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15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Sam Harris on Spirituality without Religion, Happiness, and How to Cultivate the Art of Presence

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“Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”

Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” is among modern history’s most oft-cited aphorisms, and yet as is often the case with its ilk, such quotations often miss the broader context in a way that bespeaks the lazy reductionism with which we tend to approach questions of spirituality today. Nietzsche himself clarified the full dimension of his statement six years later, in a passage from The Twilight of Idols, where he explained that “God” simply signified the supersensory realm, or “true world,” and wrote: “We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”

Indeed, this struggle to integrate the sensory and the supersensory, the physical and the metaphysical, has been addressed with varying degrees of sensitivity by some of history’s greatest minds — reflections like Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit.

In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library), philosopher, neuroscientist, and mindful skeptic Sam Harris offers a contemporary addition to this lineage of human inquiry — an extraordinary and ambitious masterwork of such integration between science and spirituality, which Harris himself describes as “by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives.” Or, perhaps most aptly, an effort “to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.”

Sam Harris by Bara Vetenskap

Harris begins by recounting an experience he had at age sixteen — a three-day wilderness retreat designed to spur spiritual awakening of some sort, which instead left young Harris feeling like the contemplation of the existential mystery in the presence of his own company was “a source of perfect misery.” This frustrating experience became “a sufficient provocation” that launched him into a lifelong pursuit of the kinds of transcendent experiences that gave rise to the world’s major spiritual traditions, examining them instead with a scientist’s vital blend of skepticism and openness and a philosopher’s aspiration to be “scrupulously truthful.”

Harris writes:

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.

Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds — “If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.” — Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity. He writes:

Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.

This message, of course, is nothing new — half a century ago, Alan Watts made a spectacular case for it, building on millennia of Eastern philosophy. But what makes our era singular and this discourse particularly timely, Harris points out, is that there is now a growing body of scientific research substantiating these ancient intuitions.

Harris recounts one of his own early empirical dabblings into how physical experience precipitates metaphysical awareness — taking the drug 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as Ecstasy, with a close friend — which profoundly shifted his sense of the human mind’s potential. Remarking on the “moral and emotional clarity” of the experience, Harris describes it not as a muddling of consciousness but as a homecoming to truth:

It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life. And yet the change in my consciousness seemed entirely straightforward… I had ceased to be concerned about myself. I was no longer anxious, self-critical, guarded by irony, in competition, avoiding embarrassment, ruminating about the past and future, or making any other gesture of thought or attention that separated me from him. I was no longer watching myself through another person’s eyes.

And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal — and deeper than any personal history could justify. Indeed, a transactional form of love — I love you because . . . — now made no sense at all.

The interesting thing about this final shift in perspective was that it was not driven by any change in the way I felt. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all… The experience was not of love growing but of its being no longer obscured. Love was — as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages — a state of being. How had we not seen this before? And how could we overlook it ever again?

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

Such a formulation calls to mind the sentiment at the heart of Tolstoy’s letters to Gandhi (where, one can assume based on the time period, there was no Ecstasy involved) — a testament to the immutability of this basic human truth. For Harris, it laid the foundation for what would become his life’s work:

I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.

This sentiment, it turns out, is one shared by about a quarter of the population, who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” – a seemingly paradoxical proposition that, Harris argues, captures the crux of our ancient struggle for integration:

Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.

Even the term “spiritual” itself comes so loaded with cultural baggage — from self-help books to off-the-deep-end kooks — that its usage seems to warrant a special kind of self-conscious, almost apologetic justification, and Harris offers an elegant one:

There is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Much of our unease with nonreligious spirituality and the integration of science and spirit, Harris argues, comes from the blinders that narrow the view of both camps. Scientists “generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind,” while New Age thinkers “idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics” — a fault line that leaves us with the lose-lose choice “between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.”

A lucid approach to integration, Harris suggests, requires the acknowledgment of some “well-established truths about the human mind,” ones revealed equally through meditation, in the scriptures of the major religious traditions, and by neuroscience — the illusory nature of what we call the “self,” the notion that how we pay attention shapes our “reality,” the idea that happiness can be taught and its psychological detractors uprooted. Harris writes:

Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience — self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light — constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.

[...]

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are…

Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields.

I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines — such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Perhaps Harris’s most central focus in the book is the art of presence as a gateway to true happiness — something Alan Watts so eloquently championed more than half a century ago but, crucially, without the advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that make Harris’s case so compelling. Reflecting on how the hamster wheel of achievement and approval can cheat us of the very happiness with which we so often equate it, Harris writes:

Even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment.

Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment… Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain?

[...]

If there exists a source of psychological well-being that does not depend upon merely gratifying one’s desires, then it should be present even when all the usual sources of pleasure have been removed.

[...]

We seem to do little more than lurch between wanting and not wanting. Thus, the question naturally arises: Is there more to life than this? Might it be possible to feel much better (in every sense of better) than one tends to feel? Is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change?

Spiritual life begins with a suspicion that the answer to such questions could well be “yes.” And a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self. Those who have never tasted such peace of mind might view these assertions as highly suspect. Nevertheless, it is a fact that a condition of selfless well-being is there to be glimpsed in each moment.

In the remainder of the altogether spectacular Waking Up, Harris goes on to outline the practices, mechanisms, and psychoemotional tools that enable us to access that “selfless well-being,” exploring such dimensional themes as the frontier of the conscious and the unconscious mind, the elusive but highly teachable skills of happiness, and the nature of consciousness. Complement it with Alan Lightman’s beautiful meditation on science and spirituality.

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15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Nobel-Winning Playwright Eugene O’Neill on Happiness, Hard Work, and Success in a Letter to His Unmotivated Young Son

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“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”

By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.

In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.

O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:

All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.

O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:

The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.

O’Neill points to finding one’s purpose, and the inevitable work ethic it requires, as the surest way to attain fulfillment in life:

The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.

[...]

What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.

And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.

Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:

I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.

Complement Posterity with more enduring fatherly wisdom on life, including Ted Hughes on nurturing one’s eternal inner child, F. Scott Fitzgerald on what is worth worrying about in life, Charles Dickens on cultivating kindness, and Jackson Pollock on falling in love, then revisit Anton Chekhov — whose sensibility O’Neill’s is often likened to — on the eight qualities of cultured people in a letter of advice to his younger brother.

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12 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Anne Truitt on Compassion, Humility, and How to Cure Our Chronic Self-Righteousness

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“Love … is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.”

Countless great minds have attested to the creative and psychological value of keeping a diary, but few have manifested that more beautifully than artist Anne Truitt — perhaps in large part because Truitt’s formal training as a psychologist before she turned to art gave her higher-order powers of introspection and self-awareness, which, coupled with an artist’s penchant for patient observation, produced a true masterwork of psychological insight.

In one particularly poignant sequence of diary entries Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the same soul-stretching collection of reflections on the creative life that gave us Truitt on the difference between doing art and being an artist — she examines the art of humility and the perils of self-righteousness as a gateway to true human connection, the elixir that makes possible what Adrienne Rich would so memorably describe mere months later as “an honorable human relationship.”

In early August of 1974, 53-year-old Truitt recalls a symbolic moment from her childhood and considers how we inadvertently engineer our own myths, and not always healthy ones, by letting others define us:

As I work to understand my life, its scale seems to diminish, as a tree I gaze up into flattens when I walk up a mountain and look down on it. Humility is really more natural than pride, which seems to me always to involve a lie.

I remember when this lie began for me. I was in my mother’s bedroom, standing in front of a gold-bordered pier glass. It was early afternoon. The light was sunny. It was warm. I had on a white batiste undergarment, all one piece with a drop seat. The neck and arms were edged with narrow lace, and the same lace was on the ruffles gathered by elastic around my legs. I was being dressed for a party. My dress lay on the bed behind me, a translucent white cloud. My mother and my nurse were paying a new kind of attention to me, the same flavor of attention now paid to me at the openings of my exhibits. They were arranging my thin whitish blond hair into a “roach” curl, which was to run from the back of my head along its crown to the center of my forehead. They brushed my hair up, used a little water to hold it, and brushed again. The curl was totally artificial and had to be forced into being. Admonished to stand still, puzzled by their excited determination (very unlike the usual matter-of-fact tenor of the household), I addressed my image in the mirror.

I had never, to my recollection, seen myself before. I looked all right to myself in general; my feeling for my body seemed pretty well matched by what I saw. In fact, I was interested and would have been glad to have been left alone to look. But the chirps about the curl went on and on, and I began to feel uncomfortable. Something was being added to me. They wanted me to be more, and the “more” was the curl. I began to want the curl too, and I remember the first sick feeling of anxiety as they worked to get it to stick there. My healthy self felt whole without it, and recognized quite clearly that I was being made a fool of. But I was fascinated by being praised. The whole room danced with how cute I was. I knew I had done nothing except to stand there. I hadn’t made the hair to begin with, much less the curl. But there it was; I began to want to please in order to get praise. I began to participate in the lie that I was something special, to take that role, to accept what I did not want and did not even think right for myself, in order to taste the sickly sweet flavor of praise.

I remember turning around from the mirror to the bed as they lifted the dress and held it out for me to step into. I held my head stiff with pride.

[...]

The roach curl is the earliest remembered strand of a web I wove to add on to what I was, what others wanted me to be. The idea that I must meet arbitrary requirements caught fire from my clear recognition that I was very small and powerless; and it coalesced into the fear that if I failed to meet these mysterious requirements I would be abandoned.

Truitt observes that we turn the same tendency outward, in how we relate to and assess others, indulging a dangerous and presumptuous compulsion to impose on their identity our own shoulds, adding to history’s most elegant definitions of love:

Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.

[...]

Compassion is one of the purest springs of love.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' an unusual story about compassion and love. Click image for more.

Recounting another childhood memory, Truitt reflects on the cruelty of judgmental opinions, which seem to come to us almost automatically — something all the more palpably true half a century later, in our present age when people feel increasingly entitled to passing public judgment on others, in a culture where it’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. This tragic automation of the human psyche, Truitt suggests, is constantly conditioned by peer pressure — one that good-personhood requires we actively counter:

Why didn’t Miss Perry marry Mr. Lockhart, who sat in the sun outside his hardware store all day? And I could make people laugh by saying, “Because he’s too fat,” tickling myself with pleasure while feeling sick because I never passed him without feeling deep compassion, so short on his little stool, so round a cannonball of stomach resting on his patiently parted knees. Why doesn’t she marry him, I asked myself in a different part of myself, feeling the sere waste of their lives, his resignation to his lonely stool, hers to her sewing machine and to her stolid, passive mother.

The judgments I copied, then learned to make as I observed others make them, with just enough of myself in them to make them amusing or interesting contributions to conversation, began as fragments. It took time and effort to make them fit into cohesive plaques of personality that would be hailed with little cries of recognition and appreciation. It was a lot more difficult than the curl, but the effect was the same: I had to hold myself stiff, but I got the praise. And saved myself from being outcast.

In a diary entry two days later, Truitt revisits the subject of self-righteousness, distilling with piercing poignancy the essence of compassion and empathy:

I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another. Feeling as righteous as Christ chastising the money-changers in the temple, they cast their fellows into the outer darkness of their disapproval. This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.

Daybook is rich and revelational beyond words from cover to cover. Complement this particular excerpt with Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you and Anne Lamott on how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing.

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