Sam Harris: Spirituality for atheists

As I continue my trawl through the works of Sam Harris in preparation for my posts on his 2011 debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig, I now turn to Harris’ thoughts on consciousness, for which he has received much criticism from both atheists and theists, some of whom exaggerate his views by making the false allegation that he believes in reincarnation, extra sensory perception (ESP) and telepathy.

The above video is an edited except taken from Harris’ speech to the Atheist Alliance International Conference 2007.  His thoughts on consciousness begin around the 23 minute mark and you can read an edited transcript of his speech on his website:

Those of you who have read The End of Faith, know that I don’t entirely line up with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] in my treatment of these things.  So I think I should take a little time to discuss this.  While I always use terms like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, and take some pains to denude them of metaphysics, the emails I receive from my brothers and sisters in arms suggests that many of you find my interest in these topics problematic.

First, let me describe the general phenomenon I’m referring to.  Here’s what happens, in the generic case: a person, in whatever culture he finds himself, begins to notice that life is difficult.  He observes that even in the best of times—no one close to him has died, he’s healthy, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer, the weather is just so—even when things are as good as they can be, he notices that at the level of his moment to moment experience, at the level of his attention, he is perpetually on the move, seeking happiness and finding only temporary relief from his search.

We’ve all noticed this.  We seek pleasant sights, and sounds, and tastes, and sensations, and attitudes.  We satisfy our intellectual curiosities, and our desire for friendship and romance.  We become connoisseurs of art and music and film—but our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting.  And we can do nothing more than merely reiterate them as often as we are able.

If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for about an hour, or maybe a day, but then people will begin to ask us “So, what are you going to do next?  Don’t you have anything else in the pipeline?”  Steve Jobs releases the iPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, “When are you going to make this thing smaller?”  Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, “I’m done. I’ve met all my goals.  Now I’m just going to stay here eat ice cream until I die in front of you.”  Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment.  If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.

In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists.  Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and successes and avoiding our pains.  Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favourite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend?  Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

Harris is a philosopher and a neuroscientist and a harsh critic of organised religion in his books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.  However, he recognises the range of extraordinary mental experiences that people of religious faith profess to have when praying and meditating.  Harris himself has gone on meditation retreats and practised mindful meditation for up to 18 hours a day.

Harris accepts that Jesus, the Buddha and many gurus, yogis and mystics were/are “spiritual” geniuses due to their inspiration and cultivation in their followers of feelings of self-transcending love, awe and ecstasy.  These experiences are available to everyone regardless of their religious faith and ought to be taken seriously by atheists and studied by mainstream science.

Harris is so impressed with the contemplative literature that while he is not an outright “dualist” in believing that the body and the mind are separate and divisible and that we have a “soul” that is capable of surviving death, he has not ruled out the possibility that consciousness can exist outside of the brain.

Harris also gave a speech at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, 2012 called “Death and the Present Moment”, which I highly recommend as an introduction to the concept of mindfulness meditation.

Harris’ ideas on “spirituality” recently persuaded me to go to a meditation and mindfulness class studying the book Going Home: Jesus And Buddha As Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh; a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has been heavily involved in the peace movement throughout his life and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.  While I attended all but one the 10 sessions and have gained much from them, I have found certain elements of Hanh’s book frustrating and have been unable to get behind the meaning.  Perhaps my atheistic naturalism and material means that I am unable to let go of my mind as readily as religious believers in the group.

During the course, someone emailed us this TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor from 2008 called “My stroke of insight” where she recounts visiting nirvana upon suffering neural haemorrhaging.   It is an interesting talk and well worth watching.  It reminds me of a recent news story about a man called Malcolm Myatt who had a stroke that completely eliminated his ability to feel sadness, which in turn reminds me of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.  The film’s “high concept” is a medical agency that manipulates and eliminates a person’s memories so they can get over a relationship break up by forgetting the entire relationship and thereby taking away the emotional pain.

This has been a tempting option for me on more than one occasion after a relationship break up and I have researched the possibility of undergoing hypnosis to eliminate the memory of an ex-partner.  However, the general consensus is that it would not work and may even have undesirable consequences.  We (our “selves”) are products of our memories and that is how we learn to live in the World.

It seems lamentable that Jill Bolte Taylor has to have a stroke in order to experience nirvana, while Malcolm Myatt has one to eliminate sadness from his life, and that many other people have to alter their chemical composition of their minds with recreational drugs to achieve a higher level of bliss that is temporary and ultimately false.

Work like you don’t need the money,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
Dance like nobody’s watching,
Sing like nobody’s listening,
Live like it’s heaven on earth.

– William W. Purkey

I see the above quote cut and pasted on people’s blogs and Facebook pages and it seems a trite and impossibly optimistic statement given how difficult it is to disconnect ourselves emotionally from our memories.

However, in the last few days, a small change has taken over me.  As I will hopefully soon discuss in my upcoming review of Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful anti-self-help guide, The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, happiness (and therefore perhaps nirvana as well) is a concept that all too often considered to be something that will happen to us in the future as long as we eliminate all negative thoughts from our lives and invest as much time, effort and money as we can in our “preferred version of the future”.

Now, I am more mindful of my surroundings, down to the texture of the keys on my laptop as my fingers touch them, the sound of the rain outside my study window, the sounds and smells of my food as I cook it and the feeling of the clothes on my body.

And for my next holiday, whenever that will be, I will look at going away on a meditation retreat in order to learn to focus on the present moment every waking hour of the day.

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