Divorcing Mindful Meditation From Religion, with Sam Harris
Neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris advocates for a secular form of meditation as a method for making fundamental discoveries about the nature of the mind.
In the following clip, neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris advocates for a secular form of meditation as a method for making fundamental discoveries about the nature of the mind. This discussion relates directly to arguments made in his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
While Harris acknowledges that mindfulness is "very much in vogue at this moment," he argues that thinking of it as simply a stress ball or self-help tool actually undervalues 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."
For example, Harris points to "being lost in thought" as the enemy of mindfulness. Most people, he explains, spend their days thinking without really knowing they're thinking. All the noise from their constant thought conversations interrupts their ability to see things as they really are, instead embroiling them in emotional distortion. This lack of awareness contributes to unhappiness and mindfulness is what can help fix that.
It can also help tame the frustration and anger associated with past memories. Any emotion once attached to a past experience has since evaporated into memory. But when we lose ourselves in thought, we tend to dwell on the reasons we have or had to be unhappy in the first place. And that just keeps the toxic thought conversations in our mind, again poisoning our happiness. Mindfulness is a tool to help overcome this:
"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."
Harris then moves on to the issue of religion, particularly focusing on the need to divorce mindfulness from Buddhism:
"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."
For Harris, the benefits and truths derived from mindfulness exist independent of the religious coating it's packed with. He draws a comparison to physics and Christianity. Christians may have developed physics but that doesn't mean studying physics requires an adherence to Christian thought. The same goes with meditation and Buddhism:
"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."
Harris believes it to be "intellectually dishonest" to abide by a Buddhist frame of context when discussing the truths of mindfulness. That's because it implies that buying into sectarianism is necessary in order to achieve a rich, meaningful, spiritual life. Such an approach strikes Harris as archaic and inappropriate for a 21st-century world that knows better.
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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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