Ron Lindsay’s recent blog post “On the Pursuit of Meditation: Buddha vs. Faust” begins as a mild critique of Sam Harris’s recent book Waking Up, and then segues into a skeptical review of meditation. Lindsay is President of the secularist/skeptic Center for Inquiry.* Although I dealt with many relevant topics at some length in my review of Harris’s Waking Up (and recommend that anyone interested take a read), Lindsay raises additional issues that warrant response.
As background to those who might be unfamiliar, a secular approach to Buddhist belief and practice rejects the supernatural elements in Buddhism. We are at the very least agnostic about rebirth and any active kammic role in causation. We are at the very least agnostic about the accounts of odd extrasensory or supernatural abilities claimed for advanced meditators in the Buddhist suttas. However we also see that there is a core of belief and practice to Buddhism that does not depend upon such claims. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path do not explicitly depend on any supernatural claim. And the extraordinary abilities claimed for advanced meditators are of no essential importance to the practice. Indeed, it is my understanding that the Buddha’s chief disciple Sāriputta claimed not to have achieved expertise in any of them.
While Buddhism has always had its share of premodern beliefs, in this it is no different from say Stoicism’s embrace of theism or Socrates’s belief in rebirth. Premodern belief systems are premodern. If there remains anything of value in them, it will perforce have to be mined from a context some of which we will find uncongenial. Nevertheless there remains enough of interest within the earliest stratum of Buddhist teaching, just like that of ancient Greece, that it bears close study. I have argued that a careful updating of Buddhist belief and practice amounts to a version of Secular Humanism.
The comparison with Stoicism in particular is good to keep in mind. Although Buddhism and Stoicism differ in a few key respects, their practical outlook is relevantly similar. This is not the place to go into detail, but keeping the comparison in mind may be helpful to overcome a natural reaction to see Buddhism, Buddhist practice, or Buddhist philosophy as somehow irrevocably odd and different, “wisdom of the East” as it were. Although it does use a slightly different conceptual repertoire, early Buddhism (particularly that found in its earliest stratum, in the Pāli language) has more in common with certain schools of Greek philosophy than it has differences.
At any rate, Lindsay raises a number of important issues. Since his post centers around meditation, that is where we will focus. It is no surprise that meditation will be a fulcrum of debate between Secular Buddhism and other forms of Secular Humanism, since it is in meditative practice in particular that the Buddhist path diverges from mainstream humanism. Indeed, it is not clear that Secular Humanism has a practice of any kind. Instead it has one of a variety of creeds, systems to which, in one’s assent, one self-identifies as a Secular Humanist.
What distinguishes (let us call them) secular “spiritual practices”, in which one might include the neo-Stoicism of Massimo Pigliucci as well as Secular Buddhism, from Secular Humanism is the notion of a path to practice. We recognize that we are imperfect. In particular, we recognize that we are imperfect in realizing the goals outlined in Secular Humanism itself. We believe that there are methods that can bring us to believe, speak, and act in more skillful and ethical ways, but that these methods take time and practice. Both neo-Stoicism and Secular Buddhism see meditation as key to these methods.
Medical and Ethical Effects
First Lindsay raises the issue of the purported medical effects of meditation, which he characterizes as limited. Will meditation really be capable of use within a medical model to overcome certain forms of mental illness? I am guardedly optimistic, as indeed is Pigliucci when it comes to neo-Stoic meditation practices such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy that closely mirror those of Buddhism.
But the possibility that meditation might be helpful for clearing up depression or the like is not the main reason for suggesting we use it as a technique for human betterment. Even if meditation had no significant medical effects it still might be useful (for example) in making us happier, less reactive, or more productive.
When I say “less reactive”, I mean specifically that meditating upon our drives, and upon which of our actions are skillful and unskillful, may be useful in combating greed and hatred in particular, which are typically unskillful reactions to external stimuli. Among Buddhist meditation techniques, many are suggested for combating greed. For example, we meditate upon the fleeting and essentially illusory nature of all possession. We meditate upon the decay of all compound, causally conditioned things. We meditate upon the dangers involved in hoarding more and more stuff. We meditate upon our essential interrelatedness, hence the essential interrelatedness of all ownership. We meditate upon our death.
Many techniques are suggested for combating hatred: we meditate upon the so-called “Brahmavihāras” of universal friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We train ourselves by bringing to mind a continuum of more and less likable people and make the mental effort to feel friendly, compassionate, sympathetically joyful, and equanimous to all. We meditate once again on our essential interconnectedness, and hence the essentially self-defeating nature of hatred. All that can be achieved by hatred can be achieved more skillfully with actions devoid of such hatred, as people like Gandhi and ML King demonstrate.
In outlining such techniques I mean to push back on the trope that Buddhist meditation is only about “self transcendence”. Certainly, in a sense overcoming greed and hatred can be seen as aspects of self transcendence, but the flip side of that coin is that if one has a blinding experience of self transcendence and yet persists in greedy and hateful speech and action, one has not really transcended oneself in the sense closest to the Buddhist notion of nibbāna (similar to the Greek notion of eudaimonia). To truly transcend oneself is to succeed in cultivating a nature of generosity, renunciation, universal friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In that sense to truly transcend oneself is to transcend selfishness, not merely some conception of oneself as a homunculus inside the brain.
Or to put it another way, self transcendence is not a matter of cognitive assent to certain propositions. It is a matter of ethical training.
Effort and “Efforting”
This leads us into the second, related point about effort. In his piece, Lindsay contrasts the Buddha with Faust, who he says demonstrates that
striving can lead to frustration and despair, but the greatest failing is to yield to that frustration and stop striving.
This leads Lindsay to a quietist interpretation of meditation as sitting in a kind of useless, blissful state. As he says, “Bliss doesn’t bake bread.”
Of course, this is entirely correct. Bliss doesn’t bake bread. Nor does watching an opera, or a sunset, or the stars. Bliss may indeed be empty fun. But meditation isn’t bliss, with the exception of certain specific states of deep concentration known as the jhānas. The jhānas are indeed pleasurable but viewing them as the point of practice would not be a correct interpretation of Secular Buddhism, or indeed of any kind of Buddhism.
Buddhist practice is based upon the insight that in daily life one’s mind is too busy to be able accurately to take account of itself. Thus we tend to act precipitously, particularly when overcome by one or another passion, and end up in various states of regret. The antidote to this is so-called mindfulness meditation, by which we strive to calm and focus the mind over a period of time, and when the mind is calm, we strive to become aware of its workings, in as full detail as we can manage. Alongside, we strive to open up periods of calm in daily life; even fractions of a second can help mitigate the effects of desire and hatred long enough for us to counteract the knee-jerk tendency to speak or act rashly.
This practice is many things, but it is not usually blissful, and it is not an example of non-striving. Indeed, the canonical description of Buddhist practice is the so-called “Eightfold Path”, the sixth limb of which is “Right Effort”. Such effort, to make oneself aware of skillful and unskillful states in oneself, and to promote the skillful and denourish the unskillful, is absolutely central to practice. There is no practice without this effort. So when Harris (and others) speak of the problems with striving, they can only be speaking of the problems with ego-filled striving, often termed “efforting”: when striving becomes over-wrought, or when it is done for greedy or hateful ends. If I work myself up into a lather of striving, I will only burn myself out. If I strive to become the most famous Secular Buddhist in the world, that is unskillful striving: it works only to puff me up and make me insufferable, and probably miserable to boot.
Now, it is well to ask whether meditation is successful in achieving such ends. I am unaware of well-designed (large sample size, blinded, controlled) scientific studies showing that mindfulness meditation results in lowering of greed and hatred. Indeed, I am not aware of well designed scientific studies of any technique to lower greed and hatred. Perhaps readers of this blog will know otherwise. However the good thing about meditation is that it is available for free. There are any number of competent outlines for practice on the Web. I would suggest trying it for oneself and seeing if it makes one feel better in the sense of being calmer, and less reactive to problematic external stimuli. The Buddha suggested no less: his claim was that one should not take his word for it, but that one should look and see for oneself. He was, as many have pointed out, a kind of empiricist.
There are many different approaches to meditation within the Buddhist tradition. There are also many different ways to conceptualize the same approach. One can conceptualize a practice as “decreasing greed and hatred”. One can conceptualize it as “self transcendence”. Are these the same or different practices? It depends. Lindsay is certainly right to point out that an approach to self transcendence that sees it as a kind of blissful end-in-itself, an escape from ethical effort, is not a very skillful approach to life. Whether this is in fact Harris’s intent in Waking Up is beside the point: whether it is or isn’t, many non-practitioners have similar misconceptions about Buddhism.
At its most basic, Buddhism is a set of practices aimed at making us kinder, less greedy, and more equanimous, by getting our ego-filled selves out of the way. Perhaps its signature style is to see our self-concept as one central problem to be dealt with. In this, Buddhism is different from Stoicism for example, to which it is otherwise quite similar. Like Stoicism however Buddhism is all about effort. There are dozens of different meditative techniques recommended in the early writings, and many more have been proposed since. All involve effort, although such effort may be conceptualized differently in different practices.
Finally it is well to remember that there is no word comparable to “meditation” in Buddhism. The word commonly used is “bhāvana”, which means “cultivation” as in cultivating a plot of land. Mental cultivation is an ongoing process: it doesn’t just happen when one is seated in a chair or on a cushion. It doesn’t just involve following the breath, or falling into states of bliss. It is supposed to be something that one brings into daily life. Often what happens in daily life happens so fast and in such complexity that we need to remove ourselves and regain calm to figure out what really happened. But sometimes a single, relaxed breath can bring us to an awareness of what is skillful in a particular context. This too is bhāvana.
Bliss may not bake bread, in Lindsay’s terms. But cultivating skillful states of unselfishness may help make the world a better place, and so help realize the promise of Secular Humanism.
*I have been a volunteer for CFI for the past decade or so.