Harris (2014). Chapter 4: Meditation. (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.)

Harris, S. (2014). Chapter 4: Meditation. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (EPUB). New York: Simon & Schuster.

“As unreliable as such self-reports must be, this study found that people are consistently less happy when their minds are wandering, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant. The authors concluded that ‘a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.'” (¶1)

“… default-mode network (DMN) …” (¶2)

“The DMN has also been linked with our capacity for ‘self-representation.’3 For instance, if a person believes that she is tall, the term _tall_ should yield a greater signal in these midline regions than the term _short_. Similarly, the DMN is more engaged when we make such judgments of relevance about ourselves, as opposed to making them about other people. It also tends to be more active when we evaluate a scene from a first-person (rather than third-person) point of view.4” (¶3)

“A review of the psychological literature suggests that mindfulness in particular fosters many components of physical and mental health: It improves immune function, blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also leads to greater behavioral regulation and has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders. Unsurprisingly, the practice is associated with increased subjective well-being.13 Training in compassion meditation increases empathy, as measured by the ability to accurately judge the emotions of others,14 as well as positive affect in the presence of suffering.15 The practice of mindfulness has been shown to have similar pro-social effects.16” (¶8)

[“Gradual Versus Sudden Realization” …]

“… 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.” (¶10)

“… one practices mindfulness not because the intrinsic freedom of consciousness can be fully realized in the present but because being mindful is a means of attaining an experience often described as ‘cessation,’ which is thought to decisively uproot the illusion of the self (along with other mental afflictions, depending on one’s stage of practice). Cessation is believed to be a direct insight into an unconditioned reality (Pali: _Nibbāna_; Sanskrit: _Nirvana_) that lies behind all manifest phenomena.” (¶17)

“Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses — and that the idea of a ‘pure consciousness’ apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.” (¶20)

“The whole of Advaita reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions: Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling ‘I,’ and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness — free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.” (¶30)

[“Dzogchen: Taking The Goal As The Path” …]

“Given this change in my perception of the world, I understand the attractions of traditional spirituality. I also recognize the needless confusion and harm that inevitably arise from the doctrines of faith-based religion. I did not have to believe anything irrational about the universe, or about my place within it, to learn the practice of Dzogchen. I didn’t have to accept Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about karma and rebirth or imagine that Tulku Urgyen or the other meditation masters I met possessed magic powers. And whatever the traditional liabilities of the guru-devotee relationship, I know from direct experience that it is possible to meet a teacher who can deliver the goods.” (¶62)

“Notice how thoughts continue to arise. Even while reading this page your attention has surely strayed several times. Such wanderings of mind are the primary obstacle to meditation. Meditation doesn’t entail the suppression of such thoughts, but it does require that we notice thoughts as they emerge and recognize them to be transitory appearances in consciousness. In subjective terms, you are consciousness itself — you are not the next, evanescent image or string of words that appears in your mind. Not seeing it arise, however, the next thought will seem to become what you are.” (¶67)

[“Having No Head” …]

“Look for whatever it is you are calling ‘I’ without being distracted by even the subtlest undercurrent of thought — and notice what happens the moment you turn consciousness upon itself.” (¶80)

[“The Paradox Of Acceptance” …]

“… it is important to distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy — while covertly hoping that they will go away — and _truly_ accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness.” (¶93)

Selected Notes

  • 3. A. D’Argembeau et al. 2008. “Self-Reflection across Time: Cortical Midline Structures Differentiate between Present and Past Selves.” Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 3(3): 244–52; D. A. Gusnard et al. 2001. “Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Self-Referential Mental Activity: Relation to a Default Mode of Brain Function.” Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 98(7): 4259–64; J. P. Mitchell, C. N. Macrae, and M. R. Banaji. 2006. “Dissociable Medial Prefrontal Contributions to Judgments of Similar and Dissimilar Others.” Neuron 50(4): 655–63; J. M. Moran et al. 2006. “Neuroanatomical Evidence for Distinct Cognitive and Affective Components of Self.” J Cogn Neurosci 18(9): 1586–94; G. Northoff et al. 2006. “Self-Referential Processing in Our Brain: A Meta-Analysis of Imaging Studies on the Self.” Neuroimage 31(1): 440–57; F. Schneider et al. 2008. “The Resting Brain and Our Self: Self-Relatedness Modulates Resting State Neural Activity in Cortical Midline Structures.” Neuroscience 157(1): 120–31.
  • 4. K. Vogeley et al. 2004. “Neural Correlates of First-Person Perspective as One Constituent of Human Self-Consciousness.” J Cogn Neurosci 16(5): 817–27. One study compared Eastern and Western differences in self-representation and found that while both groups showed more midline activity when applying personal adjectives to the self than to another person, Chinese subjects also showed the same effect for judgments about their mothers. The experimenters interpreted this to mean that the Chinese harbor a more collectivist conception of the “self.” Y. Zhu et al. 2007. “Neural Basis of Cultural Influence on Self-Representation.” Neuroimage 34(3): 1310–16.
  • 13. S.-L. Keng, M. J. Smoski, and C. J. Robins. 2011. “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies.” Clinical Psychology Review 31: 1041–56; B. K. Holzel et al. 2011. “How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action from a Conceptual and Neural Perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6: 537–59.
  • 14. J. S. Mascaro et al. 2012. “Compassion Meditation Enhances Empathic Accuracy and Related Neural Activity.” In Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8(1): 48–55.
  • 15. O. M. Klimecki et al. 1991. “Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect after Compassion Training.” Cerebral Cortex 23(7): 1552–61.
  • 16. M. E. Kemeny et al. 2012. “Contemplative/Emotion Training Reduces Negative Emotional Behavior and Promotes Prosocial Responses.” Emotion 12: 338–50.
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