Sam Harris on Death, I.

(Rough) Outline

The reality of death and what it means (00:00 – 20:00)

What is now? (21:30 – 25:00)

Shifting perception and a small experiment (27:30 – 37:00)

Consciousness and experience (37:30 – 40:00)

Words of advice (40:15 – 45:00)


At the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne Australia, Sam Harris delivered a talk entitled “Death and the Present Moment“.  It was a departure from what I’ve come to expect from him, not because he was saying radically different things but because he went further than I’ve seen in elaborating his views of spirituality, consciousness, and philosophy.  There were hints of this in the closing chapters of the End of Faith, in his debate alongside Michael Shermer with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston,  and in his essays.  I hope that this is a taste of what we can expect in his forthcoming book.

I can only speculate, but it seems that Sam departs most noticeably from his fellow horseman in these matters.  Though I find much worth pondering in what the major atheist thinkers agree on, I’m at least as interested in what they disagree on, because there lies fertile ground for planting the seeds of a discourse on the future of non-belief.  This post is just a summary of the video; I will probably write a follow up post in the future with my opinion of his message.

The talk was long, but its basic points were these: we are terrified of death, and many people seek solace in religion.  At root, the battles fought over things like creationism and evolution reduce, on some level, to a fear of death.  Because people’s religious worldview often comes as a package, telling them that their belief in creationism is foolish is interpreted as telling them that their deceased daughter isn’t in heaven basking in the glow of Jesus.  If it’s true that believers see the advancement of science as an effort to pry consolation from their fingers in the wake of a tragedy, perhaps we can understand the tenacity with which they cling to their beliefs.

To make matters worse, atheism as a rejection of God has little to offer that compares with the solace provided by religion.  Whatever liabilities they may present, religious beliefs do the job of comforting the bereaved and suffering remarkably well.

The first step in navigating a path between the twin rocks of nihilism and absurdity is to remember that it’s always now.  This may sound obvious, but Sam asserts that there are ways of finding happiness and experiencing our lives as sacred now.  Our minds, and more specifically our conscious experience, are all we have and all we are and all we can offer.  Its true that the brain does much beneath the level of awareness to create our experience of the present, and the idea of “now” is problematic from the viewpoint of physics.  But the fact remains.  If there is an antidote to the terror inspired by the yawning abyss of death, it does not consist in learning new things; if there is a meaning of life, it is not to be found in endlessly checking things off our To-Do lists.  Too many of us, in a tragic inversion of the ancient proverb, live no day as if it were our last.  When the bad news comes that the end is upon us, we look back on our uses of time and attention and discover that the latest ipad didn’t hold the key to our fulfillment.

This does not mean our aspirations are unimportant, but does suggest that we need to learn to reorient towards life, to more fully experience the present moment.  This could involve either reframing how we interact with our own experience, or doing away with such frames altogether.

Surprisingly for an atheist, Sam claims that discursive thought is both extraordinarily useful and a primary source of suffering.  There is a ceaseless conversation going on inside our heads, giving birth to all manner of worry, anxiety, and fear, and our inability to disentangle ourselves from it and just be is problematic if we value sanity and happiness.  Techniques like meditation are one way of not drowning in the stream of consciousness.

A new conversation about death and the meaning of life needs to be had, and it is up to us to make the world a better place, starting from the piece of it between our own ears.

Using Music As A Meditation Aid

I’ve always thought meditation should be carried out in as much silence as possible, and that’s how I’ve always meditated.  Today, however, I tried meditating with some ambient music in the background.

This was partially done on a whim, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while.  Google research after the fact turned up a range of opinions, from websites that thought music could be distracting to ones that sold tracks crafted just for meditation.

It’s worth pointing out that during my first stay at a Buddhist monastery a few weeks ago, silent meditation was punctuated by chanting and bowing.  Relatively raucous stuff when compared to breathing in absolute stillness, and this coming from people who meditate professionally.

So I decided to give it a shot.  I chose a spacey ambient piece, as Lamb of God would make a terrible soundtrack to enlightenment.  Here are my observations after one trial run:

1) Time absolutely flew.  An unbroken 20 minute meditation session is usually hard to achieve.  This time, though my back was a little uncomfortable and I had to adjust position once because my leg was asleep, I was shocked when the alarm went off.

2) It really did help still my mind.  Even though I still had a fair amount of chatter going on, something about the music just seemed to make it easier to focus on breathing. I had a pretty powerful sweep of euphoria around the (I’m guessing) sixteen minute mark.  My whole body started tingling for maybe a full two seconds right as I was getting the most focused.  This has happened once before, but so far it’s proving hard to maintain.  I don’t think such an experience is the point of meditation, but it’s interesting and does encourage one to continue.

3) I’d like to use this in the future, but I think several modifications might increase its efficacy.  For one, I’d like the sound to surround me more, rather than feeling beamed from laptop speakers.  Also, I think it would be good to fade into silence very slowly.  Finally, the music should probably be as minimal as possible, maybe even just one deep, slowly changing tone.  I think much more than that would start to prove a distraction.

I’ll be trying this again in the future.  If it proves interesting or useful I’ll write more about it then.

Genesis and Science

Every so often I encounter people who remark that the Genesis account of creation, except in a few minor details, basically gets the order of things right.


This position can only be maintained if you either skim Genesis in 5 seconds or you haven’t looked into the details of the science involved. I found this piece by Adam Lee to be a good analysis of some of the deep flaws in the Bible’s creation myth.

The Parable Of An Atheist At A Temple

As I sit writing this I have just finished a three day retreat at a Buddhist monastary nested in the moutains outside of Gyeongju, South Korea.  While there I woke up at 4 a.m., chanted, spent several hours a day in meditation, engaged in light martial arts training, and ate no meat.

The primary reason I went was for the meditation experience, which unfortunately was not emphasized in this trip.  I’ve been a practicing meditator for several years now and I was looking forward to pushing my exploration of the mind.  Luckily I was able to accomplish this in a small way by simply not attending the obvious tourist fluff and meditating on my own.  I stopped going to the martial arts demonstrations and training, skipped tea time, didn’t go to the extra chanting services.  Instead, I meditated in my room or in a newly-constructed building designed for that purpose.  I snuck up to the temple once and meditated in front of a statue of Buddha, bathed in candlelight and silence, with only the eerie and mysterious artwork on the walls to watch me and keep me company.

On the last full day I was there, I climbed a mountain in a light drizzle as night was falling.  When I got to the top I looked out at the valley and the hills, the same ones I had watched the sun rise over in the dawn hours, and saw the rain falling in sheets and clouds shrouding the peaks in mist.

I didn’t know what to do but be still beneath the towering Buddha carved into the rock and smile at the enormity of it all.  Sometimes there just aren’t words.

Though it wasn’t what I expected, I don’t regret spending the money.  At $50 a night it was less than some hotels charge, and the food was unexpectedly good, to say nothing of the amazing setting.  I also learned a few things.  Primarily, I don’t need to do a templestay to meditate well.  To this day the most powerful experience I’ve ever had meditating came in my living room, after an hour of alternating sitting and walking meditation.  My attention stabilized in a way it never had before, and I was able to watch the erratic flow of my own consciousness as it went past me.  I felt more inside my own body than I ever had before, like it wasn’t something that I owned but something I was.  I got just enough of a hint of what is possible to convince me that it’s worth pursuing.  Sometime in the near future I may do a silent retreat of my own, and I’m currently mulling over ways I can effectively do that in my apartment.

I do think setting is important.  The most popular essay I’ve ever written, over at Rogue Priest, presented the view that rituals like chanting in the candlelight can foster mystical states.  I base this on my own past experience as a born-again christian and on the testimonies of various secular pagans whom I know personally and whose work I’ve read.  If I meditate intensely for the next few months, the point may come where doing a genuine monastic silent retreat is exactly what I need.

At my current level, however, it takes more than art and statues to still my mind at 4 a.m.  It takes lots of coffee, and there wasn’t any to be found.  So, I regret to report, these meditation sessions were not particularly fruitful.  By the final day I had enough stored tension in my back and joints that even 30 seconds of sitting was difficult, to say nothing of 30 minutes.  I was ready to go home.

Now as you read these opening statements you may be wondering what use an atheist could have for meditation.

Quite a bit, as it turns out.  It’s true that I think the sinister intersection of fundamentalist religious thinking and 21st century technology might be the greatest threat the modern world faces.  And I also believe that there are elements of religious practice — like genital mutiliation and and belief in transubstantion — which are patently absurd and wrong and cannot be rejected forcefully or quickly enough by thinking people.  If we are ever to pull ourselves by the bootstraps from the swamps of ignorance and into a better existence, vast swaths of what now goes by the name ‘religion’ will have to be dispensed with.

But religion is ancient and complex.  To reject God is not to say that there aren’t threads of great value woven into the tapestry of the world’s faith traditions.  There are questions of tremendous importance to human beings, like what consitutes the good life, which have mostly been addressed by religion and philosophy.  Though I understand the haste to move people away from religious dogma, I worry that we risk losing something in the process.

Meditation counts among the handful of useful techniques which are embedded in a religion and are worth salvaging.  I’m drawn to it in part by two things:

1) it is pursuable in a completely secular context and requires no faith whatsoever.

2) even brief periods of meditative introspection can shed light on the workings of the mind.

We’ve all likely had the experience of having a very full head, where our thoughts prevent us from going to sleep at night or make it difficult to focus on whatever task we’re performing.  But the extent to which I am perpetually lost in my own internal monologue is truly astounding.  If you don’t think this applies to you, spend the next thirty seconds trying to control and direct this mental flurry.  Hell, spend the next thirty seconds just trying to observe it without getting caught up in it.

Difficult?  Yes, yes it is.

In this situation your attention is like a hiker and your conscious mind is like a roiling avalanche perpetually bearing down on him.  The previous sentence was composed while I was trying to meditate.  First came the metaphor of the hiker and the avalanche.  Then I returned to focusing on my breath.  I smiled internally, because the metaphor seemed clever.  Back to breathing.  Within ten seconds I was casting around different drafts of the sentence, trying out various phrases.  Back to breathing.

Over the span of an hour I waged and lost this war for what seemed like a thousand years.  Needless to say, I didn’t check “become enlightened” off my bucket list that day.

What I’ve studied of buddhist philosophy suggests that Buddhism (and to some extent Hinduism as well) begins from a radically different point of departure than Western science and the enlightenment.  Buddhism starts with an empirical exploration of the mind.  In the millenia since this project began, numerous traditions and mental technologies have been developed to foster insights into consciousness, along with much in the way of religious baggage.

In the West, by contrast, the role of the observer is minimized as much as possible and there are thinkers who believe that the notion of introspection is flawed and incoherent.  I can sympathize with this.  Psychology has revealed that introspection is susceptible to profound error, and we must be careful in drawing conclusions about the universe based upon what we find when we turn inward.  But none of this suggests to me that practices like meditation are useless.  On the contrary, reports from experienced meditators and a growing body of neuroscientific evidence point to the opposite conclusion.  Meditation, stripped of pretension and bullshit, can be pursued to great reward by secularists and atheists.

What’s more, It may turn out that we simply cannot explain how it is that matter gives rise to consciousness.  If this is true, then a sophisticated science of first-person exploration will be the only way of getting to certain truths about human consciousness.

Regardless, it seems that meditation can present a way for a person to more fully be a participant in their own experience.  It’s possible to notice and modulate mood more effectively, to better steer oneself towards happiness, and to notice the intricacy and beauty that the world presents us in each waking moment.  Though I have yet to find them myself, I also believe meditation to be a compass for navigating to the most expansive continents of well-being and happiness that can be found within the landscape of the human mind.

Such as this I’ve learned while sitting.


Further reading

I didn’t do any “research” for this essay in the conventional sense.  But there are several essays which I’ve read and re-read and re-read that have shaped my thinking on this subject profoundly.  I feel they should be mentioned here at the end of the essay.

1) “Dancing with the Gods”, Eric Raymond

2) “Drugs and the meaning of life”, Sam Harris

3) “What’s the point of transcendance” Sam Harris

4) “On spiritual truths”, Sam Harris

5) “Killing the Buddha”, Sam Harris

6) The writings of B. Allan Wallace should be mentioned as well.  His books include “Mind in the balance”, “contemplative science”, and “embracing mind”.  I don’t endorse his metaphysics, but I’ve found him useful nonetheless.

7) These thoughts have appeared elsewhere before:

-“What atheists believe too”