Sam Harris on Meditation

The other day I was listening to Sam Harris talking about why he meditates. One reason is that concentrating on just one thing (usually the breath) is a pleasurable feeling. It is a relief to stop all the chatter that usually goes on in your head. By concentrating on one very simple thing you can unclutter your mind. You can concentrate on a flower, a stone, or anything you like, but most people concentrate on their breathing because that is always present. Also by concentrating on your breathing you can check that you aren’t breathing too quickly and shallowly, something stressed people often do.

Meditators also try to achieve is a feeling of non-separated from the world. I think I can just about imagine this, though I have never felt it myself. I can also imagine why someone would want to stop feeling separate from everything around them. Think of a summer’s day. You are lying on your back on the grass, watching the clouds drift by and listening to the birds singing. For a while you forget all the things you have to do. You can even forget your ‘self’ for a while and instead feel like you are just a floating consciousness. Maybe, just for a while, you can imagine that the division between you and the rest of the world has dissolved. You no longer feel like a subject in a world full of objects.

I think this is the state that meditators try to achieve and it must be a pleasant state. However, I don’t think they have found enlightenment, any more than I have found enlightenment when I dream that I can fly. Both feelings are nice, but both require that that I forget certain facts about myself i.e. that I am separate from others and the rest of the world and that I don’t really have wings (actually, when I fly in dreams I am doing breaststroke through the air).

Buddhists claim that the self is an illusion and that the moments we manage to dissolve the barrier between ourselves and the world outside us are moments when we see things as they truly are.

I am willing to believe that the self is a construct rather than something solid, rather like a rainbow. Or like a centre of gravity, an imaginary point that helps you to make sense of all the data your brain processes. But if this is a useful construct that naturally comes to mind, why would I want to do away with it?


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