As much as I like Sam Harris' approach to meditation, which basically is Buddhism (Vipassana variety) minus the Buddhist part, I'm still left with a key question.
Which if asked of a Zen master likely would earn me a smack on my head or kick of my butt -- or more mildly, a quizzical look and an admonition to return to my meditation mat and seek more diligently for the true nature of my self.
That self, of course, doesn't really exist in Buddhism, nor in Sam Harris' guided meditations on his Waking Up app.
So whoever it is who has this question about meditation isn't an enduring standalone Soul or Self with a capital "S." That who is something else. Which means my question might be unanswerable, since an answer seemingly would have to come from an entity that doesn't exist.
Confusing? Absolutely. So let's leave those thoughts behind and focus on the question.
Who or what is aware of the contents of my consciousness?
Harris, echoing the Buddhist notion of emptiness, that everything in existence is dependent on causes and conditions existing in a vast web of interdependency, likes to say that everything in a human mind is a modification of consciousness.
This includes the idea, everything in a human mind is a modification of consciousness.
Or, the feeling of being a self that has such an idea. No matter where you turn in the mind, no matter what elevated sensation of this'ness or that'ness that makes you think, ah, unvarnished truth, it's all just a modification of consciousness in Harris' view.
This assumes a dualism that sort of bothers me, since we have (1) consciousness and (2) contents of consciousness, even though I'm not aware of ever being purely consciousness, and can't imagine what this would be like or how one would know they were pure consciousness since Harris says that consciousness isn't something we possess but what we are.
Nonetheless, in his Waking Up book Harris claims to have attained a state of pure consciousness without any content during a lengthy meditation retreat.
But his consciousness must at least have contained the sensation, or memory, or perception, or something that allowed him to conclude that he experienced consciousness without any content. In other words, at minimum Harris' consciousness must have included the content of I'm not experiencing any content.
Which returns me to my question.
I doubt there is such a thing as pure awareness, or pure consciousness. Anyone who claims to have experienced such a state, including Sam Harris, almost certainly is mistaking a feeling or thought of pure awareness for the actual thing.
So my attitude is that one part of my conscious brain is aware of other parts of my conscious brain, which could include a sensation of Wow, I'm experiencing pure awareness! My meditation rocks!
This leaves mindfulness as an activity, or ability, to be aware of the contents of consciousness, with mindfulness being part of those contents. Thus Harris is on the right track when he says that mindfulness practice leads us to see that the contents of consciousness are constantly shifting and changing within our mind.
Where I disagree with him is his assumption that somehow we are clear pure consciousness. This is at odds with modern neuroscience, as I wrote about in Brain's "dark energy" casts doubt on pure awareness.
I wrote about my problem with Harris' claim of pure awareness in this post. What I said in 2016 still makes sense to me now.
But as I said in the previous post, I can't grasp what Harris is getting at when he writes about what he experienced while meditating:
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.
Hmmmm. I'm just as confident that they are not mistaken. It seems obvious that everyday consciousness isn't limited to sense experiences. Dreaming is a conscious act. It doesn't involve seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching via the five senses.
Likewise, I can believe that in a state of deep meditation, Sam Harris did indeed lose any sense of having a body, and wasn't thinking in any ordinary sense. But Harris was still conscious of something, right? He speaks of this as "a blissful expanse of conscious peace."
That doesn't sound like "pure consciousness." It sounds like consciousness of a blissful expanse of conscious peace. No thought. No sensory impressions. But there were contents within Harris' consciousness: bliss, an expanse, peace.
Harris appears to view consciousness as something separate and distinct from what the brain does. Yet Harris makes clear that brains are us. For example:
We know, of course, that human minds are the product of human brains. There is simply no question that your ability to decode and understand this sentence depends upon neurophysiological events taking place inside your head at this moment. But most of this mental work occurs entirely in the dark, and it is a mystery why any part of the process should be attended by consciousness.
This passage makes good sense. Aside from the final part of the last sentence.
Harris sees a mystery where there doesn't have to be one. He distinguishes between (1) brain processes and (2) consciousness. But if consciousness is a product of the human brain, not something separate and distinct from the brain, then consciousness is part of what the brain does.
Consciousness is a brain process.