Figured I might as well continue on with how Sam Harris views meditation, spirituality, and the non-existence of an enduring self, even though I've previously written quite a bit about this.
As noted before, Harris is one of my favorite spiritual writers because he both recognizes the downside of religions and believing in a God for which there's no evidence, while also recognizing that there is much to learn about the human mind and how we can live more pleasantly through meditation and mindfulness.
Here's a footnote to my recent post about Harris and Dzogchen, the Tibetan form of Buddhism he's fond of.
I didn't mention in that post how Harris views the transmission of wisdom from a Dzogchen master to a disciple not as something mystical or supernatural, but as akin to someone showing how the eye's blind spot can be directly experienced instead of merely known intellectually.
(I won't share those simple steps; this web page describes them.)
Harris' point is that a skilled teacher can do the same thing with regard to an intellectual belief in the non-existence of an enduring self.
In The Riddle of the Self chapter in his "Waking Up" book, Harris starts off by describing what happened during his visit to the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon.
As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self -- an "I" or a "me" -- vanished.
Everything was as it had been -- the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water -- but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.
The experience lasted just a few seconds, but it returned many times as I looked out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles. If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms.
I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit. If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the eternal Self, of which the world and all individual minds are thought to be a mere modification. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the "dharmakaya of emptiness," in which all apparent things manifest as in a dream.
But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being. Consequently, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. And yet, I glimpse what I will call the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness every day, whether at a traditional holy site, or at my desk, or while having my teeth cleaned.
This is not an accident. I've spend many years practicing meditation, the purpose of which is to cut through the illusion of the self.
This passage contains the basics of how Harris views intrinsic selflessness. It isn't something to be attained, since there is no self to be gotten rid of. It is something to be experientially realized, either spontaneously or as the result of a meditative practice.
As Harris says in the first paragraph, the key is silencing of thoughts. Or at least, keeping them to a whisper rather than a shout. Thoughts make us feel like we have a self because we assume that thoughts require a thinker, some little guy or gal inside our head who is in charge of us.
Of course, writing that last sentence the way I did shows the absurdity of believing that we have a self. What the heck is the difference between "we" or "I" and the self that we/I have? If I have a self, does my self have its own self?
It doesn't help much to say "I am a self." That still leaves "I" and "self" connected by a meaningless "am." Meaningless, because it is like saying a flash of lightning. The flash is lighting.
So as Harris is gazing at his surroundings, he feels his "I" slipping away until there is just the outside world. This isn't a mystical experience. It is the normal experience when inner stillness replaces the mental motion that usually is present for most people.
I've been critical of those who claim that it's possible to attain a state of consciousness without conscious content.
At times Harris can sound like he's saying this, but I don't think he really is. Instead, there's conscious content -- such as a vision of the Sea of Galilee -- yet without the sense of a self inside our head who is separate from the contents of consciousness.
Has this ever happened to you? Probably it has.
Fairly frequently I'll wake up in the morning, open my eyes, and see the room where I sleep. For a few seconds all I'm aware of is my physical surrounding. Then, sort of like a computer with a flash drive booting up really rapidly, suddenly a worry, say, of a problem I was dealing with before I went to bed pops into my mind.
From simple clear relaxed consciousness of the outside world to complex foggy anxious awareness of my inner world in little more than an instant. This is a good example of how no-self becomes self. Harris writes:
From the contemplative point of view, being lost in thoughts of any kind, pleasant or unpleasant, is analogous to being asleep and dreaming. It's a mode of not knowing what is actually happening in the present moment. It is essentially a form of psychosis.
Thoughts themselves are not a problem, but being identified with thought is. Taking oneself to be the thinker of one's thoughts -- that is, not recognizing the present thought to be a transitory appearance in consciousness -- is a delusion that produces nearly every species of human conflict and unhappiness.
It doesn't matter if your mind is wandering over current problems in set theory or cancer research; if you are thinking without knowing you are thinking, you are confused about who and what you are. The practice of meditation is a method of breaking the spell of thought.
...Long before reaching this kind of stability in meditation, however, one can discover that the sense of self -- the sense that there is a thinker behind one's thoughts, an experiencer amid the flow of experience -- is an illusion.
The feeling that we call "I" is itself the product of thought. Having an ego is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking.
....What are we conscious of? We are conscious of the world; we are conscious of our bodies in the world; and we also imagine that we are conscious of our selves within our bodies. After all, most of us don't feel merely identical to our bodies.
We seem to be riding around inside our bodies. We feel like inner subjects that can use the body as a kind of object. This last impression is an illusion that can be dispelled. The selflessness of consciousness is in plain view in every present moment -- and yet, it remains difficult to see.
...No doubt most people in human history have been totally unaware of the optic blind spot. Even those of us who know about it go for decades without noticing it. And yet, it is always there, right on the surface of experience.
The absence of the self is also there to be noticed. As with the optic blind spot, the evidence is not far away or deep within; rather, it is almost too close to be observed. For most people, experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training.
It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness -- that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment -- does not feel like a self. It does not feel like "I." What you are calling "I" is itself a feeling that arises among the contents of consciousness.
Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness of it, and, therefore, free of it in principle.