Sam Harris on Mindfulness as Secular Meditation

The stress-reductive benefits of meditation are trivial compared to the insights one can discover about the nature of the self.

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

The stress-reductive benefits of meditation are trivial compared to the insights one can discover about the nature of the self. And though such practices can and should be approached secularly, the business of religion is all too often a forced and unnecessary part of the parcel.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less
Videos
  • Facebook and Google began as companies with supposedly noble purposes.
  • Creating a more connected world and indexing the world's information: what could be better than that?
  • But pressure to return value to shareholders came at the expense of their own users.
Keep reading Show less