Changing, Fast and Slow /// notes on Sam Harris, meditation, spiritual impatience, and the rising sea

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this Doctrine and Discipline (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual progression, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch.

— Uposatha Sutta,  5.5


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m looking forward to September’s release of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris. When an “acerbic atheist” (to use the phrase of ABC’s Dan Harris in his mini pre-review) who has done so much to open up discourse on faith, reason, cognitive science and ethics comes out of the closet about his personal practice of meditation and proposes to evaluate his experience in terms of neuropsychology, it’s some good times. But a number of details from this recent dialogue with the same Dan Harris give me pause. (If he has modified these claims somewhere I haven’t come across, I ‘d be happy to know.)

In the dialogue, the Harris known as Sam is describing to the Harris known as Dan the paradox at the heart of the meditation that seeks to deconstruct the self: how can we use consciousness to penetrate consciousness? The black box records the flight but not its own recording. How do you look directly at the thing that is looking?

Sam uses the analogy of standing before a window. You can look through it to the garden beyond. Or, if you shift focus, you can catch a sudden glimpse of your own face. He likens the former to meditating on the contents of consciousness, and the latter to meditating on its mechanism. Harris valorizes meditating on the mechanism, and then appears to draw a hard line between the two.

I’ll give a long quote from the dialogue here:

SAM HARRIS: Imagine that the goal of meditation is to see your own reflection clearly in each moment. Most spiritual traditions don’t realize that this can be done directly, and they articulate their paths of practice in ways that suggest that if you only paid more attention to everything beyond the glass—trees, sky, traffic—eventually your face would come into view. Looking out the window is arguably better than closing your eyes or leaving the room entirely—at least you are facing in the right direction—but the practice is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. You don’t realize that you are looking through the very thing you are trying to find in every moment. Given better information, you could just walk up to the window and see your face in the first instant.

The same is true for the illusoriness of the self. Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist, and they spend their lives looking out the window, as it were. I used to be one of them. I’d stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn’t get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.

However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts. [Emphasis mine.]

First, Sam’s dismissal of the efficacy of “most spiritual traditions” might be a casualty of brevity, but it’s overly broad and unfair. Second, the window analogy doesn’t really work, if deconstructing the self-that-sees is the point. But more importantly, his rejection of gradual learning in meditative paths seems psychologically and maybe neurologically obtuse. And his seeming sureness about it all looks like a right-turn away from the bright skepticism he espouses. If Harris wants to become the kind of spiritual guide he won’t be compelled to shred in a subsequent book, some tweaks may be in order.


[dropcap]H[/dropcap]arris is off the mark about “most spiritual traditions” missing the distinction between content and mechanism, or that they fail to recognize both indirect and direct approaches. The four Satipatthanas (“foundations of mindfulness“) in the form of Buddhism that Harris is trained in, play exactly upon such distinctions in their objects of attention. Focus is to be placed on 1) sensations of the body itself, including its evidence of impermanence, 2) feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality, 3) “mind” itself, i.e., the presence or absence of grasping, aversion or delusion, as well as the mind’s functioning as restricted, scattered, enlarged, surpassed, concentrated, released and their opposites, and 4) dhammas: mental qualities and categories, such as the five hindrances, five aggregates of experience, six sense spheres, seven factors of awakening and the four noble truths. These four focal points effectively blend meditation upon the contents of consciousness with the trickier meditation upon (but also through) the mechanism of consciousness. Each one on its own is felt to be sufficient to provoke “awakening”. (Thanks to Frank Jude Boccio for helping me clarify these via personal email.)

Second: the window analogy falls short of capturing the problem. I’m surprised that Harris uses it, since it so clearly echoes the absurdity of the Cartesian Theatre, as described by his colleague Daniel Dennett. The capacity of the viewer to either see objects through the window or to focus on his own reflection doesn’t touch the mystery of who or what the viewer is. The analogy punts the question up to another order of abstraction: who is looking through the viewer’s eyes at the reflection of the viewer’s face? The analogy fails as it must, because its aim is to mitigate the fact that it is simply impossible for the mind to see its own mechanism in media res. The Buddhism I learned used an analogy that didn’t attempt to solve the unsolvable. It said: the eye cannot see itself. (In English, there’s a lovely homonymic elision: the “I” cannot see itself. Yet another homonym captures the homunculus problem: the “I” cannot see its elf.) This was enriched for me by the notions of Drew Leder in The Absent Body, which describes how sensory self-blindness is one of the many ways in which the invisibility of the body to itself resonates with the fact that the “self” seems to be other than the “body”, but is ultimately unfindable.




The window/reflection analogy is also dodgy because it uses the image of instantaneous facial recognition – a precognitive reflex that constitutes one of the first building mechanisms of the social self – as a symbol for the post-cognitive deconstruction of that same social self. The image is at best confusing in a world in which facial recognition technology is becoming the gold biometric standard in naming, labeling, and surveilling the obedient citizen. The face is the site of the self’s most public construction. In Harris’ analogy, the startling recognition of your reflected face equals the shock of recognizing the mechanism of consciousness. But experiencing the mechanism of consciousness, if it were even possible, would mean recognizing that you have no “face” at all, but a continually generated flow of masks that no biometrics could ever define or control.


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o me, the larger problem is Harris’ claim that there is no truly gradual path that could utilize contemplation upon the content of experience as preparation for a frank encounter with its mechanism. Let’s lay aside the fact that he probably hasn’t conducted longitudinal studies on meditators to confidently assess what works and what doesn’t, or even how to measure the accuracy of meditators’ self-reports, including his own. Not only can Harris’ claim of “no truly gradual path” never be proven, it also flies in the face of the ways in which we regularly observe the infinite subtlety of change. Additionally, it glorifies a pedagogy of rupture that can anxiously perpetuate the very illusion of the self it seeks to uproot. There’s nothing more supportive of the self-illusion than the thought that the nature or intelligence or beneficence of the self can be abruptly changed from a less attractive to a more attractive version: from a person who doesn’t get it, into a person who does. The dream of the enlightened self erupting from a chrysalis of ignorance is the stickiest ruse of all.

Let’s start with the obvious blindspot. There is no way that Harris can know what his months and years of staring through the glass instead of at the reflection prepared him for, or obscured him from. It’s easy for self-made pitta-predominant men to be anxious about wasting time. But those dry years can give a kind of graceful patience that naturalizes a growing revelation. Think of the Karate Kid grumpily painting those fence boards, and then realizing he can easily deflect a ninja attack. I’m also reminded of one of my early writing mentors telling me that there was no such thing as wasted time: while I was distracting myself or bored, or depressed – this is when some of the key work might be happening. You just can’t know.


The Kid, with Mr. Myagi, taking it slow.



As a fine explicator of contemporary neuroscience who has written an entire book deconstructing free will, Harris is aware that the causes of cognitive change are largely unintended, and buried deep within the prefrontal maze. But when it comes to meditation, does he imagine our sense of agency is suddenly trustworthy, or that we can pinpoint the causes of epiphanies? Will that then allow him to define the difference between true and false wisdom paths? That would seem to be where the argument leads. Some practices of meditation will, according to Harris, unlock the black box, and others won’t. Sounds like something to build a religion upon, but we know that’s not Harris’ thing. Or is it? Despite his consistent attack on the religious trappings of the techniques he loves, scholars of religion take note: following the fall lecture tour for Harris’ new book could amount to a fascinating study in whether gatherings centering on charismatic atheism can meet the definitions of “New Religious Movement”. The critic’s paradox is that it can be very hard not to mimic what one attacks.


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the Tibetan Buddhist lineage I trained in, contemplating the selflessness of objects was taught as a natural introduction to contemplating the selflessness of other persons, and then finally the selflessness of one’s own self. Teachers would say that the selflessness of one’s own self was to be approached cautiously and gradually. If it wasn’t, there could be a spectrum of unsavory results, from polyanna nihilism to outright dissociation. (We might look for both these trends in the shadow cast by Eckhart Tolle, whose work focuses almost exclusively upon the mechanism of self-focus.)  The thing about deconstructing the essentialism of a chariot (à la Nagarjuna) or a blade of grass (à la Dogen and so many other poets), is that it puts one into a consistent reverie upon the fact that things are not as rigid as they seem. This reverie slowly goes viral within.

The reverie is also characterized by slowness. Far slower than the slow thought described by Kahneman, whose famous phrase I’m echoing in my title here. During a slow-enough analysis, one can see how the very edges of moments are knit together by cognition into something one calls “time”. One might slow down that very time enough to become aware of the ongoing granular process of the naming and knitting-together of things into the illusion of an objective view. Further, one may begin to feel how imputing essentialism to a blade of grass is filled with both pathos and unnecessary tension. One can see that we want to grant an impossible essence to each and every thing, perhaps so that we can feel a sense of command-and-control amidst this tender tsunami of data.

We are like children, naming the world in order to possess it. It is a drive which, when we recognize its self-reflexive form – the will to bestow an essence upon ourselves – can break our heart with its naïveté. This definitely gradual deconstruction is a mood to which the meditator acclimates, slowly, as if beguiled by minimalist music or sound poetry. As the analysis becomes more and more natural, it might be finally turned upon the agency of consciousness itself, and if it’s slow enough, it won’t feel like the sky is falling.

Lineage experience has believed this useful, I think, because it’s clear that dramatic psychic changes are not only difficult to stabilize, but also mired in a web of student-teacher transference and counter-transference. Consciously or unconsciously, gurus thrive on provoking the dramatic shift, because they usually force adherents into dependency. (We might consider this to be the shadow of dīkṣā initiation.) I hope Harris explores this liability of “immediacy” teachings in his book. But from his largely uncritical endorsement of Eckhart Tolle’s messianic message (if not the resulting deepities), we’ll just have to wait and see. If Harris doesn’t qualify his acceptance of neo-Advaitist Tollisms like “You can’t get there from here”, he may unwillingly lend support to the toxic idea that there are “realized” teachers whose koans of impossible immediacy mirror their presumed post-human state.

That Harris seems to believe that full enlightenment is possible should raise a red flag for those concerned about a new type of religious bureaucracy creeping into the market under the guise of secular rationalism. On the home page for “Waking Up with Sam Harris“, he writes:

There is no discrete “I” or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. [Emphasis added]

He had me up to “entirely extinguished”. Because that’s pure speculation territory, which will ultimately serve no-one but those who are willing to hawk stories about the unverifiable accomplishments of their masters or themselves. No one can ever prove that the separate self-sense has been “entirely extinguished”. It’s actually an absurdity given the reality of the self-as-social-construction. It doesn’t matter how powerful your meditative technique is or how profound your experience of selflessness. When you emerge from meditation you will meet other people who will construct you as a self, and if your experience has not damaged your brain, you will comply. (Again, the above quote could be abbreviated and careless marketing copy, but my impression so far is that Harris takes pains to write exactly as he thinks.)

When Tolle uses the “You can’t get there from here” line, he can be interpreted as saying that the you you think you are “isn’t going to meditate itself into a new condition”, as Harris explains. But many people (I used to be one of them) will focus upon the accusatory construction of the sentence, effectively turning it into “You can’t get there from here, but I have done so.” What are Tolle’s millions in net worth, if not the massive cultural transference that he is a different kind of human being? That he is someone unencumbered by the gradual muck of regular learning? And that, having crossed some impossible threshold of realization, he now resides on a planet where happiness and non-dual bitcoins shine out of his ass? It’s much more like: You can’t get to be Eckhart Tolle from here. “Here” being reality, where learning is slow, and people remain largely themselves, even as we live in a culture built upon the technology-spiked illusion that instantaneous change – of identity, status, the oil economy – is possible.

The graduated process is also described in detail in the Yoga Sutras, where the editor Patañjali advises a spectrum of external and internal focal points for the contemplator that range from breath to mantra to an image of a deity to the richness of a dream. These are all offered prior to the task of taking aim at the mechanism of consciousness through its various layers of memory and language. The idea is that one’s quality of attention is the first faculty to be cultivated. Its object is unimportant, because the fact of interdependence will eventually show that the content of consciousness is ontologically indistinguishable from its mechanism. As McLuhan and the deconstructionists say: content and form are inseparable. Interrogating one is interrogating the other.

If you measure the value of an experience according to how much it feels like the sky is falling, the long and slow road will seem quite drab. And who can make money on it?  But perhaps we’re only unimpressed by the gradual path because we don’t notice and enjoy the infinite steps of the journey as much as we could. This exact failure lies at the heart of the anxiety of spiritual development, an anxiety sharpened by the “immediacy” presentation that Harris is pointing to. The shock-and-awe scenario of psychic evolution betrays a fixation with crisis and revolution which echoes the very fearfulness it tries to overcome, and which characterizes the tone of most Axial Age spiritual reformers, who happened to be prolific in the more manic years prior to the age of forty. It forgets that most change in everything is almost imperceptibly subtle.  Change happens molecule by molecule, neuron by neuron. Sea drop by sea drop.


[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ere’s what I’ve noticed: our spiritual narratives tend to be burdened by an impatience bias (there is no truly gradual path) commingled with a fascination for flashbulb memory (the yearning for breakthroughs) and the anxiety of circumstance. Together, these influences can work against a more empathetic understanding of how things, and how we ourselves, actually change. The episodic drama of psychic transformation overshadows the majority of its work, which progresses at a mundane, intimate, uncertain pace. Focusing unduly upon this drama might unconsciously lay the rigid groundwork for religiosity, which gathers power by forming prescriptive ideas, and then by telling people what things should happen to them, how, and why, as well as telling them what won’t work. In the transition from contemplative to spiritual teacher – a transition that Harris might be making – it seems difficult to avoid the assertion that a personal epiphany regarding one’s subjective hygiene is somehow good for others. That way lies priesthood.

You can hear the flashbulb influence in any invocation of the “meditation breakthrough”. Breakthroughs do happen – I have a little familiarity with them. The senses seem to reverse their outward reach. The internal monologue not only stops, but seems to invert itself into a pulsing silence. Shivers jag up the spine, colours appear, the flesh shakes or jolts or floats. Often, a veil of chronic pain will part to reveal an older peace or an undiscovered bliss. These events can be etched as deeply onto memory as our most profound moments of emotional coherence or blinding fear. And herein lies the problem: the flashbulb memory/ meditation breakthrough is soaked with such full-bodied limbic provocation it produces as many false recollections and self-perceptions as correct ones. There’s no way to attribute stable and definitive meaning to meditative breakthrough, either with regard to where it came from, or what kind of person it makes you. As neuroscientist Bruce Hood (with whom Harris dialogues here) might suggest, it’s most likely that we’ll confabulate the most convenient social narrative possible for the post-breakthrough self.

Which begs the question: after Eckhart Tolle’s or Byron Katie’s, or Geshe Michael Roach’s breakthrough experiences, how did their self-illusions confabulate the most plausible new identity? Is the only difference between contemplatives that have breakthrough experiences who do and do not go on to become gurus that those who do become gurus are surrounded by those who need their story to be true? I’ve known two gurus who have claimed to have been changed by breakthrough realizations that left them dismissive of their former selves and social circles. Both became social isolates until they were able to surround themselves with people who for their own reasons validated the nascent guru’s new self. (They’re never family members, by the way.)


[dropcap]P[/dropcap]arts of learning seem to be stroboscopic for sure. But surely the main part of learning comes through the pace at which most of our lives progress, in the shadow of the infinitely gradual and continuous change of sunrises, seasons, and diapers. Every peak experience – the home run, the orgasm, the moment of sublime expansiveness in the garden – has been meticulously prepared for by a thousand semi-distracted moments of batting practice, eye-contact, and weeding that we’ve long forgotten about. We take a hundred pictures of a baby’s first steps, and freeze them into digitally-watermarked time. These pictures overwhelm our memories of the countless motor-skill jiggles and tests that led up to it. We’re suckers for the big reveal. Suddenly seeing ourselves reflected in the window, we forget that looking at the garden beyond trained us to see at all. We seem hardwired to forget that every moment is equally precious.

Currently, I’m watching my son develop an I-sense before my very eyes. Six weeks ago he had the words da-da, na-na, pa-pa, moon, dog-dog, monkey. The last person in our family matrix he was able or willing to name is mama, because it was clear that Alix my partner was still the larger part of his own body and self. Naming her would have separated her off. Several weeks after that, he was able to call a doll “baby”. But when we showed him a picture of himself, he would say mama! Slowly, he transferred the word baby to the photos. But he’s still not at the point of referencing himself by gesture as “Jacob”, even though the sound of the name quite firmly attracts his attention.

In other words, the construction of his illusory selfhood is a gradual accumulation of objective zings and hits. There are threshold moments, bootstrap moments. Some days it sounds like he’s on the verge of full-on sentences. Whenever they start pouring out, the subject-verb-object construction will deepen the groove. Meanwhile, we can feel ourselves inoculating his brain with the self-concept whenever he points us out as dada and mama, and then we ask him “Who’s the baby? Where’s Jacob?” Sometimes we point at his little chest, and I imagine he is slowly feeling a subtle knot develop in there somewhere. The knot that says this is me. It is a knot he is familiarizing himself with through play. When we say “Where’s Jacob?” he covers his eyes with his hands, as if by not seeing us, he himself becomes invisible. Then he throws his arms wide open with a laugh and we say “There he is!” when what’s really happened is that he’s able to see us again. We, who contain the more clearly-defined, tightly-bound selves that he is learning to mirror.

If it ever comes time for him to loosen that knot, why wouldn’t it happen as gradually as it was bound? The paths of immediacy offer a knife, but the gradual paths offer oil and gentle kneeding. I have a fantasy that he’ll ask me one day about meditation, and I’ll start really slowly, substituting Nagarjuna’s chariot with a dinky car. Or we’ll go into the garden, and try to find the the hard lines between soil, hummus, and the root tendrils of grass. We won’t find them.


[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ut will the world I share with him have time for all of that? As much as I’m arguing for slowness, the environment calls out for speed in a voice that Harris seems to hear quite acutely, whether he’s addressing climate change or the need to confront fundamentalist ideology. Perhaps the anxiety of Axial Age “immediacy” paths will become newly useful in a world in which the speed of our impulses collide with our slowness to change them: a collision that is killing life on the planet.

In Isaac Cordal’s “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” (posted at the top here) the micro and macro crises converge within a tiny sculpture in a Berlin sidewalk puddle. We have much complexity to wade through, so many psychic knots to untie to arrive at a consistent experience of interdependence. The atomistic self elides with the capitalistic self, and we are mystified as to how we might give it up. We work at the environmental problems with the pitifully gradual paths of recycling and solar power. Given enough time, such paths could lead to that unyielding commitment to environmental empathy that destroys the infrastructure of greed that holds us as tightly as we hold onto the self-concept that built it.

But meanwhile there is another gradation of change provoking our impatience. It gathers in one drop of sea water after another. In the Uposatha Sutta I epigraphed this piece with, the Buddha compares realization with the gradual deepening of the sea:

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch, in the same way this Doctrine and Discipline (dhamma-vinaya) has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual progression, with a penetration to gnosis only after a long stretch.

Of course, the Buddha’s analogy imagines the yogi walking into the sea. Not the sea rising around the yogi. Which is happening so quickly that it’s difficult not to fantasize of the rupture, the rapture, that would save us all in a moment.




  • Punctated equilibrium. This is how change gets on.

    Does shove come in two styles then: The drone of moments (on and on) –and the moment –we meet the drone– and it is –suddenly — now –us.

    Winged we look out at the fields below ‘deciding’ where to drop the big one.

  • Yoga philosophy is sublimely simple and profound.
    It can all be expressed in three phrases.

    At first I thought Yoga was complicated.
    Then I wrote about about it
    And it began to seem simple.

    I started reading the ancient texts
    And Yoga again seemed complicated.

    But the better I knew
    The Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads
    The more I realized

    Yoga philosophy is sublimely simple and profound.
    It can all be expressed in three phrases:




    As they say about the Golden Rule
    All the rest is commentary.

  • I meant to introduce my last post with “Here’s the way I have personally experienced it–simplicity expanding to complexity and then resolving back into simplicity, over many years:” It’s how it’s been for me, not a prescription for everyone else.

  • In “Waking up” Sam Harris uses the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ interchangeably. Just as he says that you do not have to be religious to be spiritual, so too you do not have to believe in God or be religious to be a mystic.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “The Greatest Achievement in Life,” I summarized many similarities, and some differences, among the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

    Ironically, the man who personally introduced me to mysticism was an atheist who once wrote “God is man’s greatest invention.” Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was also a Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.

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