We’ve posted on meditation research lately because it’s so compelling, and meditation music and instructions because so many creative people have found it liberating. But it’s always worth noting that a few meditation skeptics have weighed in with pointed objections to the large claims meditation teachers often make. And yet even after one of the most unsparing critiques of meditation research and teaching, science writer John Horgan still admits that “it might make you feel better, nicer, wiser” and plans to continue meditating in the face of his “perfect contempt for it.”
Another professional skeptic has gone even further along this road. Once spoken of as one of the dreaded “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism, Sam Harris has also long called himself a secular Buddhist, and has written “a guide to spirituality without religion.”
Wading into the politics of meditation means dealing with skeptics like Harris who treat Buddhism as quaint and archaic foolishness that just happened to preserve the scientific technology of mindfulness, and it means sorting through a lot of scientific studies, many of which—as is always the case—have a number fatal flaws in their method. Harris’ scientific claims about mindfulness have come in for their own critiques, from both mystics and secularists.
All of this said, the fact is that, like yoga and many other practices designed to harmonize mind and body, the benefits of meditation, placebo-induced or otherwise, are observable, and the risks entirely negligible. Many skeptical researchers have decided to dive in and try meditation before fully crediting their doubts. And that, supposedly, is the very instruction we find in what is often called the Buddhist “charter for free inquiry,” which tells practitioners to investigate for themselves and take no one’s word for anything, a few hundred years in advance of the British Royal Society’s motto, nullius in verba.
In this spirit, skeptics like Harris have investigated meditation and reported their findings. Many also, like Harris and academic researchers like Oxford psychiatrist Mark Williams, have recorded their own guided mindfulness meditations that correspond in many respects to the original ancient instructions. We’ve previously featured guided meditations from UCLA and a compilation of recorded instructions from new agers and scientists. At the top of the post, you can hear Harris’ very straightforward guided meditation, and further down a shorter version of the same.
In the video above, Harris employs just a little hyperbole in comparing mindfulness to the Large Hadron Collider. His claim that only through this practice can we discover “the self is an illusion” rings false when we think of the many other philosophers who have independently come to the same conclusion, whether as Taoists or Empiricists. But Harris isn’t only making the case for mindfulness meditation’s true correspondence to some fundamental nature of reality, but for its pragmatic usefulness in helping us move through the world with greater skill and peace of mind—reliable outcomes from regular meditation that no one has yet credibly denied.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Secular Buddhism?Sam give me a break! He calls himself a philosopher? Wow I suggest a 101 course in world religions,comparative or otherwise
It’s a thing. Check out the book, Buddhism Without Belief. Pretty much changed my life. That said, I’m not a fan of Harris at all.
I would also check out Owen Flanagan’s book on “Buddhism Naturalized”: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/bodhisattvas-brain
Calling Mr. Harris a (professional) philosopher is like calling Mr. Shaquille O’Neal a (professional) poet.
He’s not a philosopher, he’s a scientist, he actually repudiates philosophy!!! He thinks it’s dead >>> that shows how short sighted he is, he’s not stupid, but little does he know that you need a philosophical question to initiate any research #1, #2 he invaded the world of philosophy without the credentials, the necessary readings and socratic discussions to develop in that arena. He’s a pro-Zionist islamophobe who spreads bigotry with misuse of data, history, cherry picking history etc.
Yeah, he must be good on meditation based on his background, but he influences too many people into a line of thinking that id dogmatic and dangerous!! You’re not automatically a good questioning person just because you’re an atheist. Being an atheist myself, I repudiate the neo-atheits assertions on religion, though some I admire as scientists etc. But Sam is the most dangerous one!!
Do you not know that you’re dumb?