Killer stress, and Sam Harris’ comments on relief through meditation

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Joined  20-02-2006
25 September 2008 14:33

If you didn’t see this National Geographic Spcial last night, check it out at:

After seeing this program, or reading the text, it is interesting to read Sam Harris’ comments on meditation in ‘THE END OF FAITH’ - chapter 7 - Experiments in Consciousness:

“Inevitably, the primary obstacle to meditation is THINKING.  This leads many people to assume that the goal of meditation is to produce a thought-free state.  It is true that some experiences entail the temporary cessation of thought, but meditation is less a matter of suppressing thoughts than of breaking our identification with them, so that we can recognize the condition in which thoughts themselves arise.  Western scientists and philosophers generally imagine that thinking is the epitome of conscious life and would no sooner have a mind without thoughts than hands without fingers.  The fundamental insight of most Eastern schools of spirituality, however, is that while thinking is a practical necessity, the failure to recognize thoughts AS THOUGHTS, moment after moment, is what gives each of us the feeling that we call “I,” and this is the string upon which all our states of suffering and dissatisfaction are strung.  This is an empirical claim, not a matter of philosophical speculation.  Break the spell of thought, and the duality of subject and object will vanish - as will the fundamental difference between conventional states of happiness and suffering.  This is a fact about the mind that few Western scholars have ever made it their business to understand.

It is on this front that the practice of meditation reveals itself to be both intellectually serious and indispensable.  There is something to realize about the nature of consciousness, and its realization does not entail thinking new thoughts.  Like any skill that requires refinements in perception or cognition, the task of recognizing consciousness prior to the subject/object dichotomy can be facilitated by an expert.  But it is, at least in principle, an experience that is available to anyone.”  (end quote)

At the above PBS website you can read the text, or find out when the program will be re-broadcast.  The comparison between the stress-ridden baboon society in the wild, and employees at Britain’s ‘Whitehall’ bureaucracy is of interest to researchers.  The health of the top-dog vs health of subordinates is studied over a 30-year period. Both ‘societies’ have the same healthcare and diet for all levels in the pecking order.

[ Edited: 25 September 2008 14:40 by unsmoked]
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Joined  18-10-2007
02 November 2008 09:52


[ Edited: 07 March 2011 15:51 by J.C.]
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Joined  20-02-2006
06 November 2008 11:38
Joel Armstrong - 02 November 2008 02:52 PM

These thoughts on meditation seem to be at least partly about abandoning our ego’s.  Being content comes with disengaging and accepting that you are not your emotions.  When our emotions bring us frustration, anger, or fear, it is simply a reaction of the ego, which in many humans seems to be frail.  The pain we suffer typically comes from our own reactions to life’s circumstances, not the actual circumstances themselves.  The “I” Sam talks about is our ego.  Acceptance comes from abandoning it and and realizing that you do not have to respond to your ego. 

I’m not sure if it leads to “happiness” or not, but it at least leads to a feeling of being content.  I sometimes wonder if instead of trying to attain happiness, we should just be satisfied with feeling content with things.  Possibly just being content is what true happiness is.


I agree.  Zen masters, of course, won’t let us make a nest here.  “It is like the bottom falling out of a bucket.”

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Joined  28-06-2008
26 November 2008 10:43

I had the pleasure of attending the keynote speech by Robert Sapolsky at a neuroscience convention many years ago. While I see the potential correlation you are making with meditation and Dr. Sapolsky’s research I think the jargon associated with discussions of meditation and the concept of ego are superfluous.

To simplify (and I hope not trivialize) Sapolsky’s research; knowing your status and accepting what you can and can not do about it is a less stressful state of being.

In relation to meditation, whatever visualization technique you use, it seems that the beneficial aspects are obtained when ‘one steps outside oneself’ so that you can see your place (i.e., status) in life. A more active, or interactive, approach is exemplified by the rational emotive behavioral therapy approach develop by Albert Ellis.

We are our emotions and that is good. What is more important, in my opinion, is knowing what we can effect in a particular situation such that a greater satisfaction or happiness is obtained. Emotions don’t just bring us frustration, anger, or fear they also provide happiness, love, compassion. Frustration, anger, and fear are valid reasonable emotions. What you do about them defines how you are impacted by them, which I think comes back to Sapolsky’s research findings.

I think that Joel’s comments are close in the sense that it is our own reactions which are the root of the pain we may feel. However, I cringe a bit when ego is brought in. In particular “Acceptance comes from abandoning it and realizing that you do not have to respond to your ego.” Is there really another entity in the mix. Does it have the responsibility of causing the pain or suffering. Simply abandon the concept of ego in the first place and then the idea becomes; you do not have to respond to your emotions without rational thought but can act based on your emotions in ways in which the situation affords. And also understand that the situation may not afford a satisfactory action.

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27 November 2008 13:29

The other aspect of meditation is that once one has established the ability for consistent practice, other forms of meditation and/or contemplation can be used to deconstruct undesirable habits and construct desirable ones in their place.