Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category

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Sam Harris Doesn’t Understand Meditation

July 8, 2021

This is certainly one of the oddest products I’ve covered here. Sam Harris is selling a meditation app that he claims will help you erase your racial identity. The result is a bizarre form of New Age political quackery.

Why anyone should even be instructed to renounce their race is a valid question, but it is outside the scope of this blog. (For coverage of the implications for racial politics, see the footnotes.) The focus here will be purely on Harris’s claims about meditation.

For someone who has been a practicing Buddhist for three decades, Harris displays an extraordinary degree of ignorance about what meditation is and how it works. He also displays a most hilarious lack of self-awareness, and a confuses meditation with something that is simply an egoistic attachment to certain ideas.

In short, Harris makes three fundamental errors. He thinks you can simply force yourself to meditate; he assumes that insights gained from meditation can be directly carried over into everyday mental life; and instead of helping you dis-identify from their race, he is really coaxing people into identifying even more strongly with a set of (utterly fatuous) ideas.

These are beginner’s mistakes, though they also tend to be replicated by meditation teachers who exaggerate the efficacy of their product.

I’ve previously praised Harris for the way he dealt with Deepak Chopra’s spiritual bluster (see the footnotes), but here we will see Harris making exactly the same errors that he criticised Chopra for, as well as pulling all the standard New Age promotional tricks. Here is the classical 5 Step approach to promoting spiritual quackery that we are about to watch Harris impliment:

1. Find a problem (and if there isn’t one, invent one or exaggerate an existing minor one)

2. Find a single simple “cause” for that problem

3. Find a single simple “cure” for that cause

4. Exaggerate, oversell, or even fabricate the effectiveness of that “cure”

5. Treat all criticism of the product as a personal and unjustified attack on the teacher themselves

Sam Harris is best known as a “New Atheist” and a member of a right wing thinkers’ club, the hilariously pompous “Intellectual Dark Web”. A light touch, a practical approach, and a gently self-ironic attitude to his own foibles are not part of Harris’s character.

In his 5 minute ad for his app, Harris compares himself to Jesus; calls religion a perversion — a perversion of his own “true” meditative experience; claims that he himself possesses “genuine compassion”; and claims that the real reason why he is often accused of bigotry is because people don’t understand meditation. Ninety-nine percent of people, Harris complains, misunderstand the role that meditation plays in his political and philosophical thinking…. That’s 99% of the people in his own audience! Obviously, it’s them who need to change, not him. They need to start meditating so that poor Sam can have his ideas understood by people in the manner he wishes.

This is clearly a rather demanding child……

Oh yeh, and he claims his meditation app will grant you “meditation on demand”. Dis-identifying yourself from your racial identity has never been easier.

It is true that meditation, especially the Buddhist type that Harris likes, can be said to involve a kind of “dis-identification” with one’s idea of “self”. But the way Harris talks about it is completely mad. Despite thirty odd years of Buddhist practice, he doesn’t seem to know the most basic aspects of meditation and it effects.

Here is Harris’s version of the 5 Step sales pitch:

1. The problem is hypersensitivity to racial discrimination on “the Left”

2. The cause is over-identification with racial identity

3. The cure is Dr Sam’s meditation app

4. The exaggerated sales pitch is “meditation on demand”

5. Any criticism is treated as a personal attack on Harris himself

It’s all laid out in his short podcast titled A Few Points of Confusion.

As always in his podcasts, Harris opens by expressing his shock and bafflement that he has yet again been misunderstood by a great many people. As always, he will he have to correct everyone. The “points of confusion” that people have had concern the role that meditation plays in Harris’s life.

Sam Harris’s subjective experience of his own consciousness is of course very important to “people”, but sadly, they get confused, so that needs to be cleared up pronto. Harris explains:

—> Unless you’re deeply into it, the term meditation almost certainly conjures the wrong ideas in your mind.

Luckily for me, I am deeply into meditation. In fact I’ve been meditating about as long as Harris has. I was even in India in the 1990s at the same time as him, and in a similar milieu. I’ve also read his book Waking Up and had thought that I was in broad agreement with his approach. But it turns out that I’ve been “confused” all along.

—> Meditation is just a bad word for the recognition of specific truths about the mind.

Hang on — what??? So meditation doesn’t mean awareness, but rather a “recognition” of certain “truths”??? That’s insane! That’s not meditation by any normal definition. That will only lead to being egotistically identified with a set of ideas, only now with the added mistake of taking them to be “truths” instead of just ideas. That’s not even what his own book says!

I’m stunned. I can’t believe he said that. But yes, that is indeed a direct transcription of what he said.

According to the Buddhist/Vedanta style I thought he advocated, meditation is, more or less, simply awareness. Or if you want to get technical, awareness of awareness. Meditation is not centered around conceptual thought like that — recognition, specific truths, etc. That’s stupid.

What Harris just said is like saying that swimming is just a bad word for conceptually understanding what it feels like to get wet.

He continues:

—> It’s a process of discovering what is already true of your mind.

Which “mind” is he talking about here? The mind with a lower-case m, or the capital-M Mind that some translators use for various Buddhist terms for consciousness? He seems to be conflating both these meanings in an odd way. This will become clearer below.

—> People can’t understand positions I take on this podcast without understanding your mind.

Harris is really pissed off that communication involves an awareness of other people’s existing knowledge and perspective, rather than just being able to blab out whatever is going through his mind at the current moment. I thought meditation makes you less egocentric, not more!

—> And these are positions which, on their surface have nothing to do with mediation. My experience here [he means his own experience with meditation] is often the key to understanding my criticism of specific scientific and philosophical ideas….

No wonder 99% of his audience gets confused.

Harris then uses the examples of free will and the illusion of “self”, as insights that can be gained through meditation. And this is where he really goes off the rails.

He thinks that you can not only discover these “facts” through meditation, but then also simply ram this awareness into your everyday non-meditative consciousness. In fact he demands that people do this. And he calls resulting dogma, born of the interpretation of a memory, “knowledge”.

Sure, I can remember that while I was meditating my self or my feeling of free will disappeared, and I can intellectually believe that they must be illusions. But in normal everyday consciousness, I can’t keep on experiencing that absence of self or free will. The actual experience in the moment it is happening is one thing; the memory of that experience is something completely different. And the interpretation of the memory is yet another step removed. But Harris sees none of these distinctions. In fact he thinks it’s merely a lack of courage that prevents people from dragging their meditative experience into their everyday consciousness.

He thinks that people–

—> ….don’t really have the courage of their convictions, because they still feel like selves that enjoy free will.

Nope. You can’t simply decide to stop “feeling like a self” or “feeling like you have free will”. Note the use of the verb. And the pronoun.

There is no escaping this, with or without a meditation app. As soon as you start doing, meditation ends. Nor can you force yourself to stay in a meditative state. Ask any Buddhist for the last 3000 years. The mere attempt to do so instantly destroys meditation. There are no verbs inside the Gates of Eden, (as Dylan might have sung).

What you can do, however, is convince yourself that you believe that you don’t have a self or free will.

That will make you a very special meditator indeed. Instead of getting out of the mind, you can simply inflate the mind so that it includes all the great ideas like “I have the consciousness of Jesus”, “I have no self”, “I have no free will”, and then you can walk around smugly all day babbling about how non-egotistical you are.

—> I can say this because there’s nothing hypothetical to me about the kinds of experiences that people like Jesus were rattling on about to anyone who would listen. And if you’ve had these experiences, and can have them on demand…

And there it is folks — Meditation on demand!

Seriously, has this guy EVER meditated?

I recall hearing a talk by one of Joseph Goldstein’s rather smug followers (maybe Stephen Levine), who was laughing about people thinking Goldstein’s institute was called “Instant Meditation” instead of “Insight Meditation”. Well, Harris isn’t an innocent newbie. He is an experienced meditation teacher with some rather grand claims about his own degree of spiritual development. Yet here he is making exactly the same mistake.

We could really just stop this right here and save this fellow from further embarrassment. But, as Harris thinks he’s really onto a great new product that will save civilisation from “the Left”, it’s worth plowing on.

Harris continues:

—> When it’s absolutely obvious to you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion…

Um, Dr Harris– “absolutely obvious” to WHOM exactly? Has he even realised that his own illusory self is currently addressing your and my illusory self?

Sam Harris thinks his grand godly capital-M Mind of Buddhism has comprehended the illusory nature of his lower-case-m mind. The bad news for Harris is that he has merely convinced himself that he is in a permanent state of Jesus-consciousness.

This is exactly the same mistake that every channeler, conversationalist with God, Angelic Healer, every Pope, priest, faith healer, and snake-handling speaker-in-tongues makes. The promised land of the Higher Self gets colonised by the lower self and proudly proclaimed and blabbed about in public.

Harris continues, saying that if you can get these experiences on demand, then you won’t get dependent on a religion. And now that he’s cleared up that “point of confusion” in 99% of his audience, he moves on to politics.

….. Racial politics…… What could go wrong?

—> How can I be so sure that the explosion of identity politics that we see all around us isn’t a sign of progress. How can I know that it’s an ethical and psychological dead end to be deeply identified with one’s race?

Before asking “how can I know” it would be better to demonstrate that it is really the case, rather than just assuming it.

Whoops, that sentence is still going. He’s shoehorned a few more assumptions into it–

—> …and that all the people who are saying that there’s no way to get past race in our politics are just confused?

Hang on, what is he talking about? This is the “problem” his app will fix, but who exactly is it who says you “can’t get past race in politics”? What does that even mean?

—> Well it’s because I know that a person need not identify with the face he sees in the mirror each day.

Howwwleeee shit.

Well that was stupid.

Yep, stare at yourself in mirror each morning and repeat the affirmation “I don’t know who the hell I am.” That will improve your mental health no end.

—> How unnecessary is it to identify with millions of strangers who just happen to look like you in that they have the same skin colour. In light of what’s possible, psychologically and inter-personally, in light of what is actually required to get over yourself…

Does anyone know what he means by this?

—> ….and to experience genuine compassion for other human beings…

The Grand Master of Meditative Compassion speaketh.

—> It is a form of mental illness to go through life identified, really identified, with one’s race.

Yes, your racial identity is a mental illness….. Now please don’t tell Sam that he’s barking up the wrong tree. Or that he’s climbed up the wrong tree and is sitting there happily, blowing on a dog whistle.

—> Of course to say that as a white guy…

And here it comes. Point five on the standard model for the promotion of quackery — to treat all criticism as a personal attack.

—> Of course, to say that as a white guy, in the current environment, is to stand convicted of racial insensitivity, and even seeming indifference to the problem of racism in our society.

Poor Sam — all he said was that racial identity is a form of mental illness and is selling a product to cure you of it, and now people are calling him insensitive. …So let’s all talk about his victimhood now, rather than any of the problems with his ideas about race or the product he is selling.

He continues, saying that “most well intentioned people” have been “successfully bullied” into dismissing his ideas on race because he’s white.

Then he adds that the white people who criticise him — like me for example — are only doing so because there are “massive incentives” on offer. This shoehorning of assumption upon assumption, each with an implicit accusation of bad motivation in his critics, is really just about the only thing that Sam Harris’s statements ever consist of.

—> But to insist on the primacy of race is to be obscenely confused.

Who, exactly, insists on the “primacy of race”? Does he mean me?

Whoops– the sentence was still going.

—> …obscenely confused about human potential…

Hang on — what? Human potential? The Golden Age, the Promised Land awaits if we only fulfill our potential. This is seriously weird. I really didn’t know Harris thinks like this.

—> …and society’s potential. And I’m not going to pretend to be unaware of that.

The accusation here is of course that everyone else is just pretending “not to be aware” of human and societal potential, despite it being so obvious, whatever it is.

—> …So when I’m talking about racial politics I am also talking about meditation.

We got there finally. All that was just to explain why he sees a connection between meditation and politics. It’s all so simple– all the confused people think Sam Harris is talking about racial politics, but really he’s just talking about meditation. The undeniable FACTS of meditation that you would know are facts if only you would use his app. Really, I don’t know why 99% of people find this so hard to follow…

Harris continues with his usual lucidity.

—> There are certain things that I actually understand about my own mind, and about the mind in general [he means your mind]. And the idea that racial identity is something that we can’t get past is total bullshit.

Get with the program people! Stop this obscene confusion about your own identity, and listen to Dr Sam. Force yourself to understand him. He is right. He knows the facts, the scientific and meditational facts. He is offering you meditation on demand. Use the app and force yourself to dis-identify with your race and get identified instead with the fact that you have no self and no free will.

And if you believe — if you truly believe — a Golden Age will dawn. And the people shall rise up and attain the peak of human and societal potential– namely, they shall correctly interpret the role that meditation plays in Sam Harris’s political and philosophical thinking. And their confusion about this shall be no more. And they will stop calling him a bigot, a fool, a klutz, an ignoramus, an enabler of white supremacy. A racist. A white guy.

Footnote & Links: I used to follow Sam Harris and have praised him in the past–

see this article

–until I got bored with his habit of making long-winded complicated arguments and then whining about being misinterpreted, and making the whole issue about himself. Then, when he took up with a–

right wing pseudo-intellectual Christian scammer

–I started ignoring him as completely as possible. A recent series of podcasts called Woking Up alerted me not only to this ridiculous meditation scam, but also to Harris’s constant and completely hysterical attacks on “the Left” and his inexcusable support for white nationalists. Links to the series (which bullied me into writing this blogpost and benefiting from the massive incentives from doing so) can be found here

Part 1 — Some of my best friends are…. (and intro to Harris’s worst takes disgracefully ignorant conception of racism)

Part 2 — Steal-manning Champion

Part 3 — Election Aftermath (this deals especially with Harris’s claim that “White supremacy is the fringe of the fringe” and that “Wokism” is a far greater threat to civilisation)

Part 4 — Nothing to do with racism

Part 5 — Sam Harris loves identity politics

Eiynah’s ‘Polite Conversations’ podcast can be found here

UPDATE: Excellent article on this topic that goes into far more detail than mine can be found here–

Sam Harris is Right About Things Because He Likes To Meditate

Posted by Yakaru

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Aristotle’s Peaceful Non-Christian God

October 25, 2019

The Christian God is derived of course not only from biblical scripture, but also from Plato.

But theologians also borrowed (along with an entire cosmology) some terminology from Aristotle: ‘unmoved mover’ and ‘first cause’, among many others. But they explicitly and vehemently rejected Aristotle’s notion of God.

Islamic portrayal of Aristotle, 1220 (partly damaged)

They didn’t like it that, unlike Plato’s God, the god of Aristotle did not create the universe. This is a needless abdication of power. Christians are supposed to feel infinitely subordinate to God and irreversibly indebted to Him as well. That’s an easier place to get to theologically (i.e. politically), if you can say that God created us, and that we are thus his property.

Aristotle thought the earth and the heavens had simply always been there: the spherical earth at the centre of the universe; the heavens slowly turning above, in an unchanging and unbroken circle. The animals, a category to which humans also belong, live out their lives as their predecessors always have done, beautifully attuned to their respective habitats.

For Plato, the demiurge created tiny geometric particles and shared out some creative tasks to lesser deities, who did the best they could to create a world out of this rather unforgiving material. All they could do though was to create a pale and unsatisfying copy of the divine master plan: the eternal “Forms” that are the immaterial true essence of the various things in the universe. Our world, according to Plato is a realm of shadows and imperfection.

This accorded well with Christianity, as did the path to “true knowledge” that Plato installed in this model as well. Only by revelation can knowledge be gained. His famous simile of the cave has a prisoner who has only seen shadows, led out into the light to see real things themselves. As with Christian revelation, knowledge gained in this manner grants the knower a special status. Better still, the knowledge itself is invulnerable to criticism as well as to revision. Its more baffling aspects can be “interpreted” by a priesthood, who attain special and unquestionable special status, which can be maintained as long as they maintain a grip on political power.

The Great Chain of Being: Christian cosmology based on Aristotle, 1579. (Source)

For Aristotle, the world was worth knowing about in itself. While Christianity indeed adopted his cosmology (with the heavens above, eternal and unchanging, and the realm of change below — the sub-lunary realm), the Church added Plato’s Creator-God into the mix. Thus it reintroduced what Aristotle had explicitly rejected in Plato: a beginning, a Creator, and the Forms.

While the heavens were for Aristotle governed by different laws (of circular motion) and consisting of different stuff (a fifth element, the quintessence), they weren’t separated by the same gulf as with Plato and Christianity. Knowledge of the world is genuine knowledge,m for Aristotle, whereas for Plato and the Church, true knowledge can only come from revelation.

In a way, Aristotle drew the invisible Forms of Plato a few steps closer to earth. That same wonder Plato invoked for a revelation of the Forms (and Christianity invokes for the presence of God), was for Aristotle the same thing we all feel when we gaze at the stars.

The encounter between reason and revelation, that has occupied theologians for so long, is, in Aristotle, simply the encounter between reason and reality as we perceive it.

Plato’s somewhat intolerant impatience for the natural sciences, which says ‘Ok, you can study that stuff, but ultimately who cares?‘ is the most enlightened position on scientific inquiry that theology has ever come up with. Tolerant theologians have always seen it as the study of the works of the Creator. Some have even granted that it might possibly be a “path to the divine”, though always with a cautious glance over their shoulder. It is always, however, seen as a circuitous and unreliable route to take.

They accept the reasoning that if God created the world, then to study the world is to study the works of the Creator… but that “IF” is barely audible, and usually surgically removed before it can do any further damage. The most liberal modern theologians are prepared to accept free inquiry, but always with one hand resting on the handbrake.

But for Aristotle, with no Creator-God, there is also no fear of disproof or disappointment; no burden of assumptions, and no big stick for any priest to wield.

“Humans”, as Aristotle said, “by their nature desire to know.”

The soul dies with the body, according to Aristotle, although he did see consciousness in a de-personalised sense continuing somehow. Prayer also went out the window for Aristotle. He saw it not only as useless but, under his conception of God, also impossible and pointless. And he said so. (And yes, he did spend his final years in exile.)

Not that he said people shouldn’t pray, but rather, that if they do, God won’t hear it, because he doesn’t love us, doesn’t care and doesn’t even know we exist.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 7, translated by William of Moerbeke c. 1250 (source)

This is a horrifying thought not only for those who find solace in prayer, but also for the priesthood. Prayer is the currency of Christian theology. It’s a “thing” that people can “do”, can even be seen “doing”, can be told to “do”, and can say they’ve “done”. It’s a way that guilt can be resolved, that one can feel one’s own status has been raised, and one can feel a connection to one’s God. Above all, it confirms and reinforces the submissive, subordinate relationship that a believer has not only to their God, but — most importantly for the purposes of this piece of writing — to their priesthood.

So Aristotle’s God didn’t create anything, doesn’t answer prayers, doesn’t grant absolute knowledge through revelation, doesn’t keep the universe ticking over in some mysterious way, doesn’t reveal Himself unexpectedly to people or impregnate virgins or appear in human form. He also doesn’t perform miracles, sit in judgment, or grant any person eternal life.

What’s left then?

There are two aspects to that.

The first is that Aristotle’s God touches people and moves people. But not in the active sense of reaching out; rather in the passive sense: in the same way as people are “touched” by a work of art or “moved” by the beauty of nature. (The language is Aristotle’s.) The things of the natural world — the animals, the plants, even rocks and minerals — embody their closeness to the divine in the form they take. Aristotle saw a great hierarchy, a scala naturae, as it was called by the Christian theologians who embraced this idea, from the lowliest worm to the pinnacle of this great pyramid — humans, of course.

This particular idea — the Great Chain of Being — though it survived the destruction that Galileo and Newton wrought on Aristotle’s cosmology, did not survive Darwin. there is no grand hierarchy. Living organisms are adapted to their particular habitat, not to any kind of absolute or external hierarchy. (This is too rarely emphasised. Darwin didn’t just demolish creationism; he also dismantled the idea that the differences between species — and more importantly races — are of no intrinsic significance or value. They are related to habitat and chance mutation, and are not marks left by a divine Creator.)

Darwin’s conception of species branching out from a common origin, c. 1837

The second (and final) aspect is Aristotle’s consideration of what exactly God is and what it does.

God, according to Aristotle, thinks. He thinks about thinking. Or if I may risk a little pseudo-Buddhist supposition about what Aristotle is referring to, God is conscious awareness that is aware of itself. It contemplates its own awareness. (Maybe meditators will have a clue what I’m babbling about, and maybe it even means something.)

For Aristotle, it is good to be aware of the objects of the world — the search for knowledge is intrinsically good. But it requires an effort to “possess” the things of the world in one’s mind. You have have to go outside yourself to do it. But for awareness to simply be aware of itself, it takes no energy. Or maybe to today we might speculate that it takes less to be simply aware of awareness itself, relatively untroubled by the distractions of sensory input.

I’m not claiming necessarily that this kind of thing is psychological possible, but there’s the kernel of an idea there that I think is similar to the ideas found in Zen Buddhism, and also — I think — able to explored for oneself.

Whatever the case, Aristotle, as much as he valued scientific inquiry — and he did value as highly as anyone and in fact founded a genuine science of biology — he also saw conscious awareness itself as divine.

This happy state does not involve the endless prattling inner dialogue of ‘normal’ thought; not does it passively fall asleep. It is aware, but it doesn’t actually do anything. Awareness just is, ultimately. (Perhaps.)

Thought, Aristotle says, “seems to contain” what he calls the “divine element” (yep, that term also comes from him). And “the act of contemplation is what is most pleasant and best. If, then, God is always in that good state in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder…”

And life also belongs to God because the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is is life most good and eternal.

If that sounds like cheap theology, it’s partly because his rather pedestrian lecture notes are all we have on this, and also because it’s exactly the style theologians try to emulate. (The passage is from the Metaphysics, Bk 7, Ch 7.)

Whatever the case, and whatever Aristotle means by all this, it is clear that this “God” is not the Christian God. It doesn’t confer privileges on one class of people over another, nor does it claim it will rescue you or your soul. Nor will it even so much as raise an eyebrow at our private antics.

It’s just aware. A silent, non-judging witness.

Aristotle as portrayed by the Germans, 1520 (don’t ask)

Posted by Yakaru

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Religion, Spirituality and the ‘Inner Hierarchy’

February 25, 2018

This post is a collection of thoughts that starts suddenly in the middle of nowhere and then wanders off somewhere else. It is not especially coherent, but it is supposed to mean something. I am still clearing up the ideas involved in it. It might be interesting, dull, utterly inscrutable or mundanely obvious.

Humans, like other mammals and primates, have a more or less pre-programmed ‘inner hierarchy’. We automatically size up other people we encounter, to determine whether or not we feel dominant or submissive to them, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Much of this is learned and socialized of course, but there is also a substructure of automatic behavioral patterns that automatically kick in, especially if the dominance or submission is clear cut.

In other words, humans have a kind of map for sets of behaviors for each level of a hierarchy. Clearly, a similar set of psychological conditions accompany these.

These behavior patterns sit deep in the psyche, often largely beyond conscious awareness or control. these are triggered by certain signals — body posture, certain types of language use, adornment, etc. I assume anyone reading this has experienced a situation where they were shocked at their own behavior in some kind of unexpected response to such signals: too submissive to an authoritarian, or maybe nasty to someone who signaled submission.

I am arguing that we automatically place ourselves somewhere on a scale of dominance/submission, according to a kind of ‘inner map’, which also contains behavioral patterns which are triggered according to where we place on this scale.

Everyone tends to go a little weak in the knees when encountering an especially high status person. (There are of course good evolutionary reasons for an instinctive tendency to express submission to highly dominant individuals.) But it’s not just crass power games involving survival or receiving favors. Our sense of awe when encountering an extraordinary landscape, or a wild animal, or work of art, etc., probably comes from this same aspect of our psychology.

We are carrying, in other words, a complete program for how to act, and how to feel for each status level of this inner hierarchy.

So people can feel genuine awe for “God”, regardless of whether or not there are any gods, if they happen to stumble into that part of the brain where the feeling of awe for a higher power is located.

Mystics, especially outside the three dominant monotheisms, report feeling like they themselves have been transported to this higher status position, without feeling dominant over others, but more like they are observing themselves and everyone else as if from a great height or distance.

The existence of this ‘inner hierarchy’ makes humans very susceptible to religion. The notion of an ultimate alpha male is close enough to deep seated mammalian instinctive feelings and behaviors. We are at the utter mercy of external factors, regardless of whether they’re due to random chance or deliberate intention of a “higher” being. It’s not easy to live with that fact, and it is easy to feel stress related to powerlessness.

The biologist Robert Sapolsky has argued persuasively (using research o primates including baboons and humans) that stress is most closely associated with lower status. In fact merely occupying a lower status position is itself a cause of stress.

We can also note that under stress (aka lower status in relation to some stressor) or who feel helpless, are more likely to trust an authority figure.

All this makes it quite easy for priests to convince people that “God” is up there on the top step, and that there are steps descending downwards towards us — the hierarchies of seraphim and cherubim, the angels, a few saints, and then splashing out into physical reality, the popes, cardinals and bishops, down a few more stairs to the priest who is standing before you, one step up. You can see the stairs leading upwards, maybe the last visible step being some magnificent church, before it disappears into the clouds.

And that priest is at the immediate end of all that power, right in front of you.

Some religions and sects (and cults) are very particular about the status its sheep are allowed to occupy. They use ideology to prevent people from moving up the scale on their own ‘inner hierarchy’ as it exists in their psyche. They even define humanity in a way that denies the very possibility of such inward mobility.

Humans are guilty of original sin, or do not belong to a lower caste, etc. The whole thing is framed to keep followers stuck in one position on their ‘inner hierarchy’. (This is why religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution. It loosens their grip on their power to define humanity, and therefore loosens their ideological control over their subjects.)

Should a subject feel themselves being tugged upwards, they should immediately dismiss it as hubris. The fear of falling even further downwards can be used as a constant threat over them.

Gautama the Buddha said “be a light unto yourself”, implying, I suppose, that humans are in fact free to move upwardly in this ‘inner hierarchy’.

The dissolution of the illusion of self — so surprising at first, and maybe a little shocking too — is a key to this. A ‘self’ can be fixed at one level on the inner hierarchy, and held there until its future Day of Judgment, where this single unified ‘self’ will be condemned or redeemed, according to its acts.

For this reason, mystics who preach the illusory nature of the ‘self’, have never been tolerated by any authoritarian religion. The practice of meditation is also treated with immense caution at best (and seen as a subset of prayer); and usually without outright condemnation. They don’t want people locating themselves at many different points on that inner hierarchy, or maybe, all points and nowhere on it, simultaneously. That ‘self’ is the thing that authoritarian religions hold power over.

(It is instructive to note here that despite appearances New Age esoteric spirituality is also guilty of this. They have carried over the Platonic/Christian view of the “soul” as something unitary and immortal. Thus the stakes for salvation are just as high as in Christianity, and the power of its priesthood just as great — though without any moral strictures for priestly behavior. This is bad for actual spirituality, but great for marketing.)

As a small child, I accidentally discovered this myself. I used to lie awake at night looking for who “I” refers to. I couldn’t find it, yet there was still consciousness, somehow, without any “I”, just bubbling up out of nowhere like a slow, happy fountain. I used to just lie there, completely astounded by this experience. As a teenager I once remembered that I used to be able to do it, but when I tried I couldn’t get there anymore. Too much inner turmoil.
Conscious awareness is a tiny little window onto the present moment, like a little piece of sky, with clouds swirling in and out of view. It is surrounded by a wall of words and thoughts about hopes and dreams, tied together ultimately, by emotions. Emotions resulting from the pain of loneliness and the fear of death or dissolution.

It does seem to me that it is possible for the frame of this window to expand or disappear, and reveal the vast empty sky — a sky of consciousness, which is just there: it is, by its nature, aware, but it doesn’t do anything.

Posted by Yakaru