Meditation

I don’t know if I understand the difference you have in mind between thinking about the breath and focusing on the breath. I imagine focusing on something as having it forefront in your mind. If you’re focusing on something, you may or may not be thinking about it. Thinking involves having ideas about something.

Tried a bit more of Fitness+ meditation. I like them okay. They’ve been very guided so far, but sometimes that’s fine. I like the music. Music is in general a huge emphasis of Apple’s in Fitness+, so it makes sense their selections of peaceful background music would be solid. 🧘‍♂️

So, focussing is a form of thinking, but it’s a bit more specific than just “thinking” about something.

For focussing on the breath, it means something like, noticing, paying attention to the physical sensations, etc.

Whereas if you were to tell someone to “think about the breath” that could actually mean a lot of different things: it could mean thinking about things like why you breath, or having thoughts like “oh, wow, my stomach gets a lot bigger when I breath in”. It is normal to have those kinds of thoughts during breath meditation, but you aren’t supposed to focus on them or follow them: you generally do something like notice you are thinking, then go back to focussing on the breath (so, just the sensations of breathing).

Of all the places I have heard Sam talk about this stuff, this podcast where I found him most clear. I guess that is because Sam is trying to explain it to people like Dan Harris who aren’t as immersed in this spiritual way of life and wants to understand the logic of it as opposed to someone like say Joseph Goldstein.

What I understand about the concept is that the self is the illusion that people live with of having a center of attention in your head. He called this Cartesian Theater which is a term coined by Dan Dennett. Here’s an image that Sam used in lectures he gave when he went on his book tour for his book Waking Up.

main-qimg-60ad113296b94942f84713abda469747-lq

One logical problem that exists here which Sam pointed is that this leads to an infinite regress because the observer itself will have a Cartesian Theater inside its head so who is really doing the observing? So the Cartesian Theater picture has to be wrong because it creates a logical problem.

I think this idea probably enough to get an intuition about what ‘self’ is.

But the real thing of interest here is not trying to understand this illusion of self but to ‘transcend’ it. I think according to Sam this is what enlightenment is about when you’re able to experience collapse of this illusion of self you get a sense of immense relief. It is the ultimate and the deepest form of happiness possible. Sam says breaking of this illusion is incredibly freeing. When you have this experience all the concept through which you have been looking at the world fall apart and you are left with the raw experience of consciousness. These concepts through which you look at the world are almost always neuroses producing and they are so deep within you and so ever present that you never get to experience the true nature of consciousness. When one is freed from these neuroses the relief one feels is the most meaningful experience one can have.

@ingracke @AnneB what do you think about enlightenment, self-transcendence, spirituality and other related things? I want to believe that these people are confused and there is nothing of significance here. But Sam points out that various people in different places and in different time in history have had similar experiences so dismissing it as confusion is too dismissive I think.

Discussion of a problem meditation is trying to help with:

Sam here talks about his experience of taking MDMA. First thing to say here is that these drugs can be really harmful also to some people so if you’re thinking of doing them you should first learn about what the risks are.

Sam says taking MDMA was one of the most transformational and important thing in his life. It had the biggest impact on his life.

I’ll copy paste part which I found to be most important:

My first experience with psychedelics that was important, that actually shifted my view of human possibility was with MDMA which I took before it became a club drug. I think this was in 1987 I took it. And no one I knew, no one of my generation had taken it. And although the drug obviously goes back many decades before that. And it had not been adopted by popular culture as a party drug. So this was coming pretty much coming out of the therapeutic community. People were doing in a closeted way psychotherapy with it. And I took it as a means of discovering something about the nature of my mind. It was not a social situation. I was just – a friend and I were alone and we took it together and just had a conversation on this drug. And what was revelatory about it was that it was an experience of absolute sobriety. It was not – there was no druggy component to it. We just became clearer and clearer and clearer in our thinking and feeling. And the crucial component of this was a loss of any feeling of self-concern.

I was no longer looking at myself through my friend’s eyes. I was no longer worried about what he was thinking about me. I was no longer subtly correcting course based on changes I saw in how he was perceiving what I was saying. It was a whole veneer of fear frankly that I didn’t know was there that got stripped away. And there was just kind of naked awareness of the present moment and what came into that void was a very clear understanding that I loved him, that I – here I was, you know, 18 or 19 and I was not in the habit of, you know, thinking about how much I loved the men in my life. And here’s one of my best friends and I just realized with a, you know, it sounds absolutely pedestrian to say it but I realized that I wanted him to be happy in a way that was just – it was like, you know, a lightning bolt. And the – what was truly revolutionary about this insight was that the feeling that came crashing down to that point was just, you know, boundless love for one of my best friends and absolutely no egoic self-concern, no possibility for feeling envy, for feeling any kind of petty emotion that separated myself from him. But then I realized in the next moment that I would feel this way for anyone who walked through the door.

There was nothing contingent on our relationship about this feeling. It was not a – it was not justified by my friendship with him. This was the way I felt for every other conscious being. So this is the way I would feel for the postman if he walked through the door. And that suddenly opened my mind to the possibility of being like Jesus, whoever he was, you know. That these icons of traditional religion were not all epileptics and schizophrenics and frauds. These were people who – and again we can be skeptical about any specific individual, you know, some of them could have been schizophrenic. Some of them could have had temporal lobe epilepsy but some people historically – and even in the present have borne witness to this experience where you can just quite literally lose yourself concern in a way that makes you love people unconditionally. And so, you know, that was the experience I had on MDMA. It, you know, frankly blew my mind and it took me years for me to integrate this understanding of this possibility into my intellectual life. And it prompted me to seek to have this experience in other ways, you know, for many, many years.

My goal with writing this post is explaining my understanding of this stuff that Sam is talking about and seek feedback and criticisms of these ideas. Do you guys agree with this? Do you think such a transformational change can be possible? If it is true do you think it makes to try to have such an experience to get a similar change in perspective to get the benefits that follow from such change in perspective? I thought of a possible argument against this which is that such a transformational change is shouldn’t be possible because improvements are evolutionary and this change is revolutionary. I think this argument is wrong because the change of seeing through the illusion could itself a small change. It has revolutionary implications. But the change in itself is small.

I was earlier dismissive of Sam’s claims but after seeing Elliot recommending self help books I’m not dismissing them anymore without having a criticism for why I think they are false. I don’t have any yet.

I haven’t had the experience of losing the sense of ‘self’ but there are some things about it that make sense to me. In one sense we are attached to our identities very deeply. The idea of ego is another way to think about ‘self’. I think Sam would agree that losing the sense of self is similar to overcoming ego. Having a big ego is considered as a bad thing culturally. I point this out to connect this idea to a common sense cultural idea. The losing of self is an even more powerful thing than intellectually removing the bias of ego from ones mind. Having the experience of losing the sense of self is like seeing through an illusion. It’s like seeing through a magician’s trick. You don’t have to use your reasoning to understand that the magic trick cannot happen. The illusion just falls away. Things become so obvious that you don’t need explanation. That’s probably not entirely correct because explanations/understandings aren’t completely in words. A demonstration can make you understand things or atleast make things clear for you.

Those are all my thoughts on this idea for now. What do you think? Do you think losing the sense of self is a good self help idea to pursue? Can it lead to deeper form of well being? A direct implication is that it helps you be more open to criticism. That is because you aren’t identified with your ideas as deeply as compared to a person who hasn’t lost the sense of self. You are thus more open to change and not hurt by criticisms. Sam says (I quoted it above) it helped him develop deeply positive emotions towards others like wanting their happiness and flourish without and sense of competition, envy jealousy etc. which improved his quality of life. I too think having such positive feelings towards other can make life deeply fulfilling.

Here’s a related talk he gave which I liked very much. I liked the stuff he talked about atheism but spirituality stuff is what I really liked. This is one of his best summarized and nicely motivated argument in favor of doing spiritual enquiry and practices.

The part about spirituality starts from this paragraph:

The last problem with atheism I’d like to talk about relates to the some of the experiences that lie at the core of many religious traditions, though perhaps not all, and which are testified to, with greater or lesser clarity in the world’s “spiritual” and “mystical” literature.

Being less socially inhibited while on drugs is a widespread experience. It’s routinely attributed to alcohol. Having some positive feelings while on drugs, like love towards your fellow man, also sounds familiar. The standard experience people report is that these things quickly wear off.

You’ve got to do work to solve your own problems, not look for an external force to quickly fix you.

2 Likes

I think you’re missing the point. The experience he describes is much more meaningful and powerful than “Being less socially inhibited” or “Having some positive feelings”.

Also this isn’t me looking for external force to fix me quickly. Sam says that the only reliable way to have this experience is by learning to meditate so that you become better at focusing your attention and then using that improved attention skill to break through the illusion.

This is the last paragraph from that article:

I spent years studying meditation in various contexts, mostly in India, Nepal. And, you know, I can say you can have this experience without MDMA. It’s not, MDMA isn’t the only way to have it. And the truth is virtually any experience you can have with psychedelics you can have without psychedelics because all psychedelics do is modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain. They’re not doing something that the brain can’t do on its own. You’re just playing with neurotransmitters or mimicking neurotransmitters. I have had the same experience to more or less a similar degree just through meditation. But it’s clear to me that I would never have suspected that such an experience was possible but for my experimenting with MDMA in the beginning. So I have to just acknowledge that. Again, issuing the caveat that this drug could well be bad for you. There’s some evidence of its neurotoxicity. And there’s also a lot of evidence that that research has been heavily politicized so you have to be cautious on both sides. But, I can’t advocate that we drop MDMA in the water supply and cure us of our egocentricity. There’s reasons to be circumspect there.

Edit: I quote this last article to share more of what Sam thinks. He doesn’t think that taking that drug is necessary to have such experience. Also he’s said in other places that taking the drug doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have this transformative insight. Also in the paragraph I quoted in the post you’re replying to he acknowledges that people are using this as a club drug and that he took it as a means of discovering something about the nature of his mind. So he knows everyone who tries this drug doesn’t have transformative experience.

I don’t know if this is gonna help the discussion much but the old dismissive me would’ve said something very similar to what you said here.

This isn’t something old me would’ve said. This part I agree with.

Things I would’ve said:
Experience on drugs are misleading. These people are confused. Positive experiences people have wear off very quickly. Drugs mess up your brain, you cannot draw implications from what you experienced when your brain was messed up. The positive change people claim to have gained from taking these drugs go away and people go back to their old way of life.

I think being dismissive like this is wrong because above sentences aren’t definitive criticisms.

Sam talked about the problem of people being dismissive of such sort of claims and gave a great analogy in the other article I linked. Here are the quote:

But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. The problem is that to test such a claim—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted we tend to be in the first place, we have to build our own contemplative tools. Imagine where astronomy would be if everyone had to build his own telescope before he could even begin to see if astronomy was a legitimate enterprise. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but it would make it immensely more difficult for us to establish astronomy as a science.

To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.

And to your point about trying to get a quick fix he again here talks about “This can take a tremendous amount of work.” So I’m nowhere thinking a quick fix is possible.

Since you’re on CF, I assume that you like Objectivism. I think Sam Harris’s ideas about the self (that the self is an illusion, and, consequently, that it’s good to see through the illusion) conflict with Objectivism. Few of Ayn Rand’s ideas would make any sense at all if there was no self.

Further, I see meditation (or at least the type of meditation that Harris advocates, vipassana meditation) as being about training oneself to stop caring about problems on-demand. When you meditate, you are training yourself to be able to blank out more effectively. One of the main points of Objectivism is that your moral obligation is to use reason to solve your problems, and that blanking them out is wrong.

I agree with anon55’s comment.

What Sam Harris believes partially resembles what Ellsworth Toohey says to Catherine Halsey in the scene in The Fountainhead where she complains to him that she’s miserable. Rather than helping Catherine solve her problems through reason, Ellsworth basically says she should blank them out and forget about herself. Some telling snippets:

And only when it [the ego] is dead, when you care no longer, when you have lost your identity and forgotten the name of your soul—only then will you know the kind of happiness I spoke about, and the gates of spiritual grandeur will fall open before you.

Now you see how difficult it is to discuss these things when our entire language is the language of individualism, with all its terms and superstitions. ‘Identity’—it’s an illusion, you know.

The impact that psychedelics have on you is at the level of physical changes to the brain itself, like brain chemistry. Your mind is really really complicated software that runs on the brain. Since brains are universal computers, they can simulate any physical process including any idea. Basically, it doesn’t matter whether your brain is a Mac or a PC because any universal computer can run any software.

The issue with the psychedelics is that there are many levels of abstraction between the hardware level of the brain and high level ideas, like empathy and outlook on life. You would need to be able to explain the causal mechanism of a change in brain chemistry, to the level 1 ideas, to level 2 ideas, and on all the way up to something like level 30 ideas.

ET starts talking about how the brain is like a software project at about 27 minutes into this podcast.

I haven’t read any of it. Whatever I know of it, I know it through Elliot’s work.

Similar criticisms come to my mind when I hear Sam talk about free will not existing. There I think he’s missing the point that humans are knowledge creators and not some robot which are obeying the order of their program. So his ideas about free will contradict with Popperian epistemology.

I like this as well. I think Sam would say that he’s in no way advocating not accepting responsibility but the emotional experience you’re having is not justified or it doesn’t make sense to have that reaction. For example let’s say you want to have more will power. There’s a certain mistake that you make very often because of lack of will power and you start feeling bad about yourself for not being able to improve. If a pill was created tomorrow that increases will power you would immediately take it. This shows that you always wanted to improve/ do better. But the capability to do better didn’t exist before. So you having bad feelings for yourself didn’t make sense.

Here another way he talks about this. This way sounds like doesn’t contradict popperian ideas. He says that we identify ourselves with our ideas so deeply that we start believing that we are our ideas. But ideas are something we can change. FoR says something close to this IIRC that we can let our ideas die in our place. The metaphor of movie theatre is used to explain this. They say that metaphor gets something wrong so this isn’t the complete but it introduces the idea. So don’t assume that if you get the metaphor you’ve understood the illusion of self as well. The metaphor is that consciousness is the screen on which movie is being projected and the ideas are the movies. The movie is not a property of screen. The screen doesn’t have much to do with what’s shows on it. So hating the screen because you didn’t like the movie is wrong. Now wanting better movies to show up on the screen is totally a worth it goal but it never makes sense to have negative feelings towards the screen. So seeing through the illusion of self is like realizing that you are the screen not the movie that shows on it. And whenever you start having bad feelings towards yourself for some reason you can use this realization to break that spell of negative feelings towards yourself.

I agree that brain is a computer and we are a computer program running on the brain. It’s not a metaphor it is actually true unlike the movie theatre metaphor. But we don’t know much about the program. Could it be that there’s a part of that program that edits all the other code. It could be the case when we understand how that program works maybe the movie theatre metaphor holds.

Semi relevant, FYI, I wrote 3 Sam Harris criticisms in 2018 (not about meditation):

Yes this is a good criticism. This isn’t a dismissive criticism. It is said that MDMA behave similar to the oxytocin neuropeptide. It could be that this overflow of this hormone breaks your brain in some small way so when I ask you think about how you feel about your best friend then instead of default preferences showing up as the answer you’re able to think of it for the first time. Michael Pollan shares the metaphor of a snow mountain. Imagine a brand new snow mountain. Then people start skiing on it. After a while the some pathways become common. These pathways are like your default preferences. So when you think about something your default preferences show up similar to how people start going down the snow mountain on the same pathway again and again. Taking these drugs kind of shake up mountain so that it becomes new again. The old pathways disappear so you’re able to make a new path again. Oxytocin is released when you feel positively towards someone. This drug overflows your brain with a chemical which is similar to oxytocin. When you’re on this drug and asked about how you feel about someone you like, you’re able to forget your default ideas which might have some negative feelings and a pure positive though is formed. Because the hormone that makes you feel good is overflowing in your brain this positive though is reinforced massively. I’ve read that people don’t have some new insights on these drugs. When you ask people about what insight they had after taking these drugs, what they say sound like platitudes So they’re not learning something new from this drug, what they already know is being realized by them really deeply.

That sounds plausible to me. If you had a deep realization that you really want people to be happy, you really want them to flourish, make progress and get everything they want in life, won’t the character of your life improve? I think it could. Having these positive feelings towards other could fill you with happy feelings as well because among other things it takes away negative feelings you have towards other people which make you feel bad.

I’m only a beginner with Critical Fallibilism ideas but here are my thoughts.

I think realizing something deeply is learning something. It sounds like the drug would be creating some kind of introspective self-knowledge. The problem is that there is a very long and winding pathway from a change in your brain chemistry to that type of introspective knowledge. Without knowing what that pathway is, you’re just taking a shot in the dark that the drug will do something good for you. A random change to your personality is more likely to be bad than good because the personality you have has gone through lots of criticism. That criticism was not all done by you because tradition provided you some pre-made solutions to some common problems.

In your skiing metaphor, shaking the snow to erase the pathways might be causing people to lose some knowledge. That metaphor sounds a bit like doing random deletions from your existing ideas. Criticism allows you to not use false ideas while also not having to delete them. It’s actually good to know about those false ideas and their criticisms because that is part of your knowledge of why not to think/live in a certain way

I agree with a lot of what you said. I’m leaning towards concluding that I’m mistaken. But I want to get all my arguments criticized and addressed before I conclude. Right now I’m not able to give enough resources to think through this stuff so I will reply later. I choose 2 weeks as a comfortable timeline I will be able to stick to.

The self idea makes less sense than brain is a computer and people are computer program idea. People are computer programs idea is more coherent, consistent and it has no known errors. I agree with you that there is no good explanation for how something that affects neurotransmitters can lead to downstream effects like changing a person’s ideas or make them have deep realizations.

I now have a better understanding of what I wanted. I wanted to have a spiritual experience and I want that spiritual experience to transform me. I wanted to be transformed into someone who was really good at dealing with counterproductive emotions. The idea that a simple solution exists that transforms you into someone who is great at handling emotions is something I want to believe. The testimonials of people who say they’ve had such transformative experiences makes it easier for me to believe the idea that transformative experience is possible. Knowing I have this bias can help people replying to me. It will become easier for them to see my mistakes.

Our best theory of knowledge says that progress happens step by step, it is evolutionary. What does testimonials of these people saying they’ve had such transformative (revolutionary) improvements imply? Are these people wrong? Maybe the improvement was small? Maybe they were already improving and wrongly attribute their improvement to this one thing? Or it could’ve been a catalyst. Are there certain improvements which do a better job at starting a self reinforcing cycle of improvement?

I think the testimonials are the result of how easy it is to fool ourselves.

Sam Harris doesn’t explain how his MDMA insight will lead people to living better lives. The ideas behind the feeling he got on MDMA sound like mostly standard altruism. He feels indiscriminate love toward all conscious beings but he doesn’t explain why that’s a good thing. Ayn Rand criticized that idea and altruism as whole. Rand explains why altruism is destructive to one’s self and society as a whole.

So, Harris’ MDMA experience seems to have reinforced moral beliefs he already had, since they are common in the culture. I don’t think his MDMA experience resulted in an improvement based on the story he shared.

My very basic understanding is that emotions are automatized responses. I think that emotions are also downstream of automatized moral ideas. It takes study to learn the moral ideas and additional practice to automatize them. You need conjectures and criticism to learn about morality because moral knowledge is both objective and fallible, like all knowledge.