The self being an “illusion” seems like too strong a statement to me if you interpret the statement in a philosophically rigorous way. But I think maybe lots of people wouldn’t understand it as well if you said that their sense of self was just another “idea” or “concept” or something like that. I think “illusion” might better communicate a contradiction of certain standard ways of viewing the self, at least to a general audience. Not sure.

Another Harris thing I think it’s possible to interpret a couple of different ways is when he talks about stuff being made of consciousness. This can come up together with the looking for the looker stuff.

At first I was pretty skeptical of this because I thought that it sounded very primacy-of-consciousness. Like somehow consciousness was supposed to be creating reality or something, and I disagree with that view.

But you could also interpret it like DD’s point about how everything we experience is like a virtual reality, cuz we don’t experience Reality directly - instead our experience is based on some electrical signals in our brain which were triggered by, say, some light hitting some stuff in our retina or whatever.

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Here’s another perspective on the ‘self’ thing. I transcribed this from Say Good Night to Insomnia, by Gregg D. Jacobs, p. 149 in the hardcover.

Many Eastern traditions emphasize that the internal dialogue has come to occupy so large a place in our consciousness that we regard it as the only state of consciousness, as our sense of self. Self-consciousness is characterized by a tendency to create personal boundaries and perceive the world as “me/not me” and “self/not self”; a tendency to perceive differences, separation, and isolation between self and others; judgment, self-criticism, doubt, fear, frustration, and anxiety.

Using the RR and minis to turn off the internal dialogue will cause a change in perception of one’s sense of self. This new sense of self is often described as stronger, more connected, and higher; more selfless and able to perceive similarities and unity between the self and others; more unified, harmonious, integrated, and whole.

(RR stands for relaxation response and a mini is his shorter method for eliciting that relaxation response. His methods seem like a form of mindfulness meditation.)

  1. This says we should change our perception of our sense of self. That makes more sense to me than saying there is no self.

  2. I like the idea of not being self-conscious in the sense of not having “judgment, self-criticism, doubt, fear, frustration, and anxiety”. I think a lot of internal dialogue is bad stuff and leads to those things. I’m trying to lessen those things.

    But does self-dialogue have to be bad? Can’t there be good self-dialogue, like reminding ourselves of our goals and our plans to achieve them, or saying encouraging things to ourselves, or noting objective things about ourselves and others, or talking through problem solving?

  3. I don’t see what’s bad about perceiving a boundary between ourselves and others. We can see that boundary and also see similarities between ourselves and other people and also feel unity with other people.

I say all this as someone who is trying to figure it out.

I just wanted to give a warning about meditation - there are people who end up experiencing various sorts of psychological distress after meditating. Sometimes it’s related to some kind of dissolution of their sense of self or their sense of separation from the world. I haven’t read much about it, but just wanted to make sure people were aware that was a possible side effect.

This is an article about one person’s experience, and how little support there is for this issue in the meditation community (despite it apparently being common - people just don’t talk about it): When Buddhism Goes Bad - by Dan Lawton - Dan Lawton

And this is an organization that provides information & resources about difficulties that meditators have:

The people from that organization also did an interview with Sam Harris, which is available on the Waking Up app: Waking Up - Willoughby Britton and Jared Lindahl

Anyway, I haven’t looked into this very much, but just wanted to provide the information for anyone who is interested in getting into meditation.


Just wanna note, among the parts of this article that struck me as particularly bad:

In a 2019 Vice article, Davidson suggested that those who have meditation-related difficulties simply aren’t meditating correctly.

Even if they aren’t meditation “correctly”, if that meditation is causing them psychological distress, that still seems like a problem that the meditation community should address. Like, what kinds of “incorrect” meditation are people doing? What can they do to make sure they meditate correctly, and avoid the incorrect types that cause psychological distress?

According to Ingram, one must continue to meditate through these awful experiences until reaching a deeper state of awakening. He makes it clear that the consequences of stopping are severe.

“If they give up in the stages of the Dark Night (or any time after the A&P), the qualities of the Dark Night will almost certainly continue to haunt them in their daily life, sapping their energy and motivation, and perhaps even causing feelings of unease, depression, paranoia, and even suicidal thoughts. Thus, the wise meditator is very, very highly encouraged to try to maintain practice despite potential difficulties, to avoid getting stuck in these stages.”

So this guy tells people that if you are experiencing psychological distress that seems to be caused by mediation, just keep meditating (in the same way), otherwise you will be trapped in the distress forever. They are saying if it hurts, just keep doing it, otherwise you will never escape the pain.

In general, you shouldn’t just be pushing through painful things. That doesn’t mean you should never do anything that is uncomfortable. But you need to be careful with doing things that you find painful. Sometimes (well, often, I guess) people have parts of their life that they find painful that they also don’t know how to avoid. So they can’t just not do those things. But taking up new, unnecessary hobbies that you find painful, and then just pushing through the pain (instead of figuring out what’s causing it, trying to find a non-painful way to do it, re-evaluating the hobby itself, etc) is a bad idea in general.

The advice this person received (to continue meditation, or else he might be stuck in the pain forever) was bad advice. Something wasn’t working. Instead of advising people in pain to seek help or try to figure out what to change, this book told him it was normal and to just keep going. And it was pushy & coercive with the advice, basically threatening that if he didn’t keep doing the thing he found painful, he would end up stuck forever.

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A controversial opinion, apparently :(

I haven’t read the book The Easy Way to Stop Smoking. I’ve heard Elliot mention the book in his podcast episode titled Unlearning Bad Philosophy. Elliot said (and I am paraphrasing) that the book recommend ways of non judgmentally introspecting habits and that helps with changing habits. When I heard this I was reminded of meditation. My understanding of meditation comes from mostly Sam Harris and other meditation people that he recommends like Joseph Goldstein and Judson Brewer (who is a neuroscientist who studies the neuroscience of meditation. I expect that he too, like Sam Harris, is doing explanation-less science so his scientific research might not tell us much).

I think the point of meditation (according to my understanding of what these people are trying to say) is to train attention. Sam and others argue that people are very bad at focusing their attention and lot of unhappiness and unsatisfactory nature of our experience of day to day life happens because of this. Unsatisfactory is the major factor they and the Buddhist focus on. “Life is suffering” is a very popular line and one of the biggest exports from the Buddhist culture. It is a translation from the Buddhist scripture and is one of the four noble truths according to the first Buddha. It does not perfectly land what the Buddhists actually mean by it. “Life is unsatisfactory” captures it way better and that is how the Buddhists culture thinks of it. According to them the unsatisfactory nature of life and day to day experience comes from not knowing how to pay better attention to whatever you enjoy in life. Meditation is way to train one’s attention. Paying better attention leads to a more satisfactory life. I’m not sure if this is true.

They also talk about another supposedly deeper level where the point of exercise is to look for something called “self” and failing to find it. This failure is supposed to be a big ‘realization’ and is supposed to be very ‘freeing’. This is also what supposedly ‘enlightenment’ is about. Sam also says that ‘not having a sense of self’ is the other side of the coin of ‘not having free will’. I don’t get this deeper level thing. I think these people are wrong about this deeper level. I will say more about it if someone is interested. My thoughts about this part is not collected and well organized so I will collect and organize them if someone is interested.

I am interested. I don’t understand what Harris means when he says stuff about the ‘self’.

Sometimes, mindfulness meditation people will suggest you do things without judgment. I find that helpful. But I’m not convinced that the judgment itself a problem. I think the problem is when a negative emotion or false negative thought is attached to the judgment.

Here’s an example. If you do a guided meditation and think to yourself “I didn’t do very well at that—I kept falling asleep”, that’s a judgment, and it’s useful to think it. But if the judgment is accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness, that’s bad. Or if it’s accompanied by telling yourself you’re an incompetent person, that’s bad.

This talk has an idea I liked. The guy talks about using different language to describe emotional states in order to try to identify less with the emotion. Eg say “there is anger” instead of “I am angry.”

I’ve heard a similar thing, maybe from buddhism, that basically emotions are like the weather. We aren’t in control of them and they come and go, but they don’t change who we are in any permanent sense. So rather than thinking “I am angry” it’s more like “Anger is upon me” and it’s temporary and transient rather than a part of who you are at that time. By viewing the emotion as an external force acting upon you, it has less control over your identity and it’s easier to avoid reacting to something while emotional.

Who is the speaker in this talk?

Joseph Goldstein. It’s “Featured Content” in the Waking Up app so it’s displayed prominently. I’m not sure where it might be in their categories

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Longish talk between Sam Harris and stoic philosopher William Irvine. Decent overview of the sort of stuff Irvine talks about re: stoicism

I listened to an Apple Fitness+ meditation session. It was fine. Very guided. Had nice ambient background music. The production values were, of course, very high. Was focused on trying to tense and loosen muscles as an object of meditation instead of like, breath or introspective stuff. I don’t have a sense of what they’re like in general yet since I’ve only tried one, but I think I’ll try some more.

What do you mean by “introspective stuff”?

The kind of meditation I like best so far is where you notice what thoughts pop up in your mind. This seems to help me take a step back from my thoughts and see them with less emotion or something, which seems good.

Thinking about the breath seems less helpful.

I suppose consciously tensing and loosening muscles helps you notice where there’s tension in your body, which could be useful.

You’re not supposed to “think” about the breath, you are supposed to focus on it. The difference may be subtle, but it’s important.

(Edit: also - those words alone aren’t actually enough to explain what I mean. That is written with the assumption of someone having already gone through meditation stuff, so they should have more understanding of that.)

That would be an example of what I was thinking of as introspective stuff - when you are consciously picking something as the object of focus in a meditation, and that object is something entirely internal to the mind, like thoughts, emotions, “feeling-tones” or something like that. This is as distinct from making the breath, or muscles, or noises outside, or lights that you can see with your eyes closed the object/focus.

(I’m aware of the point SH makes that - as a matter of experience and not as a metaphysical claim - all the stuff just mentioned is experienced within consciousness and is a modification of it. Maybe making a distinction of introspective stuff in this context isn’t very useful given that. I’m not sure what problem it solves other than to just provide a loose categorization/bucket of some types of things that could be an object of 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. 🧘‍♂️