Sam Harris
Photo by Christopher Patey

Sam Harris: “Mindfulness is being divorced from its real potential”

Short Profile

Name: Samuel Benjamin Harris
DOB: 9 April 1967
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Author, neuroscientist, podcast host

Sam, if I were to ask your children what their dad does for work, what do you think they would say?

(Laughs) Well, I'm not sure my six-year-old really knows what I do. But my oldest is 11 and understands that I have a podcast and what a podcast is, knows that I'm a writer whose background is in neuroscience and philosophy. She understands the meditation app… But I'm not so sure how she would summarize it all. I think she'd probably say I'm a writer and a scientist and then add podcast on the back of that — but it's been awhile since I've quizzed her on who her daddy is.

You often remind your listeners that you don't need to be the best at anything to be uniquely qualified for something. When did you realize you were uniquely qualified for this career path?

When I wrote my first book, The End of Faith, in 2004, I wrote it with a feeling of urgency because I didn't see anyone else having this particular conversation. I wasn't seeing people who understood the necessity that we get out of religion, and who also recognized the core experiences that spawned the various religions and to which religious people were still attached. Obviously, we know religion is about many more things than the contemplative experience of its most devoted members. It seemed to me that most atheists had no idea what spiritual people are talking about when they talk about their experiences of self-transcendence, and most spiritual people weren't seeing the downside of religion.

And now? Have things progressed in the 16 years since you wrote The End of Faith?

They never understood what I'm talking about on that front, and I'm still not seeing many people at this particular crossroads who understand exactly what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, which I think is two-fold. One is breaking the connection to religion. And that’s true for most people who are teaching mindfulness. Mindfulness is being commoditized and secularized and spread very widely, but there's a legitimate concern that it's being divorced from its real purpose, right? You know, mindfulness is not merely a tool for stress reduction, and it's certainly not designed to optimize a person's physical health. It may stave off cortical thinning and it may improve your immune system, and it may help sleep… It may do all these things.

“The self as most people feel it exists in their own case. This protagonist that they think is altering their thoughts and intending their intentions… That construct is an illusion.”

But it may also do none of those things, right?

Exactly, so none of my emphasis on its scientific validity is putting any weight on that particular strand of science. I think mindfulness’s true purpose is insight into the fundamental nature of consciousness. Mindfulness is good for producing fundamental insights into the nature of mind. And some of those insights are on very firm ground scientifically, which is to say that they can bring our experience into closer conformity with the brain. So, the self is an illusion.

How so?

Well, the self as most people feel it exists in their own case. This protagonist that they think is altering their thoughts and intending their intentions… That construct is an illusion. There's no way to make neurological sense of it otherwise. And so mindfulness reveals that you can experience its illusory nature directly, and you can experience what consciousness is like prior to that construct. There are very few people who are still very connected to this core promise of the practice: the prospect of freeing the mind from the illusion of the self. That’s a long-winded way of saying that the people who are secularizing the practice are divorcing it from its real potential, and the people who understand its real potential are still in the religion business.

So how do you view your role in all of this?

I view my role as someone who sees that the religious underpinnings of all of this are not worth maintaining. What's unique about me is I'm taking a different path from both of those groups I just mentioned. There may be some people who are doing likewise, but not quite. For example, Waking Up, my meditation app, is somehow the perfect vehicle to do what I want to do in terms of practicing meditation and examining the theory behind it. I think video strangely degrades the quality of the communication; it gives you irrelevant stimuli that are not actually informative. So an app with audio but no video is the perfect delivery device for meditation instruction. It's so much better than writing a book on the topic — which, as you know, I did — but a book is just not nearly as good a delivery system.

These days there are so many different definitions of meditation and related practices — how would you describe the kind of meditation you’re teaching on the app?

I guess the first distinction to make is between concentration practice, and mindfulness practice. Concentration is the ability to pay attention to what you want to pay attention to, and to not be distracted by discursive thought. That’s a very useful skill to have, and we have it in certain circumstances rather effortlessly, but to really have it as a skill, you do have to train it by placing your attention on breathing, or a mantra. On the other hand, mindfulness practice begins with the breath as an object, but it's not about staying exclusively on the breath to the exclusion of everything else. It's to become aware of whatever you notice. No matter how much your attention flips from object to object, sounds, emotions, thoughts, you want to be aware of what you're noticing rather than being lost in thought.

So mindfulness doesn’t have a goal of blocking out thoughts at all.

Right, it begins with some modicum of concentration, but then you're using concentration as a tool to notice just what the mind is like moment to moment. Whereas with concentration practice, the sign of it beginning to work is that your thoughts are no longer arising. It’s a temporary attainment of a very peaceful mind because of what you've done, how you've placed your attention so firmly on an object. Traditionally, mindfulness is taught as the basis of insight into three characteristics; impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness. In Vipassana practice, it’s traditionally been selflessness by virtue of impermanence, the fact that everything is just arising and passing away give some indication that there can't be a permanent, unchanging self in the midst of all of this.

But there are also schools of thought that bypass the first two characteristics entirely, so it seems like the term is very personal or fluid depending on what you believe in.

And you can be mindful of that directly. Then it's not really a matter of focusing on sensory phenomenon in order to get anywhere or to notice impermanence. Certainly it's a matter of noticing the selflessness and the non-duality of consciousness directly. So ultimately, mindfulness really becomes a practice without a goal. Essentially, you can just directly enjoy the nature of consciousness.

A recent episode of Sam Harris's podcast, Making Sense, about meditation and the current global health crisis.

You often hear people say that activities like running or painting is their personal form of meditation… Some mindfulness teachers even talk about flow as a kind of meditative state. Would you agree?

Not really. It's bearing witness to a capacity of the mind that meditation is targeting directly, but the directly part is important. If you know how to meditate, well then any of those activities can become a circumstance of meditation. But if you don't know how to meditate, they aren’t surrogates for meditation. They're a break from other less wholesome uses of your attention, and while all of that can seem like a relief from social media or doing work that you don't find gratifying, the moments of truly losing yourself in those endeavors don't contain the metacognition of real mindfulness and insight. So for me, flow isn't good enough from a meditative point of view. It's the kind of experience we want, understandably, but meditation is the practice of recognizing that the thing we want is already true in a way that has no relationship to consciousness.

What about when it comes to things like love and sex — when we’re truly mindful and we’re trying to maximize the potential of a practice, how does our relationship to sex change?

You definitely can frame the project of enlightenment or freeing the mind in terms of getting rid of craving or transcending temptations. But there are other truths about the mind, other paths of practice that explicitly recognize those truths, like the tantric path in the Indian tradition and in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not really about getting rid of desire or trimming down life experience so much that you're avoiding certain things you want or would otherwise want because you're trying to guard your mind against craving. Rather, you can use the energy of desire and even its fulfillment as a circumstance of recognizing the nature of awareness.

Wouldn’t that just be tricking yourself?

Well, this path does have its pitfalls because the prospect of deceiving oneself about what one is up to, and how much is it tantra and how much is it really just you being infatuated with sensory experience and indulgence? And you're calling it practice, but really you're just a Libertine. All of that is an open question for everyone at every moment in life. The difference will be what it is in your own case, whether you're actually recognizing the nature of awareness or not in each one of those moments. But I do think that the classic approach of renunciation and avoidance has some obvious downsides.

Like what?

In particular, it has a downside for many people not knowing what you would be like on the other side of a certain kind of experience. Someone who is practicing celibacy, for example — yes, they've radically simplified their life, but it's not the same simplicity as somebody who's in the midst of a fulfilling relationship and is just not totally obsessed with sex, right? Sex is beautiful and pleasurable in its own right, but it's actually not an especially big deal. Yeah, the celibate person doesn't necessarily get to have that epiphany… It’s a little bit like people who have extreme avoidance routines around food. They're just always denying themselves something. I think there's definitely a lesson to be learned there. The traditional framing of this being a problem of craving can I think impart the wrong message to many people.

You recently took five grams of psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, which is a pretty heavy dose. You later reported of having felt like you were in the presence of an “other” during the trip. What did that teach you about the nature of the mind?

I guess I'm just agnostic about that. It's obviously something that the brain is perfectly capable of simulating on its own! It happens every night in dreams. So, whether what one experiences on psilocybin or DMT or any other psychedelic, whether that might be just a supercharged version of the dream experience, I don't know. But if it is — and that would explain the sense of otherness — it doesn't really need to be an “other” there. The thing that would confirm a dialogue for me, and this is not an experience I've had, is if any mind one felt one was in the presence of could communicate some information that you're reasonably sure couldn't have been produced by your own mind, right? Then it could then be later subsequently validated. Then that would seem to suggest a dialogue, the way interacting with real people in the real world always seems to suggest a dialogue.

“There's a creativity in dreams that can seem to be beyond you at times.”

Why is a sense of dialogue so essential?

Well, because other minds have other perspectives and they have access to other information. That's continually born out in conversation, right? To some degree that can seem to happen in dreams, but when you actually look at what is happening, it's very rare to be stumped by certain information. There's a creativity in dreams that can seem to be beyond you at times, but it's not like people are delivering you messages that then you check out and say, "Wow, whoever I was talking to there has an independent existence." That would be interesting, but that's the kind of thing that would require a revision of ontology. And I just haven't had that experience.

Apparently in the 1980s, you had a psychedelic experience after which you dropped out of Stanford to study meditation in India and Nepal. Did you ever consider to fully devote your life to this spiritual practice?

There were certainly moments where my commitment to practice was such that I didn't envision doing anything else. There were other things I always wanted to do; I always wanted to write, for example, and I had other interests, but because I wasn't thinking about starting a family in my twenties, I wasn't having to consider the implications there.

What changed your mind?

A couple of things became clear to me. One is that the practice in principle has to work in the world. Either you're noticing this about the nature of consciousness — or you're not. Yes, there's an advantage to practicing formally, but ultimately, if this is really going to work, this has to become your life, and you have to notice it in every context. It should be compatible with living in the world and even doing other things in the world.

Have you noticed a discrepancy in that respect?

It's not straightforward that the people who drop out of society completely are succeeding in some fundamental way that others aren't. In fact, I think it’s the contrary. To some degree I feel like I was a casualty of that process. Some things are best accomplished in your twenties, and I spent my twenties not accomplishing those things. I definitely would have advised my younger self to get a few more things done in my twenties that were easier to do there, like finishing college. I could have been more efficient in how I used my time, and I still could have spent time on retreats but just not have had this attitude of being all in on the Dharma so early. If I look back, it's not that I have big regrets, but it becomes harder psychologically to play certain games that are best played when you're young.