A few days ago I wrote a blog post about my Zen'ish adage that when you're sad, be sad; when you're happy, be happy.
I mentioned that part of the inspiration for that post came from listening to a conversation Sam Harris had with Nikki Mirghafori on his Waking Up app.
Mirghafori believes that equanimity is central to spirituality. She has a dualistic approach to enlightenment, or realization, where the goal is to attain an inward state of silent/pure consciousness that is separate from everyday consciousness.
I skipped quite a bit of the more than two hour conversation. But at about the 1:18 mark of the "Practicing With Ease" recording, I came across a response, or retort, from Sam Harris that I liked a lot. So today I made a transcript of what Harris said.
He's talking about the difference between dualistic mindfulness and non-dual mindfulness.
Dualistic mindfulness is akin to thinking "I'm washing the dishes" while you're washing the dishes. There's a doer separate from the doing, a perceiver separate from what is perceived, a feeler separate from what is felt.
Non-dual mindfulness doesn't make those distinctions. As Harris says in the transcript, it's not where people begin mindfulness practice. But his Dzogchen training, which fits with his neuroscience Ph.D., leads Harris to consider, along with most Buddhists and many or most neuroscientists, that an enduring self is an illusion.
A little while ago I Googled "Sam Harris non-dual mindfulness" to see what has been written on this subject.
The description of a search result on the first page of results looked promising, so I clicked on it. It turned out to be a 2014 blog post I'd written, Non-duality is simply this: observer and observed are one. Cool. What I was searching for turned out to be something the searcher had written. Nicely non-dual.
So if you want to learn more about non-duality, that's one place to look. This web page also has a good description of non-dual mindfulness. Here's the transcript of what Sam Harris said in the course of his conversation with Nikki Mirghafori.
When I look at how I suffer psychologically, in what sense is mindfulness really an antidote to it? The mindfulness that really is an antidote to it, is the mindfulness that cuts through to this non-dual recognition.
There certainly is some kind of significant relief from suffering possible even with dualistic mindfulness. I'm not going to deny that. It's very useful to learn to be strategically aware of everything, thoughts and feelings and everything you can be aware of. And to have that kind of unhook you from the gross identification with thought that keeps you ruminating and perseverating and miserable.
But take an experience of sadness or anger or fear. You have the full-blown energy of one of those classically negative emotions arising in your mind. And the default state for most people is to feel that as suffering. It's unpleasant, and it's also being sort of connected to thoughts about one's life or one's past or one's future, or the state of the world.
Whatever is occasioning the grief or anger or fear. And now we're not talking about some version of the impersonal vale of tears you went through on your first retreat, but you have reasons, presumably, for being unhappy in this case. You're thinking about those reasons.
The feeling state is provoking the thought. And the thought is ramifying the feeling state. The whole wheel works of psychological suffering is turning. Yes, you can interrupt that with dualistic mindfulness. But when you ask, what is the recognition that truly equalizes the energy of sadness or fear or anger with anything else?
It's like your freedom is no longer contingent upon this even disappearing, because in this moment even the energy of it has no meaning and no implication. That, to my eye, requires this full insight into non-duality.
Short of that, there's still this sense of -- I could be slightly overstating this -- but for most people, and perhaps for everyone practicing dualistic mindfulness in a moment like this, there's still this subtle sense that you're paying attention to it in order for it to go away. Right?
Like you've got some distance from it. You've recognized that you're not identical to it. But there is a bit of a vigil still happening where you think your freedom is elsewhere. Your freedom is in no longer experiencing this thing, even though, yes, you've managed to convince yourself that you're just going to patiently experience it and pay attention and you're open to it and you're feeling it and you're not resisting it.
But there's still this sense of "I" in relation to the energetics of experience in that moment. That's enough dukkha [suffering]. The problem still has its usual structure. And you're vulnerable to the next moment of it not going away, or your getting captured by the next thought about it.
Whereas, if in the seeing of just seeing, and the feeling of just feeling, there really is no problem. Right? There's no one to have a problem in that moment. I guess what I'm arguing for here, the assumption that you might have detected, is that this is an inconvenient thing to be arguing for as a teacher. I don't want to say anything that discourages people wherever they are in their practice.
It's fantastic to be starting a practice, and everyone starts dualistically. That's the place you have to start from. But I guess the other message is, I want to say to people, you shouldn't be satisfied with mindfulness until it really does meet the test of, in this moment is there something you can be aware of that is synonymous with freedom?
Like, it actually meets the requirement -- however you form that requirement -- of, if freedom is this, well then, that is good enough. Right? The search actually is over in this moment. If you can't do that, to put it into terms of doing, you still do have a problem to solve, as much as you might spend a lot of your time convincing yourself that there's no problem to solve and you just have to be aware.
The final statement I'll make here is that it felt like so much of my practice, in the first few years -- I think I'd probably spent a year on retreat -- and this still would have been true of me even after a full year on retreat, my practice was a kind of vigil.
What I was mindful of was the evidence of my unenlightenment. That's not to say that it wasn't punctuated by beautiful, joyful experiences of where I would have said, if I could just keep this, that seems like the mind of the Buddha. This is fantastic. But all of that is impermanent, obviously.
I couldn't recognize that ordinary consciousness that is compatible with having a conversation like this or driving a car is already totally empty of a self that would seek enlightenment.