I once spent an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon. It was an infernally hot day, and the sanctuary where I sat was crowded with Christian pilgrims from many continents. Some gathered silently in the shade, while others staggered about in the sun, taking photographs.
As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self—an “I” or a “me”—vanished. Everything was as it had been—the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water—but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.
The experience lasted just a few seconds, but it returned many times as I looked out over the land where Jesus is believed to have walked, gathered his apostles, and worked many of his miracles. If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. I might believe that I had glimpsed the oneness of God or been touched by the Holy Spirit. If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the eternal Self, of which the world and all individual minds are thought to be a mere modification. If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness,” in which all apparent things manifest as in a dream.
But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being. Consequently, I am very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from experiences of this sort. And yet, I glimpse what I will call the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness every day, whether at a traditional holy site, or at my desk, or while having my teeth cleaned. This is not an accident. I’ve spent many years practicing meditation, the purpose of which is to cut through the illusion of the self.
Indeed, the conventional sense of self is an illusion—and spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment. There are logical and scientific reasons to accept this claim, but recognizing it to be true is not a matter of understanding these reasons. Like many illusions, the sense of self disappears when closely examined, and this is done through the practice of meditation.
Psychologists and neuroscientists now acknowledge that the human mind tends to wander, engaging in what has been called “stimulus-independent thought.” One study found that when asked whether their mind was wandering—that is, whether they were thinking about something unrelated to their current experience—subjects reported being lost in thought 46.9 percent of the time. As unreliable as such self-reports must be, this study found that people are consistently less happy when their minds are wandering, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant. The authors concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Anyone who has spent time on silent retreat will agree.
The wandering mind has been correlated with activity in the brain’s midline regions, especially the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex. These areas are often called the “default-mode” or “resting state” network because they are most active when we are just biding our time, waiting for something to happen. Activity in the default-mode network (DMN) decreases when subjects concentrate on tasks of the sort employed in most neuroimaging experiments.
The DMN has also been linked with our capacity for “self-representation.” For instance, if a person believes that she is tall, the term tall should yield a greater signal in these midline regions than the term short. Similarly, the DMN is more engaged when we make such judgments of relevance about ourselves, as opposed to making them about other people. It also tends to be more active when we evaluate a scene from a first-person (rather than third-person) point of view.
Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses. I am confident that they are mistaken.
Generally speaking, to pay attention outwardly reduces activity in the brain’s midline, while thinking about oneself increases it. These results appear mutually reinforcing and might explain the common experience we have “losing ourselves in our work.” Mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation also decrease activity in the DMN—and the effect is most pronounced among experienced meditators (both while meditating and at rest). While it is too early to draw strong conclusions from these findings, they hint at a physical connection between the experience of being lost in thought and the sense of self (as well as a mechanism by which meditation might reduce both).
Long-term meditation practice is also associated with a variety of structural changes in the brain. Meditators tend to have larger corpora collosa and hippocampi (in both hemispheres). The practice is also linked to increased gray matter thickness and cortical folding. Some of these differences are especially prominent in older practitioners, which suggests that meditation could protect against age-related thinning of the cortex.
It has long been known that stress, especially early in life, alters brain structure. For instance, studies both in animals and in humans have shown that early stress increases the size of the amygdalae. One study found that an eight-week program of mindfulness meditation reduced the volume of the right basolateral amygdala, and these changes were correlated with a subjective decrease in stress. Another found that a full day of mindfulness practice (among trained meditators) reduced the expression of several genes that produce inflammation throughout the body, and this correlated with an improved response to social stress (diabolically, subjects were asked to give a brief speech and then perform mental calculations while being videotaped in front of an audience). A mere five minutes of practice a day (for five weeks) increased left-sided baseline activity in the frontal cortex—a pattern that has been associated with positive emotions.
A review of the psychological literature suggests that mindfulness in particular fosters many components of physical and mental health: It improves immune function, blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also leads to greater behavioral regulation and has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders. Unsurprisingly, the practice is associated with increased subjective well-being. Training in compassion meditation increases empathy, as measured by the ability to accurately judge the emotions of others, as well as positive affect in the presence of suffering. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to have similar pro-social effects.
From a first-person point of view, none of this is surprising. After all, there is an enormous difference between being hostage to one’s thoughts and being freely and nonjudgmentally aware of life in the present. To make this shift is to interrupt the processes of rumination and reactivity that often keep us so desperately at odds with ourselves and with other people. No doubt many distinct mechanisms are involved—the regulation of attention and behavior, increased body awareness, inhibition of negative emotions, conceptual reframing of experience, changes in the view of “self,” and so forth—and each of these processes will have its own neurophysiological causes. In the broadest sense, however, meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time.
We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved. But here lies one of the central paradoxes of spiritual life, because this very feeling of dissatisfaction causes us to overlook the intrinsic freedom of consciousness in the present.
The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self—and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.
Traditionally, there have been two solutions to this paradox. One is to simply ignore it and adopt various techniques of meditation in the hope that a breakthrough will occur. Some people appear to succeed at this, but many fail. It is true that good things often happen in the meantime: We can become happier and more concentrated. But we can also despair of the whole project. The words of the sages may begin to sound like empty promises, and we are left hoping for transcendent experiences that never arrive or prove merely temporary.
The ultimate wisdom of enlightenment, whatever it is, cannot be a matter of having fleeting experiences. The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds. It must, therefore, be available in the context of ordinary sights, sounds, sensations, and even thoughts. Peak experiences are fine, but real freedom must be coincident with normal waking life.
The other traditional response to the paradox of spiritual seeking is to fully acknowledge it and concede that all efforts are doomed, because the urge to attain self-transcendence or any other mystical experience is a symptom of the very disease we want to cure. There is nothing to do but give up the search.
These paths may appear antithetical—and they are often presented as such. The path of gradual ascent is typical of Theravada Buddhism and most other approaches to meditation in the Indian tradition. And gradualism is the natural starting point for any search, spiritual or otherwise. Such goal-oriented modes of practice have the virtue of being easily taught, because a person can begin them without having had any fundamental insight into the nature of consciousness or the illusoriness of the self. He need only adopt new patterns of attention, thought, and behavior, and the path will unfold before him.
Any attempt to make sense of such teachings in third-person, scientific terms quickly produces monstrosities.
By contrast, the path of sudden realization can appear impossibly steep. It is often described as “nondualistic” because it refuses to validate the point of view from which one would meditate or practice any other spiritual discipline. Consciousness is already free of anything that remotely resembles a self—and there is nothing that you can do, as an illusory ego, to realize this. Such a perspective can be found in the Indian tradition of Advaita Vedanta and in a few schools of Buddhism.
Those who begin to practice in the spirit of gradualism often assume that the goal of self-transcendence is far away, and they may spend years overlooking the very freedom that they yearn to realize. The liability of this approach became clear to me when I studied under the Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita. I sat through several retreats with U Pandita, each a month or two in length. These retreats were based on the monastic discipline of Theravadan Buddhism: We did not eat after noon and were encouraged to sleep no more than four hours each night. Outwardly, the goal was to engage in 18 hours of formal meditation each day. Inwardly, it was to follow the stages of insight as laid out in Buddhaghosa’s fifth-century treatise, the Visuddhimagga, and elaborated in the writings of U Pandita’s own legendary teacher, Mahasi Sayadaw.
The logic of this practice is explicitly goal-oriented: According to this view, one practices mindfulness not because the intrinsic freedom of consciousness can be fully realized in the present but because being mindful is a means of attaining an experience often described as “cessation,” which is thought to decisively uproot the illusion of the self (along with other mental afflictions, depending on one’s stage of practice). Cessation is believed to be a direct insight into an unconditioned reality that lies behind all manifest phenomena.
I spent several years deeply preoccupied with reaching the goal of cessation, and at least one year of that time was spent on silent retreat. Although I had many interesting experiences, none seemed to fit the specific requirements of this path. There were periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels. Many scientists and philosophers believe that consciousness is always tied to one of the five senses—and that the idea of a “pure consciousness” apart from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is a category error and a spiritual fantasy. I am confident that they are mistaken.
But cessation never arrived. Given my gradualist views at that point, this became very frustrating. Most of my time on retreat was extremely pleasant, but it seemed to me that I had merely been given the tools with which to contemplate the evidence of my nonenlightenment. My practice had become a vigil—a method of waiting, however patiently, for a future reward.
The pendulum swung when I met an Indian teacher named H. W. L. Poonja (1910–97), called “Poonja-ji” or “Papaji” by his students. Poonja-ji was a disciple of Ramana Maharshi (1879– 1950), arguably the most widely revered Indian sage of the 20th century. Ramana’s own awakening had been quite unusual, because he had no apparent spiritual interests or contact with a teacher. As a boy of 16, living in a middle-class family of South Indian Brahmins, he spontaneously became a spiritual adept.
While sitting alone in his uncle’s study, Ramana suddenly became paralyzed by a fear of death. He lay down on the floor, convinced that he would soon die, but rather than remaining terrified, he decided to locate the self that was about to disappear. He focused on the feeling of “I”—a process he later called “self inquiry”—and found it to be absent from the field of consciousness. Ramana the person didn’t die that day, but he claimed that the feeling of being a separate self never darkened his consciousness again.
After fruitlessly attempting to behave like the ordinary boy he had once been, Ramana left home and traveled to Tiruvannamalai, an ancient pilgrimage site for followers of Shiva. He spent the rest of his life there, in proximity to the mountain Arunachala, with which he claimed to have a mystical connection.
In the early years after his awakening, Ramana seemed to lose his ability to speak, and he was said to grow so absorbed in his experience of transfigured consciousness that he remained motionless for days at a time. His body grew weak, developed sores, and had to be tended by the few locals who had taken an interest in him. After a decade of silence, around 1906, Ramana began to conduct dialogues about the nature of consciousness. Until the end of his life, a steady stream of students came to study with him. These are the sorts of things he was apt to say:
The mind is a bundle of thoughts. The thoughts arise because there is the thinker. The thinker is the ego. The ego, if sought, will automatically vanish.
Reality is simply the loss of the ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because ego is no entity it will automatically vanish and reality will shine forth
Any attempt to make sense of such teachings in third-person, scientific terms quickly produces monstrosities. From the point of view of psychological science, for instance, the mind is not just “a bundle of thoughts.” And in what sense can reality be “simply the loss of the ego?” Does this reality include quasars and hantavirus? But these are the kinds of quibbles that will cause one to miss Ramana’s point.
While the philosophy of Advaita, and Ramana’s own words, may tend to support a metaphysical reading of teachings of this kind, their validity is not metaphysical. Rather, it is experiential. The whole of Advaita reduces to a series of very simple and testable assertions: Consciousness is the prior condition of every experience; the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it; look closely for what you are calling “I,” and the feeling of being a separate self will disappear; what remains, as a matter of experience, is a field of consciousness—free, undivided, and intrinsically uncontaminated by its ever-changing contents.
These are the simple truths that Poonja-ji taught. In fact, he was even more uncompromising than his guru in his nonduality. Whereas Ramana would often concede the utility of certain dualistic practices, Poonja-ji never gave an inch. The effect was intoxicating, especially to those of us who had spent years practicing meditation. Poonja-ji was also given to spontaneous bouts of weeping and laughter—both, apparently, from sheer joy. The man did not hide his light under a bushel. When I first met him, he had not yet been discovered by the throngs of Western devotees who would soon turn his tiny house in Lucknow into a spiritual circus. Like his teacher Ramana, Poonja-ji claimed to be perfectly free from the illusion of the self—and by all appearances, he was. And like Ramana—and every other Indian guru—Poonja-ji would occasionally say something deeply unscientific. On the whole, however, his teaching was remarkably free of Hindu religiosity or unwarranted assertions about the nature of the cosmos. He appeared to simply speak from experience about the nature of experience itself.
Poonja-ji’s influence on me was profound, especially because it came as a corrective to all the strenuous and unsatisfying efforts I had been making in meditation up to that point. Another teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, had a lasting effect on me.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche lived in a hermitage on the southern slope of Shivapuri Mountain, overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. He spent more than 20 years of his life on formal retreat and was deservedly famous for the clarity with which he gave the “pointing-out instruction” of Dzogchen, a formal initiation in which a teacher seeks to impart the experience of self-transcendence directly to a student. I received this teaching from several Dzogchen masters, as well as similar instructions from teachers like Poonja-ji in other traditions, but I never met anyone who spoke about the nature of consciousness as precisely as Tulku Urgyen. In the last five years of his life, I made several trips to Nepal to study with him.
The practice of Dzogchen requires that one be able to experience the intrinsic selflessness of awareness in every moment (that is, when one is not otherwise distracted by thought)—which is to say that for a Dzogchen meditator, mindfulness must be synonymous with dispelling the illusion of the self. Rather than teach a technique of meditation—such as paying close attention to one’s breathing—a Dzogchen master must precipitate an insight on the basis of which a student can thereafter practice a form of awareness that is unencumbered by subject/object dualism. Thus, it is often said that, in Dzogchen, one “takes the goal as the path,” because the freedom from self that one might otherwise seek is the very thing that one practices. The goal of Dzogchen, if one can call it such, is to grow increasingly familiar with this way of being in the world.
In my view, there is nothing supernatural, or even mysterious, about this transmission of wisdom from master to disciple.
In my experience, some Dzogchen masters are better teachers than others. I have been in the presence of several of the most revered Tibetan lamas of our time while they were ostensibly teaching Dzogchen and most of them simply described this view of consciousness without giving clear instructions on how to glimpse it. The genius of Tulku Urgyen was that he could point out the nature of mind with the precision and matter-of-factness of teaching a person how to thread a needle and could get an ordinary meditator like me to recognize that consciousness is intrinsically free of self. There might be some initial struggle and uncertainty, depending on the student, but once the truth of nonduality had been glimpsed, it became obvious that it was always available— and there was never any doubt about how to see it again. I came to Tulku Urgyen yearning for the experience of self-transcendence, and in a few minutes he showed me that I had no self to transcend.
In my view, there is nothing supernatural, or even mysterious, about this transmission of wisdom from master to disciple. Tulku Urgyen’s effect on me came purely from the clarity of his teaching. As it is with any challenging endeavor, the difference between being utterly misled by false information, being nudged in the general direction, and being precisely guided by an expert is difficult to overstate.
It is considered bad form in most spiritual circles, especially among Buddhists, to make claims about one’s own realization. However, I think this taboo comes at a high price, because it allows people to remain confused about how to practice. So I will describe my experience plainly.
Before meeting Tulku Urgyen, I had spent at least a year practicing vipassana on silent retreats. The experience of self-transcendence was not entirely unknown to me. I could remember moments when the distance between the observer and the observed had seemed to vanish, but I viewed these experiences as being dependent on conditions of extreme mental concentration. Consequently, I thought they were unavailable in more ordinary moments, outside intensive retreat. But after a few minutes, Tulku Urgyen simply handed me the ability to cut through the illusion of the self directly, even in ordinary states of consciousness. This instruction was, without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant. At my level of practice, this freedom lasts only a few moments. But these moments can be repeated, and they can grow in duration. Punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference. In fact, when I pay attention, it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: The implied center of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.
Given this change in my perception of the world, I understand the attractions of traditional spirituality. I also recognize the needless confusion and harm that inevitably arise from the doctrines of faith-based religion. I did not have to believe anything irrational about the universe, or about my place within it, to learn the practice of Dzogchen. I didn’t have to accept Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about karma and rebirth or imagine that Tulku Urgyen or the other meditation masters I met possessed magic powers. And whatever the traditional liabilities of the guru-devotee relationship, I know from direct experience that it is possible to meet a teacher who can deliver the goods.
Sam Harris is the author of Waking Up. His previous books include The End of Faith.
Copyright © 2014 by Sam Harris.
From the forthcoming book Waking Up by Sam Harris to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Printed by permission.