The Logic of Meditation

Sometimes a concept or idea is summarised in such a clear and succinct way that nothing can be added to or taken away from it without losing some essential component or creating unnecessary complexity. In this short transcription (by yours truely), Sam Harris elegantly outlines the logic of practicing meditation and the resultant benefits of mindfulness. Enjoy 🙂

“In his apology, Plato attributed the following now famous words to Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Now whether or not that’s strictly true, the unexamined life is certainly needlessly painful, both for oneself and for others. And, painful or not, the unexamined life is certainly less interesting.

We really spend our lives learning how to live. And this isn’t necessarily as absurd or as tragic as it sounds. Most of us find a pattern of living that makes approximate sense, and we tinker with it for decades. If you’re lucky you’ll discover that you’re able to live more or less the way you want. But even if you’re lucky, you’ll find that it is possible to want the wrong things, to be lured into swandering your time and attention, to be bewitched in a way by things that don’t really matter. Even if you’re lucky, happiness can be surprisingly elusive. So why meditate?

It is often taught and marketed as if it were an improved version of an executive stress ball, when is really more like the large Hadron collider.

The basic logic is quite simple: the quality of your mind determines the quality of your life. Happiness and suffering, no the matter how extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body of course, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter. This fact offers ample opportunity to make the best of bad situations, because changing how you respond to the world is often as good as changing the world. Of course you can try to change the world, you can try to get everyone around you behave exactly as you want, you can try to never get sick or injured, you can try to keep your favourite possessions from getting damaged or lost. But try as hard as you might, the sources of stress and disappointment and embarrassment and self-doubt will always be there. Happily there’s another game to play and not everyone knows about it. Rather than trying to change the world in each moment there’s another move open to you. You can look more closely at what you’re doing with your own mind and actually cease to respond to life in ways that produce needless suffering for yourself and those around you.

When we’re lost in thought there are certain things we tend not to notice about the nature of our minds. For instance every thought or feeling you’ve ever had, good or bad, has arisen and then passed away. The anger you felt yesterday or year ago isn’t here any more, and if it arises in the next moment based on your thinking about the past, it will once again pass away when you’re no longer thinking about it. This is a profoundly important truth about the mind and it can be absolutely liberating to understand it deeply. If you understand it deeply, that is if you’re able to pay clearer attention to the arising of emotion like anger, rather think about why you’ve every right to be angry, it actually becomes impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments at a time. If you think you can stay angry for a day, or even an hour, without continually manufacturing this emotion, by thinking without knowing that you’re thinking, you are mistaken. This is an objective claim about mechanics of your own subjectivity and I invite you to test it. And meditation is the tool you would use to test it.

While I can’t promise that meditation will keep you from becoming angry again, you can learn not to stay angry or fearful or embarrassed etc. for very long. When talking about the consequences of negative emotions in the real world, and in your life, the difference between moments and hours or days and weeks is impossible to exaggerate. Now this is not to say that external circumstances don’t matter, but it is your mind, rather than the circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life.

Some people are content in the midst of real deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world. And there are practices that allow us to break this habit of being lost in thought and to simply become aware of our experience in the present moment. [One of the main techniques] is a technique known as Vipassana, which is generally translated as “insight meditation”, and this comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism known as the Theravada. The quality of mind cultivated in the Vipassana practice is almost always referred to as mindfulness.

There’s nothing spooky about mindfulness, it’s simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This practice has been shown to produce long lasting changes in attention, emotion, cognition and pain perception, and these correlate with both structural and functional changes in the brain. Mindfulness is now very much in vogue of course but there seems to be there still many misconceptions about it. It is often taught and marketed as if it were an improved version of an executive stress ball, when is really more like the large Hadron collider. That is it is a method for making profound discoveries, in this case about the nature of our own minds.

And there is nothing passive about mindfulness. You can even say that it expresses a certain kind of passion: a passion for discerning what is objectively real in each moment. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience, it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. One of the great strengths of this technique of meditation, from a secular point of view, is that it does not require us to adopt any cultural affectations or unjustified beliefs. It simply demands that we pay close attention to the flow of our experience in each moment. So as you progress [notice that what you are doing], more and more, is to simply recognize what is already arising in consciousness in each moment, without modifying it, without grasping at what is pleasant or pushing what is unpleasant away.

In some basic sense, meditation is the act of doing less than you normally do. It is the act of being less distracted in the midst of everything that’s already happening on its own. And once one is less distracted, one finally has a tool to notice truths about one’s mind that otherwise would never be discovered directly.”

– Sam Harris