A Conversation with Joseph Goldstein
(Photo via Mitchell Joyce)
Joseph Goldstein has been leading meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and the Forest Refuge. Since 1967, he has practiced different forms of Buddhist meditation under eminent teachers from India, Burma, and Tibet. His books include The Experience of Insight, A Heart Full of Peace, One Dharma, and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. For more information about Joseph, please visit www.dharma.org.
Joseph has been a close friend for more than 20 years. He was one of my first meditation teachers and remains one of the wisest people I have ever met. In this two-hour conversation, we discuss how he came to devote his life to the study of meditation. We also debate some of the finer points of the practice.
Although parts of this discussion are accessible, much of it is quite esoteric. I suspect that only experienced meditators will find the second half interesting, or even intelligible. My latest book, Waking Up, provides some necessary context, but there is no substitute for time spent engaging these practices on retreat.—SH
A Conversation with Dan Harris
(Photo via h.koppdelaney)
Dan Harris is a co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend edition of Good Morning America on ABC News. He has reported from all over the world, covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq, and producing investigative reports in Haiti, Cambodia, and the Congo. He has also spent many years covering religion in America, despite the fact that he is agnostic.
Dan’s new book, 10 Percent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story, hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Dan was kind enough to discuss the practice of meditation with me for this page.
I once participated in a twenty-three-day wilderness program in the mountains of Colorado. If the purpose of this course was to expose students to dangerous lightning and half the world’s mosquitoes, it was fulfilled on the first day. What was in essence a forced march through hundreds of miles of backcountry culminated in a ritual known as “the solo,” where we were finally permitted to rest—alone, on the outskirts of a gorgeous alpine lake—for three days of fasting and contemplation.
I had just turned sixteen, and this was my first taste of true solitude since exiting my mother’s womb. It proved a sufficient provocation. After a long nap and a glance at the icy waters of the lake, the promising young man I imagined myself to be was quickly cut down by loneliness and boredom. I filled the pages of my journal not with the insights of a budding naturalist, philosopher, or mystic but with a list of the foods on which I intended to gorge myself the instant I returned to civilization. Judging from the state of my consciousness at the time, millions of years of hominid evolution had produced nothing more transcendent than a craving for a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake.
I found the experience of sitting undisturbed for three days amid pristine breezes and starlight, with nothing to do but contemplate the mystery of my existence, to be a source of perfect misery—for which I could see not so much as a glimmer of my own contribution. My letters home, in their plaintiveness and self-pity, rivaled any written at Shiloh or Gallipoli.
An Audio Essay
(Photo via Ryan Heaney)
I can now say, at the advanced age of 47, that I no longer take my health for granted. In truth, I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac—but, as any hypochondriac aware of the relevant science can tell you, I am perfectly justified in this. If I wash my hands more often than your uncle with obsessive-compulsive disorder does, it’s because hand washing really is the best way to avoid most forms of contagious illness.
Until recently, my physical complaints were always minor and self-limiting, and were invariably treated as such by doctors. When I was in my twenties and thirties, having escaped childhood cancers and other serious strains of bad luck, every doctor knew that whatever seemed to be wrong with me would probably sort itself out. After I turned forty, however, I began to notice a change in attitude: Doctors suddenly took my aches and pains quite seriously. Many seemed frankly open to the possibility that I could die at any moment. Cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s—these and other delights were now on the menu. The body is like a clock—and it is a perverse one. It is by growing less and less reliable that it signals the passage of time. What time is it now? It’s time to worry about your prostate, you poor son of a bitch…
(Photo via Bala Sivakumar)
I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must begin to think about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma, cultural prejudice, and wishful thinking as the best science already is. That is the subject of my next book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
Two Guided Meditations
I wrote an article on meditation two years ago, and since then many readers have asked for further guidance on how to practice. As I said in my original post, I generally recommend a method called vipassana in which one cultivates a form of attention widely known as “mindfulness.” There is nothing spooky or irrational about mindfulness, and the literature on its psychological benefits is now substantial. Mindfulness is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness. I will cover the relevant philosophy and science in my next book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, but in the meantime, I have produced two guided meditations (9 minutes and 26 minutes) for those of you who would like to get started with the practice. Please feel free to share them.
Once upon a time, a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander contracted a bad case of bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma. While immobile in his hospital bed, he experienced visions of such intense beauty that they changed everything—not just for him, but for all of us, and for science as a whole. According to Newsweek, Alexander’s experience proves that consciousness is independent of the brain, that death is an illusion, and that an eternity of perfect splendor awaits us beyond the grave—complete with the usual angels, clouds, and departed relatives, but also butterflies and beautiful girls in peasant dress. Our current understanding of the mind “now lies broken at our feet”—for, as the doctor writes, “What happened to me destroyed it, and I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large.”
(Photo by Stuck in Customs)
In writing my next book, I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term “spiritual.” Whenever I use the word—as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice”—I inevitably hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.
The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the 13th century, the term became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc. It acquired other connotations as well—we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle, or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many atheists now consider “spiritual” thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition.
I am currently under a book deadline, so long blog posts will probably be few and far between until the end of the year. The working title of the book is Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, and Spirituality. This title could very well change, but this should give you some indication of what I’m up to. My goal is to write a “spiritual” book for smart, skeptical people—dealing with issues like the illusion of the self, the efficacy of practices like meditation, the cultivation of positive mental states, etc.
Writing this book has forced me to revisit the work of gurus and spiritual teachers at every point on the spectrum of wisdom and crackpottery—which has been a lot of fun.
An Interview with Richard J. Davidson
(Photo by Jeff Miller)
Richard J. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and has published more than 275 scientific papers, many chapters and reviews, and edited 13 books. He is the author of the new book (with Sharon Begley) The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Richie (as he is known to his friends) has done more to bring the study of mental well-being into the 21st century than anyone I can think of. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work.
Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking
It is widely believed that Thomas Jefferson was terrified of public speaking. John Adams once said of him, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” During his eight years in the White House, Jefferson seems to have limited his speechmaking to two inaugural addresses, which he simply read out loud “in so low a tone that few heard it.”
I remember how relieved I was to learn this. To know that it was possible to succeed in life while avoiding the podium was very consoling—for about five minutes. The truth is that not even Jefferson could follow in his own footsteps today. It is now inconceivable that a person could become president of the United States through the power of his writing alone. To refuse to speak in public is to refuse a career in politics—and many other careers as well.
In fact, Jefferson would be unlikely to succeed as an author today. It used to be that a person could just write books and, if he were lucky, people would read them. Now he must stand in front of crowds of varying sizes and say that he has written these books—otherwise, no one will know that they exist. Radio and television interviews offer new venues for stage fright: Some shows put one in front of a live audience of a few hundred people and an invisible audience of millions. You cannot appear on The Daily Show holding a piece of paper and begin reading your lines like Thomas Jefferson.
The full video is an hour long. Links to specific topics/questions are provided below:
1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42
2. Do we have free will? 4:43
3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52
4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09
5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52
6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01
7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36
8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43
9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50
10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17
11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified? 50:14
12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52
13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09
(Note 6/4/2014: I have revised this 2011 essay and added an audio version.—SH)
Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.
This discussion continues at 21:25, when Sam criticizes atheists, scientists and secularists for failing to “connect to the character of those experiences” and for failing to “give some alternate explanation for them that is not entirely deflationary and demeaning and gives some warrant to the legitimacy of those experiences.” He implies that these experiences are somehow beyond the purview of science. I find that strange given Sam’s repeated emphasis on the value of science in studying mental states.
I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at here, and he doesn’t elaborate, but I don’t see why giving credence to these über-transcendent experiences as experiences says anything about a reality behind them. Yes, they might indeed change one’s personality and view of the world, but do any of us deny that?
I had similar experiences on various psychoactive substances when I was in college, and some of them were even transformative. The problem is not with us realizing that people can feel at one with the universe or, especially, at one with God; the problem comes with us taking this as evidence for some supernatural reality. What does it mean to say that an experience is legitimate? If someone thinks that he saw Jesus, I am prepared to believe that he thought that he saw Jesus, but I am not prepared to say that he really did see Jesus, nor that that constitutes any evidence for the existence of Jesus.
So my question for Sam would be this: “So if we accept that people do have these seriously transcendent experiences, what follows from that—beyond our simple desire to study the neurobiology behind them?”
These are all good points. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that transcendent experiences are “beyond the purview of science.” On the contrary, I think they should be studied scientifically. And I don’t believe that these experiences tell us anything about the cosmos (I called Deepak Chopra a “charlatan” for making unfounded claims of this sort). Nor do they tell us anything about history, or about the veracity of scripture. However, these experiences do have a lot to say about the nature of the human mind—not about its neurobiology, per se, but about its qualitative character (both actual and potential).