Sam Harris and Dan Harris

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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 practitioners claim it does then that must be a good thing. Personally I am interested in stopping myself from thinking so much and so automatically. Even my dreams are filled with endless conversations, often meaningless. 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, clear-eyed look at 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 if the self is an imaginary thing like ‘the ether’ or ‘phlogiston’ then I’m happy to ditch it. However, I’m still not convinced that the idea of the self belongs with these dead ideas. To me it seems a useful way of explaining ourselves to ourselves. And 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 the following. Yes, we are flesh, blood, nerves and tendons. The functioning and self-monitoring of this assemblage of meat, offal and guts gives rise first to consciousness, which animals also have, and then to the illusion of a self inhabiting the body when simple consciousness turns its gaze inwards. This is consciousness doubling back on itself and forming a loop. This newly formed loop is what causes us so much 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.

Sam claims that when a meditator sees that there is no self inside there is a sense of relief at finally being able to lower your guard and stop defending something that isn’t there. He believes that it is possible to realise that 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 become accustomed to the idea of not having a self 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. I am with Descartes when he pointed out that 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 bundled together 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 in 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 simple animal-like consciousness so dominate your mind that you never get the chance to think yourself into the picture. You have to try to experience the world before ‘you’ appear in consciousness. Cheetahs probably don’t think, ‘This is me running oh so gracefully after a gazelle’. For the cheetah there is only the gazelle. Cheetah-thinking probably doesn’t split the world into subjects and objects.

Yet even if this is possible I’m not sure that getting rid of the self is a good idea. After all, we’ve been there before when we were mere brutes and were we any happier for it? 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 just 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 your ego is probably the size it should be. 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 in everything she saw. I suppose at that moment she had the simple consciousness of a cheetah. After slowly looking 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 suddenly 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 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 habitual and come to separate her from the rest of the world, as it has done with me.


4 thoughts on “Sam Harris and Dan Harris”

  1. You would have dismissed meditation as New Age Nonsense? People have been meditating to calm their mind and body as far back as recorded history.

    1. I see your point. My own point is that there is a segment of western society that fetishizes pretty much anything ethnic: those rubbish Aborigine didgeridoos, Aztec rebirthing rituals, meditation etc. If it’s old, is not from the West and makes no sense on its surface then it must be profound. The fact that Aborigines, Aztecs and Buddhists were practising these things thousands of years ago before being taken up by trendy westerners doesn’t really make them any less New Age. If New Agers like them, they’re New Age. They’ve appropriated them. But as I said, I get your point.

  2. A thoughtful review of self and no-self. Sometimes the idea is almost within my grasp but then it turns back into a wisp of air.

    1. Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Some thoughts are difficult to think through to the end, either because they are difficult or because they are ‘deep and meaningless’. Both look the same to me. With Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity I’m willing to accept on trust that scientists know what they’re talking. Non-self? Hmm, I think I’ll stay agnostic until a few more clever people with common sense (and who are NOT from California) are won over.

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