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Am I an Illusion?

Atheists in search of the spirit—through meditation

Hieronymus Bosch wikipedia
'Ascent to Heaven' by Hieronymus Bosch
Source: Hieronymus Bosch wikipedia

I held the book in disbelief. Found a table at Blackwell’s café overlooking the Bodleian library and looked again. It was unmistakably real: ‘A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.’ Sam Harris, the atheist, was a spiritual seeker; he, too, praised the wonders of meditation. Despite the appearances, despite the vitriolic debates, Sam Harris, the neuroscientist atheist, and Deepak Chopra, the New Age medical doctor, are spiritual mates. The world is full of surprises.

Yet, this is hardly new. Europeans and Americans have been turning to Buddhism and other Eastern religions for over 100 years, carefully removing the supernatural elements and repackaging these religions as moral philosophies—or spiritual practices purged of doctrines and beliefs. Harris does it, too. He writes in his book: ‘One can practice most techniques of Buddhist meditation or the methods of self-inquiry of Advaita and experience the advertised changes in consciousness without ever believing in the law of karma or in the miracles attributed to Indian mystics’.

Scholars of religion call this secular Buddhism. The mantra is: You don’t have to follow any church, tradition, book, or teacher: just follow your heart, trust yourself, don’t believe—meditate, experience. The same as Deepak Chopra, take or add some quantum physics (mis)quotes. And it’s a persuasive message. Underlying it there is an irresistible modern belief in the individual self and its inexhaustible potential.

Psychologists are partly to be blamed. We have endorsed ideas of individualism and practiced them in our studies: 99 percent of our experimental measures target the individual as an atom, an entity living apart from the rest of humankind. We have also uncritically embraced the popular notion of spirituality as some kind of essential experiential core present in all religions. The Sam Harrises and Deepak Chopras of the world are only regurgitating these beliefs, while feeding us with the other hand what we long for—a lost sense of social communion, or a momentary liberation from the frenetic me, me, me.

And, thus, the deep realization of Harris’ book is that Harris is an illusion. There really is no self. And he walked the extra mile for this. In a podcast interview (10% Happier) he tells us how many meditation masters he had to meet, how many retreats he endured in order to arrive at the experience of no self. It’s disappointing. Sam Harris’ no-self feels very much like his old-self, only less intelligent, less sophisticated, as if he’d join (dare I say it?) a cult. He never questions his experience — if we can call it that — of no-self. And his depiction of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta belongs in a post-truth, La-La-Land world—religious studies homework not done.

Source: Pixabay

But above all, what feels most disappointing is the jumping on the bandwagon of meditation sellers. Let’s pretend it’s true and that we get a 10 percent boost of happiness from meditation. So what? Even at the deep end of meditation, as Harris describes it, the realization that Sam is an illusion, Sam’s wife is an illusion, Sam’s book is an illusion, no matter how pleasurable it may be to him, all this nothingness doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. It feels tepid. Uninspiring. He never seems to question it: Could it perhaps make more of a difference if it made us 10 percent unhappier? Or is there an association between increase in meditators and meditation classes in the U.S. over the last two decades and reduction in prison incarcerations or prescriptions for anti-depressants? No questions asked. The author of End of Faith is just one more faithful meditator. Am I being too harsh? I think not. Let me give you an example of an interesting direction he could have followed. Some years ago I was running a study on atheist pilgrims to Santiago and met someone who had had an insight similar to Harris’ (without meditation): He realized a deep, pleasant sense of nothingness in himself. ‘So why did you decide to go on a pilgrimage for a whole month?’, I asked. He replied: ‘To question it; to explore what there is in this nothingness.’


For a very readable, short history of how the West has reinvented Buddhism, see:

Lopez, D. S. 2008. Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.