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Naked Meditation

Sam Harris provides an introduction to meditation free of the superstitious vestments in which it’s usually dressed up.

As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.

In his post he recommends The Experience of Insight by Joseph Goldstein. Here’s a snippet from my copy (pg. 51-52):

The first of these enemies, or hindrances, is sense desire: lusting after sense pleasure, grasping at sense objects. It keeps the mind looking outward, searching after this object or that, in an agitated and unbalanced way. It is in the very nature of sense desires that they can never be satisfied. There is no end to the seeking.

That seems about right.

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  1. Laurel
    May 23, 2011 at 7:11 pm

    It makes me sad that even here, when you have a chance to connect your world view to others’, you still force a division by proclaiming that in this passage meditation is “free”, and therefore superior in this world view. Why not accept the wisdom that meditation holds, and perhaps meditate on the fact that it transcends cultural and religious boundaries?
    “How to Practice” by the Dalai Lama changed my life profoundly. Although I am not Buddhist, reading this book had an incredibly positive impact on my life. How so, if I do not subscribe wholly to the Buddhist belief system? Well, Buddhism is a logical system that utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Buddhists had been using CBT for thousands of years before psychologists had a word for it. So I took the ideas that had relevance to me, and left the rest behind (which is exactly what the Dalai Lama suggests doing). That book changed my life. Had I turned a blind eye to it because I automatically felt superior or disconnected, then I would have been in the same blind place as before. Could you read this book and find the positive points in it, even though it was written by a Buddhist? Could you say “I can understand that” to a Christian author? Or could you instead agree only with authors whose world views you already agree completely with?
    You get to choose what you pick and take from everything. There is truth in Buddhist thought, whether or not you can see it is up to you.

    • May 23, 2011 at 7:20 pm

      I’m not sure where you think we’re in disagreement. You write, “Why not accept the wisdom that meditation holds, and perhaps meditate on the fact that it transcends cultural and religious boundaries?”

      That’s precisely what I’m trying to argue. I think mediation does transcend cultural and religious boundaries. Tying mediation, contemplation, and introspection to provincial traditions is what closes many off from the wisdom and benefits of the practice. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to mediate, only human.

      • Laurel
        May 23, 2011 at 7:42 pm

        You say meditation transcends boundaries, yet the way that you argue is steeped in superiority. I’ve watched you insult people time and again during conversations, and even here I see that you insult those who believe in “provincial traditions”, while at the same time saying that you understand the transcendence of this practice! You don’t know that those who differ in beliefs from you are cut off from the ‘wisdom and benefits of practice’; you assume so. Do you really feel so enlightened, that you understand meditation better than others just because you proclaim to be secular? If so, you need more time on the practice mat. I dare you to read “How to Practice” with an open mind and heart, and see what you can learn from it.

  2. May 23, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    I’m very confident that I know almost nothing about mediation; so I’m quite sure you’re right I could learn a lot. It just seems obvious that since non-Buddhists like yourself profess to derive immense benefits from mediation (and there are a lot of studies to back those feelings up) that you don’t need to be a Buddhist to appreciate mediation.

    I apologize for coming off as overly superior or enlightened on this. It wasn’t my intention. I didn’t even claim to know anything about the topic, which is why I just quoted two sources. I only attempted to accurately set up for my readers what the quoted writers say.

    You don’t need to dare me to do anything. The Experience of Insight is thoroughly Buddhist (not secular) and I’m reading it for the value it provides. I’ve never argued that someone shouldn’t read something because it is culturally or religiously provincial (people wouldn’t be able to read much of anything if they followed that rule).

    I’m still confused about your hostility on this. You write, “So I took the ideas that had relevance to me, and left the rest behind (which is exactly what the Dalai Lama suggests doing).” That looks remarkably alike to what I thought Sam Harris was arguing. Harris’s endorsement of meditation is written for secular people who would otherwise close themselves off to it. I’m not trying to be combative; could you spell out more precisely where you think we (or you and Harris) disagree on this?

  3. Laurel
    May 23, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    “Sam Harris provides an introduction to meditation free of the superstitious vestments in which it’s usually dressed up.”

    You have used your introductory sentence to insult the meditative practice of anyone who practices a religion. No, you don’t need to be a Buddhist to meditate, but you don’t need to be secular, either. ALL people receive the benefits of meditation, whether or not they believe in God or Nirvana or Dust. Meditation is something that actually connects your secular self to those who practice a given religion, but with this opening sentence, you’ve shattered that. Why?

    When I read this it seemed to be an attack on non-secular meditation. Surely you can see that in your opening sentence?

    • Dave
      May 23, 2011 at 9:24 pm

      I’m a little confused because I don’t see where you disagree with Dan, either. What do you think he means by “superstitious vestments”?

  4. Jack
    May 23, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Wow!! I thought this was a rather non-descript snippet of a post. I clicked on the comments just because I was interested in that there were so many posted. I never expected such an angry tone. The intro’s use of “superstitious” as an attack on religion is unfounded. The writer was simply conveying to others who might shy away from meditation because of any religous connotations, that meditation is accessible for all. The world does not need more buddhists, it needs more compassion. I think some here may need some practice.

  5. May 23, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Laurel, I assure you I was just attempting to explain what Sam Harris was trying to offer his largely secular audience. Harris even suggests his readers try “a technique called vipassana,” which is formally Buddhist but you don’t need to adhere to their philosophy to practice it.

    Having learned from Buddhists, he certainly doesn’t think there is nothing to learn from Buddhists. He instead argues that we can learn from these traditions, but don’t have to swallow everything in order to digest the nutrients.

    I’m interested in learning from other perspectives, which is why I asked a practicing Buddhist friend of mine to comment on Harris’s piece when he gets the opportunity. Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet, but he, coincidentally, told me today he would soon.

    I do happen to believe that secular people can learn important lessons from Buddhist techniques without accepting anything on faith. Of course, people who practice Buddhism in a non-secular way can also gain from mediation – I would never dispute that. I reached for accuracy in my description of the article, I apologize for giving you the wrong impression.

  6. Laurel
    May 24, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    superstitious vestments & provincial traditions = belief systems. no? How I read this was that belief systems hinder one’s ability to receive the benefits of meditation. I have no qualms with Harris’ actual passage, but the way you framed it really struck me as instantly negative. Does that make sense? I see that my interpretation was incorrect, thank you for clarifying.

    I wasn’t trying to be hostile, but I don’t like the tone of my second comment, and I apologize for that (can I blame caffeine overdose for that?). Please understand where I am coming from in that the conversations I’ve witnessed on Fbook have such a brutal, attacking tone, especially towards the generalized ‘religion’, so when I see a post that begins with what I perceive as the same tone, it makes me very sad.

  7. Ryan
    July 3, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Hey everyone, this is quite a late response to this thread. And I’m sure that this is no longer a hot topic on your minds now, but I’d like to respond to this! I was actually on retreat for a lot of June, so that is why I’m so late to respond.
    I don’t have any particular authority on this topic, except that I’ve been steeped in a Buddhist tradition for 8 years now and help teach meditation as part of this tradition. I am still very much committed to my tradition- you could say religion- and it remains a vital part of my life.
    The push to secularize meditation and separate it from the Buddhist tradition from which it comes is happening everywhere- in Zen, Tibetan and Theravadan communities from a lot of very respected teachers. I can’t help but feeling like there is a strong wisdom in doing so. We are not living in a traditional culture in Asia but we are modern (or post modern) western capitalists and rationalists who have different traditions and customs. The buddhist customs are quite foreign and people don’t need to go elsewhere or radically change their language, dress, customs in order to experience the wisdom of meditation, which in its best is to reveal what reality really is. This ability is to experience the basic reality of your life is the source of wisdom and actually the only “true”, “genuine” and permanent happiness, according to the buddhists.. This truth certainly transcends culture and geography- so the move to secularize meditation in our western context makes a lot of sense.
    It is also true that buddhist reference points and customs are very appealing to a lot of people and can people can benefit from that greatly as well. Although our culture doesn’t really know what to do with religion these days I think, including those who are involved in religions today- it is hard to know what religion actually is, what belief actually is, and where it has a place in our day to day life. There are the fundamentalist folks, of various faiths, who have long ago turned away from the search for truth, and highlight the ignorance, superstition, and the other serious problems of being fixed in a particular belief system. They’ve solidified their tradition, and the intellectual and atheistic culture of our time, symbolized quite intelligently by Sam Harris and his followers have used the fundamentalists as a jumping off point into the irrevelance and superstition of religion. I do think Sam has a pejorative approach to religion,and I know that many intellectuals refer to religion in a pejorative way- and they certainly have many historical and current examples to make their point. But to speak in a politically correct way it is good to not put down religion- because it is true that a lot of people do benefit greatly from religion and there is a lot of wisdom in these traditions and a lot of wise, rational and even scientific people who belong to them.
    But if you want to DEBATE the superiority of a secular approach versus a religious one- that is a slightly different story. Because, especially in the Buddhist tradition, it is steeped in finding “superior approaches” and “superior techniques” to actualizing the end goal- enlightenment. Some teachings or practices are more direct, and strike more to the heart than others, and teaching meditation in a western context in a way that people can directly connect with the practices and teachings without having to go through the cultural barriers does seems like a superior approach in a lot of ways. But that doesn’t necessarily mean secularizing it, because as we know, there still are a lot of religious people out there.
    And the fact that relgion is equated with superstition and irrational I think is a mistake by Sam and other purely secular folks. I say this because we fail to see that in our current culture, the myth of equating “scientific rationality” with “objectivity”. It has been shown that the subjectiveness of science lies in the original research questions it asks. It comes from a pre-conceived belief system that we can analyze “the world” whereas it leaves untouched the mind of “the researcher” and keeps the separation between “I” and “the World” . If you start looking at the sciences of the mind and current findings of those people you will see that it enters quite a crazy world where it is hard to make any conclusions. The issue is not having a focused question and finding out by trial and error, that methodological approach is how ancient meditators found their way, it is more the assumption of a solid self from which all our sciences are based out of, and the fact that we know so little about our own minds is a testament to us overlooking this vital (maybe only) aspect of reality. The issue of religion, in particular the buddhist one, is a methodological exploration of our minds, which they say is the basis of everything. From there tradition, ritual, gods and goddesses can be explored from a different angle- which would be a whole other thread.
    Anyways, this is a lengthy post but I would love to hear back if this resonated, or made sense at all.

    • July 6, 2011 at 1:37 am

      Thanks so much for such a thoughtful response. Allow me some time to digest some of it and I’ll share some reactions.

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