Oh, Sam, you almost deeply disappointed me.
But after a closer reading of the Meditation chapter in your new book, "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion," I'm feeling better about your approach to understanding consciousness without mixing in religious crap.
After writing two positive blog posts about the book, here and here, I was looking forward to reading the chapter on meditation this morning. Before I meditated, something I've been doing every day for about 45 years.
As noted in my "Real spirituality is realizing you aren't a soul, or self," this is an appealing notion -- or rather, reality -- to me.
Far from being scary, this is a big relief. The self or soul religious people believe needs saving... it doesn't exist.
The egotistical belief that an immaterial "I" will endure forever while everything else in the physical world will change and die... it isn't true.
We can relax into reality.
The world is us and we are the world. Yes, there is something it is like to be a conscious part of the world called "me." However, I, and you, and everybody are ever-changing aspects of the world, not an eternal soul-drop destined to return to a godly ocean.
Whatever heaven might be, it is right here, right now.
My fondness for "Waking Up" took a downturn, though, when I read the Meditation chapter with highlighter in hand and ended up with several marginal question marks... ?
The first was when Harris cited a study that asked people if their mind was wandering, "that is, whether they were thinking about something unrelated to their current experience." The study authors concluded "a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."
Hmmmm. I'd say sometimes this is true, and sometimes it is not. It all depends.
I'm big on mindfulness, in part because I'm big on Tai Chi. After ten years, I know quite a few Tai Chi forms well enough to be able to do them quasi-automatically. Thus I can think about something else while I'm doing a form in class and (usually) not make any mistakes.
However, Tai Chi doesn't feel as good to me when my body is doing one thing and my mind another. So I agree that sometimes a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Or at least, a less happy mind.
Sometimes, because I also do some mind-wandering on my late afternoon dog walks. Since I usually write blog posts in the evening, I enjoy mulling over what I might write about later on. Insights often come to me.
I can mostly pay attention to the dog and my immediate surroundings, while also thinking about what I'm going to do later on. I don't feel like my dog walk happiness is lessened by a wandering mind. In fact, trying to control my mind when it wants to wander feels unnatural and overly disciplined to me.
If I want to do something, and it feels pleasant when I do it, why not feel free? I've got no interest in being a Mindfulness Policeman who arrests myself for wandering mind infractions.
My second marginal question mark appears next to this passage.
In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.
That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however I'm as confused as anyone else.
Wow. This seemed decidedly at odds with what Harris had said just eleven pages before, in the same Meditation chapter.
Dualistic mindfulness -- paying attention to the breath, for example -- generally proceeds on the basis of an illusion: One feels that one is a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, that can strategically pay attention to the breath or some other object of awareness because of all the good it will do.
It sure seems in the "In fact..." passage that Harris is touting the good that comes from feeling that he is a subject with awareness, who looks upon sadness or fear as a content of the consciousness that he is not, he being consciousness itself.
Well, I have no idea what "consciousness itself" could be like. Yet in various places in his book Harris implies that consciousness isn't just the workings of the mind/brain, even though he also says that no one is sure what consciousness is.
This bothered me. It appeared to bring back a big dose of dualism into "Waking Up" that wasn't much different from the soul-body dualism Harris had decried in earlier chapters.
For now Harris was implying that there is (1) consciousness and (2) what consciousness knows. In order for this to be true, rather than just a belief, seemingly there would have to be demonstrable evidence that consciousness can be separated from any and all objects or contents of consciousness.
I'm still waiting for the "demonstrable" part. Harris, though, claims he has evidence. Which caused me to put another question mark in his book's margin. Talking about himself in meditation, he writes:
There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels.
Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses -- and that the idea of a "pure consciousness" apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.
It's hard to believe this passage made it into Harris' book. I guess he didn't have a good editor. Or maybe any editor. It simply is non-sensical.
Sam, you have a Ph.D. in neuroscience. You also go to sleep every night. So you know about dreaming. We are conscious when we dream, but we don't have a "reference point in any of the usual sensory channels."
So who are these scientists and philosophers who supposedly believe consciousness always is tied to one of the five senses? Methinks you made them up. Dreaming proves it isn't.
However, this talk of a "blissful expanse of conscious peace" is very different from "pure consciousness" -- unless that term simply means consciousness that isn't aware of, or paying attention to, external sensory inputs.
Obviously Harris' consciousness was impure in this sense: it contained various internal mental objects. Bliss, an expanse, and peace. Harris also had to feel separate enough from this internal feeling to be able to remember it. So some sense of "I" apart from the blissful expanse of conscious peace must have been present also.
These questionings didn't turn me off to the entire Meditation chapter, though.
After reading parts of it again, I realized that Harris seems to be on the right track, in my admittedly personal opinion. It just is damn difficult to talk about certain meditative subjects in a precise logical way, so some confusing statements are bound to pop up in anyone's writing -- me certainly included.
Later on in the chapter, Harris says "consciousness is intrinsically undivided." This sounds better to me. No talk here of pure consciousness being defiled, so to speak, by contents of consciousness. Rather...
When you are able to rest naturally, merely witnessing the totality of experience, and thoughts themselves are left to arise and vanish as they will, you can recognize that consciousness is intrinsically undivided. In the moment of such an insight, you will be completely relieved of the feeling that you call "I."
You will still see this book, of course, but it will be an appearance in consciousness, inseparable from consciousness itself -- and there will be no sense that you are behind your eyes, doing the reading.
To me, this sense is very common. Harris studied Dzogchen under various teachers to achieve the insight he describes. Other people experience it naturally in the course of everyday life.
It sounds virtually identical to "flow." That pleasant feeling when the thing you are doing isn't different from the doing itself. Athletes feel it. Dancers feel it. Musicians feel it. Thinkers lost in thought feel it. People having sex feel it.
For sure, I'm no enlightened being.
But often I feel little if any distance between what I'm experiencing and my experience of it. After I finish this post I'm going to return to reading an engrossing novel. Like an engrossing movie, I get absorbed in the fictional world and temporarily forget that it isn't real.
Well, actually it is real. For me. My mind makes it so.