On the Pursuit of Meditation: Buddha vs. Faust

February 21, 2016

Should we meditate? If so, to what extent? What benefits can we realistically expect from meditation? And what might we be sacrificing to engage in meditation? Is devoting a substantial amount of time to meditation ethically questionable?
 
I’ve been thinking about meditation off and on for a while now, ever since I read Sam Harris’s excellent book Waking Up (more on that below). I started thinking about this topic again when I read this article in the New York Times summarizing the results of a recent scientific study. The study suggests that mindfulness meditation may have some beneficial health effects, especially with respect to reducing stress levels and inflammation. Perhaps this doesn’t seem that surprising to you, especially given the many claims that have been made for the health benefits of meditation, but scientific studies on meditation have produced mixed results. Perhaps the most comprehensive study of meditation, published in 2014 in the internal medicine journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that although mindfulness meditation was of modest assistance in treating anxiety, depression, and stress, it was no better than other therapies, such as drugs and other behavioral therapies. Also, it had no effect on positive mood, attention, and substance abuse.
 
Taking all these studies together, it seems the most defensible conclusion is that meditation may help some people with some problems, such as anxiety or excessive stress, but it is unlikely to replace other therapies. In addition, claims about some of the nontherapeutic uses for meditation may lack sufficient evidential support. So, if one is experiencing some health issue where meditation has been shown to have some effect, perhaps one should try it. It might help. Otherwise, meditation may not be that worthwhile.
 
But hold on. These studies don’t address the transformative effects of meditation that Harris has argued for in his book. Harris discusses some of the more mundane benefits of meditation—indeed, he may be too much of a cheerleader on this point— but for him the principal aim of meditation is not to reduce anxiety or depression. Instead, Harris maintains that the primary purpose of meditation is to cut through the illusion of the self.
 
Harris received a significant amount of criticism, including from many in the secular community, for his claims in Waking Up. In my opinion, many of these criticisms were either insubstantial or based on a misunderstanding of Harris’s arguments. For example, Harris caught flak for using the terms spiritual and spirituality. Although I might have preferred that he simply talk about self-transcendence—as he says, spirituality is largely the realization there is no self in the conventional sense—I don’t think using these terms raises any serious issue, such as giving a foothold to religion. Harris makes it clear (repeatedly) that when he uses these terms he is not referencing any supernatural entities.
 
Some argued that Harris’s claim that there is no self is easily refuted by the fact that he refers to himself. But to the extent this argument isn’t frivolous, it’s based on a misunderstanding. Harris isn’t claiming we cannot individuate persons or that the intentions, desires, and thoughts of Ronnie at moment T are not psychologically connected to the intentions, desires, and thoughts of Ronnie at T-1.What he is claiming, and what numerous other philosophers have claimed, is that there is no persisting, mystical entity apart from the stream of consciousness. There’s no soul and no homunculus sitting somewhere near your pineal gland that is thinking thoughts. There are just thoughts. In this, he’s correct. (I’m not going to offer any argument for this point. The third chapter of his book provides a persuasive argument for this conclusion and other arguments can be found in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, Part 3, and David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, sec. 6.)
 
But even though these criticisms of Harris are misplaced, I have other concerns which go to the heart of Harris’s advocacy for meditation. Put simply, my concerns are these: Is it worth it? Could the pursuit of meditation lead to the neglect of our duties to others? And, finally, is the pursuit of meditation predicated on a questionable view of what is important in life?
 
Meditation can consume a lot of time. Harris has spent several years (cumulatively) in meditation (two years in his 20’s alone), including a number of trips to Nepal. In his book, he says to become an expert at meditation takes at least 10,000 hours of practice.
 
Those are years that could be spent doing something else, such as pursuing a career and in the process providing for one’s family. It may be worth noting here that Buddha, the model for meditators seeking self-transcendence, was a deadbeat dad, having ditched his wife and son to go seek enlightenment. (According to tradition, Buddha named his son Rahula, meaning “fetter” or “impediment.”) The fact is it would be difficult for most people to devote the amount of time to meditation that Harris has if they were simultaneously financially responsible for themselves and their family. Moreover, if everyone devoted years to meditation, it’s fair to say that our collective standard of living would nosedive.
 
Ethicists have often debated how much we owe to others as opposed to what we can responsibly allot to ourselves. I certainly don’t accept the viewpoint of some extreme act utilitarians who would take issue with spending $50 on going to a ball game because the money could be spent on charity and the time could be used making sandwiches for the hungry. It’s ethically permissible to pursue one’s own interests much of the time. But perhaps the balance stuck by those who turn inward and devote years to meditation is weighted too much to self-interest?
 
One counter to that would emphasize the value of the meditation experience. But here’s the thing: having the experience of selflessness is not guaranteed to all who meditate. As Harris admits, “people can meditate for years without recognizing it.” (Waking Up, 146). Of course, there’s the argument that even if one doesn’t achieve self-transcendence, meditation allows one to deal better with life’s ups and downs. However, one can achieve a similar type of composure without resort to meditation. 
 
In addition, as suggested by the discussion a couple of paragraphs above, one can also recognize without resort to meditation that there is no self thinking the thoughts that arise in consciousness. I have. Many others have. Granted, this intellectual understanding is not equivalent to the experience one has of selflessness in meditation; the latter, but not the former, promises some short-term bliss. That said, the former can change one’s outlook on life (and death) similar to the ways in which Harris maintains the realization of selflessness acquired through meditation does. Don’t take my word for it. Read the selection by Parfit noted above. This intellectual acceptance of selflessness is not something typically achieved overnight—there is usually resistance to the conclusion that there is no self, as it can be initially disquieting to say the least—but I would think it takes far less time than meditation.
 
In other words, meditation may be neither sufficient nor necessary to have the realization that there is no self—in which case, at least for many, perhaps meditation is not worth the investment of several years of one’s life—unless one places a very high value on that state of bliss that meditation might yield—a state that, as Harris points out, may be achieved more efficiently by ingesting certain drugs.
 
And with that, I arrive at one of my principal disagreements with Harris. Harris builds his case for meditation in part by portraying life without meditation as emotionally impoverished and deeply unsatisfying. He sees life for most people as the taking on of one task after another, engaging in one activity after another, all for the sake of obtaining some pleasure that is fleeting, and because this pleasure is fleeting we find ourselves back in the grind almost immediately. Repeat cycle endlessly. Meditation is a way of breaking that frustrating cycle.
 
I view human activity differently. There is a sense of accomplishment after finishing a task (I would not classify it as “pleasure,” unless all experiences must be reductively divided into the two categories of pleasure and pain), but, contrary to Harris, that sense of accomplishment is not the sole reason for undertaking a task. The task itself is worthwhile. I’m writing this blog piece not just because I’ll be happy when it’s finished (and read by two other people) but because I’m engaged by the task itself. This is not an idiosyncratic reaction. Many people find their work rewarding.
 
Sure, when I’m finished with this there will be something else to do. And then something else. And on and on. But so what? Harris disparages striving; I don’t. 
 
Harris offers Buddha and other contemplatives as models. Let me counter with Goethe’s Faust—who risked damnation only if he told Mephistopheles that he wanted to stay forever in the moment. As Faust illustrates, striving can lead to frustration and despair, but the greatest failing is to yield to that frustration and stop striving.
 
To sum up: meditation can be beneficial for some people with certain health conditions. With respect to nontherapeutic uses, some people may regard it’s worth the investment of time and effort; others may assess things differently. And for society as a whole, it may be a good thing that large numbers of us do not indulge in meditation. Bliss doesn’t bake bread.