Sam Harris interviews Dan Harris

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Sam Harris

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Dan Harris

I recently read Sam Harris Interviewing someone called Dan Harris, an American TV newsreader (I think). They discussed meditation and I found both men eminently sensible. I am only interested in meditation because Sam Harris is keen on it and I trust his judgement. Otherwise I would be tempted to dismiss the whole thing out of hand.

I have never meditated and my view of meditation changes regularly, depending on what I have been reading recently but if it really does help you get a bit of control over your mind that must be a good thing. I am also interested in ways of stopping thinking so much. I realise that everyone thinks a lot but my own thinking is almost indistinguishable from worrying. If I ever catch my reflection in a mirror or shop window I always seem to be scowling. That’s when I realise that I have been thinking and maybe it’s not good for me. If it were then I would instead look happy and relaxed.

I think I would either like to think nicer thoughts or just think less. Either would do. Yet rather than looking inwards as meditation often recommends I would like to look outwards at the world. This is because I think that too much introspection is more likely to make my ego inflate than deflate. I suppose it might be true that observing the contents of your own mind is a good of way to feel at home with yourself and I have always liked the philosophers’ motto, ‘know thyself’. So if you are able to take a long, hard look at yourself and come out the other end liking yourself, then that surely is time well spent.

But I think Sam Harris has something more drastic than this in mind for me. He believes that when you turn your gaze inward on yourself and look closely what you find is that ‘you’ aren’t there.

I’m not really sure what that last sentence means but it appeals to me anyway, mainly because I like the idea of pruning and simplifying. Had I been around at the time I would have clapped the scientists who buried the ideas of an ether, the existence of a life force in living things, and the religious idea of souls. Whether the idea of a self belongs with these dead ideas or whether it still has a use, I can’t say. It certainly feels like there is someone at home in my body but then again, it also seems to me that the world is flat and unmoving.

If I had to guess what Sam Harris means by having no self I think I would say the following: that I am a body with a consciousness (and self-consciousness) emerging out of it, but that is all. I am bones, flesh, blood, nerves and tendons, and the functioning and self-monitoring of these bits of meat give rise to a consciousness.

So Sam Harris believes that with enough hours of meditation under your belt you may come to see that emotions and thoughts rise up into consciousness as if from nowhere and there is no central you directing all this. Rather than being a traumatic experience, Harris claims that this revelation (or hallucination) will usher in a feeling of relief at finally being able to drop your burdensome sense of self. He believes that it is possible to realise you have no self without long hours of meditation but that meditation prepares the ground and makes the sudden insight more likely to happen.

Once I start to just look, listen and feel unselfconsciously then I become much less tempted to split the world into subject and object; Me versus the Rest of the World. Instead I would be a bit like a camera made of meat that sometimes point itself inwards and sometimes outwards, all the time calmly observing and recording what it sees.

I might have misunderstood what Sam Harris is talking about, especially the bit about subject/object dualism. Either way, from the interview it is clear that both Sam and Dan meditate for very different reasons, probably because Dan (like me) doesn’t really get what Sam is talking about. Dan Harris wants to feel calmer and to have more control over his ‘monkey mind’. Sam Harris on the other hand wants to experience again and again (he has apparently experienced it before) the feeling of having no self and of not being separate from anything else.

While Dan Harris’s goal is quite prosaic and could possibly be achieved by other means (sitting in a rocking chair with a glass of whisky while gazing at some distant mountains?), Sam Harris’s goal is ambitious, potentially life-changing and possibly totally nuts. At the moment I tend towards thinking it is all just wishful thinking, a desire for life to be deeper and more mysterious than it really is, but I could well be wrong.

My problem with the idea of no-self is that even after you have dispelled the sense of a self that lives inside you and takes all the decisions, the feeling of ‘me’ still remains in consciousness itself. If I ‘witness’ my breathing this still feels like ‘me’ doing the witnessing. My sense of self hasn’t gone away, it has just taken one step back.

The only way I can see around this problem is to make consciousness precede thought so you never include yourself in the picture. I must try to experience the world before ‘I’ appear, which happens when I start thinking. I suppose this might be how animals experience things. Lions probably don’t think, ‘This is me running, killing, eating and mating’. For the lion there is just a consciousness of running, killing, eating and mating since thought hasn’t yet intervened to split the world into subjects and objects. The lion doesn’t have a sense of self for this reason.

While thinking about all this on the train to work this morning I found myself sitting near a Japanese mother with her daughter. The girl was about three and she was staring wide-eyed around the train carriage, completely absorbed by everything she saw. She looked lost in the moment. After looking slowly around her eyes came to rest on me. Our eyes met and she immediately looked down at the floor in shyness. I also looked away. I felt sorry for making her conscious of herself and for dragging her away from her unified, pre-thought world back into the thought-world of subjects and objects, selves and separateness. I imagined that as she gets older it will become ever more difficult for her to lose herself like that. Thinking will get the upper hand and come between her and the world, as it has done with me.