I am new to this forum and relatively new to Dr. Harris’ work as well. Although I have been mediating using different practices over the last six months or so, I have only recently read Waking Up and begun using the meditation course within the app. It started out well and I felt like it was useful for me to be able to notice (negative) thoughts arising and be able to distance myself from any imprisonment conferred by those thoughts. The practice calmed my mind and allowed to feel like I was making more clear decisions without the unhelpful contributions of a mind that was bouncing all over the place. Over the last few days, however, I have had a tough time squaring what Sam believes about mediation and free will. I have no conceptual issues with what he describes regarding the illusion of self, but when that is applied to the mediation I am confused as to what is really going on. My question(s) is as follows:
A base assumption I understand is that Sam is saying that we are the observer of the contents that arise in consciousness. There is no self since any feeling of such needs to arise in consciousness for it to occur (i.e. thinking without noticing that you are thinking). Meditation allows you to see that the contents of consciousness, such as thoughts, simply arise and that you are not the author of these thoughts since they simply arise, therefore you cannot be these thoughts either. If, however, you are not these thoughts and there is no thinker of these thoughts, what is that which is meditating, or improving, through the practice of meditation? If the answer is conscious awareness, doesn’t that imply a sort of dualism: an observer of that which arises (somehow outside the physical since it can observe the effects of physicalism; i.e. if it can observe these contents of consciousness, then it cannot be a content of consciousness since it is observing) and then of that which arises (as a product of deterministic, physical processes)? Even if consciousness is born from physical processes, which seems to be what Sam believes, on the subjective side there is no difference since for you to perceive something it must arise in consciousness.
On the one hand, it seems Sam is saying that we are not the thinker of our thoughts - which I agree with and understand - but then we are also told that we are not just a puppet being controlled by these processes over which we have no conscious control (these decisions get made for us, essentially, in our subconscious mind). Relating this to mediation, if I become aware of my thoughts and then notice the thought and then bring my attention “as wide as possible” as Sam often says, what is doing this expansion? If there is no free will, how can I choose to divert my attention elsewhere, isn’t if already predetermined how long I will be lost in thought?
IMO, everyone is speculating. Cognitive scientists, meditation gurus, Harris, spiritualists, and everyone in between, we’re all guessing and speculating. I think that a lot of the terms and phrases we’ve used as we try to understand consciousness will ultimately be seen to be not useful and perhaps even misleading, “free will” for example.
It seems to me that when we use a lot of the terms and phrases you’re using in your OP, we’ve made an implicit agreement to accept some axioms. It might be interesting to try to uncover some of those axioms..
In my case, I take as axiomatic that there are at least two actors involved in our consciousness, our brain and our mind. Of course these are polysemantic words, so my rough definitions are:
the brain: the more primitive part of our consciousness and (unconsciousness). The part that’s been around for millions of years and keeps our hearts beating, can learn to perform physical activities, is watching out for tigers in the bushes, and so on. The brain has limited or no linguistic capabilities.
the mind: what we think of as being housed in the cortex, our will, our intentions, our speaking and listening, our ego.
Remember back to a time when you’re studying for a final in a class you don’t like, but must take. Your mind has the intention to get a good grade in the final exam, and while you’re studying, you’re gritting your teeth and highlighting passages, and rereading, and making effortful motions to learn the stuff. Meanwhile your brain is determining that the stuff your trying to learn is not worthy of devoting precious brain glucose to transfer to long term memory. Your mind and your brain are in conflict.
Now remember a time when you’re trying to learn a new physical activity like hitting a topspin lob. Since you’re having fun out on the tennis court, your brain has decided that this is a skill worth learning. But your mind thinks it can be its own coach. Your (linguistically capable), mind is saying “knees bent”, “head down”, backswing low” and so on. But your mind doesn’t know how to do physical activities, that’s in the domain of your brain. So all the internal coaching coming from your mind, is actually hampering your brain’s ability to learn the skill. (Both of these examples, BTW, would get thumbs up from cognitive scientists. A bit simplified, but good enough for government work.)
So to me, when you zoom out and consider all the things that cognitive scientists and neuro-scientists are learning about brains and minds, I think we have to acknowledge that what the gurus tell us should be considered with some healthy skepticism. The gurus aren’t ill-intended, they’re just not at the cutting edge. I’m also NOT saying that meditation is a bad practice. I think it’s a fine practice. It’s just that the explanations should be taken with a grain of salt.
Thank you for the response Ice Horse. That does make sense what you are saying regarding the reptilian brain vs our neocortex (or System 1 vs. System 2, etc.) and the division of tasks handled by each. I was thinking more on the topic, and specifically between the communication between these parts of the brain. Even if we are not consciously making the decisions that we do, they are still made by “us” in the subconscious, processing part of the brain. So, if this makes sense, it has granted me some relief over the last few hours to think that our conscious mind becomes aware of the subconscious mind that is doing all this processing (when it produces contents such as thoughts), but at the end of the day, we cannot be the contents of its processes since we can become aware of them (through meditation). I guess my confusion comes from the fact that we are told we are not our thoughts, or desires, etc., but the part of the brain that is doing that processing is still apart of us (in a physical sense at least). Anyway, I appreciate your response - thanks again.