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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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02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Science of Finding Your Soul Mate

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Breaking down the mathematical odds of winning at SoulMateRoulette.

It’s been argued that the secret of lasting love is giving up the myth of “the one” — and yet the notion of a perfect soul mate is irresistibly alluring to most of us. We go after it with remarkable ambition and even try to calculate the odds of finding that special someone, that invaluable human mirror who will “tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in.” But in a world of seven billion, how likely is it, really, that each of us will find that mythic other?

That’s precisely what NASA-roboticist-turned-comic-creator Randall Munroe explores in a chapter of What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (public library), the altogether fantastic book based on his ever-delightful and inexhaustibly original blog xkcd.

Munroe answers a reader’s seemingly simple, strangely unsettling question: “What if everyone actually had only one soul mate, a random person somewhere in the world?” Acknowledging that this proposition is problematic — “a nightmare,” he approaches the premise that each of us has “one randomly-assigned perfect soul mate” with a scientist’s vital balance of skepticism and openness, and a side of a cartoonist’s snark:

We’ll assume your soul mate is set at birth. You know nothing about who or where they are, but — as in the romantic cliché — you’ll recognize each other the moment your eyes meet.

Right away, this raises a few questions. For starters, is your soul mate even still alive? A hundred billion or so humans have ever lived, but only seven billion are alive now (which gives the human condition a 93% mortality rate). If we’re all paired up at random, 90% of our soul mates are long dead.

If this weren’t disheartening enough, Munroe assures us that things get worse when we account for the arrow of time:

A simple argument shows we can’t just limit ourselves to past humans; we have to include an unknown number of future humans as well. See, if it’s possible for your soul mate to be in the distant past, then it also has to be possible for soul mates to be in the distant future. After all, your soul mate’s soul mate is.

To make matters somewhat less messy, Munroe assumes that your soul mate is your contemporary and, with an unnecessarily judgmental remark how this would “keep things from getting creepy,” that your age difference is only a few years. With these parameters, each of us is left with a pool of about half a billion potential matches. Even so, the math remains murky — Munroe explains:

What about gender and sexual orientation? And culture? And language? We could keep using demographics to try to break things down further, but we’d be drifting away from the idea of a random soul mate. In our scenario, you don’t know anything about who your soul mate will be until you look into their eyes. Everybody has only one orientation — toward their soul mate.

Returning to the mythic requirement of identification via eye contact, he delineates the infinitesimal odds of finding your soul mate:

The number of strangers we make eye contact with each day is hard to estimate. It can vary from almost none (shut-ins or people in small towns) to many thousands (a police officer in Times Square). Let’s suppose you lock eyes with an average of a few dozen new strangers each day. (I’m pretty introverted, so for me that’s definitely a generous estimate.) If 10 percent of them are close to your age, that’s around 50,000 people in a lifetime. Given that you have 500,000,000 potential soul mates, it means you’ll only find true love in one lifetime out of 10,000.

Here, Munroe veers into a science-fictional scenario reminiscent of Malcolm Cowley’s 1930 prediction for the future of love, envisioning an artificial platform for maximizing eye contact exposure — a webcam-based system akin to ChatRoulette, which he dubs “SoulMateRoulette”:

If everyone used the system for eight hours a day, seven days a week, and if it takes you a couple seconds to decide if someone’s your soul mate, this system could — in theory — match everyone up with their soul mates in a few decades.

In the real world, many people have trouble finding any time at all for romance — few could devote two decades to it. So maybe only rich kids would be able to afford to sit around on SoulMateRoulette. Unfortunately for the proverbial 1%, most of their soul mates are to be found in the other 99%. If only 1% of people use the service, then 1% of that 1% would find their match through this system — one in ten thousand.

After further exploring this scenario to its most outrageous extremes, Munroe arrives at a strikingly familiar outcome:

Given all the stress and pressure, some people would fake it. They’d want to join the club, so they’d get together with another lonely person and stage a fake soul mate encounter. They’d marry, hide their relationship problems, and struggle to present a happy face to their friends and family.

His conclusion, however, contrasts the hopelessness of the soul mate theory with the hopefulness that keeps our hearts alive with a sense of possibility, that immutable optimism that helps us go on living and loving:

A world of random soul mates would be a lonely one. Let’s hope that’s not what we live in.

Perhaps John Steinbeck put it best: “If it is right, it happens… Nothing good gets away.

In the remainder of What If?, Munroe brings his signature blend of science, snark, and sensitivity to such mysteries as how lightning picks its targets, whether vigorously stirring a cup of tea can bring it to a boil, and what it would actually be like to travel in a time machine. Complement it with scientists’ answers to little kids’ questions about life and an illustrated tour of today’s greatest scientific mysteries.

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28 AUGUST, 2014

Darwin’s Battle with Anxiety

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A posthumous diagnosis of the paralyzing mental malady that afflicted one of humanity’s greatest minds.

Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin’s best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh — a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.

In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) — his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costsThe Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin’s prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.

Stossel writes:

Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud’s trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.

But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.

That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin’s overpowering anxiety — something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a “Diary of Health” that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like “chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness (‘swimming head,’ as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy.”

In 1865 — six years after the completion of The Origin of Species — a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:

For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision …. Nervousness when E leaves me.

“E” refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children — a context in which his “nervousness” does suggest anxiety’s characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term “separation anxiety.”

Illustration from The Smithsonian's 'Darwin: A Graphic Biography.' Click image for more.

Stossel chronicles Darwin’s descent:

Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades — during which time he’d struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it’s fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.

Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were “knocked up” with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics “whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend.” He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.

Chapman came out to Darwin’s country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.

The treatment didn’t work. The “incessant vomiting” continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman’s company (“We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours” Darwin’s wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.

Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin’s diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, “smouldering hepatitis,” malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, “diabetogenic hyper-insulism,” gout, “suppressed gout,” chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas’ disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and ‘refractive anomaly of the eyes.’ I’ve just read an article, “Darwin’s Illness Revealed,” published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin’s ailments to lactose intolerance.

Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that “a careful reading of Darwin’s life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety.” His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:

When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.

(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)

My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin’s brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.

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