Sam Harris: Mindfulness Is Powerful, But Keep Religion Out of It

Neuroscientist, Philosopher, and Author
Sam Harris says that stress-reductive benefits of meditation are rather trivial compared to the insights one can discover about the nature of the self. And though such mindfulness practices can and should be approached through a secular lens, the business of religion is all too often a forced and unnecessary part of the parcel.
  • Transcript


Sam Harris: Mindfulness is very much in vogue at this moment as many of you probably know. And it’s often taught as though it were a glorified version of an executive stress ball. It’s a tool you want in your tool kit. It prepares you emotionally to go into a new experience with a positive attitude and you know you’re not hauling around baggage from the past. And that’s true. Actually having focus and having your mind in the present moment is a little bit of a superpower in situations that we’re all in from day to day. But that actually undervalues what mindfulness really is and its true potential. It’s more like the large hadron collider in that it’s a real tool for making some fundamental discoveries about the nature of the mind. And one of these discoveries is that the sense of self that we all carry around from day to day is an illusion. And cutting through that illusion I think is actually more important than stress reduction or any of the other conventional benefits that are accurately ascribed to mindfulness.

The enemy of mindfulness and really of any meditation practice is being lost in thought, is to be thinking without knowing that you’re thinking. Now the problem is not thoughts themselves. We need to think. We need to think to do almost anything that makes us human – to reason, to plan, to have social relationships, to do science. Thinking is indispensable to us but most of us spend every moment of our waking lives thinking without knowing that we’re thinking. And this automaticity is a kind of scrim thrown over at the present moment through which we view everything. And it’s distorting of our lives. It’s distorting of our emotions. It engineers our unhappiness in every moment because most of what we think is quite unpleasant. We’re judging ourselves, we’re judging others, we’re worrying about the future, we’re regretting the past, we’re at war with our experience in subtle or coarse ways. And much of this self-talk is unpleasant and diminishing our happiness in every moment. And so meditation is a tool for cutting through that.

It’s interrupting this continuous conversation we’re having with ourselves. So that is – that in and of itself is beneficial. But there are features of our experience that we don’t notice when we’re lost in thought. So, for instance, every experience you’ve ever had, every emotion, the anger you felt yesterday or a year ago isn’t here anymore. It arises and it passes away. And if it comes back in the present moment by virtue of your thinking about it again, it will subside again when you’re no longer thinking about it. Now this is something that people tend not to notice because we rather than merely feel an emotion like anger, we spend our time thinking of all the reasons why we have every right to be angry. And so the conversation keeps this emotion in play for much, much longer than its natural half-life. And if you’re able, through mindfulness to interrupt this conversation and simply witness the feeling of anger as it arises you’ll find that you can’t be angry for more than a few moments at a time. If you think you can be angry for a day or even an hour without continually manufacturing this emotion by thinking without knowing that you’re thinking, you’re mistaken. And this is something you can just witness for yourself. This is – again this is an objective truth claim about the nature of subjective experience. And it’s testable. And mindfulness is the tool that you would use to test it.

One problem is that most of the people who teach mindfulness – and I know many of the great vipassana teachers in the West and in the East and I have immense respect for these people. I learned to meditate in a traditionally Buddhist context. But most people who teach mindfulness are still in the religion business. They’re still – they’re propagating Western Buddhism or American Buddhism. The connection to the tradition of Buddhism in particular is explicit and I think there are problems with that because when you, if you are declaring yourself a Buddhist you are part of the problem of religious sectarianism that has needlessly shattered our world. And I think we have to get out of the religion business. That whatever is true about mindfulness and meditation and any introspective methodology that will deliver truths about the nature of consciousness is non-sectarian. It’s no more Buddhist than physics is Christian. You know the Christians invented physics or discovered physics but anyone talking about Christian physics clearly doesn’t understand the significance of what we’ve understood through that means. It’s the same with meditation. There’s going to come a time where we no longer are tempted to talk about Buddhist meditation as opposed to any other form. We’re just talking about turning consciousness upon itself and what can be discovered by that process.

Now it just so happens that Buddhism almost uniquely has given us a language and a methodology to do this in a way that is really well designed for export to secular culture because you can get to the core truths of Buddhism, the truth of selflessness, the ceaseless impermanence of mental phenomenon, the intrinsic unsatisfactoriness of experience because you can’t hold on to anything. No matter how pleasant an experience is it arises and then passes away. And no matter how much you protect yourself, unpleasant experience is destined to come. These features of our minds can be fully tested and understood without believing anything on insufficient evidence. So it’s true to say that despite all of the spooky metaphysics and unjustified claims within Buddhism you can get to the core of it without any faith claim and without being intellectually dishonest. But it is intellectually dishonest, I think, to keep talking about these truths in an exclusively Buddhist context because it’s misleading. It subtly gives the message that in order to have rich, meaningful, important spiritual lives we must somehow continue to endorse religious sectarianism. We must still frame this inquiry with an ancient allegiance to one accidental strand of human culture as opposed to using all of the concepts and tools and conversations that are available to us in the twenty-first century.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton