Sam Harris & Joseph Goldstein AMA Notes

The following are my notes from Sam Harris’s Ask Me Anything episode #14  with Joseph Goldstein. I found this to be a very powerful conversation regarding meditation and mindfulness practice, obviously enough to warrant a series of pauses for contemplation and extended notes. The conversation was very thought-provoking and helpful, especially for those of us more intrigued by the practical application of secularized Buddhist philosophy (as opposed to “spiritualized” Buddhist religion) and its relationship to general psychology and well-being.  I tried to get the direct quotes here as accurate as possible, but some of them may be slightly off, and some may not actually be in quotation marks. Much of this is my own rendition of their ideas along with my own interpretations and insights. Accordingly, most of the longer notes (the discursive run-ons) consist only of my own thoughts that were merely inspired by the conversation and do not necessarily reflect Harris’s or Goldstein’s views or ideas.

– What’s the attitude of the mind?” (What’s the filter the mind is using? Strong desire, aversion, clinging, doubt, etc?) Good to ask when trying to distinguish mindfulness from recognizing and activating mindfulness.

– The Buddha’s song of Awakening: “Achieved is the end of craving.” “(The absence of) Craving is the characteristic of the free mind.” It’s not so much emptiness of mind or selflessness. It’s the genuine experience of non-craving.

– “The fruit of realization is the end of craving (and clinging).” -Buddha

-Statement of Impermanence:  Whatever has the nature to arise will also pass away. Implication: There is nothing to want. The wanting passes like anything else. And when we get what we want, or not, it also passes. Know what that is like, not to want — the end of craving & clinging. (And remember you can still like and not want.)

-Do not mistake non-craving for non-joy. We can certainly experience joy and not craving. It’s quite simply like the concept of “liking but not wanting”. We can deeply enjoy something, and even enjoy the idea of something, without strongly desiring to actually have it. We can really like it when something pleasurable or fortunate occurs without craving for it to occur or without clinging to it once we have it. “Let it come, let it go, let it be” should be applied to good, strongly desired feelings & sensations as well as bad, strongly averse ones: we notice them, and accept them, and allow them to pass naturally, but we do not identify with them as possessions or afflictions. This approach allows for mindful, equanimous experiencing, and it allows us to fully utilize our awareness and attention to manage our experience and sustain a baseline of equanimity + peaceful joy.

-On the reconciliation of motivation & constructive action and non-craving:  There is a difference between Aspiration and Expectation. Aspiring fundamentally involves an intention to experience, to connect and to give or to carry out a process. It’s sort of like Gentle Intentional Hoping. It has a directional nature, making it more pliable, whereas expecting has a unilateral nature, making it more constricted. Expecting involves clinging to some predetermined outcome you’ve established in your mind. And the expecting mind judges experience and its own feelings relative to that outcome occurring or not. Aspiring doesn’t assume a definite outcome, and it doesn’t judge the quality of experience by whether or not its means of intention produces an end. When we have an open, equanimous mind, a mind with clarity and consideration, we can rationally examine and discern between things like Motivation and Non-Craving, Aspiration and Expectation…

– Within the space of equanimity is discernment. When we remain equanimous across our mindfulness and attention, we will naturally and easily be able to discern between states like motivation and strong desire (aspiration and expectation/clinging) and between apathy and non-craving and non-judgment. Recall ‘emotional granularity’ and utilize this. Appreciate and trust your discernment.

-On unethical behavior (especially as committed by a guru, or any powerful person, as an exercise or proposed test or challenge to the theory of non-craving and non-clinging, or to adherence to the general principles of meditation):  “It’s never necessary to provoke a response of misery. There’s enough suffering happening anyway. Engaging in some sort of deeply-felt unethical behavior is simply unskillful and confusing, and is ultimately unnecessary.” If someone says, “You should give me all the money in your wallet if you don’t believe in clinging” or a lesser demand, “You should give me your spot in line if you’re not craving to purchase the item and get out of this store”, know that these are not the measures of your training and of your insights. Take this example:  If someone said “you should be able to make a full court shot right now if you practice basketball everyday” or “Go make a layup with your eyes closed”, those are not rational demands — those are not accurate or appropriate measures of your developed abilities, certainly not the most accurate or appropriate measures. And any insistence or demand of something beyond what you have ever experienced or beyond anything you essentially signed up for, is misguided and objectionable.  So this conceptualization of “gross demand” and “sudden, extreme-feeling insistence” applies to suggestions of unethical or irrational or personally-comprising behavior across the board. Doing something that feels deeply fundamentally wrong and against your most revered values is not necessary for the practice of de-conditioning the craving/clinging mind, and any test of progress should never be expected to be proven on the spot – if anybody puts you on the spot to do something you genuinely don’t want to do, take it as indication that they do not actually care about you, thus they are not worthy of anymore of your attention or time…

-This applies to your own self-compromising thoughts as well:  if your own mind challenges you to do something as a means of proving yourself in a seemingly extreme manner, as if to prove to yourself you are “unbound” by taking a leap of logic, perhaps as an example, “Why don’t you just stop being friends with people?” or  “Just stop caring about X, Y, Z [family members]” or “Just walk away from your house, it’s too big of burden”, know that these type of relatively extreme challenges (or self-challenges) are not helpful or necessary, and they should always be considered as red flags for yourself being completely on the wrong track, let alone being on a deluded train of thought. There are plenty of other ways to test your practice and grow your practice that don’t involve the engagement of unethical or highly irrational or personally-compromising behavior whatsoever. Just know that if some request, or if some thought, as a challenge to your practice, makes you feel deeply constricted or even gross because it feels so unnecessary and wrong, you should always listen to that deep feeling and trust it. Perhaps you can reexamine it later if you’re left feeling stubborn and closed-off, and then perhaps after thorough reasoning and some distance (ie, the passing of time) you could reconsider a more suitable, revised proposition, but for the time being, and when in doubt, trust your deep sense of protection

-We have this important sense of deep self-protection that is wholesome and good and valuable for our survival and well-being, and it may occasionally necessitate a resistance to experience, and that’s OK. The general practice of non-craving/clinging, and of not resisting the flow of our experiences, is intended for day-to-day operation:  it is a practice, a practical application, not a concrete ideal that’s ultimately to be used for the most extreme conditions. The practice does not entail abandoning your positions, or your valued possessions, or abandoning relationships on a whim, just to prove your progress. You should always feel free to resist such peculiar insistence (coming from yourself or anyone else) if necessary, and know that you can quickly & gently return to your ongoing practice upon the subsiding of that temporary resistance without having compromised any of your progress. Ultimately, never give into something that goes strongly against the grain of your sense of Love: anything that would require you to abandon your internal, deeply established conception of love – that elemental structure of sensed love that you’ve continued to trust and follow throughout your life – should be disregarded or disengaged. Unless you’re absolutely certain that engaging a seemingly unethical or irrational challenge, whether presented by someone else or proposed by your own mind, does not conflict with or compromise your deep sense of Love — the sense that has brought about all the joy and wholesomeness in your life, all the safety, satisfaction, connection, and non-suffering up to this point, all the clarity and rightness inside you that you humbly trust and consciously identify with the most — then you must disregard or disengage that challenge and instead trust this foundational sense of Love. When in doubt you must ultimately remain Loyal to Love. And this is not a romantic, self-indulgent idea:  remaining loyal to love really just means that you give your own sense of goodness + guidance the benefit of the doubt. This notion is based in trusting your gut AND listening to reason — it is the unification of both internal guides in the face of challenges or confusion. Again, there is great discernment available in the equanimous mind, and it should be utilized.

-A sudden awakening is only the beginning, not the end. Awakening is not epiphanic, nor is it assumable merely from having a powerful realization and a strong feeling of being awakened. It is surely a process. It is not as if having had a sense of expedited transformation, a sense that seems attributable to one element or one isolated experience, whether thru psychedelics or insight or intellectual discovery, is even remotely sufficient for true Awakening; rather, true Awakening is only reached by transformative process. And this process consists of cultivation — an ongoing, procedural integration of new knowledge and insights into the mind and life — for real awakening to genuinely occur. And this cultivation is specifically done thru the practice [of meditation, along with intentional & consistent study & application].

-Meditation is not about trying to control the distraction that arises, or trying to prevent certain types of distractions from occurring:  It’s about understanding your relationship to the distracting thought. … The meditative process is about how we relate to thoughts or other distractions. ‘What’ is misdirecting our attention, and eliciting a reaction from us, does not matter:  what matters is how we see this process unfold and transpire, and what we learn from this observation and how proceed from it…

-On the substance of a [distracting] thought: “It doesn’t matter what you’re not clinging to.” In other words, what particular thoughts are distracting you, whatever their substance is and what their nature and seeming intensity are, they don’t matter — analyzing or even examining the substance of a distracting thought is not the point: the point is to simply observe the distraction as a distraction, and allow it, and then observe your relationship to the distraction in the process of returning to the meditative object. This is the important distinction that allows awareness and attention to be effectively directed, sustained, and optimally developed through meditation.

-Concentration based meditation, ie Samatha, involves having one-pointedness (on a meditative object) as the primary means of attaining pure concentration accompanied by equanimity and tranquility. Whereas insight meditation, ie Vipassana, has insight or (realization & deep understanding) as its emphasis wherein the focus is “refining the perception of change and Impermanence”, essentially entailing seeing the true nature of reality. And these two practices are not in conflict.

-On Karma… the karmic process is ongoing and occurring within this life, and essentially operates as follows:  Consciousness is the (mental) environment in which we live. We reside in consciousness, and perhaps we are fundamentally consciousness. Our mind state affects this environment — our mind state is continually affecting our permanent residence more or less. Our present mind state must always somehow affect our future mind states and thus must affect our actions, at least in some subtle but real way. So we should always be asking ourselves, Are we purifying our mind state, and immediately experiencing a more purified environment (higher/clearer consciousness)? Or are we polluting our environment (of consciousness)? And are we polluting it, drastically or gradually, with mental toxins such as anger and lust?…These are mind conditions that essentially transpire as “reaping what we sow” from moment to moment, directly or indirectly, as we subsequently experience negative ramifications in both our literal environment and in our consciousness. Moreover, we experience these various emotional clouds as results of mind state pollution, clouds such as guilt and shame and foolishness, that linger within our consciousness that affect our course of action:  with too much mind state pollution – with too many mental clouds, or with clouds lingering for too long – it can physically manifest in subtle and imperceptible ways (as well as in very direct and obvious ways, like not taking care of yourself, or hurting yourself), and it can become (and often does become) externally experienced more momentously as with lost relationships and lost roles, and other forms of conflict, destruction and neglect of various types, and these can be considered real “karmic” consequences of your mind state — these unseen, rather intangible personal effects or influences that lead to tangible outcomes, outcomes which could be more or less traced back to the good or bad quality of a series of thoughts & subsequent actions — real consequences that at least to some extent technically begin in and develop within a mind state, and naturally result in a proportional alteration of mind, essentially creating a new mind state relative to the conditions and affects of each previous one…

-So we do experience direct “karmic” results of negative/harmful mind states:  contraction, tension, unsatisfactoriness, and when these experiences are significant enough they affect our actions, which when significant enough affect our relationships or alter our environments, and so forth. We also experience karmic results of positive/constructive mind states:  wholesomeness, clarity, ease, etc, which when significant enough also affect our relationships and environments and so forth. So the karmic effect of each moment (and from a series of moments looked at collectively) can be conceived and understood very pragmatically. And just because we have this pragmatic, working concept of karma – a version that involves some degree of origin in the mind – it does not mean this version of karma (karmic consequence from mind state) necessarily must apply to all events for it to be valid… ie, this would not apply to natural disasters or disease or other physical processes of which the source of origin involves no mind at all. It only applies to events that have a some type of psychological or behavioral component, wherein an outcome is directly traceable in some significant way to some human action, which would mean it is traceable or linkable in some way to some human mind state as a source of origin (as a causal mechanism, but not necessarily the only causal mechanism) and can thus be considered more or less a karmic process.

-Emptiness, as an important concept in Buddhism, simply suggests that there’s no separate, independent operation going on with any one object or entity, including the self. Everything is dependently arising:  nothing occurs completely independently, which means everything must occur dependently to some extent. Every thing is a conglomeration of conditions:  nothing arises or appears on its own. So the essence of emptiness in Buddhism is not meaninglessness or absence of form or substance, it is dependence on other properties and processes. And as for the emptiness of self, it just means that a self is literally nothing on its own; the “self” is not an object, it is a concept that involves a constant and necessary interdependence with other conceptualized “selves”. There’s no self-existent nature. (And the common delusion of “separate object-self”creates suffering! It perpetuates self-centeredness and self-importance which perpetuates craving and clinging.) Every thing, including the self, is contingent upon other conditions, other properties, and various unceasing processes. So this truth, “there’s nothing at the core of things”, is where the concept of emptiness in Buddhism comes from. In other words there’s no thing to be found at the core of the self:  there’s no defining object, no substance, of selfness to be found upon stripping away all of our conceptual elements of self. And this should lead us to acknowledge and embrace the dependent and interdependent nature of experience. … There is no “car-ness” intrinsic to any of the parts of a car. At what point does a car (the physical object, “car”) cease to be a car? When the doors come off, or when the wheels come off, or when the insides are taken out, or when the engine is taken out? You can essentially always strip away the parts, and the parts of the parts, and the elements of the parts, and when you do you see there’s nothing there — the thing (the car) is empty. Every thing, including an emotion or a selfis dependent upon a series of conceptual relationships. THUS, your conscious experience — your experience of reality — is actually made up more (or perhaps entirely) of the concepts surrounding objects and their parts rather than the objects themselves. … We say, “I see the flashlight” but the eye does not actually see a flashlight:  the eye sees color and form. So the “seeing” of a seemingly definable object — or even just the unconscious noticing, rather than the naming, of some perceivable object — involves a conceptual designation in its acknowledgment, including some type of association made – perhaps the momentary unconscious perception of “harmless” or “unimportant” or “don’t know what that is” – again, even when it’s unnamed or ignored. … Understanding concepts surrounding (and superseding) objects relates to emptiness as it shows the lack of inherent or intrinsic substance in an object or in an experience. And why is understanding this notion of emptiness important? Because when you see that an object, or collection or conglomeration of objects, is intrinsically empty (that is, it is dependent upon a series of other properties and processes and upon their conceptual relationships for its existence), then you can see that there is no need or purpose to cling to that object (including a thought, emotion, or self) because there is inherently no-thing to cling to : the thing as a thing is an illusion; the thing is actually a concept, so when the thing is willfully seen as a thing, rather than accepted as a concept dependent on other concepts, that willful illusion becomes a delusion, a delusion that establishes an irrational “hostile attachment”, which sustains the deluded mind state of craving & clinging, and ultimately perpetuates suffering.

-The Awakened state more or less involves an ability to experience the “dissolution of the conceptual world.” This just means being able to see the world as it is, as a series of interdependent concepts, rather than a bunch of independent objects, so that the mind can understand how to operate free of perceptual delusion and ultimately be unbounded by the craving and clinging of what we see as various possess-able objects (or series of objects, such that comprise typical experiencing). The ability to perceive in this pure, un-deluded manner allows for experiencing fully clear consciousness, which enables one’s full capacity for insight and continuous attention and creative engagement, and enables the capacity for a genuinely tranquil sense of peace and a genuinely equanimous sense of joy. All there is for sure, all we intrinsically and inherently know is real, is consciousness. Despite consciousness being potentially illusory, as if despite it feeling really real it might actually just be a dream or a simulation or some other phenomenon we can’t yet conceive of, it still has some type of property to it that we experience as reality, and thus a potential illusoriness does not supplant or negate our basic experiencing of “the lights are on”. Our experience of “lights-on-ness” is objectified as we all fundamentally identify with it and as it remains the most bare thing we conceive of after all concepts are stripped away, and it’s the “thing” that is always just there no matter the point in time or where we are. Perhaps we could call it something different than consciousness, something like nowness or sense-ableness or existence-ness, or perhaps call it nothing at all and just all mutually and tacitly understand that elemental sense of experiencing we all feel. No matter what we call it, the experiencing of it remains the same. But “consciousness”, as referring to basic experiencing, is most aptly to the point here. There is something to be sensed rather than nothing:  there is some degree of basic awareness going on, however inscrutable or muddied this awareness-ing may be. There IS an undeniable sentience that we automatically experience, a neutral and formless experience of aliveness. We can sense sheer presence without “knowing” any objects, without defining them or even naming them, and without assigning judgments to objects, ie without conceptualizing (without having to name and qualify concepts and actively relate them and unify them to make meaning), and this is the only non-emptiness there is. This is Consciousness. And this is what we must fully tap into as humans to experience the only reliable nature of our existence and of our subjective experiencing — this all we really, truly “know” and can rely on, as we are mere sensory-perceivers necessarily living within a conditioned reality. When we understand consciousness as the only “thing” having non-emptiness — as the “thing” that is our true, unconditioned reality — we can let go of craving and clinging and embrace the intrinsic peace & purity within our inherent reality of bare consciousness. And upon living with full consciousness we subsequently become free to conceptualize out of it as we wish, knowing and understanding and trusting our new home base of consciousness, peacefully residing in it as our uncontrollable worldly concepts succumb to Impermanence, and then we can subsequently fully engage our moment-to-moment worldly experience knowing we’re essentially always at home no matter what — we then experience everything attentively, clearly and lovingly.  Ultimately, as we become more conscious, we suffer less and increase our capacity for the most wonderful human concept of all:  love.

-“When there’s a sound that annoys us, we get all reactive to the concept, not to the sound: we react out of the sense of the concept, “This is bothersome. This is bothering my right to be at peace. This is impeding upon my focus.” The sound itself is not inherently unpleasant — we’re not experiencing a real auditory disturbance, an objective cacophony of sorts. It’s merely the sense of interruption, the sense that something is recklessly disregarding our presence and disturbing us — that’s what’s causing our reactivity. And this happens rather constantly throughout the day in various forms with various senses. We unconsciously personalize things and have impossibly high expectations of a distraction-free experience. We all fall victim to unconscious over-sensitivity more or less, and that causes and perpetuates our reactiveness, and our reactiveness is what makes us suffer — it’s why the sound seems bad when it is not bad. Our reactiveness is conditioned — it is based on conditions, conditions which form and invoke concepts. Especially on the concept of me-ness, a me-ness that is conditioned by other concepts such as rights (a right to peace, a right to non-distraction). When you realize all this — all this reactiveness based on our conditioning, and the fact that it’s our concepts (especially relative to our concept and experience of self) that actually makes us react, and that it’s our reaction makes us suffer, not the actual nature of the object (the sound) — you see the unnecessary-ness of our reactions and ultimately of our suffering. You can then begin to liberate from that unconscious over-sensitivity that leads to reaction, and from that reaction that leads to suffering, and ultimately choose to operate from consciousness and interpret experience from an appropriately impersonal, equanimous point of view.