Wednesday, May 14th, 2014 – Editor: Dustin LindenSmith
(Ed. note: This post is Part 1 of 2. For Part 2, please click here.)
I suppose I’m fleshing out a theme on meditation here, with this week’s and last week’s issue. And perhaps I have an ulterior motive: I’ve long thought that nonduality holds the key to the resolution of all types of worldly and interpersonal conflict, and I also believe that meditation can help us to transcend our petty notions of self that can entrench us so deeply into particular positions that foment further conflict.
We received some negative feedback about last week’s issue that covered the meditation practice of Los Angeles-based television and radio personality Shadoe Stevens. Granted, it’s fairly easy to level judgment against a low-minded celebrity like him for arriving so late to the meditation party. It’s even easier to discount the worth of whatever awakening experiences he describes having had, particularly if he’s not overly lucid in how he describes it or if he doesn’t pay enough homage to the sages who came before him.
However, what originally drew me to report on Stevens was the vivaciousness of his drive to know his true self through meditation. When I listened to his interview with David Feldman, the authenticity of his thirst for self-knowledge was clear. Careful readers of my issues of the Nonduality Highlights should already have noticed how much I appreciate it when characters and celebrities from the mainstream speak out on such esoteric topics as these. I always hope that a few individuals will hear those messages and get inspired to look within.
I suspect that most of us reading this are possessed of a stronger drive than many to know our true self. In this week’s issue, I summarize an excellent discussion that Jerry referred to in an earlier issue from this month. The topic is on finding the true self through meditation and on nonduality, and the discussion was between Sam Harris and Dan Harris (no relation). They also discussed mainstream spiritual gurus such as Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle.
Sam is a philosopher and neuroscientist, and Dan is an ABC News television reporter. Both are meditators. The impetus for this discussion was Dan Harris’ bestselling new book on meditation called 10 Percent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story.
Dan Harris has reported from various locations worldwide and has also covered religion in America. He is best known to me for his moderation of a fascinating debate about the future of God between Sam Harris and physicist Michael Shermer on one side, with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston on the other:
(Side note: Later in the former interview between Sam and Dan Harris alone, Dan made an amusing observation after having met and reported on both Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra: “I had no questions about whether Tolle was authentic,” he said, “athough I had many questions about whether he was sane. It was the reverse with Deepak Chopra.”)
This interview opened by discussing Dan’s inherent skepticism about meditation’s benefits before he had ever tried it. Dan admitted to an early prejudice against meditation, perhaps in part due to rebellion against his recovering hippie parents who had taken him to his first yoga class when he was a young child.
Sam described the mindfulness practice of meditation in question for this discussion:
In essence, we are talking about the practice of paying very careful, non-judgmental attention to the contents of consciousness in the present moment. Usually one begins by focusing on the sensation of breathing, but eventually the practice opens to include the full field of experience—other sensations in the body, sounds, emotions, even thoughts themselves. The trick, however, is not to spend one’s time lost in thought.
They discussed the two most common reactions people have when they start meditating: they either become so restless that they can’t hope to concentrate at all and promptly give up; or else they notice the unpleasant sensation of “their minds lurching all over the place” and they discover that they want to learn more about why they don’t seem capable of concentrating.
It’s those in the latter category who will typically be most inclined to maintain a regular meditation practice. Sam said: “Their inability to pay sustained attention—to anything—becomes interesting to them. And they recognize it as pathological, despite the fact that almost everyone is in the same condition.”
Dan agreed with this and described how his first real insights into this topic dawned. He was assigned by ABC News to cover a new self-help guru that was beloved by Oprah Winfrey named Eckhart Tolle, and he had read Tolle’s book for the story’s background. He discovered “within all his grandiloquent writing and pseudoscientific claims—and just overall weirdness—was a diagnosis of the human condition… that kind of blew my mind.” He expanded on this:
It’s this thunderous truism: We all know on some level that we are thinking all the time, that we have this voice in our heads, and the nature of this voice is mostly negative. It’s also repetitive and ceaselessly self-referential. We walk around in this fog of memory about the past and anticipation of a future that may or may not arrive in the form in which we imagine it. This observation seemed to describe me. I realized that the things I’d done in my life that I was most ashamed of had been as a result of having thoughts, impulses, urges, and emotions that I didn’t have the wherewithal to resist. So when I sat down and had that first confrontation with the voice in my head, I knew from having read Eckhart Tolle that it wasn’t going to be pretty, and I was motivated to do something about it.
When Sam asked him why he didn’t start to follow Eckhart Tolle as a teacher at that point, Dan replied that he had found Tolle to be “correct, but not useful,” a distinction he attributed to Sharon Salzberg. In short, he had found Tolle to be sorely lacking in practical or concrete advice on how to deal with this miserable human condition, despite how eloquently he had managed to describe it.
(As an aside, Sam put in his own plug here by saying that he has come to think of his own upcoming new book on meditation as “Eckhart Tolle for smart people.” It’s for “people who suspect that something important can be discovered about consciousness through introspection, but who are allergic to the pseudoscience and irrationality that generally creeps into every New Age discussion of this truth.”)
Sam said that he hasn’t read much of Tolle, but that he suspects he would agree with “his view of the subjective insights that come once we recognize the nature of consciousness prior to thought. The self that we all think we have riding around inside our heads is an illusion—and one that can disappear when examined closely. What’s more, we’re much better off psychologically when it does.”
Sam continued with a general objection: “…from the little reading I’ve done of Tolle, I can see that he also makes some embarrassing claims about the nature of the cosmos—claims that are unjustified both scientifically and philosophically. However, in the man’s defense, this lack of usefulness you mention is not unique to him. It’s hard to talk about the illusoriness of the self or the non-dual nature of consciousness in a way that makes sense to people.”
Dan turned the questioning towards Sam at this point to ask him to clarify what he meant by non-duality. Sam replied by way of analogy (emphasis mine):
Everyone has had the experience of looking through a window and suddenly catching sight of his own reflection staring back at him from the glass. At that point, he can use the glass as a window, to see the world outside, or as a mirror, but he can’t do both at the same time.
Sometimes your reflection in the glass is pretty subtle, and you could easily stand there for ten minutes, looking outside while staring right through the image of your own face without seeing it.
For the purposes of this analogy, imagine that the goal of meditation is to see your own reflection clearly in each moment. Most spiritual traditions don’t realize that this can be done directly, and they articulate their paths of practice in ways that suggest that if you only paid more attention to everything beyond the glass—trees, sky, traffic—eventually your face would come into view. Looking out the window is arguably better than closing your eyes or leaving the room entirely—at least you are facing in the right direction—but the practice is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. You don’t realize that you are looking through the very thing you are trying to find in every moment. Given better information, you could just walk up to the window and see your face in the first instant.
The same is true for the illusoriness of the self. Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist, and they spend their lives looking out the window, as it were. I used to be one of them. I’d stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn’t get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.
However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts.
In criticizing this kind of practice, someone like Eckhart Tolle is echoing the non-dualistic teachings one finds in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Zen (sometimes), and Dzogchen. Many of these teachings can sound paradoxical: You can’t get there from here. The self that you think you are isn’t going to meditate itself into a new condition. This is true, but as Sharon says, it’s not always useful. The path is too steep.
Of course, this non-dual teaching, too, can be misleading—because even after one recognizes the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness, one still has to practice that recognition. So there is a point to meditation after all—but it isn’t a goal-oriented one. In each moment of real meditation, the self is already transcended.
Dan then mentioned their mutual friend Joseph Goldstein—one of America’s first vipassana teachers—and how he had recently directed them to try to find who or what is hearing the sounds that arise in their consciousness during meditation. Sam expanded on that: “You’re simply turning attention upon itself—and this can provoke the insight I’m talking about. It’s possible to look for the one who is looking and to find, conclusively, that no one is there to be found.”
To my delight, Sam treads firmly into pure nondual territory here, and in a way that I’ve never before observed him do in any of his numerous public discussions or books. It takes some measure of bravery to acknowledge the illusoriness of self when you’re a public figure, and I applaud that effort. In the second part of this interview which I’ll be posting tomorrow, Sam and Dan go deeper into the discussion of nonduality and of its practical application in daily life, if such a thing is possible. They also discuss how to evaluate the effectiveness of any spiritual practice, and the role that gurus play in this process, for better or for worse.
(For Part 2 of this post, please click here.)