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 dismiss it as New Age nonsense.
I have never meditated but if it really does help you to get some control over your mind, as it claims to do, then it must be a good thing. Personally I am interested in stopping myself from thinking so much and so automatically. I realise that everyone thinks a lot but my own thinking often feels like worrying. If I catch sight of myself in a shop window I often look very earnest. If my thoughts were pleasant then I really ought to look happier.
While I would like to stop thinking so much, I would rather look outwards at the world than inwards as meditation recommends. I think that too much introspection makes you self-obsessed. Still, observing the contents of your own mind could be a good of way of getting to know yourself and I like the injunction to ‘know thyself’, as was allegedly written above the door of some philosophical institution in ancient Greece. If you are able to take a long, hard look at yourself and still end up liking yourself then maybe it’s not time wasted.
Even so, I think Sam Harris has something more radical than this in mind. For him meditation isn’t just to calm yourself, to stop yourself from thinking so automatically or to know get to yourself. He believes that when you turn your gaze inward and look closely, you find that ‘you’ aren’t there.
I’m not exactly sure what that means but it sounds interesting and I like paring things down to make them clear and simple. Had I been around when scientists were ditching the redundant ideas of ‘the ether’ and the existence of souls I would have applauded till my hands were red. Whether the idea of the self belongs with these dead ideas or whether it still has a use in explaining us to ourselves, I find it hard to say. It certainly feels like there is someone at home in my body. Then again, it looks to me like the sun goes round the earth.
If I had to guess what Sam Harris means when he says we have no self it is that he believes we are flesh, blood, nerves and tendons. The functioning and self-monitoring of this assemblage of meat and guts gives rise, first to consciousness, and then to the illusion of a self inhabiting the body when simple consciousness turns its gaze inwards. It is this illusion that causes us mental anguish and neuroticism. With enough hours of meditation you may come to see that emotions and thoughts just rise up into consciousness as if from nowhere and there is no ‘you’ directing all of this. Harris claims that when a meditator sees that there is no ‘self’ inside there is a sense of relief at finally being able to drop your guard and stop defending something that isn’t there. He also believes that it is possible to realise the self is an illusion without long hours of meditation though meditation helps prepare the ground and makes the insight more likely to happen. Once you start to just look, listen and feel unselfconsciously then you might be less tempted to split the world into subjects and objects.
I am by no means convinced by any of this, though I would like to be. As Descartes pointed out, clearly there must be someone doing all this thinking. Even if this is not a separate little self that lives inside us (who believes that nonsense, anyway?) but just a useful idea thrown up by the workings of the body, so what? Harris doesn’t deny that we have personhood and memory and various other things so why don’t these things constitute a self? Beats me.
It is clear that Sam and Dan Harris meditate for very different reasons, probably because Dan (like me) doesn’t really get what Sam is talking about. Dan just wants to feel calmer and to have more control over his ‘monkey mind’. His goal is quite prosaic and could possibly be achieved by other means, like sitting in a rocking chair with a glass of whisky while gazing at some distant mountains. Sam’s goal is more ambitious and much harder to achieve. I suspect it is something you can only convince yourself of when you are in the lotus position on the tatami floor of your silent room. Once you get up and start doing stuff you can’t avoid thinking of yourself as a self. I talk about the illusion of ‘no-self’ (non-duality) here.
An additional problem with ‘no-self’ is that even if you manage to dispel the intellectual idea of a self the feeling remains. And if I ‘witness’ my breathing and random thoughts rising up in me, this still feels like ‘me’ doing the witnessing. My sense of self hasn’t gone away, it has just taken one step back. Imagine stepping out of a room, then looking back and saying, ‘See, there’s no one in the room’. Of course there isn’t, you fool. You’ve just stepped outside, thus emptying it.
The only way I can see around this problem is to make consciousness so dominate your mind that you never get the chance to think yourself into your picture of the world. You have to try to experience the world before ‘you’ appear in consciousness. I suppose this might be how animals experience things. Lions probably don’t think ‘This is me running after this zebra’. For the lion there is only the zebra. Lion-thinking probably doesn’t split the world into subjects and objects.
Yet I am still not convinced that getting rid of the self is such a great idea. Which is better, to lose yourself in the contemplation of a distant mountain at sunset or to think, ‘This is so nice; sitting here in my chair on my porch and staring at a distant mountain at sunset’? In the former you are lost in contemplation while in the latter you are aware of the pleasure you are feeling. Does this add or detract from the experience? It’s hard to say but it seems to me that self-consciousness is what humans naturally do.
Much better, in my opinion, than trying to persuade yourself that you don’t exist is to shrink your sense of self. If you think that others are always looking at you and talking about you and everything you do is of supreme importance you probably have an inflated sense of self. On the other hand, if you go for long periods without thinking about yourself and don’t think the fate of the world hangs on your every action then you probably have a ‘self lite’. This seems to me the best way to go and I view it as I view the miniaturisation of computers. I want them to be small and light but not to disappear altogether!
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-years old and she was staring wide-eyed around the train carriage, completely absorbed by everything she saw. I suppose at that moment she had the simple consciousness of a lion. After looking slowly around her eyes came to rest on me. Our eyes met and she immediately looked down at the floor in shyness. In her mind she had become a subject in a sea of objects. I felt sorry for making her self-conscious and for dragging her away from her unified world into my world of me-in-here, everything-else-out-there; my world of selves and separateness. I imagined that as she gets older it will become ever more difficult for her to lose herself like that. Self-consciousness and thinking will become habits and come between her and the world, as it has done with me and everyone else.