Sam, Me and Our Love-Hate of Spirituality

 

Unlike anybody else I know, Sam Harris shares with me an unusual combination of interests and pursuits. In every area, Sam always outdoes me.

 

We both traveled to Asia in our early twenties. We both sought out meditation masters. We both got high. Only I took weaker drugs and hung out with wimpier gurus.

 

In the 1990s, we both embraced the mind sciences and fit this new research into our spiritual exploration. Only I read popular science books on my living room couch while Sam earned a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA.

 

Our interest in science lead us to skeptically re-examine spiritual life. I lost all tolerance for quasi-Eastern New Age nonsense. Sam published a bestselling polemic on the end of faith.

 

We're both long-time meditators, but Sam has practiced more widely and intensely. We're also both long-time martial artists, but Sam could probably could kick my butt. I have no doubt he could beat me in a stare-down contest.

 

Throughout our adult lives, we have both grappled with the same contradiction: we are simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the various things that fall under the term "spirituality." So when I saw Sam's Waking Up, I was excited to read how he had resolved this paradox. As I expected, he outdid me again. But I suspect more than just the two of us struggle with this problem, so I'd like to share my story.

 

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I grew up in Berkeley, California in the 60s and 70s as a straight, uptight, paranoid kid. I distrusted Moonies, Rajneeshies, ESTers and Hare Krishnas. During my college years, I had opportunities to learn meditation, but anything touchy-feely made me want to run the other way.

 

After finishing college in New York City, I joined an Okinawan karate dojo. At the end of class, our sensei led us in seated meditation. Maybe all the punching, kicking and pushups settled me down. Maybe I trusted that the Spanish Harlem guys I trained with would never ask me to join a group hug. But for the first time, mediation seemed like something I could and should do.

 

It also seemed like something that worked slowly, over a long time. So I promised myself to practice at home, on my own, for ten years. I'd give it ten years, then decide if it was worth doing. (It was.)

 

In 1985, I moved to Kyoto, Japan, not to study Zen or karate, but to teach English and to live in a really foreign place. I met western Zen students in Kyoto, but never felt comfortable around them. So I kept to my puny individual mediation practice.

 

I took a side trip to trek the Himalayas and chose a route that passed Tibetan stupas. I spent a few days in a temple where a ten-year-old Rinpoche presided as abbot. But I avoided the spiritual seeker-tourists in the Katmandu guesthouses.

 

Later, I moved to Bangkok, Thailand and discovered the Thai forest meditation tradition. I heard an English monk give a dharma talk based on Theravada scriptures. I felt as if he was reading the users' manual of my suffering deluded mind. I made a few short stays in forest monasteries but was

too much of a slacker to stick with strict practice. However, I did achieved insight into what the monks were doing for themselves: "Oh, I see. These guys are running a 24-hour-a-day experiment to turn their minds into a work of art."

 

When I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, an English monk from the Thai forest tradition named Ajahn Amaro was setting up a branch temple in California. I attended Amaro's talks and was always stuck by his naturalistic explanation of how my mind works--or rather, works against me. But I was irritated by the fuzzy-headed "everything is everything" gushing from the laypeople around him. How could I become less confused by hanging out with such confused people?

 

And yet. What if I was missing out on a radical transformative insight--one that would dissolve all my suffering? What if I was just too uptight to surrender to a spiritual conversion that would launch me on the path to true freedom?

 

Fortunately, around this time I discovered evolutionary psychology and the new scientific research on the human mind. The writings of Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, Daniel Goleman and others hit me just like Theravada dharma talks. The message: "Your mind tends to work a certain way. These are the cognitive cards you have been dealt. If you understand how it works, you can make things better for yourself. But don't go thinking your mind can be any way you want. You got to work with what you got."

 

At this point, I stopped reading spiritual books and switched to books about mind research. I thought Buddhists would be interested in this science so I wrote an essay to introduce evolutionary psychology to meditators [https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/62072188/PrehistoricMind.htm]. But at that time, the spiritual folks were uninterested in the science. (I did heard from science folks that they found the spiritual stuff interesting.)

 

Then along came the new atheists. During Christmas break 2006, I read The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith. And I finally had my conversion experience. I realized that being "not spiritual enough" was a virtue. I'm certain this was an authentic conversion because I felt the calling to become an atheist zealot.

 

Still, I managed to keep an open mind. A few years ago, I asked to join a retreat at the local Soto Zen temple. Though I had not participated in organized religion for years, I felt I owned myself a period of intensive mediation practice. The Zen priest was a family friend. I was touched by the way he ran the retreat and by the goodwill of his students. I found the temple art, the chanting, and the rituals calming and invigorating. As I relaxed into the routine, I discovered an environment where faith in "unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment" might bud and flourish. Then, during sitting periods, I noticed myself repeating a new mantra: "Resist the memeplex."

 

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What I liked most about Waking Up is the unusual stance that wholeheartedly endorses spirituality practice and, at the same time, subjects it to no-holds-barred investigation. I secretly enjoy thinking about spirituality in this way; it leads me to questions that are too deluded and materialistic to ask out loud: How do I calculate the cost-benefit tradeoffs to meditation practice? What are the stakes and what is the ultimate pay-out? Exactly what benefit accrues from "unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment?"

 

Answers to these questions rest on assumptions about human nature. If you assume that the human mind has unlimited spiritual potential, then you have what Thomas Sowell calls an "unconstrained view." This is the New Age notion that it is possible to liberate ourselves from a culturally conditioned mind and achieve an ultimate freedom beyond conventional conception.

 

On the other hand, if you consider the human mind to be a functional organ designed for adaptive purposes by natural selection--and that those purposes do not include making its owner happy--then you hold a "constrained view." This is the position supported by the mind sciences. And I favor the view backed by scientific evidence.

 

Of course, these are the extremes. To avoid the extremes, I follow a personal dictum that aims toward the Middle Path. When I ponder the existence of any trippy spiritual phenomenon I tell myself: "There may be more to this than I think, but there is less to this than I wish."

 

Are complete enlightenment, self-transcendence and cessation possible? I don't think so, but I can't say for sure that nobody has ever experienced them. So there may be more to it than I think.

 

Are complete enlightenment, self-transcendence and cessation possible for me? I hope they are. And I wish they would purge all my suffering forever. But the truth is most certainly less than I wish.

 

And yet. There may be more than I think. At least that is one message I got from Waking Up. Thanks Sam.