Archive for the ‘Sam Harris’ Category


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