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

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Waking Up: True Paradoxes

In the fourth chapter of Waking Up, Sam Harris briefly sums up the evidence of the benefits of meditation and then generously grants the reader access to parts of his spiritual journey, and both of those sections are worth reading.  Unfortunately, I didn't have the money (and still don't) to find an excellent teacher in Nepal from whom I could learn meditation directly.  Nonetheless, the very effective presentation of the apparent paradoxes of meditation very much spoke to my experience of it.

When I was working on my first university degree, I struck up a brief correspondence with a gentleman in England who had a Masters degree in Philosophy.  One of the discussions we had was with regard to paradoxes, and we discovered that we both took the view that certain kinds of paradoxes would need to be true for our universe to exist as it does.  This was notable because of the fact that on most topics of interest, we took wildly different positions: he was an atheist and I an agnostic theist, he an anarchist and I a statist, he a communist and I a capitalist.

My views have since changed on more than one of those matters, but what we shared in common remains: an understanding of logic and its limits, a modest epistemology, and an appreciation for paradox.  So when Sam Harris writes of paradoxes, I find myself very interested in what he has to share with us on the subject.

The last paradox mentioned in this chapter is one described by Harris as the paradox of acceptance.  The first part of the paradox is that our lived experience informs us that we find fulfillment in the self-improvement prompted by our lack of acceptance of things as they are, that we would not become happy by merely giving up and saying, "Well, I'm good enough as I am."

 "It would seem that very few good things in life come from accepting the present moment as it is.  To become educated, we must be motivated to learn.  To master a sport requires that we continually improve our performance and overcome our resistance to physical exertion.  To be a better spouse or parent, we often must make a deliberate effort to change ourselves.  Merely accepting that we are lazy, distracted, petty, easily provoked to anger, and inclined to waste our time in ways that we will regret later is not a path to happiness."

The second part is that we must at the same time fully accept ourselves in the present moment, seeing that we are nonetheless of great value.

"And yet it is true that meditation requires total acceptance of what is given in the present moment.  If you are injured and in pain, the path to mental peace can be traversed in a single step: Simply accept the pain as it arises, while doing whatever you need to do to help your body heal. ... The paradox is that we can become wiser and more compassionate and live more fulfilling lives by refusing to be who we have tended to be in the past.  But we must also relax, accepting things as they are in the present, as we strive to change ourselves."

This way of expressing the paradox reminded me of my study of wu wei from the Taoist tradition, specifically its succinct way of expressing the magnificence of correct action not caused by a striving for action.  This lack of striving while retaining the ability to act is a result of selflessness, what I described in my review of the third chapter of Waking Up as Killing the Self.

This leads us to the paradox involved in the description of eliminating the sense of "I" that Sam Harris puts forward in the fourth chapter as he relates the experience of the seminal teacher of one of Harris' meditation teachers.

"While sitting alone in his uncle's study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death.  He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than  remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear.  He focused on the feeling of 'I' --a process he later called 'self-inquiry' --and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness.  Ramana the person didn't die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again."

In this case, the paradox is that as we search for a distinct self, we inevitably see that it cannot be found, that it only existed to the extent that we clung to the notion of the self.  And once we no longer cling to the notion of the self, then the self disappears because the self was itself only the act of clinging.  (This is a rather Buddhist view of the matter that I'm taking here, and perhaps I should be wary of it given that the Buddha was killed in my review of the first chapter of Waking Up.)

This paradox leads us onward to a further paradox which Harris explains as he analyzes different approaches to using meditation to realize our selflessness.

"We wouldn't attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn't feel that something about our experience needed to be improved.  But here lies one of the central paradoxes of the spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present.  As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one's life.  But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self--and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one's apparent bondage in each moment."

It turns out that if we cling to our practice of meditation as a panacea for suffering, it thwarts the very purpose of the spiritual life by continuing our clinging.  The clinging that constitutes the self remains; it is simply that the object to which we cling has changed, and it is often the case that we cling all the more strongly to it precisely because we believe that it could release us from suffering.   As a result, we can completely miss the Buddha's point in trying to follow him on the path of meditation.

So how can we solve the paradox?  We can only solve it by living the aforementioned paradox of acceptance.  We must both begin to let go of the sense of "I" which is the manifestation of clinging and at the same time we must (no less strongly) act in a disciplined way in order to carry out the actions necessary to let go.

In the spiritual life, the true paradox is resolved not by wriggling out of its grasp, but rather by fully embracing yet another true paradox.

Note:  Photo credit goes to me.

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