Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Mystics, Spirituality

Sam Harris, one of the so-called New Atheists, has been making waves recently with his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In it Harris talks openly about his meditation practice and spiritual experience–something he has done before but doesn’t seem to have gained as much interest or notice as it has now. (Harris is also in the news recently for his statements on Islam, but I’m not going to focus on those here.)

The video above begins with Harris making an important point about the nature of consciousness. Contrary to most philosophy and science (particularly in North America), Harris argues that human consciousness can’t be reduced to states of the brain. Harris mentions a few other philosophers who have made similar arguments recently, e.g. David Chalmers, John Searle, and Thomas Nagel. In so doing Harris adds his voice to the conversation and places himself squarely on the minority side of the debate within atheism and the wider secular philosophical world.

The basic premise here is that the felt sense of having an inner world complete with thoughts, emotions, and sensations can’t be reduced solely to material events (e.g. changes in neurons or brain states). As Harris points out the best science can do is correlate certain brain states with states of consciousness, states like anger, fear, sadness, or calm meditative repose. There’s a strong interest in mapping brain states for meditators–it’s important research but it’s research is about correlation not causation, a point too often missed in the literature itself, not to mention in wider public discourse. As Harris correctly notes we still have to trust the reported subjective experiences of individuals because no matter how many physical experiments a scientist may do, none of them gain access to the inner world of 1st person, subjective experience. The methods of science are 3rd person, objective measurements, whereas the inner world is one of 1st person, subjective experience.

Therefore, in order to gain individual access to the data of 1st person, inner, subjective experience one has to take up some an inner practice like meditation, describing one’s feelings, and the like. Human subjectivity is qualitative not quantitative.

So far so good. It’s a sad commentary on the status of Western philosophy that Harris’ point is seen as controversial. It should be an absolute no brainer (bad pun not intended), but unfortunately it’s actually a hugely disputed point. So hats off to Harris for making this point in a straightforward, clear manner.

This takes us up to the 2:50 mark in the video. And here’s where the problems arise.

Harris states that he doesn’t believe that examining subjective consciousness gives humans any insight into non-scientific matters or that consciousness exists separate from the brain (i.e. life after death). He then states that he does hold that the self or the ego-I sense is an illusion. His point is that learning through meditation that the self is an illusion only teaches us about human subjectivity–nothing more, nothing less.

In other words, Harris is arguing that through certain practices (e.g. mindfulness meditation) the sense of being a separate egoic self inside the body somewhere (often the head) can be dissolved and one simply is the consciousness experience of thoughts, sensations, emotions, experiences. In sum, there is no experiencer separate from those phenomena.

The argument is subtle and multi-faceted. Unfortunately Harris glides over a number of very controversial points–points I now would like to flesh out.

The first piece of information to know is that Harris studied vipassana (insight or mindfulness) Buddhist meditation. That ends up being a really important piece of background context for this discussion.

Vipassana has its roots in the earliest forms of Buddhism, perhaps going back directly to the historical Buddha himself–at least in substantial ways. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) seemed to take a very agnostic or perhaps ignoring position relative to metaphysical questions. He simply bracketed them out. He was a kind of spiritual realist. The Buddha taught very simply to inquire into the nature of the subjective experience such that it eventually dropped away in the state of nirvana. This is the Buddhist teaching of no-self. In other words there is no substantial separate self and that to hold to that otherwise illusory self sense is to invite pain and suffering given that life is nothing but change and impermanence. The Buddha did not concern himself with questions of cosmic origins or gods or goddesses or heavens or hells. He found those issues a distraction from the more pressing, existential question of suffering. Therefore whenever asked such questions he always simply pointed back to present experience.

Therefore, at least in early Buddhism, the realization of nirvana was not meant to give insight into a wider story of cosmic origins or meaning.

That view is a historically legitimate one. It is the foundation of the Buddhist path. All later forms of Buddhism, even ones that invoke gurus, mantras, and cosmic Buddhas do so under the explicit teaching that such images are images of selfless Buddha Nature, that they are all are empty of metaphysically separate, substantial reality.

It needs to be said however that this framework makes Buddhism somewhat unique within the mystical traditions of humanity. Many other spiritual and mystical traditions realize the experience of the self-dropping but they understand the experience and the implications of that experience very differently.

Traditions like Kabbalah (mystical Judaism), Vedanta Hinduism, mystical Christianity, and Sufism (mystical Islam). All of them in their nondual variants teach that the separate self-sense can drop just as in Buddhism. In these traditions, when the separate self sense drops one identifies with all reality very much as in Zen or Mahamudra Buddhism. However in these others traditions, all the reality that one identifies with is none other than the manifestation of God. What Jesus called the kingdom of heaven on earth. Whereas of course in Buddhism there is no God.

As one teacher described it (quite brilliantly in my opinion), Buddhism is the tradition of zero and Vedanta is the tradition of one (you can also add Kabbalah, Sufism, mystical Christianity to Vedanta as in the one category). What is the same is that neither teaches duality. Both zero and one are not-two. But zero and one are distinct from each other.

The reason I share all that is that Sam Harris is from the Buddhist tradition and therefore comes from a ‘zero school’ of contemplative interpretation. As it goes that is a perfectly legitimate school of interpretation. It’s not one I happen to belong to but it is a time-honored one with a profound lineage that I respect and admire profoundly.

But it needs to be said the Buddhist view is a point of view on the question of the relationship of mystical experience to questions of metaphysical and cosmic origins. And, as stated earlier, it’s actually in the minority when it comes to that question. Minority doesn’t mean inherently wrong of course, it just means minority. But you won’t hear that in the Harris version of events because it would undermine his argument for a scientific and purely rational spirituality with its hidden Buddhist-bias.

All of those other traditions like Vedanta and Kabbalah–with their roots in shamanism–argue that there are in fact spiritual realities of differing orders and realities. And that just like one can experience the dropping of self through certain meditation practices, one can through other types of spiritual practice (e.g. prayer, shamanic journeying) experience and commune with these spiritual realities.

Harris, however, blithely waves away the entire rest of the mystical traditions with a brief wave of his hand (calling such views “spooky”). Traditions that are just as old, and in some cases, older than Buddhism.

There’s no way to prove that traditions like Vedanta, Kabbalah, or Sufism are wrong to extrapolate from their experiences to wider possibilities and questions. Harris’ answer is less a scientific proposition so much as a philosophical position from his Buddhist background. Just so, we can’t prove Buddhism is wrong as to its view–namely that we can’t and shouldn’t extrapolate from mystical experience into wider cosmic and metaphysical questions.

Harris wants to create what he calls a scientific pursuit of contemplation but he wants to do so under Buddhist principles. He wants to square that circle by arguing that his viewpoint isn’t Buddhist rather it’s scientific. But all he did there was take a Buddhist perspective, ignore all the other traditions of mystical interpretation, and then call it scientific.

Even though Harris seems to be going way out on a limb by advocating for the irreducibility of human subjective consciousness, he really isn’t straying that far from the scientific fold. He’s still fundamentally arguing that our understanding of the real is set by science. And science (or really the metaphysical philosophy backing science) is that only things that science can study and explain are real. So science sets the standard of the real and then he can use certain Buddhist practices and try to strip them of their Buddhist flavor and swallow them up into a science based form of contemplation.

But here’s the core problem–Harris doesn’t really understand the fullness of the scientific process. In Harris’ articulation there’s basically experimentation and then evidence leading to the codification of a community of the learned/adequate. So when it comes to his proposed science of contemplation, Harris says there’s a practice (say mindfulness meditation), then the experience (in this case identifying with all experience in the moment), which tells us something about the nature of human consciousness (only).

Except–and this a big except–in the scientific process there’s a movement between experience and social confirmation: interpretation. In a classic scientific process, one has a hypothesis and undertakes an experiment to test the hypothesis, gathers the data, and then the data has to be interpreted before it is decided whether the experiment has confirmed or disconfirmed the hypothesis. In the scientific community interpretation involves placing one’s research within the existing models, theories, and frameworks necessary to make meaningful sense of the data.

For example, if one is studying fossils, then the fossils one discovers have to be placed within the theory of evolution by natural selection. Outside that theory, individuals fossils are just individual fossils. Without evolution by natural selection there’s no context within which to put them to make sense of them and how they relate to the wider questions of anatomy, speciation, and biological life.

When it comes to Harris’ proposed science of contemplation, he’s completely blind to the moment of interpretation. It’s not that his work bypass interpretation. Quite the opposite. His writings are soaked in interpretation. He simply isn’t conscious of the fact. Or worse he is conscious of it and is purposefully hiding his true intentions. Sometimes it’s tough to tell but overall I think the generous read is that it’s the former not the latter.

Action leads to experience which is then interpreted/framed, and then confirms/disconfirms the original hunch.

When it comes to mysticism, one undertakes a practice, say meditation. Then as Harris says there is the experience of being experience itself.

And then there is interpretation–this is the key element and the one Harris simply tries to glide over under the cover of being scientific, rational, and logical.

His interpretation is that the self is an illusion. His interpretation is that such experience does not give insight into matters not studied by mainstream science.

Those are perfectly valid interpretations. They might be right. They might also be partial and limited in their outlook. But for Harris to acknowledge those as interpretations would wreck his entire project. Such an admission would radically circumscribe his aims. He could still make that argument. He would simply have to be honest about the ways in which they are based on interpretive judgments rather than scientific truth. He could do his best to persuade other people that his Buddhist-influenced interpretation is the correct interpretive scheme. But he couldn’t definitely prove his interpretative scheme in the same way one can prove say Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (themselves an interpretation of data) because, as Harris argued from the beginning, consciousness is inherently subjective not objective.

There is no way to get at consciousness except through the testimony of practitioners and there’s a long history (as well as contemporary advocates) of such individuals arguing that their experience is an experience of a wider set of possibilities than those studied by science.

If one holds the philosophical position (as Harris does) that science is the sole arbiter of truth in our society then fine. That’s a philosophical judgment. It’s an interpretation. It’s a worldview or perspective.
Many individuals, including many very intelligent ones, have made such arguments throughout history, as well as presently. The rationale for the view is straightforward.

It is however a philosophical judgment. It’s not itself scientific. It’s philosophical. As a philosophical best guess and value-laden perspective, it doesn’t prove that realities not studied by science (especially ones unable to be studied by science) are not real. It simply proves that they have no scientific validity since they can’t be studied by science.

But the argument behind all of this is whether science is really the sole arbiter of truth. For Harris it is and as a consequence he interprets his spiritual experience through a lens and a framework meant to make spirituality “rational”. (Since in Harris‘ mind, rationality is conflated with science).

Atheists have mystical experiences all the time. They will interpret them according to their atheist philosophical persuasion. Famed staunch atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer wrote about his mystical experience through his materialist atheist worldview.

The fly in the ointment then for Harris is interpretation.

Harris says the self is an illusion. But this isn’t always true if we’re simply sticking to the pure data of inner subjective experience. It would be more accurate to say that in many forms of human subjective experience there is a self (or ego) and in other forms (e.g. nirvana) there isn’t. That’s the pure phenomenology of it.*

The technical term for what Harris is up to is hermeneutics, i.e. the study of human meaning-making, discourse, and interpretation. As I argued earlier, science has its own hermeneutics–the way it makes meaning out of data. And so do the contemplative traditions. Harris is doing hermeneutics. He’s simply doing it a very unconscious way.

When you really grasp that hermeneutics, meaning-making is intrinsic to life itself–and here contemplation is just one form of living–you’re really headed down a very interesting rabbit role.

To wit, the deeper mindf#@! of all of this is that the kind of spiritual practice one undertakes and the interpretive framework one brings to one’s spiritual practice subtly shapes the content of one’s mystical experience. So on one level I’ve been writing as if Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have the same mystical experiences. In a way yes. In another way no. (Remember this metaphor of Buddhism as a zero experience and the other traditions as a ‘one’ experience. Both are non-dual but they are distinct from each other in subtle ways).

Let me give an example. For a period of time I became very drawn to Sufi mysticism. I began to read Sufis and follow some of the practices they outlined. As I did so I began to have classically Islamic subtle mystical experiences. Now in Islam of course there are no icons of God (as in Judaism). God isn’t to be depicted. Consequently in my Islamic mystical experiences, I never saw an image of God because the context of Islamic theology and practice would not allow such an experience to occur. It would violate a central tenet of the religion.

In Christianity however one can have images of God (at least in most forms of Christianity, including The Roman Catholicism of my upbringing). For the majority of my path I practiced as a Christian and therefore when I had some subtle Christian mystical experiences I did see visionary images of The Trinity, angels, the saints, Mary, and so on. Those were all allowed within the interpretative frame of Catholic Christianity.

Is Christianity right and Islam wrong? Is Islam right and Christianity wrong?

Neither is right or wrong (or both are right, just distinct). They are both paths co-created in part by the traditions themselves. They do hold deeply commonalities or points of resonance–both sets of experiences involved intense light, visionary modes of being, dream-like qualities, but one revealed images for God and one didn’t And for the record, if one practices deity yoga in Tibetan Buddhism one sees subtle imagery of Buddhas. Because Tibetan Buddhism like Catholic Christianity is an iconographic tradition. Whereas in vipassana Buddhism there aren’t subtle visualizations so typically one doesn’t experience such things.

In other words, the spiritual practice and the context/interpretation of the practice radically shapes and moulds what kinds of spiritual experiences one can and can’t have.

In other other words, the experience of no-self arises from a context of mindfulness meditation and accompanying Buddhist (largely Theravadin) interpretation. The science Harris points to as supporting those views is irrelevant. People who undertake mystical practice within a theistic religious setting have correlated neurological process as well (see Andrew Newberg). The neuroscience doesn’t have anyway to adjudicate the various meditative processes nor the interpretive schemes that underlie them. As Harris said at the beginning, science can only correlate subjective experience.

Again I’m not saying therefore vipassana meditation and no-self Buddhist interpretation is wrong. It simply contextualizes it. Consequently, if Sam Harris wants to create a spiritual practice within the bounds set by a Western philosophical framework that sees science as the epistemological ground of truth that’s perfectly fine. I don’t come from that tradition but I think a Spiritual Humanism with a strong meditative mindfulness practice is a good thing in the world. It’s only however one variation of the spiritual path. Personally, I think it’s a pretty limited one in a number of ways but as it stands it would be a valid approach. Just not the only and only valid approach.

I titled this piece Sam Harris’ Buddhist Bullshit. I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not saying Buddhism is BS. I’m saying Harris’ project of trying to create a secular contemplative science of spirituality out of Buddhist principles without calling it Buddhist is BS. I think trying to reduce contemplation to science betrays a naive philosophical perspective whereby science is the one and only way in which we come to knowledge.

I will say that Harris, to his credit, is completely up front about his aims. But honest though it may be, his views are deeply flawed. For example, in this video, Harris argues we should de-Buddhize mindfulness teachings because to identify with any one tradition (including Buddhism) is to promote sectarianism.

Actually it’s Harris whose being the sectarian by taking one tradition (vipassana Buddhism) and seeking to enforce it as the absolute truth upon all dissenting views in an attempt to wipe all the others out. That he’s doing so under the guise of being scientific just adds more ideological fuel to his fire. It allows him to claim his irrational view as a rational one.

Harris’ simplistic belief that a person identifying with one religion is inherently sectarian lies at the core of this massive blind spot in his own interpretation and reasoning. A blind spot that shows up as him doing the very thing to others that he says he’s out to protect against.

Harris is trying to hide what is a philosophical (even really a theological) interpretation under the cover of being scientific. It’s a rhetorical power move in other words. In philosophical terms, it’s a hidden metaphysics. I’m not against metaphysics by the way. In fact I think metaphysics is inevitable. What I am deeply opposed to is hidden, unconscious metaphysics.

I propose that Harris should instead see that the view is he’s advocating sets a framework, context, and setting for his own spiritual pursuits. He is in part constructing a path rather than metaphysically describing the true path. Instead of seeking to rid the world of sectarianism (by creating only one sect and thereby being a sectarian par excellence), Harris would do better, I believe, to find ways to create common goals through which various spiritual paths could ascribe and work towards together, though coming from different spiritual viewpoints (not opposed, not combative, simply different). Harris’ earlier work on moral goods and multiple diverse ways to those moral goods could be very helpful in that regard. We could propose standards of discourse, interaction, ethics, and behavior across the traditions that need to be held to and then leave various traditions free to develop their own worlds in the way they see fit.

Coda: On the no science of no self

Science doesn’t prove that there is no self. Harris argues that the subjective experience of no self is supported by neuroscience because there’s no specific place in the brain (or wherever) that would correlate with being an individuated locus of consciousness. But Harris fundamentally misunderstands the subjective experience of the ego. As Harris began the video, science can at best correlate with subjective experience. The ego or self is simply the subjective feeling of being an individual human biological organism, hence the physical correlate to the ego is the processes and pathways described by neuroscience and human biology as a whole.

In other words, if we ever check in with a person who describes their inner subjective experience as being one of a separate individual, the physical correlate of that state is the entire of the biological organism at that moment, including but not limited to the brain.

So yet again the point is that science does not prove vipassana-style Buddhism. And Vipassana-style Buddhism is not correlated with contemporary neuroscience.

* I would also add that there are states where the self arises and is simply transparent rather than made illusory. This I believe is a position deeper even than the one of saying there is no self. For me that is a deeper form of contemplation/nonduality than the one advocated by Harris. But again that is a judgment and I’m open to that debate as it is a controversial point within contemplative mystical schools.

16 Oct 2014 26 comments
24 comments
VinSen1
VinSen1

did Buddha not teach about rebirth in other realms eg animal and ghost realms?

Jeffrey36
Jeffrey36

Would it moderate your opinion of Sam Harris's unwitting "proselytizing" (if I read you correctly) for his own preferred "brand" of Buddhism, if he were to take care, continually and explicitly, to remind his readers and listeners that what he is advocating for, when he urges a "scientific form of contemplation", is really a recommendation of a practice (and of a subjective experience) of his OWN, one that has proven itself useful to him, rather than some one size-fits-all way of understanding human consciousness and ethical thought and action? I appreciate your open-mindedness, your stated willingness to debate issues, and I especially agree with the tolerant point of view of your "good-willed" paragraph beginning, "I propose that Harris should instead see that the view is he’s advocating sets a framework"    But I do think that Mr. Harris has a lot of sound insight to offer, and I wish he would employ some such disclaimer as the one I have proposed, because I do believe him to sincerely pursue a goal of inter-societal compassion, rather than of divisive (and DANGEROUS) hatred (much as you yourself do, I have to suppose).


Jeffrey Paul Herman

jpherman36@yahoo.com

Gijs Schenk
Gijs Schenk

Interesting read, thanks. I think the following can be said about objectivity and subjectivity in general: Something objective, such as the brain, cannot reveal any reliable information about subjective matters such as someone's consciousness/experiences. To know how a certain state of an objective system corresponds to certain experiences, you have to link those subjective experiences to states of an objective system, which requires accurate reports of a subjective matter, which cannot objectively be verified. The state of the objective system would also have to have enough of a correlation with the subjective matter (if the subjective matter arises from the objective system, there would of course be a full correlation).

bencasnocha
bencasnocha

Have you actually read the book "Waking Up?" You seem to be quoting from videos, but haven't read the book? He writes about Vipassana but also many other traditions, and has tried them all.

cdierkes
cdierkes moderator

@bencasnocha Hi Ben, thanks for the comment. You can see my response to Drew just below as it's a very similar question and response. You are correct that Harris does write about other traditions and has written on these matters before. I don't think that changes anything in terms of my argument here however. The point I'm making in this article is that Harris is taking a hidden (or really not totally hidden) Western Buddhist largely mindfulness secular-based metaphysic and imposing it on other traditions. I'm not saying his interpretation and the rational spirituality he's advocating for are totally wrong. I think he's unaware of his interpretation. He's reducing Jesus' experience for example (and any Christian mystic afterwards) to a Buddhist view. And that's a violation because while they certainly have points in common, a Christian mystical experience is radically different than a Buddhist one and vice versa. In Christianity there's a famous teaching by Karl Rahner of the anonymous Christian--whereby any holy or saved person in any other religion (than Christianity) is said to be an anonymous Christian. It allows non-Christians to be saved but they are saved by Christian reality (even though they themselves don't realize it or experience it that way). While on the surface it seems very generous and open-minded it's actually quite disrespectful as it turns everyone into a Christian. 

Harris has basically created an anonymous Buddhist theology. And I'm not interested in being an anonymous Buddhist. I'm not a Buddhist. I have a great degree of respect for the tradition. Enough to recognize it is different than the one I come from. Significantly different and that difference (on both sides) needs to be acknowledged and honored and not reduced to someone's simple formula. The distinctions and diversities of each tradition need to be respected and he hasn't done that here. 

saijanai
saijanai

@bencasnocha All eyes-closed practices have short-term effects similar to Transcendental Meditation: despite your best effort at attention training and/or control, you mind wanders.

However, all practices besides TM change over time: your mind wanders less and less as you become more proficient with whatever the practice is meant to do.

TM, on the other hand, continues to be a mind-wandering practice, and people with 50 years experience in TM show the same overall EEG pattern as beginning TM, mindfulness and concentrative practitioners... just more enhanced in the mind-wandering pattern.



So... unless Harris practiced TM and related techniques for the 10,000-20,000 hours or so required to gain TM-style enlightenment, he's not competent to evaluate TM with respect to TM-style enlightenment, which is the purpose of TM.

DrewGorham
DrewGorham

Do you think there are facts to be known about subjective spiritual experience?

cdierkes
cdierkes moderator

@DrewGorham Hi Drew, thanks for the comments. Yes I do think there are facts to be known about subjective spiritual experience. For example, that traditions point to a sequence-like nature from coarse to subtler to very subtle layers of subjectivity. And from there (at least among nondual versions) to an always-already pervasive free open state. But the meaning, understanding, and even experience of those stages are significantly multiple and diverse depending on tradition. So in other words the facts never are experienced separate from the intersubjective interpretive frame. As Daniel P. Brown said it's the opposite of the perennial tradition--each tradition becomes unique and singular depending on the different path it charts facing (roughly) the same set of underlying structural patterns. 

DrewGorham
DrewGorham

@cdierkes @DrewGorham Thanks for the reply Chris. Sounds like we agree that spiritual experience has a fact-space. I also accept that facts are influenced by our personal subjective filters. Every science (Biology, Chemistry, Physics) has to grapple with that skeptical notion. Why do you think a science of spirituality would be hostile to examining and incorporating that idea into a theory of spiritual experience?

saijanai
saijanai

@cdierkes @DrewGorham In fact, that's teh exact opposite of my earlier comment.


The physiological changes in the brain found spontaneously in some people give rise to the "pure self" interpretation of things, and certain meditative practices bring one to this sort of physiological state while other practices take one away from that state.


While there are certainly different ways of interpreting the state, the state itself a universal, just as waking, dreaming and sleeping are and can arise in people who are sufficiently low-stress.


The only use of an interpretive frame as for the "pure self" state is to prevent what happened when 6 TMers found themselves in the state having forgotten the extremely brief discussion of the state given to all newly-traned TMers. 


They found themselves in an odd state of non-doing, and figured that they were going crazy since they lacked an interpretive framework for the state.


Castillo describes their situation in this article where he notes that none of  the people had actually pathology. They were simply weirded out by their perception that their "self" did nothing:


http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2191357


Note that this state of non-doing-self is entirely different than depersonalization, which arises due to stress, such as found in some people with PTSD.




saijanai
saijanai

@cdierkes @DrewGorham


Such a theory of spiritual experience, presuming physiological underpinnings, has been available for about 50 years. We're 44 years into the research programme. It's ironic that you are that far behind the times.


Here's  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's proposal and defense of that program dating back to the early/mid-1960s:


"Every experience has its level of physiology, and so unbounded awareness has its own level of physiology which can be measured. Every aspect of life is integrated and connected with every other phase. When we talk of scientific measurements, it does not take away from the spiritual experience. We are not responsible for those times when spiritual experience was thought of as metaphysical. Everything is physical. Consciousness is the product of the functioning of the brain. Talking of scientific measurements is no damage to that wholeness of life which is present everywhere and which begins to be lived when the physiology is taking on a particular form. This is our understanding about spirituality: it is not on the level of faith --it is on the level of blood and bone and flesh and activity. It is measurable."


-Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

AndySmith4
AndySmith4

the Buddhist view is a point of view on the question of the relationship of mystical experience to questions of metaphysical and cosmic origins. And, as stated earlier, it’s actually in the minority when it comes to that question. Minority doesn’t mean inherently wrong of course, it just means minority. But you won’t hear that in the Harris version of events because it would undermine his argument for a scientific and purely rational spirituality with its hidden Buddhist-bias.”

I disagree with the last sentence. The reason Harris doesn’t point this out is because, for better or worse, he’s guided by the scientific view. He doesn’t use his version of Buddhism to support that view. He supports his version of Buddhism, to some extent, by appealing to science.

“all he did there was take a Buddhist perspective, ignore all the other traditions of mystical interpretation, and then call it scientific.”

So? What’s wrong with that? If a certain perspective is consistent with science, why shouldn’t it be called scientific? And if one supports the scientific view, and believes other perspectives are not scientific, why is one required to address them?

If you or anyone else following a different tradition wants to argue that meditative insights tell us something about the cosmos, go ahead, make that case. But until that case is made—and I haven’t seen it made convincingly yet—Harris is not required to address these claims. I read him as saying, this is the scientific view, this aspect of meditation is consistent with it and should also be accepted.

“If one holds the philosophical position (as Harris does) that science is the sole arbiter of truth in our society then fine. That’s a philosophical judgment. It’s an interpretation. It’s a worldview or perspective.”

Sure. But what is gained in the present discussion by acknowledging this? Does it prove that there are other realities that science is blind to? No. How in fact can one meaningfully define reality except in terms of shared experience, which is basically what science does? It’s one thing to say that science is not aware of all reality, which any scientist will concede. It’s quite another to argue that there are realities science can never access. That might be true, but without doing something more than simply stating that, I don’t see that is a very useful or helpful approach.

“Is Christianity right and Islam wrong? Is Islam right and Christianity wrong?”

If you want to use the word bullshit, I would say it applies to all imagery.

The most remarkable statement Harris made, IMO, was at the very end of the video, when he said that in this higher state one has a view of the world that is actually more consistent with the scientific worldview than our ordinary individual view is. I agree with this completely, and after discovering this many, many years ago, it’s nice to learn that someone else realizes this as well.

Meditation is not about seeing images that some dogma tells you you’re supposed to see. It’s about seeing the world as it is, at least within the constraints provided by the brain. In the ordinary state of consciousness, people simply don’t do this.

“the spiritual practice and the context/interpretation of the practice radically shapes and moulds what kinds of spiritual experiences one can and can’t have.”

What shapes those experiences are basically religious dogmas. All experience is interpretive, but there is a big difference between the intepretation being determined by the structure of the brain—the fact that we see an orderly room instead of a somewhat changing array of patterns—andbeing determined by indoctrination.Science is not entirely free of indoctrination, but it is strongly self-correcting in a way that no religious or spiritual tradition is.

“Harris is trying to hide what is a philosophical (even really a theological) interpretation under the cover of being scientific.”

But I think you’re trying to argue that since everything is interpretive, every approach is potentially equally valid. I would argue that there are better and worse forms of interpretation, and that science is a better one. It is unquestionably useful—in the most basic sense, helpful to survival—in a way that other interpretations have not proven to be.

cdierkes
cdierkes moderator

@AndySmith4 Hi Andy, thanks for the comment. I think you underestimate (perhaps significantly so) the metaphysic/unquestioned philosophical background to science when you say that science is self-correcting in a way no religious or spiritual tradition is. I'm not sure that's a particularly helpful comparison. 

I'm not saying science should need to be addressing non-scientific arguments. But by the same token, why should I be obliged to automatically assume the materialist metaphysic? Because it has the weight of science behind it? Why exactly? Science purposefully (and legitimately in my opinion) restricts itself to material causation. Fine. It's a wonderful thing. But to go from that to saying therefore it has the monopoly on truth and anyone else who wants to make truth claims has to run them by science is quite ridiculous. 

My point around subtle experience wasn't to argue that one should be having any kind of imagery experience. It was simply a point of reference to establish the point (still true in nonduality) that different traditions lead to different enlightenments. And appealing to neuroscience as some kind of support for one version of another of enlightenment doesn't mean anything because it is after all a correlation. There are correlations to Buddhist versions of awakening as well as Christian ones and as well as whatever ones one would like to study. 

I didn't say however they were all equal. Rather than the distinctions and nuances of each were not being honored. 

AndySmith4
AndySmith4

@cdierkes @AndySmith4 “I'm not saying science should need to be addressing non-scientific arguments. But by the same token, why should I be obliged to automatically assume the materialist metaphysic?”

Because your very survival demands it. You can’t stay alive without assuming there is a material world independent of your experience of it. This may not be a complete picture of the world, but I don’t see how anyone can seriously argue that any currently competing view is anywhere near equal to it.

“Science purposefully (and legitimately in my opinion) restricts itself to material causation. Fine. It's a wonderful thing. But to go from that to saying therefore it has the monopoly on truth and anyone else who wants to make truth claims has to run them by science is quite ridiculous. 

”

It depends on what you mean by science and truth claims. In the broadest sense, science just refers to a shared reality, appreciated in large part through controlled experiment. I don’t know how you’re going to convince others of truth claims if they can’t follow specific instructions that result in a similar experience. To the degree that meditation does that, it might be considered scientific, but of course there are limits. As Harris argues (and I argued many years ago), scientific studies of meditation are severely hampered by the fact that we can’t validate any claims of the meditator to be experiencing something that ordinary individuals don’t experience. We may demonstrate the certain changes in the brain are correlated with people who claim to be meditating, but other than that they do clima to be meditating, we really don’t know what these changes are correlated with. If the meditator wants to insist s/he has had certain experiences, I have no problem with that, but if the claim is made that these are true or real in the sense that they apply to everyone, I don’t see how one can avoid using science in some fairly strong sense to validate them (I say this as someone who has had many experiences I regard as real, but which I never preach about because I know it’s useless when others haven’t and almost certainly won’t experience them.) If you disagree, I ask you to explain just how you would validate them, and how whatever approach you come up with is different from science.

I think you would agree that science has established that when we report experiences that we have had, material processes in the brain occur. Without them, there is no thought,and no speech. That implies that those experiences themselves must have a material basis. To argue otherwise is to imply a dualistic view—non-material processes interacting with material ones--with all the known problems it brings. This being the case, I think we have every right to be suspicious of claims of non-material causation.

“My point around subtle experience wasn't to argue that one should be having any kind of imagery experience. It was simply a point of reference to establish the point (still true in nonduality) that different traditions lead to different enlightenments. “

But what is your support for this statement, other than that different traditions may claim to lead to different enlightenments? If some tradition wants to claim that the experience of a higher consciousness is God, I have no problem with that, as it strikes me as simply a language or labeling issue. One can call it anything one wants. The problem arises when wants to make more specific claims, e.g., that God or higher consciousness existed prior to the material world, and created it. That might be true, but I don’t see anyone making that claim backing it up with substantive evidence,the way science backs up its claims with evidence.

“And appealing to neuroscience as some kind of support for one version of another of enlightenment doesn't mean anything because it is after all a correlation. “

I think it means a great deal, in that neuroscience is anchored in shared experience. That doesn’t mean that neuroscience can confirm or validate all meditative experiences—as I noted above, it can’t—but to the extent it can this is surely highly meaningful.

saijanai
saijanai

@AndySmith4 @cdierkes

>>“My point around subtle experience wasn't to argue that one should be having any kind of imagery experience. It was simply a point of reference to establish the point (still true in nonduality) that different traditions lead to different enlightenments. “

>But what is your support for this statement, other than that different traditions may claim to lead to different enlightenments? 


The definition of "enlightenment" presented as part of the theory to explain Transcendental Meditation is actually very physical, at least on its face: 

Practice of TM creates  physical changes in the brain. Long-term practice, alternated with activity, leads to [at least some of] these physical changes becoming traits that persist outside of meditation. When these physical traits become well-enough established, the meditator starts to notice a quiet, uninvolved, non-judgemental, ever-watchful, sense-of-self emerging internally.

When sense-of-self persists at all times, in all circumstances, whether the person is awake, dreaming or deep asleep, they naturally identify it as more permanent and valid than any relative aspect of "self" and, for the sake of convenience, a new term was developed. In English, it is possible to write it as [true] "Self" with a big-S, rather than little-s "self."

In TM-theory, this is the "first" permanent "higher state" of consciousness, aka _turiyatital_ or "Cosmic Consciousness.

The above is the folk-psychology theory presented by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (MMY) about 45 years ago, updating the rhetoric of various traditional descriptions.

Research on people reporting to be in this state, even during deep sleep, continuously for at least a year, has been published. This paper goes into more detail of the theory of the "first" state of enlightenment and reviews the preliminary research on people claiming to be in this state:


http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12316/full


As might be expected, the folk-pscyhology proves to be a bit simplistic, which MMY acknowledged in a different context (his division of enlightenment into 3 separate stages or states was not really valid, but only a useful artificial distinction, according to him).

In the actual studies, it was found that the physiological changes in the brain correlated with long-term TM practice, were--at least in some people--correlated with changes in how they described themselves, well before any perception of a "quiet, non-judgemental, ever-watchful, sense-of-self," emerged.


Note the  responses  [Table 3] to the question "describe your self" found in psychological portion of the study:

http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/eeg-of-enlightenment.pdf

and how they correlate with the physiological changes:

http://www.totalbrain.ch/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/brain-integration-progress-report.pdf


>If some tradition wants to claim that the experience of a higher consciousness is God, I have no problem with that, as it strikes me as simply a language or labeling issue. One can call it anything one wants. The problem arises when wants to make more specific claims, e.g., that God or higher consciousness existed prior to the material world, and created it. That might be true, but I don’t see anyone making that claim backing it up with substantive evidence,the way science backs up its claims with evidence.


MMY made the point that spontaneously enlightened people would  interpret their own internal state in light of their own cultural traditions and their influence would shape the cultural traditions in subsequent generations, leading to divergent religions.

As well, he suggested that the artificial division of "enlightenment" into three separate stages or states would explain the various Hindu schools which spoke of relationships with God or gods, vs appreciation of wholeness of everything. His three divisions


"Cosmic Consciousness" -sense-of-self is always present;

"God Consciousness" -sense-of-self provides a stable foundation to perceive more subtle aspects of the world, interpreted as "divine" in some way, leading to the ultimate perception of a divine presence at the basis of everything;

"Unity Consciousness" -sense-of-self provides a stable foundation + perception of subtler aspects of reality + perception that all reality is based on That ["Self"].



What he never considered was the possibility that different practices aren't merely more or less "efficient" in bringing about "enlightenment," but that different practices actually change the brain in such different ways that lead to radically different experiences, which  then are interpreted using existing cultural traditions, some of which are exactly opposite to the physiological changes that take place (self vs no-self; mindfulness/concentration vs TM and similar practices)




saijanai
saijanai

@AndySmith4 @cdierkes 

>>“And appealing to neuroscience as some kind of support for one version of another of enlightenment doesn't mean anything because it is after all a correlation. “

>I think it means a great deal, in that neuroscience is anchored in shared experience. That doesn’t mean that neuroscience can confirm or validate all meditative experiences—as I noted above, it can’t—but to the extent it can this is surely highly meaningful.


Maharishi Mahesh Yogi asserted that Transcendental Meditation was the "original" technique of meditation, as it was so simple ["think a mantra effortlessly"] but due to the delicate nature of the practice, simply telling people to "do" that would generally lead to loss of efficiency of practice.

In his theory, TM is simply a strategy for allowing the body to gain the most appropriate rest it can gain at any given moment, which allows the nervous system to repair damage due to stressful experiences. The first state of enlightenment, "CC," was merely what happens in anyone when their nervous system is sufficiently low-stress.

In his eyes, CC could happen spontaneously in anyone with a sufficiently strong nervous system who was raised in a sufficiently nurturing/low-stress environment. No technique was required.

"Higher" states might require some technique or consistent  activity. Devotional practices in religions, selfless works, even the caring for one's own family might be enough to bring about growth in the second stage, "God Consciousness."

He believed that "Unity" was due to intellectual growth of some kind.

However, Craig Pearson recently published a book, _The Supreme Awakening_, showing evidence that all such states spontaneously arise in all cultures, and not merely CC.


Evidence that TM is "best" at least within the framework that MMY established is growing. These papers compare world-champion (compete in world-level games, and consistently bring home medals or at least rank in the top-10 list for 3 years in a row) with non-world-champions (compete in the same games, but never break out of the lower 50th percentile) on the same measures. It turns out that world-champion athletes tend to have physiological measures and describe themselves in ways that approach those of "enlightened" TMers, while non-world champions tend to show physiological measures and psychological responses similar to non-TMers:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19883380

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22830416

It is a truism amongst TM teachers that the higher-stressed the student, the more rapidly and dramatically they respond to TM practice. The ultimate stress-related illness is PTSD, and war refugees who fled to one of the poorest countries in the world, unable to speak the language, living in mud huts with tarps for roofs, or on the floors of churches, or even under bushes, are probably as stressed out a population as you can find. These studies looked at the before/after effects of TM on PTSD. Subjects had experiences like being gang-raped by their husbands' murderers while their children watched:

The first study documents that TM practice brought 90% of respondents down to being non-symtomatic for PTSD after only 30 days practice of TM, while the second study showed that 2/3 of the changes took place in the first 10 days after learning TM:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23568415

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24515537

Despite being pilot studies done by true believers, international relief agencies have already begun independent studies to verify the above results. It is entirely conceivable that eventually, it will be common for such agencies to have their own people trained as TM teachers, so that when they go in to provide disaster and war relief, refugees will be taught to relax in formal TM classes.


The most compelling example of how TM relieves stress (remember it is stress that prevents people from spontaneously being enlightened in the first place) is found in highly stressed public schools. 

Imagine a school where a little girl arrives in her homeroom, covered in fresh paint for her morning meditation practice, and the teacher tells her she most go home and change because she can't stay at school in such a dirty dress. The little girl bursts into tears. She was standing at the busstop with her uncle when someone shot him, so she ran to school so she wouldn't miss her morning meditation, because she believed it would provide a safe haven from the situation.


The above is a real story. The school is Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, where most students "have a family member who has been shot, or who did the shooting or saw the shooting"

http://kenchawkin.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/a-quiet-transformation.pdf

and where 9 shootings occurred in the neighborhood around the school in December 2013 and despite all that, the school was found to be "the happiest school in San Francisco" based on an annual independent survey done for the California Board of Education.

http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Meditation-transforms-roughest-San-Francisco-5136942.php


The above seem to support MMY's claim that TM works extremely well against stress, and imagine what it will be like if he is correct that it is merely stress that prevents one from being enlightened? The Brazilian government is well aware of the above research and anecdotes and recently announced that they are setting aside funds to pay for the training of 48,000 TM teachers--one for each public school in Brazil--so that all 45 MILLION public school students can learn TM for free.


What will it mean for the world if all the children in the 6th largest country start to rapidly grow towards "low-stress-style" enlightenment?


AndySmith4
AndySmith4

@saijanai @AndySmith4 @cdierkes

From my book The Dimensions of Experience:


Whatever TM is, it is not meditation, and whatever it does, it does not bring higher consciousness.Two brief passages from a recent review of some of the physiological effects of TM, by a devout practitioner of this technique, should make this very clear:

Transcendental Meditation is an effortless mental technique using purely phonetic qualities of a meaningless sound, or ‘mantra’, to ‘turn the mind inwards towards its source’, and requires no mental effort, concentration or particular mental ability22

the unbounded awareness of ‘samadhi’, or transcendental consciousness, to which the mind is naturally and automatically drawn23

As anyone who has ever meditated should know, the practice is not effortless.On the contrary, it is the most difficult activity that a human being can engage in.The classical literature on meditation is full of references to suffering.Were it not so, all human beings would have realized enlightenment long ago. As I noted earlier, the reference to turning the mind inwards also betrays a common misconception about meditation; it’s just as much an outer practice as an inner one.


With regard to the second passage, there is nothing natural about meditation.It is the most unnatural activity a human being can engage in.Meditation, as the Buddha taught, is about struggle with desires, and desires are literally millions of years old.As we saw in Chapter 7, they evolved with the lower vertebrates.Every living thing since has been a slave to its desires, and our species is no exception.


The preceding comments are based largely on my personal experience, and readers may well ask why they should believe me and not someone else,That is a fair question, which I will return to later, but in the meantime I suggest that those readers who want to give TM the benefit of the doubt consider some of the other beliefs its devotees hold. These include the Maharishi effect, which claims that if 1% of the population in any locality meditates, crime will go down (Andrews 2005); and yogic flying—actually the subject of several scientific papers by the Institute (Orme-Johnson and Gelderloos 1988; Travis and Orme-Johnson 1990)—in which meditators, hopping around on a mat while sitting in the lotus position, claim to be levitating.


Advocates of TM may protest that if TM is not a valid method of meditation, why have so many studies demonstrated significant physiological changes in its practitioners?These include not only EEG changes, but beneficial effects on health, particularly hypertension (Orme-Johnson 1987; Eisenberg et al. 1993; Barnes et al. 1999; Herron and Hillis 2000); superior performance on tests of attention andperception (Clements and Milstein 1977; Ferguson 1993; Lyubimov 1998; Hankey 2006); and anti-aging effects (Clements and Clements 1980; Wallace et al. 1982; Glaser et al. 1987; Barnes et al. 2004). Don’t all these findings suggest they are on to something?


One reason to be skeptical is that many TM studies, particularly the earlier ones, have as noted earlier been carried out at the Maharishi Institute, and have neither been replicated nor subject to peer-review.Critics have pointed out a number of flaws in some of these studies (Fenwick et al. 1977; Frumkin and Pagano 1979; Blackmore 1991; Canter and Ernst 2004; Andrews 2005; St. Louis and Lansky 2006; Jaseja 2007).In the context of this discussion, however, it's not necessary to establish that all TM studies are flawed, and that the practice has no value.I am quite willing to believe that it may indeed have value.What I want to emphasize is that the fact that TM may have certain benefits does not establish that it is a valid form of meditation, or that it will bring a higher form of consciousness. This is a point that should be carefully considered when evaluating any studies of the physiological or psychological effects of meditation, not just those employing TM.


The main effect of TM and similar practices is to remove an individual temporarily from the flow of life.In our busy Western world, this is fairly uncommon.Even when we are not working, we are typically doing something—reading, watching television, talking on the phone, working out, engaged in some hobby, and so on.It should not be surprising that this has distinct correlates in the brain, and that it may provide health benefits.

saijanai
saijanai

@AndySmith4 @saijanai @cdierkes


Where to begin...


First, (Cantor and Ernst 2004) suggest that ALL meditation research done by ALL meditation researchers is bad, so it's not just TM research. That said, last year, the American Heart Association published a scientific statement directed towards doctors concerning the state of research and documented benefits of alternative therapies for hypertension:

http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/22/HYP.0b013e318293645f.full.pdf+html

In the section on meditation, the AHA concluded that only TM had sufficiently good research with consistent enough effects that they could say that doctors could recommend TM to their patients as a treatment for hypertension. All other meditation practices received a non-passing grade due to low-quality research and/or lack of consistent results.


I should point out that they endeavored to examine all research published in the past 5 years (as of 2013), which means that none of the studies/reviews you cited applies to the research that the AHA looked at.


I should also point out that Robert Brook, lead author of the AHA statement, explicitly said that TM research was "unique in its quality" with respect to hypertension.


Secondly, the entire mission of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was to make the teachings of his guru, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, first Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath in 165 years, known to the rest of the world. He chose to do this by simplifying a specific practice, which he believed encapsulated all of his teacher's teachings in one technique. 

Once he had finished simplifying as much as possible, it dawned on him that he had rediscovered something ancient that was at the basis of all world religions (whether this is a valid realization or not is of course, impossible to say).

The point of TM and how Maharishi presented things was that enlightenment is the birth-right of humanity, and it is due to misconceptions and distortions that arise over generations of passing things on that the core teaching--that meditation is easy--has been lost.


Finally, while you may like to think that TM doesn't bring about "higher states," that is, of course a matter of opinion. My friend, Professor Anoop Chandola ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anoop_Chandola ) is a respected scholar whose uncle was involved in the selection of Maharishi's teacher to become the Shankaracharya. About 45 years ago, Professor Chandola had the opportunity to visit SBS's successor at Jyotirmath and happened to ask "What about that 'Maharishi' who is with the Beatles? Is he legitimate?"

According to Professor Chandola, the Shankaracharya laughed and said "Let me put it to you this way: he would be my first choice as my successor but they won't allow it due to the caste laws."


When one of the 4 official Shankaracharyas speaks that way, it is as official an endorsement of Maharishi's teachings as you can possibly find in the Hindu tradition, so to dismiss what he claims as being wrong simply because how you (and countless other people) have read ancient tests is silly on its face: are you seriously claiming that you know more than the Shankaracharya?


The rest of your statements are equally opinionated. For example, "Yogic Flying" is a mental practice derived from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. According to traditional texts, such as the Shiva Samhita, the practice comes in stages. An early stage is described as jumping or "hopping like a frog."

No-one has ever claimed that full-on "floating" has ever been demonstrated by any person in the TM organization, and when presentations are made to the press, it is made clear that that is all that they will show. The point of such mental techniques is the effect they have on the practitioner. In the case of Yogic Flying, the person enters a samadhi-like state while at the same time the body spontaneously starts to 'hop like a frog.' The practical result is that the body learns to maintain a near-samadhi state WHILE engaging in extreme physical activity. THAT is the point for an individual practicing the technique: it speeds up growth towards enlightenment. According to tradition, when someone masters the technique, floating occurs, but no-one has ever claimed that any TMer has mastered it or even come close to mastering it.


Another problem with what you have said concerns the purpose of practicing meditation and yogic flying, etc., in a group. The belief is that the statement in the Yoga Sutras, "in the vicinity of [enlightenment] violent tendencies are eliminated," applies to people who are on the path to becoming enlightened as well and that there is a synergistic effect from group practice of enlightenment-promoting practices that affects not only the group itself, but the surroundings. As humans are the most sensitive to such effects, the collective behavior in the society in vicinity of the group of people growing towards enlightenment should show detectable changes in a positive direction.

Of course, most people don't believe that such practices have such an effect, but the purpose of teh research is to attempt to establish that such an effect exists, and is of practical value to the rest of the world -that it would be a good thing for national governments to support the establishment of such groups for their own sake.


One famous African president actually did such a thing for his country, and the changes that took place during his time in office led to him being awarded the most prestigious award in Africa:


http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/22/jamesastill

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201212/can-meditation-change-the-world


You may disagree with President  Chissano's claim that Mozambique improved due to group TM and group Yogic Flying but the actual changes that took place during his tenure are well-documented and made him the most respected African leader after Nelson Mandela.


saijanai
saijanai

A very big nit:


YOU have made the assumption that all meditation practices lead to the "same place," and that in that "place."  there is no self, and therefore the difference between Modern Buddhism and Vedanta is merely philosophical window dressing.


That is very far from reality.


Focused attention and mindfulness practices have one very important thing in common: they both disrupt the normal activity of the default mode network of the brain, and their long-term practice actually creates a situation where attention doesn't wander freely.


This is interpreted as a good thing.


It turns out that this is the reason why practitioners of such practices report that "self is an illusion." In a very real, physical sense, "sense of self" is reduced by such practices, because the physical basis of sense-of-self is mind-wandering: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3112331/ "Towards a Neuroscience of Mind-Wandering"


Mindfulness and concentrative practices train the attention to not wander, and with long-term practice, this not-wandering becomes a physiological trait outside of meditation practice.


This is also interpreted as a good thing.




On the other hand, a completely different meditation practice is explicitly described as allowing the mind to wander, is explained in terms of mind-wandering, and the physiological  correlates are those of mind-wandering. In the long-run, the physiological trait that becomes established is that of mind-wandering.


Perhaps not surprisingly, based on what the authors note in the paper linked to above,("According to this notion, [mind-wandering], whether its content is directly related to the thinker or not, is a self-related, self-generated, self-sustaining function ; it serves as an integral part of self awareness, a pre-requisite for healthy psychological functioning."), this is perceived internally as an unassailable sense-of-self that is untouched by any adversity, is not bound to any object of attention or desire, and persists as a constant, whether one is awake, dreaming or even in deep sleep.




This is also interpreted as a good thing. 


The two descriptions of internal reality, self and no-self, are supported on the physiological level by two entirely different styles of meditation practice (in this sense, mindfulness and concentration both belong to the attention-training camp, while this brand-x form of meditation belongs in its own category): sense-of-self enhancing vs sense-of-self reducing.



Research has been published on people who report the presence of this unassailable sense-of-self, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, whether awake, dreaming or in deep sleep, for at least a year.


This review article discusses the theoretical implications of such a condition and the preliminary physiological and psychological research that has been done on the people who claim to be in it: 


http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.12316/full 



Any discussion of vedanta's description of reality in terms of "self"  vs Modern Buddhism's description of reality as lacking self is incomplete without discussing the implications of this research. 




cdierkes
cdierkes moderator

@saijanai Hi S, I've actually done quite the opposite. I'm arguing that Buddhism because it has a different practice and different philosophical view leads to a different kind of enlightenment. I don't think the difference is window dressing but world dressing. I do think there are points of overlap (e.g. non-separation) but also have elements that are completely distinct and unique to each and not reducible to each other. This is why I critiqued Harris. Because he's reducing all mystical systems to one variant of Buddhism and then calling it scientific, thereby denying the reality of the other mystical traditions, which have co-created their own truths and paths. 

saijanai
saijanai

@cdierkes @saijanai You're missing my point, I think. The functional changes that mindfulness and concentrative practices bring about in the brain support the Modern Buddhist interpretation of the Buddha's teachings that "self is an illusion." Practice that kind of technique long enough, and the default mode network of the brain starts to change its essential mode of functioning away from mind-wandering, which supports "sense-of-self," to a more analytical, less intuitive, less creative style of functioning, presumably with a more subdued sense-of-self.


Research on people who practice Transcendental Meditation (a mind-wandering practice) show the opposite effect.



Mind you, not all  Buddhists agree with the  the mindfulness meditation craze and consider it counter-enlightenment. I don't know how they interpret the _anatman_ statements of the Buddha.


Doctrine and interpretation has gone through many transformations over the 2500 that Buddhism has been around, along with many cultural interpretations of the same.



And translation is an amazingly tricky thing.


Two translations of the same ancient text can support exactly the opposite points of view.

JayaravaAttwood
JayaravaAttwood

At a recent lecture in Cambridge John Searle said "The ontological subjectivity of the domain [of consciousness] does not prevent us from having an epistemologically objective science of that domain". I share this because he is cited as holding the opposite view above. 

cdierkes
cdierkes moderator

@JayaravaAttwood Hi JA, thanks for the comment. Harris does say he doesn't believe necessarily everything Searle or Chalmers, etc believes specifically around this topic. Only that they all share (which they do) the position that subjectivity is not reducible to materiality. 

In response to Searle, I would say basically what I said in my piece. Epistemologically objective science of subjective realm misses hermeneutics and there's no subjectivity without intersubjectivity. Phenomenology alone is necessary but not sufficient. Same with epistemology (minus hermeneutics). 

DustinDiPerna
DustinDiPerna

Excellent blog, brother. I'll repost it and retweet it now. I also just wrote on Harris' exchange with Affleck. Check it out here if you haven't seen it: 


http://dustindiperna.blogspot.com


It's great to be in sync around all of this.

Trackbacks

  1. […] scientific claims about mindfulness have come in for their own critiques, from both mystics and […]

  2. […] scientific claims about mindfulness have come in for their own critiques, from both mystics and […]