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. 


#1 Alexander (Guest) on Sunday February 21, 2016 at 4:35pm

Thanks for those well-written thoughts, they match mine pretty well. I’m one of those who have done meditation for a number of years, and find that, well, it gives me something, but not quite as something as a good contemplation on some philosophical issue. Indeed, focusing on *something* can be just as well as focusing on *nothing*.

The only benefit from meditation that I do see and experience, is being aware of the chatterbox my mind is, and it’s good to calm it down a nudge, to make it stop humming tunes, thinking thoughts and imagining dragons. Just for a little while. And that must be part of the stress thing mentioned.

Btw, I listened to one of Sam’s podcasts yesterday, and as he touches on a number of issues I’m kinda growing in my scepticism towards his line of thinking, or even thinking he’s someone we should listen to. But that’s a different discussion.

Oh. And I’m sure more than two people read it.

#2 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday February 22, 2016 at 5:07pm

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Your experience with meditation is similar to what I have heard from others. It’s helpful in dealing with stress and some other issues. On the other hand, it’s not necessarily something to which one should devote years of one’s life.

I think Sam Harris is worth listening to on a lot of issues. I don’t always agree with him, as indicated by my blog post, but he usually offers a solid argument for his positions. He can be wrong but he doesn’t deal in mush.

#3 Alexander (Guest) on Monday February 22, 2016 at 5:37pm

Yes, I do agree that it is a lot of time for somewhat diminishing gains, although I think a lot of the “gains” are personal and disputed. Perhaps someone with a tumultuous mind could very well become an easier person through lots of dedication, and someone already balanced can waste a lot of time.

Yes, Sam Harris tries very hard to argue for his views, however I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by his excess use of straw men and oddly non-analogous analogies.  Especially when he deals in technology, which, I suppose, is his weak areas. His take on AI are just wrong, and the late encryption stuff very badly argued for, too (had me shouting at the car stereo yesterday ). But like you I can agree and disagree with him, I just hope people treat him as fallible like the rest of us, there’s too much worship and sloppy thinking going on these days for him to rise through the murk of humdrum and politics as someone with actual answers over simply holding a position.

#4 Alexander (Guest) on Monday February 22, 2016 at 5:40pm

Btw, I had to laugh; I clicked on your profile, and got the error message “You are not allowed to view member profiles”, ironic in so many ways, if not just from the title of the website alone ... hehe.

#5 PabloHoney (Guest) on Monday February 22, 2016 at 9:07pm

Don’t think Harris is advocating for doing so much meditation that you’re not providing for your family or achieving your goals.  The takeaway I got from the book is that you don’t have to spend *all* of your time in distracted pursuit of some future state.
And there’s a happy medium where meditation actually enhances your productivity and makes you more efficient, contented and calm in doing those other things.

Sure, he himself dedicated a chunk of his twenties to meditation, but there are plenty of twenty-somethings pissing away time on much worse.  Most people would do well to just replace 10% of the time spent on Facebook practicing some kind of meditation (myself included).

#6 Acitta (Guest) on Tuesday February 23, 2016 at 1:39pm

I find your argument that meditation takes too much time away from other important activities unpersuasive. In Buddhism, meditation was originally practiced by renunciate monks, so time away from family was generally not an issue. Becoming an expert in any activity that has results that are perceived to be of benefit by the practitioners or others takes a lot of time. To be a master concert pianist takes years of practicing for hours every day. Many families spend a lot of time and money supporting their children in sports activities in the slim hope that they may end up in the major leagues. People who have no interest is sports or musicianship don’t spend time on those activities. That doesn’t mean that they should criticize those who do. If the “enlightenment” that is supposed to be the end result of practicing meditation is of value, then it seems to me that whatever time is spent is worthwhile.

#7 Lama Surya Das (Guest) on Wednesday February 24, 2016 at 2:37am

According to Hugh Jackman - Meditation is all about the pursuit of nothingness. It’s like the ultimate rest. It’s better than the best sleep you’ve ever had. It’s a quieting of the mind. It sharpens everything, especially your appreciation of your surroundings. It keeps life fresh.

#8 James H on Friday February 26, 2016 at 6:29pm

Thanks for your interesting point of view.  I really appreciate Sam Harris since I too am a longtime meditator and a skeptic, although I disagree with a lot of his politics.

Meditation is the opposite of doing something for a reason in that it is the natural quieting of the mind to awareness of what is right now.  Doing something for a reason is working to change what is right now into something else.  Which is fine.  But meditation is a break from that, just quietly resting in what is.

Strangely, it does bake the bread.  I don’t know how but I find that meditation cuts procrastination.  Somehow seeing what is, is seeing what needs doing, which gives rise to action before you start deliberating mentally.  I don’t know if everyone gets this fringe benefit but I seem to.

The question of the existence of the self is a very large and important one.  All of us experience a sense of no self sometimes, when we are caught up in an activity we love, in nature when the bird soars and lands on a branch.  Then in the next moment a sense of separateness returns.  After years of meditation, this silent feeling that precedes separation may, rather than be occasional, be a ground, a fundamental.  Then meditation is in the bones, not just a period of sitting.

Even then, you still better go home to your house, not mine.  You better get into your car, not mine.  So a sense of self is a practical necessity.  But awareness that comes before the thinking that separates self from other is transformative and one of the very most important things to investigate for yourself in life.

Thank you!

#9 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday February 29, 2016 at 2:51pm

James, thank you for your very thoughtful contribution. Meditation does appear to have a transformative effect on some, and it appears you are one of those who benefits from it. Your description of how we can get beyond the sense of a separate self, even if only for a period of time, is vividly and aptly phrased.

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