“Insurrection of Lies”: Sam Harris and the Rage of Mindfulness [ audio ]

You can’t let meditation just turn you into a New Age goofball who just burns incense and thinks that “the universe is one big mystery” and that “everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes, things happen for bad fucking reasons, and a whole generation — or generations — lose the most basic capacity for order, and for getting what they want in life, and lose good things that they didn’t need to lose. And sometimes the barbarians really do come through the gates.

As can be expected of him with an almost frightening consistency, I believe wholeheartedly that the great Sam Harris is absolutely spot-on regarding the state of the American soul. And with a fear that is equal to that, I am in perfect agreement with him on virtually every single freaking point.

(Where I do differ, for whatever it is worth, is his point about the white Christianist terrorists not being met with the same force – – at least, without the same show of force – – as the leftist and black protesters during the BLM upheavals of the last year or so… While I have expressed strong critical distance about the whole “woke culture” and the excesses of my true soul-mates on the progressive left, I do believe that leftists were treated much differently and more malignantly by police presence in their protests than these white Christianist hooligans on the steps of the Capitol (and in the Michigan State House, for that matter, and wherever they congregate with their bullshit “Second Amendment“ open-carry insanity) have been treated. Even though none of the black or leftist or even “antifa“ protesters were shot by the police, as Sam duly notes, there was (toward the BLM protests) this almost pornographic paramilitary police menace-show which it was deemed to be perfectly acceptable to fling out onto the streets of American cities, a souped-up militarized response which, though the police may not have shot anyone during the protests, again, certainly inflamed confrontation to higher and higher levels of destructiveness.

That point duly noted – – and it is one more of emphasis with Sam rather than substance – – I agree with absolutely every letter of what Sam says here. Sam is positively Emersonian, as I will attempt to communicate so poorly in the reflections below.

What is so especially interesting and valuable in this talk is Sam’s disquisition on the criticisms he has received from people who benefit from his meditation app: He mentions the reaction he has received for his very just expressions of rage and criticism of the Trump phenomenon — that he is going “outside his lane”, or, is he truly maintaining mindfulness while being justifiably impassioned by the dilemma facing the politics and the society?

I have spent the better part of 3 hours today transcribing out today Sam’s words directly from the recording. They are some of the clearest, most crystalline and no-bullshit fearless takes on the fake-meditation weaknesses of people who feel that honest, even offensive or contentious-seeming speech from meditating progressives is somehow “contradictory” to the aims and goals of the meditation project. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Sam calls this shit out with a ferocity which sent waves of gratitude through my spiritual-soul to hear. I believe these words should enter a textbook for anyone who wishes to study the attitude we need to develop for bringing meditation out into the world. So-called “engaged Buddhism” hasn’t had such a fearless, overdue rant as this. I want everyone who practices with me to study this speech. It is, for me, on the level of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eternal “Divinity School Address” for Buddhists in America or anywhere in the modern Buddhist community.

But these words, on a page, do not do his point justice: you must hear the passion and conviction with which he expresses them. This is a tour de force explanation of how a serious meditator can — and indeed, must — address the most pressing issues of our day, and express them with the fullest conviction he can muster, without contradicting in any way the claims of mindfulness practice.

Even this gloss I am giving is bullshit, compared to Sam’s native force. Of everything in this recording, for meditators, especially, this isolated-out section has great benefit for how we can regard the work of meditation (mindfulness, Zen, whatever we want to call it) and social engagement with the problems of human society. Absolutely mind-blowingly on-point Sam Harris. The relevant section is from [13:50- 20:23] in the recording below. I urge anyone who connects with my teaching — or who connects with the meditation teaching of anyone who teaches something similarly grounded or rooted in Buddhist practice — to please hear his words.

[ I have excised out the relevant passage as a separate recording, below the main talk. The entire talk is worthwhile, but if you don’t have the time, then just this one aside on being a mindfulness teacher while also giving vent to his fear and his rage about the direction of American society and politics today, is just one of the most amazing things I have ever heard Sam express.]

Here is a transcript of his speech, and the actual audio is at the very bottom of this post:

I want to respond to one species of criticism I keep receiving on social media.  I should have cleared this up sometime ago, because there’s some conceptual confusion here.

I keep hearing from people who are apparently contented users of “The Waking Up” app, who say things like, “Your app has changed my life. I’m getting incredible value from it. But I find your comments on politics really off-putting. These are not the sort of things that a teacher of mindfulness should be saying.” There are many versions of this. There are those people who Tweet me to say, “Hey, you should use your own app. You sound like you need some mindfulness.”

Let me clear this up: If you think there is something about meditation — “successful meditation” — or if you think that there is something about cutting through the illusion of the self, or  recognizing the nature of mind prior to concepts — if you think there’s some necessary contradiction between that project and caring about the kinds of problems I’m talking about now, you’re confused. 

There is nothing incompatible between mindfulness and not wanting to lose a cyber-war, say. There is no contradiction between what I’m saying now and how I’m saying it in the practices or worldview I present in “Waking Up”. You may disagree with some points I’m making here; there’re probably several things worth debating. 

But if you think that meditative insight should cause one not to care about the implosion of our democracy, or about our ongoing failure to deal with civilizational challenges — if you think we get to not care about the world we are building, or wrecking — the world that our children will be condemned to live in! — it’s time to take your head out of your ass.

But if you think that meditative insight should cause one not to care about the implosion of our democracy, or about our ongoing failure to deal with civilizational challenges — if you think we get to not care about the world we are building, or wrecking — the world that our children will be condemned to live in! — it’s time to take your head out of your ass.

And if you think I can’t say that mindfully, or mean that mindfully, in this very tone of voice — if you think it’s impossible for me to be mindful, right now — non-dualistically mindful, “free-of-self” mindful, even as I tell you to take your head out of your ass, then you are confused about what mindfulness is, and about what meditation is, and about what the whole project of what living an examined life is!  You have mistaken a style of communication — an anodyne, religious, or New Age-y communication, and a pseudo ethic around being as inoffensive as possible, for the goal of spiritual life!

Yes, there are some apparent paradoxes here, but there should be no confusion: Yes, it is possible to be free and happy in almost any circumstance. I believe that is true. If you put me in solitary confinement, I know that I could be happy. Given what I know about my own mind, that is true. And that is an immense strength born entirely of meditation. And it’s available to everyone. 

But that doesn’t mean that we should acquiesce to the ruination of everything, to the breakdown of society. If we find ourselves living in some hell-scape out of the “Road Warrior” movies — yes, it will still be possible to meditate, and to feel compassion for oneself and others, and to find equanimity. That is the capacity of the human mind that will not go away.

But we are right not to want to see things totally fall apart in our society. And if your practice of meditation is making you unable to take problems of civilizational importance seriously, well then you may be managing your own stress well, but you’re no good to us. What we need now are people who understand their own minds, and who also understand the world. ####

I studied with some of the greatest meditation masters who were alive at the end of the 20th-century. These were extraordinary teachers. But they didn’t know a damn thing about most of what I talk about on this podcast, and if they were alive today, they still wouldn’t. And it is a very good thing that people like that aren’t in charge of our cyber-war capabilities, because then we wouldn’t have any [cyber-war capabilities]!

We have to play this game on multiple levels. 

So, it’s great that many of you are getting value out of “Waking Up.” But if you don’t like me in this mode — when I’m actually doing my best to respond to a real emergency in our culture! — if you don’t understand that we need to mount a competent response to the challenges we face on 100 fronts, you’re not really getting what I’m teaching over there, at “Waking Up.”  

You can’t let meditation just turn you into a New Age goofball who just burns incense and thinks that “the universe is one big mystery” and that “everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes, things happen for bad fucking reasons, and a whole generation — or generations — lose the most basic capacity for order, and for getting what they want in life, and lose good things that they didn’t need to lose. And sometimes the barbarians really do come through the gates.

Yes, we can always have conversations about the fundamental nature of reality. We can have them here, in this circumstance, of relative order and prosperity, or we can take important things for granted, where I can have a podcast and you can have a smartphone on which to hear it — or we can contemplate reality after we have bombed and hacked and surveilled and abused ourselves back into the Dark Ages.

The nature of consciousness is available everywhere, even in a cave. And many great contemplatives have found it in a cave. I have met many great Tibetan yogis who have spent years in caves. But I would prefer not to have to live in one because the world has become a Cormac McCarthy novel. And you would prefer it,too, no matter how much you meditate. There is simply no contradiction between deep insight into the nature of mind, and getting our shit together out in the world!

And that tirade was brought to you by “Waking Up” — a meditation app.

As usual — this is a tiring theme, this constant agreement with the way his mind works, but you need to get over that! — I am in full agreement with everything Sam says about practicing mindfulness and also reacting critically, passionately, even sometimes revealing the rage ands fear that these times inspire in us.

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