He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Waking Up: Killing the Self

So far, "The Riddle of Self" is my favorite chapter in Sam Harris' newest book entitled Waking Up.  He does a wonderful job of distilling some basic truths of the human experience found in the world's great religious traditions into explanations that are not dependent on those religious traditions, and uses examples which we can relate to easily so as to make the points effectively.  The first of which is that self is an illusion, like many illusions we experience.

"The one thing each of us knows for certain is that reality vastly exceeds our awareness of it.  I am, for instance, sitting at my desk, drinking coffee.  Gravity is holding me in place, and the manner in which this is accomplished eludes us to this day.  The integrity of my chair is the result of electrical bonds between atoms--entities I have never seen but which I know must exist, in some sense, with or without my knowledge.  The coffee is dissipating heat at a rate that could be calculated with precision, and the second law of thermodynamics decrees that it is, on balance, losing heat every moment rather than gathering it from the cup or the surrounding air.  None of this is evident to me from direct experience, however.  ...  The taste of the coffee, my satisfaction at its flavor, the feeling of the warm cup in my hand--while these are immediate facts with which I am acquainted, they reach back into a dark wilderness of facts that I will never come to know.  I have neurons firing and forming new connections in my brain every instant, and these events determine the character of my experience.  But I know nothing directly about the electrochemical activity of my brain--and yet this soggy miracle of computation appears to be working for the moment and generating a vision of the world."

This chapter is about understanding the self in light of the scientific evidence (and empirical evidence more generally) and learning how to deal with the self in order to advance in the spiritual life.  Where Harris and I probably agree most strongly is that the great goal of the spiritual life is to put an end to our constant selfishness, our seemingly interminable focus on the "I" which is thinking, generally in self-serving ways that inhibit the human flourishing we both seek to promote.

"My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion--and that spirituality largely consists of realizing this, moment to moment.  There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons.  Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation."

For Harris, the way to accomplish this is by recourse to meditation practices found in the Buddhist traditions.  He suggests that it is in these traditions that we find a means to not only understanding the truth that consciousness properly understood is selfless, but also in learning to live out that truth.  In short, he sets out to help us kill the self as we experience it.  On the other hand, he proposes that Christianity keeps us from killing the self.

"Obviously, there is something in our experience that we are calling "I," apart from the sheer fact that we are conscious; otherwise, we would never describe our subjectivity in the way we do, and a person would have no basis for feeling that she had lost her sense of self, whatever the circumstances.  Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint just what it is we take ourselves to be.  Many philosophers have noticed this problem, but few in the West have understood that the failure to locate the self can produce more than mere confusion.  I suspect that this difference between Eastern and Western philosophy has something to do with Abrahamic religion and its doctrine of the soul.  Christianity, in particular, presents impressive obstacles to thinking intelligently about the nature of the human mind, asserting, as it does, the real existence of souls who are subject to the eternal judgment of God."

As I mentioned before in my review of the first chapter of Waking Up, I'm quite in favor of meditation and in particular the meditation practices found in Buddhist traditions.  I have practiced it myself, and there are certainly benefits to it aside from the fact that it's the only way I can get rid of a bout of hiccups.  I think Harris gets a lot of things right about Buddhism, and that his admiration for the Buddha's teachings is just as sincere as mine.

Where I think he goes wrong is in understanding the relationship of Christianity to the self, and not just to the soul per se (I have already explained what I find to be the problems with his understanding of the soul in my review of the second chapter of Waking Up).  Fortunately, Harris himself gives me the material with which to illustrate the situation when he discusses two ways to deal with daily suffering due to our thoughts.

"We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels.  We can use thoughts themselves as an antidote, or we can stand free of thought altogether.  The first technique requires no experience with meditation, and it can work wonders if one develops the appropriate habits of mind.  Many people do it quite naturally; it's called 'looking on the bright side.' ...

In fact, the effects of consciously practicing gratitude have been studied: When compared to merely thinking about significant life events, contemplating daily hassles, or comparing oneself favorably to others, thinking about what one is grateful for increases one's feeling of well-being, motivation, and positive outlook toward the future."

This first approach is certainly one of the approaches of Christianity.  A constant state of gratitude is something many Christian mystics and Saints have suggested cultivating, right in line with the New Testament instruction to "give thanks in all circumstances".  The second approach is less popular in Christianity; there are mystics and saints who took contemplative approaches that allowed them to stand free of their thoughts, but most of them took active approaches to stand free of their selfishness instead.

Harris seems to think that Christianity doesn't go far enough in escaping from the thoughts that cause us suffering, that it stops at the first level and doesn't bother looking at the deeper cause of suffering so that we can learn to address it.  I would propose instead that Christianity goes farther than Buddhism; where Buddhism teaches us to wake up from the illusion of self by repeated practice in meditation, Christianity teaches us to love it to death, to end our selfishness by acts of loving service which gradually transform us into selfless beings who truly see that our neighbor's good is worth giving everything to accomplish.

The problem with Christianity is not that it is too timid to explore the mind and see what lies beyond the self, that consciousness is selfless, but that it boldly leaps past the mind and asserts firmly that Love is what lies beyond the mind.  Where Harris stops, quite reasonably, and claims that consciousness free of self is itself what lies beyond our experience of the self, Christianity rushes in like a fool and claims that we can find an eternal wellspring of love beyond our experience of self, and that the ground of being from which the well springs loves us as well!

This all seems a bit much for a philosopher who does not want to jump to conclusions hastily, especially one for whom the Christian cosmology rings false.  But what could possibly be more true for those of us who have learned to kill the self through meditation?  When we empty ourselves of the experience of self, of our constant attendance to the ego, then what we find in the emptiness left behind by the self is a love and compassion deeper than we could have ever imagined before killing the self.  When we awaken from the dream of self, we find the reality of love.

This is, of course, very similar to what the Buddha taught us out of his own experience.  After he ventured completely beyond the bounds of self and passed the great illusion of "I" which is a result of clinging, what the Buddha found was an unending source of loving kindness.  In what seems like emptiness to the ego,  the Buddha discovers that there is a fullness of compassion beyond any experience of compassion we have while we hold for dear life onto the transient desires of the self.

The Buddha became awake, and it is precisely this waking up that shows us that when we venture boldly past the illusion created by our willing slavery to the ego, when we follow the Buddha in dropping the veil of self to which we have been clinging, we find a ubiquitous springing forth of love beyond the veil.  As the self dies, this all-pervading love shines all the more brightly through us.

Sam Harris recommends that we take the Buddha's advice for killing the self, which is to transcend our thoughts rooted in selfishness by repeated meditation.  And that's fair enough.  I too would be very happy to see many people become awake.  Nevertheless, I would suggest that we do not need to awake to the illusion of self by the slow, plodding method of contemplation.  We can kill the self without ever meditating as long as we follow the way of radical acts of love.

It is acts of selfless love that by their very nature draw us through the illusion of self and into the reality of love, and just as with meditation, the more we practice these acts, the more we dwell beyond the self.  The beauty of it is that it requires no special technique or training to cut through the illusion of self; anyone can make the leap of faith to believe in Love and respond to the greatest love they can imagine by giving their greatest love to others.

The Buddha and the Christ both demonstrate and teach an approach for killing the self; it's just that the approaches are ordered differently.  The former wants us to ask the right questions so that we might later learn to love, and the latter calls us to love first and ask questions later.

Where the Buddha teaches us how to carefully dispel the illusion of self so that we can live in loving-kindness for all beings, Christ calls us to a love so radical that the self falls away as we run to embrace the poor and vulnerable so that all beings might join us in the arms of Love.

Killing the Buddha - Killing the Soul - Killing the Self

Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

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