“Understanding this truth about the human mind has the potential to change our sense of moral goodness and what it would mean to create a just society.”
By Maria Popova
“When you come right down to it, how much of that was free will?” teenage Sylvia Plath pondered as she looked back on her life-choices in reflecting on what makes us who we are. “Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on,” Hannah Arendt argued a quarter century later in her intellectually exquisite 1973 inquiry into what free will really means, “we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.” Another generation later, cosmologist Janna Levin captured our confusions about free will perfectly in her conversation with Krista Tippett: “If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice.”
The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment — most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.
This wonderful cinematic adaptation of a talk Harris gave based on the book synthesizes the challenge and the payoff of relinquishing the illusion of free will:
The illusoriness of free will is as certain a fact as the truth of evolution, in my mind. And, unlike evolution, understanding this truth about the human mind has the potential to change our sense of moral goodness and what it would mean to create a just society.
The question of free will touches nearly everything people care about: religion, public policy, politics, the legal system, feelings of personal accomplishment, emotions like guilt and pride, and remorse. So much of human life seems to depend on our viewing one another as conscious agents capable of free choice.
The fact that our choices depend on prior cause does not mean that choice doesn’t matter. To sit back and see what happens is also a choice that has its own consequences. So, the choices we make in life are as important as people think, but the next choice you make will come out of a wilderness of prior causes that you cannot see and did not bring into being.
Losing a belief in free will has not made me a fatalist — in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on a basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system — learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention — may radically transform one’s life. Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can, paradoxically, allow for greater creative control over one’s life.
This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings.
From Bertrand Russell to the Buddha, or why you should spend a weekend reading the Qur’an.
By Maria Popova
On an excellent recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show — one of these nine podcasts for a fuller life — neuroscientist Sam Harris answered a listener’s question inquiring what books everyone should read. As a lover of notable reading lists and an ardent admirer of Harris’s mind and work, I was thrilled to hear his recommendations — but as each one rolled by, it brought with it an ebbing anticipatory anxiety that he too might fall prey to male intellectuals’ tendency to extoll almost exclusively the work of other male intellectuals. (Look no further than Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reading list for evidence.) And indeed Harris did — the books he recommended on the show, however outstanding, were all by men.
I was perplexed, both because references throughout his own excellent books indicate that Harris reads far more widely than this unfortunate lapse of packaging makes it seem, and because he is the loving father of two small female humans who will go through life absorbing our culture’s messages about the value of women’s minds and voices. And since I believe that the best way to complain is to do something constructive, I reached out and asked him for an expanded version of his reading list that includes some of his favorite books by women. He kindly complied and offered a stimulating selection of twelve books to enrich any human life — here it is, beginning with the original eight from the show and Harris’s comments about some of them:
Brilliant and written as though by an alien intelligence. A deeply strange book filled with thought experiments that bend your intuitions left and right. A truly strange and unique document, and incredibly insightful about morality and questions of identity.
Everyone should read the Holy Qur’an… Read it — it’s much shorter than the Bible; you can read it in a weekend, and you’ll be informed about the central doctrines of Islam in a way that you may not be, and it’s good to be informed, given how much influence these ideas have currently in our world.
The clearest book I’ve come across that makes the case that the so-called “control problem” — the problem of building human-level and beyond artificial intelligence that we can control, that we can know in advance will converge with our interests — is a truly difficult and important task, because we will end up building this stuff by happenstance if we simply keep going in the direction we’re headed. Unless we can solve this problem in advance and have good reason to believe that the machines we are building are benign and their behavior predictable — even when they exceed us in intelligence a thousand-, a million-, or a billion-fold — this is going to be a catastrophic intrusion into our lives that we may not survive.
Although the insights we can have in meditation tell us nothing about the origins of the universe, they do confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.
The conventional sense of self is an illusion [and] spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.
The feeling that we call “I” seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will. And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.
Such abolition may seem unnerving in the context of personal identity, something to which we are invariably attached, but as soon as we begin to understand just how mutable that identity is, dissolving the self illusion becomes not a punishing negation of free will but a promise of freedom. Harris writes:
The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment — the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists — perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein — you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found — and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears.
And yet, and yet, this is where the essential paradox of meditation arises — if meditation is about cultivating the capacity to accept the present moment exactly as it is, then the notion of a meditation practice or of mindfulness training, which implies progress toward a future goal, seems at odds with the very concept of such pure presence. Harris captures this elegantly:
We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved. But here lies one of the central paradoxes of spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present. As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self — and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.
The solution to the paradox, Harris suggests, is in approaching mindfulness not as a compulsively productive practice of self-improvement — there is the “self” creeping up again — but as a state of active presence with everyday life:
The ultimate wisdom of enlightenment, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.
He cautions against treating meditation as another to-do item:
Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize.
Reflecting on his training with the Burmese spiritual master Sayadaw U Pandita, who teaches meditation as an “explicitly goal-oriented” practice — mindfulness is approached not as freedom from the self illusion in the present moment but as a means of attaining the “cessation” of that illusion in the future — Harris writes:
[This approach] encourages confusion at the outset regarding the nature of the problem one is trying to solve. It is true, however, that striving toward the distant goal of enlightenment (as well as the nearer goal of cessation) can lead one to practice with an intensity that might otherwise be difficult to achieve. I never made more effort than I did when practicing under U Pandita. But most of this effort arose from the very illusion of bondage to the self that I was seeking to overcome. The model of this practice is that one must climb the mountain so that freedom can be found at the top. But the self is already an illusion, and that truth can be glimpsed directly, at the mountain’s base or anywhere else along the path. One can then return to this insight, again and again, as one’s sole method of meditation — thereby arriving at the goal in each moment of actual practice.
Despite the paradoxes of the practice, however, Harris considers it our most promising access point to a fulfilling spiritual life:
It is very difficult to imagine someone’s not being able to see her reflection in a window even after years of looking — but that is what happens when a person begins most forms of spiritual practice. Most techniques of meditation are, in essence, elaborate ways for looking through the window in the hope that if one only sees the world in greater detail, an image of one’s true face will eventually appear. Imagine a teaching like this: If you just focus on the trees swaying outside the window without distraction, you will see your true face. Undoubtedly, such an instruction would be an obstacle to seeing what could otherwise be seen directly. Almost everything that has been said or written about spiritual practice, even most of the teachings one finds in Buddhism, directs a person’s gaze to the world beyond the glass, thereby confusing matters from the very beginning.
But one must start somewhere. And the truth is that most people are simply too distracted by their thoughts to have the selflessness of consciousness pointed out directly. And even if they are ready to glimpse it, they are unlikely to understand its significance.
Harris reframes the paradox with an admonition and an assurance:
Embracing the contents of consciousness in any moment is a very powerful way of training yourself to respond differently to adversity. However, it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy — while covertly hoping that they will go away — and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness. Only the latter gesture opens the door to wisdom and lasting change. The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past. But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves.
Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events. The mind depends upon the body, 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 — changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world — but it also allows a person to be miserable even when all the material and social conditions for happiness have been met. During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.
In a conversation with Tim Ferriss on the altogether excellent The Tim Ferriss Show, Harris argues that the mindfulness meditation cultivates — a quality of mind that allows you to pay attention to whatever arises without being lost in thought — is the most useful way to explore the phenomenon of self-transcendence “without believing anything on insufficient evidence.” He adds:
The human nervous system is plastic in a very important way — which means your experience of the world can be radically transformed. You are tending who you were yesterday by virtue of various habit patterns and physiological homeostasis and other things that are keeping you very recognizable to yourself, but it’s possible to have a very different experience… It’s possible to do it through a deliberate form of training, like meditation, and I think it’s crucial to do — because we all want to be as happy and as fulfilled and as free of pointless suffering as can possibly be. And all of our suffering, and all of our unhappiness, is a product of how our minds are in every moment. So if there’s a way to use the mind itself to improve one’s capacity for moment-to-moment wellbeing — which I’m convinced there is — then this should be potentially of interest to everybody.
If you are looking for a good place to start with meditation, or would like slow-burning fuel for your existing practice, I highly recommend Tara Brach, who has truly transformed my life — her teachings and guided meditations are available as a reliably excellent free podcast, and her four-part primer on meditation is indispensable for beginners. (If you are moved and enriched by her generously offered free teachings, consider making a donation — Brach’s work, like my own, is supported by direct patronage, and I am a proud monthly donor.)
“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.”
By Maria Popova
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.”
In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library | IndieBound), 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.”
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.”
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?
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.”
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.
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.