who buy his books—are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.
It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.
“I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people… People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”
It is a measure of the ridiculous paranoia engendered by political correctness that in the second it took me to make that joke about my sex appeal, I worried whether my assuming that most women are heterosexual would offend some number of lesbians in the audience. And though the phrase “extra estrogen vibe,” spoken in a tone that acknowledged its silliness, also got a laugh, Boorstein surely knew that setting it down in print would make me look stupid. (If further evidence of her intentions were needed, her announcement of the article on Twitter read: “@samharris on why chicks don’t dig atheism.”) It’s very difficult to speak the way one writes, but this unpleasant encounter with direct quotation gives me further impetus to try. On the upside, however, one of my critics coined the hashtag #EstrogenVibe, and many have savaged me with it to delightful effect.
Let me be clear about what I was trying to say (and actually do believe):
1. I started by claiming that my readership seems more male than female. And when I shifted to speaking about atheists as a group, I was referring to active atheists—that is, the sort of people who go to atheist conferences, read atheist books, watch atheists debate pastors on YouTube, or otherwise rally around atheism as a political identity. I was not talking about everyone on Earth who doesn’t believe in God.
2. Although I share the common perception that there is a gender imbalance among active atheists, I don’t actually know whether this is the case. I used to joke that my average “groupie” was a 75-year-old man. Happily, my audiences are now filled with young people, but I still encounter many more men than women. I wouldn’t be surprised if the split were 70/30. I would be very surprised if it were 50/50. Again, I am talking about active atheists. I have no idea whether there are more male unbelievers than female.
3. My work is often perceived (I believe unfairly) as unpleasantly critical, angry, divisive, etc. The work of other vocal atheists (male and female) has a similar reputation. I believe that in general, men are more attracted to this style of communication than women are. Which is not to say there aren’t millions of acerbic women out there, and many for whom Hitchens at his most cutting was a favorite source of entertainment. But just as we can say that men are generally taller than women, without denying that some women are taller than most men, there are psychological differences between men and women which, considered in the aggregate, might explain why “angry atheism” attracts more of the former. Some of these differences are innate; some are surely the product of culture. Nothing in my remarks was meant to suggest that women can’t think as critically as men or that they are more likely to be taken in by bad ideas. Again, I was talking about a fondness for a perceived style of religion bashing with which I and other vocal atheists are often associated.
4. I believe that a less “angry,” more “nurturing” style of discourse might attract more women to the cause of atheism.
5. However, I haven’t spent even five minutes thinking about how or whether to modify my writing or speaking style so as to accomplish this.
6. As I said onstage, I don’t think of myself as primarily an “atheist” figure (or a “figure” at all). And while I am probably one of the most vocal critics of religion on earth, I don’t spend any energy advocating atheism as a political identity.
I suspect these ideas came across as intended to most of the audience at GWU. However, the remarks that Boorstein quoted, even in their full context of an hour-long conversation, managed to offend at least one woman in attendance. Looking back on our encounter at my book signing later that evening, she now strikes me as the Ghost of Things to Come. This is more or less how our conversation went:
She: I want you to know that what you said about Sarah Palin, and about women in the atheist community, was incredibly sexist. As a leader in our community, and as a writer with a large platform, you have a responsibility not to say such insensitive and bigoted things.
Me: I don’t know what you’re talking about. How were my remarks about Sarah Palin sexist? I merely said that she almost became Vice President of the United States, and would have been one heart attack away from becoming President, and this was terrifying, given her religious beliefs.
She: No, you said her candidacy “was like putting lipstick on a pig”!
Me: Wait, wait, wait…. I was quoting her [misquoting her, as it turns out], referencing her famous laugh line from the Republican National Convention. I was simply recalling that moment when she was at the absolute height of her influence, when her candidacy seemed entirely plausible. I found her star power a serious cause for concern, given the religious demagoguery that lay behind it.
She: Okay, let’s forget what you said about Sarah Palin. What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.
Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.
She: I’m not saying that women and men are the same.
Me: Okay, great. So I think you misunderstood the intent of what I was saying. I was just acknowledging that some differences in the general tendencies of men and women might explain why 84 percent of my followers on Twitter are men. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into this, because there are 200 people standing behind you in line patiently waiting to have their books signed.
She: You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize.
Me: You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.
She: No. You’re just totally unaware of how sexist you are.
Me: Listen, I was raised by a single mother. I have two daughters. Most of my editors have been women, and my first, last, and best editor is always my wife. If you really want to know the truth about me, I tend to respect women more than men. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it’s actually an honest statement about my psychological biases. I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for.
I knew that this honest (and admittedly desperate) confession could be cynically viewed as a version of the “Some of my best friends are black!” defense. (It isn’t. I’m not saying that my fondness for certain women proves that I’m not sexist. I’m saying that I actually respect women more than men by default. Again, I’m not saying that this is necessarily good; I’m saying that it is a fact.) However, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the mixture of contempt and pity my words elicited from this young woman. Her expression of disdain for me couldn’t have been any more intense had I said, “Listen, honey. I go to strip clubs every week. I love women—especially when they’re covered in oil.”
There ended our happy meeting—and, I thought, the controversy. However, in the wake of Boorstein’s article, I’ve been attacked as a sexist bigot by several atheist bloggers and their many fans. So it seems that a few words of clarification are in order.
I am well aware that sexism and misogyny are problems in our society. However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.
As readers of my blog will know, I often write about violence, self-defense, guns, and related matters—much to the bewilderment of my fellow liberals. As it happens, I tend to look at the ethics of force from a woman’s point of view. Violence is different for women than it is for men. Unlike men, they don’t tend to get into fistfights with strangers after an escalating series of insults. It is far more common for a woman to be attacked, physically controlled, and sexually assaulted by a man. Outside the walls of a prison, adult males almost never have to think about getting raped. For most women, rape is a very real, lifelong concern. Women also suffer from domestic violence in ways that men rarely do. Most of these differences can be explained by general disparities in size, strength, and aggressiveness between the sexes.
If you are a man, just consider how you would feel in the presence of a potential aggressor who is 4 to 6 inches taller and 50 to 100 pounds heavier than yourself. Most women find themselves in this situation with every man they meet. One of the reasons I cannot slavishly follow the liberal line on gun control is that I know that a gun is the only tool that reliably cancels the advantages that (most) men have over (most) women when it comes to physical violence.
Any time a woman comes away from an encounter with a man saying that he gave her the creeps, I trust her. This is not mere chivalry on my part: It is a judgment based on an understanding of human nature. One of the things we are naturally good at is detecting threatening people—indeed, millions of years of evolution have more or less guaranteed this. The silly word “vibe” enjoys its most felicitous application here—when a person must make a split-second judgment about the man at the door. I suspect (but do not know) that women are slightly better at this than men. I’m not denying that honest misunderstandings occasionally arise, or that some men have been falsely accused of sexual harassment and even of rape. But having been raised by a single mother since the age of two, I have always had a very visceral sense that men have a responsibility not to be evil jerks. And when they are, they should be sorted out—physically, if need be—by good men. Call me old-fashioned.
My criticism of Islam—for which I have been vilified by many of the same people who are now attacking me over my remarks about gender—is largely inspired by my concern for women. And I consider it one of the most sickening effects of political correctness that so many liberals appear to care more about the (nonexistent) rights of Muslims to not be offended than about the rights of women to not live as slaves. This malignant derangement of liberal ethics can be seen whenever a “feminist” expresses reservations about (my friend and hero) Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also came into full flower when I wrote in support of Malala Yousafzai while ignoring the (completely irrelevant) fact that she wouldn’t agree with my full-frontal criticism of Islam. Many liberal blogs erupted in scorn, which eventually led to a private email exchange with a well-known feminist-atheist blogger. This conversation was every bit as hopeless and dispiriting as my encounter at my book signing in D.C. Here was a woman who imagined herself to be bettering the world by fighting for gender equality, and yet she appeared far more concerned that I had “co-opted” Malala and “denied her agency” by ignoring her religious beliefs than that a Taliban thug had put a bullet in her brain. I’m tempted to name this person—so pure and smug and sanctimonious and incorrigible was her moral blindness. But I’ll resist that combative impulse in the interests of maintaining harmony in the atheist community. #EstrogenVibe
By Trevor Quirk
In his speech responding to the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by a British jihadist, President Obama delivered the following rebuke (using an alternate name for ISIS):
ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt…. we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. May God bless and keep Jim’s memory. And may God bless the United States of America.
In his subsequent remarks outlining a strategy to defeat ISIS, the President declared:
Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way…. May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.
As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”
More British Muslims have joined the ranks of ISIS than have volunteered to serve in the British armed forces. In fact, this group has managed to attract thousands of recruits from free societies throughout the world to help build a paradise of repression and sectarian slaughter in Syria and Iraq. This is an astonishing phenomenon, and it reveals some very uncomfortable truths about the failures of multiculturalism, the inherent vulnerability of open societies, and the terrifying power of bad ideas.
No doubt many enlightened concerns will come flooding into the reader’s mind at this point. I would not want to create the impression that most Muslims support ISIS, nor would I want to give any shelter or inspiration to the hatred of Muslims as people. In drawing a connection between the doctrine of Islam and jihadist violence, I am talking about ideas and their consequences, not about 1.5 billion nominal Muslims, many of whom do not take their religion very seriously.
But a belief in martyrdom, a hatred of infidels, and a commitment to violent jihad are not fringe phenomena in the Muslim world. These preoccupations are supported by the Koran and numerous hadith. That is why the popular Saudi cleric Mohammad Al-Areefi sounds like the ISIS army chaplain. The man has 9.5 million followers on Twitter (twice as many as Pope Francis has). If you can find an important distinction between the faith he preaches and that which motivates the savagery of ISIS, you should probably consult a neurologist.
Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran. The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the shahadah or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. Each of these practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit support in scripture.
But there is now a large industry of obfuscation designed to protect Muslims from having to grapple with these truths. Our humanities and social science departments are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other diverse fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are concerned, nothing is ever what it seems. Above all, these experts claim that one can’t take Islamists and jihadists at their word: Their incessant declarations about God, paradise, martyrdom, and the evils of apostasy are nothing more than a mask concealing their real motivations. What are their real motivations? Insert here the most abject hopes and projections of secular liberalism: How would you feel if Western imperialists and their mapmakers had divided your lands, stolen your oil, and humiliated your proud culture? Devout Muslims merely want what everyone wants—political and economic security, a piece of land to call home, good schools for their children, a little leisure to enjoy the company of friends. Unfortunately, most of my fellow liberals appear to believe this. In fact, to not accept this obscurantism as a deep insight into human nature and immediately avert one’s eyes from the teachings of Islam is considered a form of bigotry.
In any conversation on this topic, one must continually deploy a firewall of caveats and concessions to irrelevancy: Of course, U.S. foreign policy has problems. Yes, we really must get off oil. No, I did not support the war in Iraq. Sure, I’ve read Chomsky. No doubt, the Bible contains equally terrible passages. Yes, I heard about that abortion clinic bombing in 1984. No, I’m sorry to say that Hitler and Stalin were not motivated by atheism. The Tamil Tigers? Of course, I’ve heard of them. Now can we honestly talk about the link between belief and behavior?
Yes, many Muslims happily ignore the apostasy and blasphemy of their neighbors, view women as the moral equals of men, and consider anti-Semitism contemptible. But there are also Muslims who drink alcohol and eat bacon. All of these persuasions run counter to the explicit teachings of Islam to one or another degree. And just like moderates in every other religion, most moderate Muslims become obscurantists when defending their faith from criticism. They rely on modern, secular values—for instance, tolerance of diversity and respect for human rights—as a basis for reinterpreting and ignoring the most despicable parts of their holy books. But they nevertheless demand that we respect the idea of revelation, and this leaves us perpetually vulnerable to more literal readings of scripture.
The idea that any book was inspired by the creator of the universe is poison—intellectually, ethically, and politically. And nowhere is this poison currently doing more harm than in Muslim communities, East and West. Despite all the obvious barbarism in the Old Testament, and the dangerous eschatology of the New, it is relatively easy for Jews and Christians to divorce religion from politics and secular ethics. A single line in Matthew—“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”—largely accounts for why the West isn’t still hostage to theocracy. The Koran contains a few lines that could be equally potent—for instance, “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256)—but these sparks of tolerance are easily snuffed out. Transforming Islam into a truly benign faith will require a miracle of re-interpretation. And a few intrepid reformers, such as Maajid Nawaz, are doing their best to accomplish it.
Many believe it unwise to discuss the link between Islam and the intolerance and violence we see in the Muslim world, fearing that it will increase the perception that the West is at war with the faith and cause millions of otherwise peaceful Muslims to rally to the jihadist cause. I admit that this concern isn’t obviously crazy—but it merely attests to the seriousness of the underlying problem. Religion produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut. It causes in-group loyalty and out-group hostility, even when members of one’s own group are behaving like psychopaths.
But it remains taboo in most societies to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. Even atheists tend to observe this taboo, and enforce it on others, because they believe that religion is necessary for many people. After all, life is difficult—and faith is a balm. Most people imagine that Iron Age philosophy represents the only available vessel for their spiritual hopes and existential concerns. This is an enduring problem for the forces of reason, because the most transformative experiences people have—bliss, devotion, self-transcendence—are currently anchored to the worst parts of culture and to ways of thinking that merely amplify superstition, self-deception, and conflict.
Among all the harms caused by religion at this point in history, this is perhaps the most subtle: Even when it appears beneficial—inspiring people to gather in beautiful buildings to contemplate the mystery existence and their ethical commitments to one another—religion conveys the message that there is no intellectually defensible and nonsectarian way to do this. But there is. We can build strong communities and enjoy deeply moral and spiritual lives, without believing any divisive nonsense about the divine origin of specific books.
And it is this misguided respect for revelation that explains why, in response to the starkest conceivable expression of religious fanaticism, President Obama has responded with euphemisms—and missiles. This may be the best we can hope for, given the state of our discourse about religion. Perhaps one day we will do “everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for.” But today, we won’t even honestly describe the motivations of our enemies. And in the act of lying to ourselves, we continue to pay lip service to the very delusions that empower them.
A forum with Paul Bloom, Peter Singer, Jack W. Berry, Lynn E. O’Connor, Marianne LaFrance, Nomy Arpaly, Christine Montross, Barbara H. Fried, Leslie Jamison, Leonardo Christov-Moore, Marco Iacoboni, Simon Baron-Cohen, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sam Harris, and Jesse Prinz
In recent weeks, Israeli bombs have rained down on Gaza, and images of the resulting death and destruction have inflamed world opinion. Never mind that the government in Gaza is run by Hamas, an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields. Nor does it matter that some of this carnage seems to have been caused by Hamas’s own rockets gone astray. To bear witness to the suffering of the Palestinian people is all: the sight of a lifeless girl pulled from the rubble, her inconsolable parents, the spokesman for UNRWA breaking down in sobs during an interview—every image presents its own moral imperative and settles the case. Israel stands convicted of evil.
It’s not often that one comes across a scientific argument that could help resolve moral and political emergencies of this kind—much less one that is deeply counterintuitive and yet easily understood. In his provocative article, Paul Bloom has produced such an argument.
Bloom’s thesis is that emotional empathy, the ability to identify with others and “feel their pain,” is generally a poor guide for ethical behavior. As he acknowledges, many will find this idea grotesque—how could sharing another’s pain be anything less than a virtue? Indeed, many readers will feel that their very humanity depends on the strength of their emotion when witnessing suffering of the sort on display in Gaza. To question the merits of empathy is to question love, compassion, and basic human decency.
However, Bloom likens empathy to anger, and the comparison is remarkably astute. We want to be able to feel anger when circumstances warrant it, but then we want to stop feeling it the moment it is no longer useful. A person who is unable to feel anger would be, as Bloom says, “the perfect victim,” but feeling too much of it reliably leads to misery and chaos. Generally speaking, to have one’s moral judgment colored by anger is to have it clouded. Bloom argues that empathy is like anger in this respect, and I am convinced that he is right.
One commentator on the war in Gaza unwittingly echoed Bloom’s thesis when he responded to those condemning Israel by saying, “Dead babies are not an argument.” It was a brave and arresting statement that requires some unpacking. He surely did not mean to minimize the suffering of the Palestinians nor the horror concealed by the phrase “collateral damage.” But the truth is that noncombatants die in every war, however just. In fact, one finds dead babies in many other circumstances—and they are rarely, if ever, the only consideration.
For instance, more than 30,000 people die in traffic accidents in the United States each year, and many more are grievously injured. Much of this death and suffering is inflicted upon helpless children. But when was the last time you saw an image of parents howling with grief over the body of their son or daughter killed in a car crash? Children are killed and disfigured on our roads every day, and every day we fail to stop the slaughter. Yet a simple solution exists: we need only set the maximum speed limit on our roads at fifteen miles per hour. Why don’t we do this? The answer could hardly be more callous, and it surely has nothing to do with self-defense or any other existential concern (as it does in the case of Israel). We simply prefer to drive faster than that. Indeed, to drive so safely as to ensure the lives of all our children would be to guarantee inefficiency and boredom. Apparently, we judge these evils to be worse than some number of dead babies.
To be moved to action merely by empathy is to lurch blindly toward who knows what. The harrowing images coming out Gaza are not the whole story, and they manipulate world opinion in ways that few people seem willing to acknowledge. I am making no claims about the ethical or strategic necessity of Israel’s actions. I am simply saying that emotional arousal over the plight of the Palestinians offers little insight. Bloom has finally given us an argument for why wisdom and compassion must apply the brakes to empathy so that we can think clearly about decisions that affect the lives of millions.
I once participated in a twenty-three-day wilderness program in the mountains of Colorado. If the purpose of this course was to expose students to dangerous lightning and half the world’s mosquitoes, it was fulfilled on the first day. What was in essence a forced march through hundreds of miles of backcountry culminated in a ritual known as “the solo,” where we were finally permitted to rest—alone, on the outskirts of a gorgeous alpine lake—for three days of fasting and contemplation.
I had just turned sixteen, and this was my first taste of true solitude since exiting my mother’s womb. It proved a sufficient provocation. After a long nap and a glance at the icy waters of the lake, the promising young man I imagined myself to be was quickly cut down by loneliness and boredom. I filled the pages of my journal not with the insights of a budding naturalist, philosopher, or mystic but with a list of the foods on which I intended to gorge myself the instant I returned to civilization. Judging from the state of my consciousness at the time, millions of years of hominid evolution had produced nothing more transcendent than a craving for a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake.
I found the experience of sitting undisturbed for three days amid pristine breezes and starlight, with nothing to do but contemplate the mystery of my existence, to be a source of perfect misery—for which I could see not so much as a glimmer of my own contribution. My letters home, in their plaintiveness and self-pity, rivaled any written at Shiloh or Gallipoli.
So I was more than a little surprised when several members of our party, most of whom were a decade older than I, described their days and nights of solitude in positive, even transformational terms. I simply didn’t know what to make of their claims to happiness. How could someone’s happiness increase when all the material sources of pleasure and distraction had been removed? At that age, the nature of my own mind did not interest me—only my life did. And I was utterly oblivious to how different life would be if the quality of my mind were to change.
Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement—when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it.
Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? Everything we want to accomplish—to paint the house, learn a new language, find a better job—is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope. I’m not denying the importance of achieving one’s goals, maintaining one’s health, or keeping one’s children clothed and fed—but most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.
Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.
A few years after my first painful encounter with solitude, in the winter of 1987, I took the drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as Ecstasy, and my sense of the human mind’s potential shifted profoundly. Although MDMA would become ubiquitous at dance clubs and “raves” in the 1990s, at that time I didn’t know anyone of my generation who had tried it. One evening, a few months before my twentieth birthday, a close friend and I decided to take the drug.
The setting of our experiment bore little resemblance to the conditions of Dionysian abandon under which MDMA is now often consumed. We were alone in a house, seated across from each other on opposite ends of a couch, and engaged in quiet conversation as the chemical worked its way into our heads. Unlike other drugs with which we were by then familiar (marijuana and alcohol), MDMA produced no feeling of distortion in our senses. Our minds seemed completely clear.
In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me—he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.
That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance—the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person—seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own.
A certain euphoria was creeping into these reflections, perhaps, but the general feeling remained one of absolute sobriety—and of moral and emotional clarity unlike any I had ever known. It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward. I was simply talking to my friend—about what, I don’t recall—and realized that I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.
And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal—and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love—I love you because…—now made no sense at all.
The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all.
The moment I could find a voice with which to speak, I discovered that this epiphany about the universality of love could be readily communicated. My friend got the point at once: All I had to do was ask him how he would feel in the presence of a total stranger at that moment, and the same door opened in his mind. It was simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit. The experience was not of love growing but of its being no longer obscured. Love was—as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages—a state of being. How had we not seen this before? And how could we overlook it ever again?
It would take me many years to put this experience into context. Until that moment, I had viewed organized religion as merely a monument to the ignorance and superstition of our ancestors. But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds. I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.
Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. One purpose of this book is to give both these convictions intellectual and empirical support.
Before going any further, I should address the animosity that many readers feel toward the term spiritual. Whenever I use the word, as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice,” I hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.
The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the thirteenth century, the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth. It acquired other meanings as well: We speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many nonbelievers now consider all things “spiritual” to be contaminated by medieval superstition.
I do not share their semantic concerns. Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.
Throughout this book, I discuss certain classically spiritual phenomena, concepts, and practices in the context of our modern understanding of the human mind—and I cannot do this while restricting myself to the terminology of ordinary experience. So I will use spiritual, mystical, contemplative, and transcendent without further apology. However, I will be precise in describing the experiences and methods that merit these terms.
For many years, I have been a vocal critic of religion, and I won’t ride the same hobbyhorse here. I hope that I have been sufficiently energetic on this front that even my most skeptical readers will trust that my bullshit detector remains well calibrated as we advance over this new terrain. Perhaps the following assurance can suffice for the moment: Nothing in this book needs to be accepted on faith. Although my focus is on human subjectivity—I am, after all, talking about the nature of experience itself—all my assertions can be tested in the laboratory of your own life. In fact, my goal is to encourage you to do just that.
Authors who attempt to build a bridge between science and spirituality tend to make one of two mistakes: Scientists generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind—parental love, artistic inspiration, awe at the beauty of the night sky. In this vein, one finds Einstein’s amazement at the intelligibility of Nature’s laws described as though it were a kind of mystical insight.
New Age thinkers usually enter the ditch on the other side of the road: They idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics. Here we are told that the Buddha and other contemplatives anticipated modern cosmology or quantum mechanics and that by transcending the sense of self, a person can realize his identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos.
In the end, we are left to choose between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.
Few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection—in fact, most doubt that such abilities even exist. Conversely, many of the greatest contemplatives know nothing about science. But there is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose. Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.
There is now a large literature on the psychological benefits of meditation. Different techniques produce long-lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition, and pain perception, and these correlate with both structural and functional changes in the brain. This field of research is quickly growing, as is our understanding of self-awareness and related mental phenomena. Given recent advances in neuroimaging technology, we no longer face a practical impediment to investigating spiritual insights in the context of science.
Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know that this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.
That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.
Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields.
I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.
This book is by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I.” I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. There is a diamond there, and I have devoted a fair amount of my life to contemplating it, but getting it in hand requires that we remain true to the deepest principles of scientific skepticism and make no obeisance to tradition. Where I do discuss specific teachings, such as those of Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta, it isn’t my purpose to provide anything like a comprehensive account. Readers who are loyal to any one spiritual tradition or who specialize in the academic study of religion, may view my approach as the quintessence of arrogance. I consider it, rather, a symptom of impatience. There is barely time enough in a book—or in a life—to get to the point. Just as a modern treatise on weaponry would omit the casting of spells and would very likely ignore the slingshot and the boomerang, I will focus on what I consider the most promising lines of spiritual inquiry.
My hope is that my personal experience will help readers to see the nature of their own minds in a new light. A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism and from the lives of most of the people I meet. The purpose of this book is to offer readers a clear view of the problem, along with some tools to help them solve it for themselves.
THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS
One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother’s womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, “God’s earth is vast,” name this region from which the saints have come.
I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that the terms spiritual and mystical are often used to make claims not merely about the quality of certain experiences but about reality at large. Far too often, these words are invoked in support of religious beliefs that are morally and intellectually grotesque. Consequently, many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception. This is a problem, because millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available. Many of the beliefs people form on the basis of these experiences are false. But the fact that most atheists will view a statement like Rumi’s above as a symptom of the man’s derangement grants a kernel of truth to the rantings of even our least rational opponents. The human mind does, in fact, contain vast expanses that few of us ever discover.
And there is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention as we shop, gossip, argue, and ruminate our way to the grave. Perhaps I should speak only for myself here: It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. My experiences in meditation suggest, however, that an alternative exists. It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for moments at a time.
Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention—meditation, yoga, prayer—can transform their perception of the world. Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.
Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain? Is there a happiness that does not depend upon having one’s favorite foods available, or friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or good books to read, or something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?
We are all, in some sense, living our answer to this question—and most of us are living as though the answer were “no.” No, nothing is more profound than repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; nothing is more profound than seeking satisfaction—sensory, emotional, and intellectual—moment after moment. Just keep your foot on the gas until you run out of road.
Certain people, however, come to suspect that human existence might encompass more than this. Many of them are led to suspect this by religion—by the claims of the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated figure. And such people often begin to practice various disciplines of attention as a means of examining their experience closely enough to see whether a deeper source of well-being exists. They may even sequester themselves in caves or monasteries for months or years at a time to facilitate this process. Why would a person do this? No doubt there are many motives for retreating from the world, and some of them are psychologically unhealthy. In its wisest form, however, the exercise amounts to a very simple experiment. Here is its logic: If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed. Such happiness should be available to a person who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, renounced her career and material possessions, and gone off to a cave or some other spot that is inhospitable to ordinary aspirations.
One clue to how daunting most people would find such a project is the fact that solitary confinement—which is essentially what we are talking about—is considered a punishment inside a maximum-security prison. Even when forced to live among murderers and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others to spending any significant amount of time alone in a room. And yet contemplatives in many traditions claim to experience extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while living in isolation for vast stretches of time. How should we interpret this? Either the contemplative literature is a catalogue of religious delusion, psychopathology, and deliberate fraud, or people have been having liberating insights under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.
Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions. Despite the painful results of my first few days alone in the mountains of Colorado, I later studied with a wide range of monks, lamas, yogis, and other contemplatives, some of whom had lived for decades in seclusion doing nothing but meditating. In the process, I spent two years on silent retreat myself (in increments of one week to three months), practicing various techniques of meditation for twelve to eighteen hours a day.
I can attest that when one goes into silence and meditates for weeks or months at a time, doing nothing else—not speaking, reading, or writing, just making a moment-to-moment effort to observe the contents of consciousness—one has experiences that are generally unavailable to people who have not undertaken a similar practice. I believe that such states of mind have a lot to say about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities of human well-being. Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.
Most traditions of spirituality also suggest a connection between self-transcendence and living ethically. Not all good feelings have an ethical valence, and pathological forms of ecstasy surely exist. I have no doubt, for instance, that many suicide bombers feel extraordinarily good just before they detonate themselves in a crowd. But there are also forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical. As I indicated earlier, for some states of consciousness, a phrase like “boundless love” does not seem overblown. It is decidedly inconvenient for the forces of reason and secularism that if someone wakes up tomorrow feeling boundless love for all sentient beings, the only people likely to acknowledge the legitimacy of his experience will be representatives of one or another Iron Age religion or New Age cult.
Most of us are far wiser than we may appear to be. We know how to keep our relationships in order, to use our time well, to improve our health, to lose weight, to learn valuable skills, and to solve many other riddles of existence. But following even the straight and open path to happiness is hard. If your best friend were to ask how she could live a better life, you would probably find many useful things to say, and yet you might not live that way yourself. On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one’s own advice. However, there are deeper insights to be had about the nature of our minds. Unfortunately, they have been discussed entirely in the context of religion and, therefore, have been shrouded in fallacy and superstition for all of human history.
The problem of finding happiness in this world arrives with our first breath—and our needs and desires seem to multiply by the hour. To spend any time in the presence of a young child is to witness a mind ceaselessly buffeted by joy and sorrow. As we grow older, our laughter and tears become less gratuitous, perhaps, but the same process of change continues: One roiling complex of thought and emotion is followed by the next, like waves in the ocean.
Seeking, finding, maintaining, and safeguarding our well-being is the great project to which we all are devoted, whether or not we choose to think in these terms. This is not to say that we want mere pleasure or the easiest possible life. Many things require extraordinary effort to accomplish, and some of us learn to enjoy the struggle. Any athlete knows that certain kinds of pain can be exquisitely pleasurable. The burn of lifting weights, for instance, would be excruciating if it were a symptom of terminal illness. But because it is associated with health and fitness, most people find it enjoyable. Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.
And we always face tensions and trade-offs. In some moments we crave excitement and in others rest. We might love the taste of wine and chocolate, but rarely for breakfast. Whatever the context, our minds are perpetually moving—generally toward pleasure (or its imagined source) and away from pain. I am not the first person to have noticed this.
Our struggle to navigate the space of possible pains and pleasures produces most of human culture. Medical science attempts to prolong our health and to reduce the suffering associated with illness, aging, and death. All forms of media cater to our thirst for information and entertainment. Political and economic institutions seek to ensure our peaceful collaboration with one another—and the police or the military is summoned when they fail. Beyond ensuring our survival, civilization is a vast machine invented by the human mind to regulate its states. We are ever in the process of creating and repairing a world that our minds want to be in. And wherever we look, we see the evidence of our successes and our failures. Unfortunately, failure enjoys a natural advantage. Wrong answers to any problem outnumber right ones by a wide margin, and it seems that it will always be easier to break things than to fix them.
Despite the beauty of our world and the scope of human accomplishment, it is hard not to worry that the forces of chaos will triumph—not merely in the end but in every moment. Our pleasures, however refined or easily acquired, are by their very nature fleeting. They begin to subside the instant they arise, only to be replaced by fresh desires or feelings of discomfort. You can’t get enough of your favorite meal until, in the next moment, you find you are so stuffed as to nearly require the attention of a surgeon—and yet, by some quirk of physics, you still have room for dessert. The pleasure of dessert lasts a few seconds, and then the lingering taste in your mouth must be banished by a drink of water. The warmth of the sun feels wonderful on your skin, but soon it becomes too much of a good thing. A move to the shade brings immediate relief, but after a minute or two, the breeze is just a little too cold. Do you have a sweater in the car? Let’s take a look. Yes, there it is. You’re warm now, but you notice that your sweater has seen better days. Does it make you look carefree or disheveled? Perhaps it is time to go shopping for something new. And so it goes.
We seem to do little more than lurch between wanting and not wanting. Thus, the question naturally arises: Is there more to life than this? Might it be possible to feel much better (in every sense of better) than one tends to feel? Is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change?
Spiritual life begins with a suspicion that the answer to such questions could well be “yes.” And a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment. Of course, I’m not claiming to have experienced all such states, but I meet many people who appear to have experienced none of them—and these people often profess to have no interest in spiritual life.
This is not surprising. The phenomenon of self-transcendence is generally sought and interpreted in a religious context, and it is precisely the sort of experience that tends to increase a person’s faith. How many Christians, having once felt their hearts grow as wide as the world, will decide to ditch Christianity and proclaim their atheism? Not many, I suspect. How many people who have never felt anything of the kind become atheists? I don’t know, but there is little doubt that these mental states act as a kind of filter: The faithful count them in support of ancient dogma, and their absence gives nonbelievers further reason to reject religion.
This is a difficult problem for me to address in the context of a book, because many readers will have no idea what I’m talking about when I describe certain spiritual experiences and might assume that the assertions I’m making must be accepted on faith. Religious readers present a different challenge: They may think they know exactly what I’m describing, but only insofar as it aligns with one or another religious doctrine. It seems to me that both these attitudes present impressive obstacles to understanding spirituality in the way that I intend. I can only hope that, whatever your background, you will approach the exercises presented in this book with an open mind.
RELIGION, EAST AND WEST
We are often encouraged to believe that all religions are the same: All teach the same ethical principles; all urge their followers to contemplate the same divine reality; all are equally wise, compassionate, and true within their sphere—or equally divisive and false, depending on one’s view.
No serious adherents of any faith can believe these things, because most religions make claims about reality that are mutually incompatible. Exceptions to this rule exist, but they provide little relief from what is essentially a zero-sum contest of all against all. The polytheism of Hinduism allows it to digest parts of many other faiths: If Christians insist that Jesus Christ is the son of God, for instance, Hindus can make him yet another avatar of Vishnu without losing any sleep. But this spirit of inclusiveness points in one direction only, and even it has its limits. Hindus are committed to specific metaphysical ideas—the law of karma and rebirth, a multiplicity of gods—that almost every other major religion decries. It is impossible for any faith, no matter how elastic, to fully honor the truth claims of another.
Devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that theirs is the one true and complete revelation—because that is what their holy books say of themselves. Only secularists and New Age dabblers can mistake the modern tactic of “interfaith dialogue” for an underlying unity of all religions.
I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk of injury than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.
The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don’t always point to the same underlying reality—and when they do, they don’t do it equally well. Nor are all these teachings equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them.
Making distinctions of this kind, however, is deeply unfashionable in intellectual circles. In my experience, people do not want to hear that Islam supports violence in a way that Jainism doesn’t, or that Buddhism offers a truly sophisticated, empirical approach to understanding the human mind, whereas Christianity presents an almost perfect impediment to such understanding. In many circles, to make invidious comparisons of this kind is to stand convicted of bigotry.
In one sense, all religions and spiritual practices must address the same reality—because people of all faiths have glimpsed many of the same truths. Any view of consciousness and the cosmos that is available to the human mind can, in principle, be appreciated by anyone. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists have given voice to some of the same insights and intuitions. This merely indicates that human cognition and emotion run deeper than religion. (But we knew that, didn’t we?) It does not suggest that all religions understand our spiritual possibilities equally well.
One way of missing this point is to declare that all spiritual teachings are inflections of the same “Perennial Philosophy.” The writer Aldous Huxley brought this idea into prominence by publishing an anthology by that title. Here is how he justified the idea:
Philosophia perennis—the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing—the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions. A version of this Highest Common Factor in all preceding and subsequent theologies was first committed to writing more than twenty-five centuries ago, and since that time the inexhaustible theme has been treated again and again, from the standpoint of every religious tradition and in all the principal languages of Asia and Europe.
Although Huxley was being reasonably cautious in his wording, this notion of a “highest common factor” uniting all religions begins to break apart the moment one presses for details. For instance, the Abrahamic religions are incorrigibly dualistic and faith-based: In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the human soul is conceived as genuinely separate from the divine reality of God. The appropriate attitude for a creature that finds itself in this circumstance is some combination of terror, shame, and awe. In the best case, notions of God’s love and grace provide some relief—but the central message of these faiths is that each of us is separate from, and in relationship to, a divine authority who will punish anyone who harbors the slightest doubt about His supremacy.
The Eastern tradition presents a very different picture of reality. And its highest teachings—found within the various schools of Buddhism and the nominally Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta—explicitly transcend dualism. By their lights, consciousness itself is identical to the very reality that one might otherwise mistake for God. While these teachings make metaphysical claims that any serious student of science should find incredible, they center on a range of experiences that the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam rule out-of-bounds.
Of course, it is true that specific Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics have had experiences similar to those that motivate Buddhism and Advaita, but these contemplative insights are not exemplary of their faith. Rather, they are anomalies that Western mystics have always struggled to understand and to honor, often at considerable personal risk. Given their proper weight, these experiences produce heterodoxies for which Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been regularly exiled or killed.
Like Huxley, anyone determined to find a happy synthesis among spiritual traditions will notice that the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260–ca. 1327) often sounded very much like a Buddhist: “The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge.” But he also sounded like a man bound to be excommunicated by his church—as he was. Had Eckhart lived a little longer, it seems certain that he would have been dragged into the street and burned alive for these expansive ideas. That is a telling difference between Christianity and Buddhism.
In the same vein, it is misleading to hold up the Sufi mystic Al-Hallaj (858–922) as a representative of Islam. He was a Muslim, yes, but he suffered the most grisly death imaginable at the hands of his coreligionists for presuming to be one with God. Both Eckhart and Al-Hallaj gave voice to an experience of self-transcendence that any human being can, in principle, enjoy. However, their views were not consistent with the central teachings of their faiths.
The Indian tradition is comparatively free of problems of this kind. Although the teachings of Buddhism and Advaita are embedded in more or less conventional religions, they contain empirical insights about the nature of consciousness that do not depend upon faith. One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the method of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in one’s consciousness without ever believing in the law of karma or in the miracles attributed to Indian mystics. To get started as a Christian, however, one must first accept a dozen implausible things about the life of Jesus and the origins of the Bible—and the same can be said, minus a few unimportant details, about Judaism and Islam. If one should happen to discover that the sense of being an individual soul is an illusion, one will be guilty of blasphemy everywhere west of the Indus.
There is no question that many religious disciplines can produce interesting experiences in suitable minds. It should be clear, however, that engaging a faith-based (and probably delusional) practice, whatever its effects, isn’t the same as investigating the nature of one’s mind absent any doctrinal assumptions. Statements of this kind may seem starkly antagonistic toward Abrahamic religions, but they are nonetheless true: One can speak about Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions. The same cannot be said of Christianity or Islam.
Western engagement with Eastern spirituality dates back at least as far as Alexander’s campaign in India, where the young conqueror and his pet philosophers encountered naked ascetics whom they called “gymnosophists.” It is often said that the thinking of these yogis greatly influenced the philosopher Pyrrho, the father of Greek skepticism. This seems a credible claim, because Pyrrho’s teachings had much in common with Buddhism. But his contemplative insights and methods never became part of any system of thought in the West.
Serious study of Eastern thought by outsiders did not begin until the late eighteenth century. The first translation of a Sanskrit text into a Western language appears to have been Sir Charles Wilkins’s rendering of the Bhagavad Gita, a cornerstone text of Hinduism, in 1785. The Buddhist canon would not attract the attention of Western scholars for another hundred years.
The conversation between East and West started in earnest, albeit inauspiciously, with the birth of the Theosophical Society, that golem of spiritual hunger and self-deception brought into this world almost single-handedly by the incomparable Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875. Everything about Blavatsky seemed to defy earthly logic: She was an enormously fat woman who was said to have wandered alone and undetected for seven years in the mountains of Tibet. She was also thought to have survived shipwrecks, gunshot wounds, and sword fights. Even less persuasively, she claimed to be in psychic contact with members of the “Great White Brotherhood” of ascended masters—a collection of immortals responsible for the evolution and maintenance of the entire cosmos. Their leader hailed from the planet Venus but lived in the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, which Blavatsky placed somewhere in the vicinity of the Gobi Desert. With the suspiciously bureaucratic name “the Lord of the World,” he supervised the work of other adepts, including the Buddha, Maitreya, Maha Chohan, and one Koot Hoomi, who appears to have had nothing better to do on behalf of the cosmos than to impart its secrets to Blavatsky. 
It is always surprising when a person attracts legions of followers and builds a large organization on their largesse while peddling penny-arcade mythology of this kind. But perhaps this was less remarkable in a time when even the best-educated people were still struggling to come to terms with electricity, evolution, and the existence of other planets. We can easily forget how suddenly the world had shrunk and the cosmos expanded as the nineteenth century came to a close. The geographical barriers between distant cultures had been stripped away by trade and conquest (one could now order a gin and tonic almost everywhere on earth), and yet the reality of unseen forces and alien worlds was a daily focus of the most careful scientific research. Inevitably, cross-cultural and scientific discoveries were mingled in the popular imagination with religious dogma and traditional occultism. In fact, this had been happening at the highest level of human thought for more than a century: It is always instructive to recall that the father of modern physics, Isaac Newton, squandered a considerable portion of his genius on the study of theology, biblical prophecy, and alchemy.
The inability to distinguish the strange but true from the merely strange was common enough in Blavatsky’s time—as it is in our own. Blavatsky’s contemporary Joseph Smith, a libidinous con man and crackpot, was able to found a new religion on the claim that he had unearthed the final revelations of God in the hallowed precincts of Manchester, New York, written in “reformed Egyptian” on golden plates. He decoded this text with the aid of magical “seer stones,” which, whether by magic or not, allowed Smith to produce an English version of God’s Word that was an embarrassing pastiche of plagiarisms from the Bible and silly lies about Jesus’s life in America. And yet the resulting edifice of nonsense and taboo survives to this day.
A more modern cult, Scientology, leverages human credulity to an even greater degree: Adherents believe that human beings are possessed by the souls of extraterrestrials who were condemned to planet Earth 75 million years ago by the galactic overlord Xenu. How was their exile accomplished? The old-fashioned way: These aliens were shuttled by the billions to our humble planet aboard a spacecraft that resembled a DC-8. They were then imprisoned in a volcano and blasted to bits with hydrogen bombs. Their souls survived, however, and disentangling them from our own can be the work of a lifetime. It is also expensive.
Despite the imponderables in her philosophy, Blavatsky was among the first people to announce in Western circles that there was such a thing as the “wisdom of the East.” This wisdom began to trickle westward once Swami Vivekananda introduced the teachings of Vedanta at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Again, Buddhism lagged behind: A few Western monks living on the island of Sri Lanka were beginning to translate the Pali Canon, which remains the most authoritative record of the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. However, the practice of Buddhist meditation wouldn’t actually be taught in the West for another half century.
It is easy enough to find fault with romantic ideas about Eastern wisdom, and a tradition of such criticism sprang up almost the instant the first Western seeker sat cross-legged and attempted to meditate. In the late 1950s, the author and journalist Arthur Koestler traveled to India and Japan in search of wisdom and summarized his pilgrimage thus: “I started my journey in sackcloth and ashes, and came back rather proud of being a European.”
In The Lotus and the Robot, Koestler gives some of his reasons for being less than awed by his journey to the East. Consider, for example, the ancient discipline of hatha yoga. While now generally viewed as a system of physical exercises designed to increase a person’s strength and flexibility, in its traditional context hatha yoga is part of a larger effort to manipulate “subtle” features of the body unknown to anatomists. No doubt much of this subtlety corresponds to experiences that yogis actually have—but many of the beliefs formed on the basis of these experiences are patently absurd, and certain of the associated practices are both silly and injurious.
Koestler reports that the aspiring yogi is traditionally encouraged to lengthen his tongue—even going so far as to cut the frenulum (the membrane that anchors the tongue to the floor of the mouth) and stretch the soft palate. What is the purpose of these modifications? They enable our hero to insert his tongue into his nasopharynx, thereby blocking the flow of air through the nostrils. His anatomy thus improved, a yogi can then imbibe subtle liquors believed to emanate directly from his brain. These substances—imagined, by recourse to further subtleties, to be connected to the retention of semen—are said to confer not only spiritual wisdom but immortality. This technique of drinking mucus is known as khechari mudra, and it is thought to be one of the crowning achievements of yoga.
I’m more than happy to score a point for Koestler here. Needless to say, no defense of such practices will be found in this book.
Criticism of Eastern wisdom can seem especially pertinent when coming from Easterners themselves. There is indeed something preposterous about well-educated Westerners racing East in search of spiritual enlightenment while Easterners make the opposite pilgrimage seeking education and economic opportunities. I have a friend whose own adventures may have marked a high point in this global comedy. He made his first trip to India immediately after graduating from college, having already acquired several yogic affectations: He had the requisite beads and long hair, but he was also in the habit of writing the name of the Hindu god Ram in Devanagari script over and over in a journal. On the flight to the motherland, he had the good fortune to be seated next to an Indian businessman. This weary traveler thought he had witnessed every species of human folly—until he caught sight of my friend’s scribbling. The spectacle of a Western-born Stanford graduate, of working age, holding degrees in both economics and history, devoting himself to the graphomaniacal worship of an imaginary deity in a language he could neither read nor understand was more than this man could abide in a confined space at 30,000 feet. After a testy exchange, the two travelers could only stare at each other in mutual incomprehension and pity—and they had ten hours yet to fly. There really are two sides to such a conversation, but I concede that only one of them can be made to look ridiculous.
We can also grant that Eastern wisdom has not produced societies or political institutions that are any better than their Western counterparts; in fact, one could argue that India has survived as the world’s largest democracy only because of institutions that were built under British rule. Nor has the East led the world in scientific discovery. Nevertheless, there is something to the notion of uniquely Eastern wisdom, and most of it has been concentrated in or derived from the tradition of Buddhism.
Buddhism has been of special interest to Western scientists for reasons already hinted at. It isn’t primarily a faith-based religion, and its central teachings are entirely empirical. Despite the superstitions that many Buddhists cherish, the doctrine has a practical and logical core that does not require any unwarranted assumptions. Many Westerners have recognized this and have been relieved to find a spiritual alternative to faith-based worship. It is no accident that most of the scientific research now done on meditation focuses primarily on Buddhist techniques.
Another reason for Buddhism’s prominence among scientists has been the intellectual engagement of one of its most visible representatives: Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Of course, the Dalai Lama is not without his critics. My late friend Christopher Hitchens meted out justice to “his holiness” on several occasions. He also castigated Western students of Buddhism for the “widely and lazily held belief that ‘Oriental’ religion is different from other faiths: less dogmatic, more contemplative, more . . . Transcendental,” and for the “blissful, thoughtless exceptionalism” with which Buddhism is regarded by many.
Hitch did have a point. In his capacity as the head of one of the four branches of Tibetan Buddhism and as the former leader of the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama has made some questionable claims and formed some embarrassing alliances. Although his engagement with science is far-reaching and surely sincere, the man is not above consulting an astrologer or “oracle” when making important decisions. I will have something to say in this book about many of the things that might have justified Hitch’s opprobrium, but the general thrust of his commentary here was all wrong. Several Eastern traditions are exceptionally empirical and exceptionally wise, and therefore merit the exceptionalism claimed by their adherents.
Buddhism in particular possesses a literature on the nature of the mind that has no peer in Western religion or Western science. Some of these teachings are cluttered with metaphysical assumptions that should provoke our doubts, but many aren’t. And when engaged as a set of hypotheses by which to investigate the mind and deepen one’s ethical life, Buddhism can be an entirely rational enterprise.
Unlike the doctrines of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the teachings of Buddhism are not considered by their adherents to be the product of infallible revelation. They are, rather, empirical instructions: If you do X, you will experience Y. Although many Buddhists have a superstitious and cultic attachment to the historical Buddha, the teachings of Buddhism present him as an ordinary human being who succeeded in understanding the nature of his own mind. Buddha means “awakened one”—and Siddhartha Gautama was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self. Compare this with the Christian view of Jesus, who is imagined to be the son of the creator of the universe. This is a very different proposition, and it renders Christianity, no matter how fully divested of metaphysical baggage, all but irrelevant to a scientific discussion about the human condition.
The teachings of Buddhism, and of Eastern spirituality generally, focus on the primacy of the mind. There are dangers in this way of viewing the world, to be sure. Focusing on training the mind to the exclusion of all else can lead to political quietism and hive-like conformity. The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems. But it is not a compelling one. The world is in desperate need of improvement—in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception—and yet this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.
In fact, the teachings of Buddhism emphasize a connection between ethical and spiritual life. Making progress in one domain lays a foundation for progress in the other. One can, for instance, spend long periods of time in contemplative solitude for the purpose of becoming a better person in the world—having better relationships, being more honest and compassionate and, therefore, more helpful to one’s fellow human beings. Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing. There are centuries of anecdotal testimony on this point—and, as we will see, the scientific study of the mind has begun to bear it out. There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.
Although the experience of self-transcendence is, in principle, available to everyone, this possibility is only weakly attested to in the religious and philosophical literature of the West. Only Buddhists and students of Advaita Vedanta (which appears to have been heavily influenced by Buddhism) have been absolutely clear in asserting that spiritual life consists in overcoming the illusion of the self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.
As I wrote in my first book, The End of Faith, the disparity between Eastern and Western spirituality resembles that found between Eastern and Western medicine—with the arrow of embarrassment pointing in the opposite direction. Humanity did not understand the biology of cancer, develop antibiotics and vaccines, or sequence the human genome under an Eastern sun. Consequently, real medicine is almost entirely a product of Western science. Insofar as specific techniques of Eastern medicine actually work, they must conform, whether by design or by happenstance, to the principles of biology as we have come to know them in the West. This is not to say that Western medicine is complete. In a few decades, many of our current practices will seem barbaric. One need only ponder the list of side effects that accompany most medications to appreciate that these are terribly blunt instruments. Nevertheless, most of our knowledge about the human body—and about the physical universe generally—emerged in the West. The rest is instinct, folklore, bewilderment, and untimely death.
An honest comparison of spiritual traditions, Eastern and Western, proves equally invidious. As manuals for contemplative understanding, the Bible and the Koran are worse than useless. Whatever wisdom can be found in their pages is never best found there, and it is subverted, time and again, by ancient savagery and superstition.
Again, one must deploy the necessary caveats: I am not saying that most Buddhists or Hindus have been sophisticated contemplatives. Their traditions have spawned many of the same pathologies we see elsewhere among the faithful: dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, tribalism, otherworldliness. However, the empirical difference between the central teachings of Buddhism and Advaita and those of Western monotheism is difficult to overstate. One can traverse the Eastern paths simply by becoming interested in the nature of one’s own mind—especially in the immediate causes of psychological suffering—and by paying closer attention to one’s experience in every present moment. There is, in truth, nothing one need believe. The teachings of Buddhism and Advaita are best viewed as lab manuals and explorers’ logs detailing the results of empirical research on the nature of human consciousness.
Nearly every geographical or linguistic barrier to the free exchange of ideas has now fallen away. It seems to me, therefore, that educated people no longer have a right to any form of spiritual provincialism. The truths of Eastern spirituality are now no more Eastern than the truths of Western science are Western. We are merely talking about human consciousness and its possible states. My purpose in writing this book is to encourage you to investigate certain contemplative insights for yourself, without accepting the metaphysical ideas that they inspired in ignorant and isolated peoples of the past.
A final word of caution: Nothing I say here is intended as a denial of the fact that psychological well-being requires a healthy “sense of self”—with all the capacities that this vague phrase implies. Children need to become autonomous, confident, and self-aware in order to form healthy relationships. And they must acquire a host of other cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills in the process of becoming sane and productive adults. Which is to say that there is a time and a place for everything—unless, of course, there isn’t. No doubt there are psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia, for which practices of the sort I recommend in this book might be inappropriate. Some people find the experience of an extended, silent retreat psychologically destabilizing.
Again, an analogy to physical training seems apropos: Not everyone is suited to running a six-minute mile or bench-pressing his own body weight. But many quite ordinary people are capable of these feats, and there are better and worse ways to accomplish them. What is more, the same principles of fitness generally apply even to people whose abilities are limited by illness or injury.
So I want to make it clear that the instructions in this book are intended for readers who are adults (more or less) and free from any psychological or medical conditions that could be exacerbated by meditation or other techniques of sustained introspection. If paying attention to your breath, to bodily sensations, to the flow of thoughts, or to the nature of consciousness itself seems likely to cause you clinically significant anguish, please check with a psychologist or a psychiatrist before engaging in the practices I describe.
It is always now. This might sound trite, but it is the truth. It’s not quite true as a matter of neurology, because our minds are built upon layers of inputs whose timing we know must be different.  But it is true as a matter of conscious experience. The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.
But we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth—overlooking it, fleeing it, repudiating it. And the horror is that we succeed. We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy, fulfilling one desire after the next, banishing our fears, grasping at pleasure, recoiling from pain—and thinking, interminably, about how best to keep the whole works up and running. As a consequence, we spend our lives being far less content than we might otherwise be. We often fail to appreciate what we have until we have lost it. We crave experiences, objects, relationships, only to grow bored with them. And yet the craving persists. I speak from experience, of course.
As a remedy for this predicament, many spiritual teachings ask us to entertain unfounded ideas about the nature of reality—or at the very least to develop a fondness for the iconography and rituals of one or another religion. But not all paths traverse the same rough ground. There are methods of meditation that do not require any artifice or unwarranted assumptions at all.
For beginners, I usually recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali for “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. One of the advantages of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, and most retreat centers in the United States and Europe teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought into any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. (The same cannot be said for the practice of chanting to Lord Krishna while banging a drum.) That is why vipassana is now being widely studied and adopted by psychologists and neuroscientists.
The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is almost always referred to as “mindfulness,” and the literature on its psychological benefits is now substantial. There is nothing spooky about mindfulness. It is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness. We will look more closely at the neurophysiology of mindfulness in a later chapter.
Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word sati. The term has several meanings in the Buddhist literature, but for our purposes the most important is “clear awareness.” The practice was first described in the Satipatthana Sutta, which is part of the Pali Canon. Like many Buddhist texts, the Satipatthana Sutta is highly repetitive and, for anything but an avid student of Buddhism, exceptionally boring to read. However, when one compares texts of this kind with the Bible or the Koran, the difference is unmistakable: The Satipatthana Sutta is not a collection of ancient myths, superstitions, and taboos; it is a rigorously empirical guide to freeing the mind from suffering.
The Buddha described four foundations of mindfulness, which he taught as “the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, for the realization of Nibbana” (Sanskrit, Nirvana). The four foundations of mindfulness are the body (breathing, changes in posture, activities), feelings (the senses of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality), the mind (in particular, its moods and attitudes), and the objects of mind (which include the five senses but also other mental states, such as volition, tranquility, rapture, equanimity, and even mindfulness itself). It is a peculiar list, at once redundant and incomplete—a problem that is compounded by the necessity of translating Pali terminology into English. The obvious message of the text, however, is that the totality of one’s experience can become the field of contemplation. The meditator is merely instructed to pay attention, “ardently” and “fully aware” and “free from covetousness and grief for the world.”
There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body—thoughts, sensations, moods—without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant. One of the great strengths of this technique of meditation, from a secular point of view, is that it does not require us to adopt any cultural affectations or unjustified beliefs. It simply demands that we pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment.
The principal enemy of mindfulness—or of any meditative practice—is our deeply conditioned habit of being distracted by thoughts. The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking. In fact, thoughts of all kinds can be perfectly good objects of mindfulness. In the early stages of one’s practice, however, the arising of thought will be more or less synonymous with distraction—that is, with a failure to meditate. Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed. By practicing mindfulness, however, one can awaken from the dream of discursive thought and begin to see each arising image, idea, or bit of language vanish without a trace. What remains is consciousness itself, with its attendant sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts appearing and changing in every moment.
In the beginning of one’s meditation practice, the difference between ordinary experience and what one comes to consider “mindfulness” is not very clear, and it takes some training to distinguish between being lost in thought and seeing thoughts for what they are. In this sense, learning to meditate is just like acquiring any other skill. It takes many thousands of repetitions to throw a good jab or to coax music from the strings of a guitar. With practice, mindfulness becomes a well-formed habit of attention, and the difference between it and ordinary thinking will become increasingly clear. Eventually, it begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.
My friend Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. Until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists, we are entirely at the mercy of appearances. Again, the difference I am describing is not a matter of achieving a new conceptual understanding or of adopting new beliefs about the nature of reality. The change comes when we experience the present moment prior to the arising of thought.
The Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha, usually translated from the Pali, somewhat misleadingly, as “suffering.” A better translation would be “unsatisfactoriness.” Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is. We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.
Mindfulness meditation is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it isn’t easy to perform. True mastery might require special talent and a lifetime of devotion to the task, and yet a genuine transformation in one’s perception of the world is within reach for most of us. Practice is the only thing that will lead to success. The simple instructions given in the box that follows are analogous to instructions on how to walk a tightrope—which, I assume, must go something like this:
1. Find a horizontal cable that can support your weight.
2. Stand on one end.
3. Step forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other.
5. Don’t fall.
Clearly, steps 2 through 5 entail a little trial and error. Happily, the benefits of training in meditation arrive long before mastery does. And falling, for our purposes, occurs almost ceaselessly, every time we become lost in thought. Again, the problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without being fully aware that we are thinking.
As every meditator soon discovers, distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us topple from the wire every second—whether gliding happily into reverie or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred, and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for waking up. The goal is to come out of the trance of discursive thinking and to stop reflexively grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant, so that we can enjoy a mind undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.
How to Meditate
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or the floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly—either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
- Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
- As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations, or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
- The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves—as they arise, change, and pass away.
Those who are new to this practice generally find it useful to hear instructions of this kind spoken aloud during the course of a meditation session. I have posted guided meditations of varying length on my website.
THE TRUTH OF SUFFERING
I am sitting in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, drinking exactly what I want (coffee), eating exactly what I want (a cookie), and doing exactly what I want (writing this book). It is a beautiful fall day, and many of the people passing by on the sidewalk appear to radiate good fortune from their pores. Several are so physically attractive that I’m beginning to wonder whether Photoshop can now be applied to the human body. Up and down this street, and for a mile in each direction, stores sell jewelry, art, and clothing that not even 1 percent of humanity could hope to purchase.
So what did the Buddha mean when he spoke of the “unsatisfactoriness” (dukkha) of life? Was he referring merely to the poor and the hungry? Or are these rich and beautiful people suffering even now? Of course, suffering is all around us—even here, where everything appears to be going well for the moment.
First, the obvious: Within a few blocks of where I am sitting are hospitals, convalescent homes, psychiatrists’ offices, and other rooms built to assuage, or merely to contain, some of the most profound forms of human misery. A man runs over his own child while backing his car out of the driveway. A woman learns that she has terminal cancer on the eve of her wedding. We know that the worst can happen to anyone at any time—and most people spend a great deal of mental energy hoping that it won’t happen to them.
But more subtle forms of suffering can be found, even among people who seem to have every reason to be satisfied in the present. Although wealth and fame can secure many forms of pleasure, few of us have any illusions that they guarantee happiness. Anyone who owns a television or reads the newspaper has seen movie stars, politicians, professional athletes, and other celebrities ricochet from marriage to marriage and from scandal to scandal. To learn that a young, attractive, talented, and successful person is nevertheless addicted to drugs or clinically depressed is to be given almost no cause for surprise.
Yet the unsatisfactoriness of the good life runs deeper than this. Even while living safely between emergencies, most of us feel a wide range of painful emotions on a daily basis. When you wake up in the morning, are you filled with joy? How do you feel at work or when looking in the mirror? How satisfied are you with what you’ve accomplished in life? How much of your time with your family is spent surrendered to love and gratitude, and how much is spent just struggling to be happy in one another’s company? Even for extraordinarily lucky people, life is difficult. And when we look at what makes it so, we see that we are all prisoners of our thoughts.
And then there is death, which defeats everyone. Most people seem to believe that we have only two ways to think about death: We can fear it and do our best to ignore it, or we can deny that it is real. The first strategy leads to a life of conventional worldliness and distraction—we merely strive for pleasure and success and do our best to keep the reality of death out of view. The second strategy is the province of religion, which assures us that death is but a doorway to another world and that the most important opportunities in life occur after the lifetime of the body. But there is another path, and it seems the only one compatible with intellectual honesty. That path is the subject of this book.
What is enlightenment, which is so often said to be the ultimate goal of meditation? There are many esoteric details that we can safely ignore—disagreements among contemplative traditions about what, exactly, is gained or lost at the end of the spiritual path. Many of these claims are preposterous. Within most schools of Buddhism, for instance, a buddha—whether the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or any other person who attains the state of “full enlightenment”—is generally described as “omniscient.” Just what this means is open to a fair bit of caviling. But however narrowly defined, the claim is absurd. If the historical Buddha were “omniscient,” he would have been, at minimum, a better mathematician, physicist, biologist, and Jeopardy contestant than any person who has ever lived. Is it reasonable to expect that an ascetic in the fifth century BC, by virtue of his meditative insights, spontaneously became an unprecedented genius in every field of human inquiry, including those that did not exist at the time in which he lived? Would Siddhartha Gautama have awed Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and Claude Shannon with his command of mathematical logic and information theory? Of course not. To think otherwise is pure, religious piety.
Any extension of the notion of “omniscience” to procedural knowledge—that is, to knowing how to do something—would render the Buddha capable of painting the Sistine Chapel in the morning and demolishing Roger Federer at Centre Court in the afternoon. Is there any reason to believe that Siddhartha Gautama, or any other celebrated contemplative, possessed such abilities by virtue of his spiritual practice? None whatsoever. Nevertheless, many Buddhists believe that buddhas can do all these things and more. Again, this is religious dogmatism, not a rational approach to spiritual life.
I make no claims in support of magic or miracles in this book. However, I can say that the true goal of meditation is more profound than most people realize—and it does, in fact, encompass many of the experiences that traditional mystics claim for themselves. It is quite possible to lose one’s sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness—to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos. This says a lot about the possibilities of human consciousness, but it says nothing about the universe at large. And it sheds no light at all on the relationship between mind and matter. The fact that it is possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself should be a great finding for the field of psychology, but it lends absolutely no credence to the claim that Jesus was the son of God, or even that God exists. Nor does it suggest that the “energy” of love somehow pervades the cosmos. These are historical and metaphysical claims that personal experience cannot justify.
However, a phenomenon like self-transcending love does entitle us to make claims about the human mind. And this particular experience is so well attested and so readily achieved by those who devote themselves to specific practices (the Buddhist technique of metta meditation, for instance) or who even take the right drug (MDMA) that there is very little controversy that it exists. Facts of this kind must now be understood in a rational context.
The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of well-being that is imperturbable—or if perturbed, easily regained. The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.”
The purpose of meditation is to recognize that you already have such a mind. That discovery, in turn, helps you to cease doing the things that produce needless confusion and suffering for yourself and others. Of course, most people never truly master the practice and don’t reach a condition of imperturbable happiness. The near goal, therefore, is to have an increasingly healthy mind—that is, to be moving one’s mind in the right direction.
There is nothing novel about trying to become happy. And one can become happy, within certain limits, without any recourse to the practice of meditation. But conventional sources of happiness are unreliable, being dependent upon changing conditions. It is difficult to raise a happy family, to keep yourself and those you love healthy, to acquire wealth and find creative and fulfilling ways to enjoy it, to form deep friendships, to contribute to society in ways that are emotionally rewarding, to perfect a wide variety of artistic, athletic, and intellectual skills—and to keep the machinery of happiness running day after day. There is nothing wrong with being fulfilled in all these ways—except for the fact that, if you pay close attention, you will see that there is still something wrong with it. These forms of happiness aren’t good enough. Our feelings of fulfillment do not last. And the stress of life continues.
So what would a spiritual master be a master of? At a minimum, she will no longer suffer certain cognitive and emotional illusions—above all, she will no longer feel identical to her thoughts. Once again, this is not to say that such a person will no longer think, but she would no longer succumb to the primary confusion that thoughts produce in most of us: She would no longer feel that there is an inner self who is a thinker of these thoughts. Such a person will naturally maintain an openness and serenity of mind that is available to most of us only for brief moments, even after years of practice. I remain agnostic as to whether anyone has achieved such a state permanently, but I know from direct experience that it is possible to be far more enlightened than I tend to be.
The question of whether enlightenment is a permanent state need not detain us. The crucial point is that you can glimpse something about the nature of consciousness that will liberate you from suffering in the present. Even just recognizing the impermanence of your mental states—deeply, not merely as an idea—can transform your life. Every mental state you have ever had has arisen and then passed away. This is a first-person fact—but it is, nonetheless, a fact that any human being can readily confirm. We don’t have to know any more about the brain or about the relationship between consciousness and the physical world to understand this truth about our own minds. The promise of spiritual life—indeed, the very thing that makes it “spiritual” in the sense I invoke throughout this book—is that there are truths about the mind that we are better off knowing. What we need to become happier and to make the world a better place is not more pious illusions but a clearer understanding of the way things are.
The moment we admit the possibility of attaining contemplative insights—and of training one’s mind for that purpose—we must acknowledge that people naturally fall at different points on a continuum between ignorance and wisdom. Part of this range will be considered “normal,” but normal isn’t necessarily a happy place to be. Just as a person’s physical body and abilities can be refined—Olympic athletes are not normal—one’s mental life can deepen and expand on the basis of talent and training. This is nearly self-evident, but it remains a controversial point. No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits; I have never met another person who denied that some of us are stronger, more athletic, or more learned than others. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.
Stages of spiritual development, therefore, appear unavoidable. Just as we must grow into adulthood physically—and we can fail to mature or become sick or injured along the way—our minds develop by degrees. One can’t learn sophisticated skills such as syllogistic reasoning, algebra, or irony until one has acquired more basic skills. It seems to me that a healthy spiritual life can begin only once our physical, mental, social, and ethical lives have sufficiently matured. We must learn to use language before we can work with it creatively or understand its limits, and the conventional self must form before we can investigate it and understand that it is not what it appears to be. An ability to examine the contents of one’s own consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and nondiscursively, with sufficient attention to realize that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill. And yet basic mindfulness can be practiced very early in life. Many people, including my wife, have successfully taught it to children as young as six. At that age—and every age thereafter—it can be a powerful tool for self-regulation and self-awareness.
Contemplatives have long understood that positive habits of mind are best viewed as skills that most of us learn imperfectly as we grow to adulthood. It is possible to become more focused, patient, and compassionate than one naturally tends to be, and there are many things to learn about how to be happy in this world. These are truths that Western psychological science has only recently begun to explore.
Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.
Scientists and skeptics generally assume that the traditional claims of yogis and mystics must be exaggerated or simply delusional and that the only rational purpose of meditation is limited to conventional “stress reduction.” Conversely, serious students of these practices often insist that even the most outlandish claims made by and about spiritual masters are true. I am attempting to lead the reader along a middle path between these extremes—one that preserves our scientific skepticism but acknowledges that it is possible to radically transform our minds.
In one sense, the Buddhist concept of enlightenment really is just the epitome of “stress reduction”—and depending on how much stress one reduces, the results of one’s practice can seem more or less profound. According to the Buddhist teachings, human beings have a distorted view of reality that leads them to suffer unnecessarily. We grasp at transitory pleasures. We brood about the past and worry about the future. We continually seek to prop up and defend an egoic self that doesn’t exist. This is stressful—and spiritual life is a process of gradually unraveling our confusion and bringing this stress to an end. According to the Buddhist view, by seeing things as they are, we cease to suffer in the usual ways, and our minds can open to states of well-being that are intrinsic to the nature of consciousness.
Of course, some people claim to love stress and appear eager to live by its logic. Some even derive pleasure from imposing stress on others. Genghis Khan is reported to have said, “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy and drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather to your bosom his wives and daughters.” People attach many meanings to terms like happiness, and not all of them are compatible with one another.
In The Moral Landscape, I argued that we tend to be unnecessarily confused by differences of opinion on the topic of human well-being. No doubt certain people can derive mental pleasure—and even experience genuine ecstasy—by behaving in ways that produce immense suffering for others. But we know that these states are anomalous—or, at least, not sustainable—because we depend upon one another for more or less everything. Whatever the associated pleasures, raping and pillaging can’t be a stable strategy for finding happiness in this world. Given our social requirements, we know that the deepest and most durable forms of well-being must be compatible with an ethical concern for other people—even for complete strangers—otherwise, violent conflict becomes inevitable. We also know that there are certain forms of happiness that are not available to a person even if, like Genghis Khan, he finds himself on the winning side of every siege. Some pleasures are intrinsically ethical—feelings like love, gratitude, devotion, and compassion. To inhabit these states of mind is, by definition, to be brought into alignment with others.
In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.
- My late friend Christopher Hitchens—no enemy of the lexicographer—didn’t share them either. Hitch believed that spiritual was a term we could not do without. It is true that he didn’t think about spirituality in precisely the way I do. He spoke instead of the spiritual pleasures afforded by certain works of poetry, music, and art. The symmetry and beauty of the Parthenon embodied this happy extreme for him—without there being any need to admit the existence of the goddess Athena, much less devote ourselves to her worship. Hitch also used the terms numinous and transcendent to mark occasions of great beauty or significance, and for him the Hubble Deep Field was an example of both. (I’m sure he was aware that pedantic excursions into the OED would produce etymological embarrassments regarding these words as well.) Carl Sagan also freely used the term spiritual in this way. (See C. Sagan. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House. p. 29.) I have no quarrel with Hitch and Sagan’s general use of spiritual to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more personally transformative sense. ↩
- A. Huxley.  2009. The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West. New York: Harper Perennial, p. vii.↩
- One can speak about Judaism without its myths and miracles—even without God—but this doesn’t make Judaism the equivalent of Buddhism. Buddhism without the unjustified bits is essentially a first-person science. Secular Judaism isn’t. ↩
- A. Rawlinson. 1997. The Book of Enlightened Masters. Chicago: Open Court, p. 38. ↩
- For an entertaining account of Blavatsky’s career, see P. Washington. 1993. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon. New York: Schocken.↩
- One wonders how it was possible for a charlatan like L. Ron Hubbard to acquire any following at all, because each story about him is more preposterous and embarrassing than the last. For instance, Hubbard claimed to have withdrawn one of his first books from publication “‘because the first six people who read it were so shattered by the revelations that they had lost their minds’” (L. Wright. 2013. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. New York: Knopf ). According to Hubbard, when he delivered this “dangerous text to his publisher, ‘The reader brought the manuscript into the room, set it on the publisher’s desk, then jumped out the window of the skyscraper.’”
There are many more laughs to be had at Hubbard’s expense. However, several readers who saw the original version of this endnote found it so funny that they had to be hospitalized. Regrettably, I’ve been forced to edit the text out of concern for the health of my readers.↩
- A. Koestler. 1960. The Lotus and the Robot. New York: Harper & Row, p. 285. Koestler was also less than impressed with the spiritual efficacy of psychedelics. See A. Koestler. 1968. “Return Trip to Nirvana.” In Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955–1967. London: Hutchinson, pp. 201–12. ↩
- C. Hitchens. 1998.“His Material Highness.” Salon.com.↩
- Purists will insist on important differences among the various schools of Buddhism and between Buddhism and the tradition of Advaita Vedanta developed by Shankara (788–820). Although I touch upon some of these distinctions, I do not make much of them. I consider the differences to be generally a matter of emphasis, semantics, and (irrelevant) metaphysics—and too esoteric to be of interest to the general reader.↩
- The research on pathological responses to meditation is quite sparse. Traditionally, it is believed that certain stages on the contemplative path are by nature unpleasant and that some forms of mental pain should therefore be considered signs of progress. It seems clear, however, that meditation can also precipitate or unmask psychological illness. As with many other endeavors, distinguishing help from harm in each instance can be difficult. As far as I know, Willoughby Britton is the first scientist to study this problem systematically. ↩
- Consider the sensation of touching your finger to your nose. We experience the contact as simultaneous, but we know that it can’t be simultaneous at the level of the brain, because it takes longer for the nerve impulse to travel to sensory cortex from your fingertip than it does from your nose—and this is true no matter how short your arms or long your nose. Our brains correct for this discrepancy in timing by holding these inputs in memory and then delivering the result to consciousness. Thus, your experience of the present moment is the product of layered memories. ↩
- F. Zeidanetal. 2011.“Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation.” Pain 31: 5540–48; B. K. Holzel et al. 2011. “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action from a Conceptual and Neural Perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6: 537–59; B. Kim et al. 2010. “Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Program as an Adjunct to Pharmacotherapy in Patients with Panic Disorder.” J Anxiety Disord 24(6): 590–95; K. A. Godfrin and C. van Heeringen. 2010. “The Effects of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy on Recurrence of Depressive Episodes, Mental Health and Quality of Life: A Randomized Controlled Study.” Behav Res Ther 48(8): 738–46; F. Zeidan, S. K. Johnson, B. J. Diamond, Z. David, and P. Goolkasian. 2010. “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training.” Conscious Cogn 19(2): 597–605; B. K. Hölzel et al. 2011. “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.” Psychiatry Res 191(1): 36–43. ↩
- Nanamoli, orig. trans., and Bodhi, trans. and ed. 1995. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.↩
- However one bounds the concept of enlightenment, there is no escaping the fact that most traditional accounts of it, Buddhist and otherwise, attribute a variety of supernormal powers to spiritual adepts. Is there any evidence that human beings can acquire abilities like clairvoyance and telekinesis? Apart from anecdotes offered by people who are desperate to believe in such powers, we can say that the evidence is impressively thin. Traditionally, gurus and their devotees have sought to have it both ways: The guru will display various siddhis (Sanskrit: “powers”) to entertain and persuade the faithful—but never in such a way as to meet the tests of true skeptics. We are invariably told that to produce miracles on demand would be a crude misuse of a guru’s office. The dharma (Sanskrit: “way” or “truth”), after all, is more precious and profound than worldly powers. No doubt it is. But this doesn’t stop most gurus from taking credit, or their devotees from bestowing it, whenever random coincidences occur. ↩
- M.Ricard.2007. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: Little, Brown, p. 19.↩