A value in religious mysticism

samSam Harris created some controversy with his speech at the AAI Convention (see video below). Most attention was drawn to his suggestion that use of the term “atheist’ was diversionary and that atheists should instead define themselves by activity around positive issues. Unfortunately the second part of his speech has been completely ignored in the resulting discussion. This is a pity because he was suggesting that some religious traditions have aspects that are of value to modern societies, a value which should be appreciated by non-theists as well as the religious.

Harris specifically discussed the meditation and contemplation particularly practiced in eastern religions. He himself practices Buddhist meditation and discussed its value in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. He makes clear in his speech that he doesn’t accept the religious dogma and mystical explanations that accompany Buddhist meditation (he calls it “mumbo jumbo”) but argues that the practice does produce clear benefits.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Sam Harris explains that many people in modern society suffer negatively from their uncontrolled thoughts, the often self-critical chatter which continually goes on in our heads. Meditation is a way of addressing these thoughts, removing their negative power and providing a personal peace. I find it interesting that modern psychotherapy recognises the value of “mindfulness” and meditation in coming to grips with negative self-talk. There is a new branch of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which uses these techniques. In effect patients learn not to avoid their negative thoughts, or to attempt modifying them, but to accept them, observe them and recognise that they are just thoughts. This therapy has proved to be very effective in dealing with constant pain, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and other problems.

I think this example shows that we should not reject ideas or techniques which have been developed within ancient religious traditions. Inevitably these will be surrounded by, and explained by, superstitious and mystical dogma. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the techniques themselves are groundless. If we keep an open mind it becomes possible to access these techniques, make use of them, investigate them and build more realisitic explanations based on modern scientific approaches.

Sam Harris speech Part 1 (40 min)

Sam Harris, Q&A Part 2 (26 min)

See also
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) contacts, Resources, and Readings
ACT at Concextural Psychology.org

Related Articles:
Why do we believe?
Lies and misinformation
Problems with atheism?
Science and the supernatural
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Miracles and the supernatural?
Dalai Lama visit

6 responses to “A value in religious mysticism

  1. Too many words presenting too many semantic questions than I have time to ask about… πŸ™‚

    But interesting stuff…

    I especially found these words from the ACT Wiki article to be interesting some of our earlier conversation(s) about non-material phenomenon…

    “self-as-context” β€” the you that is always there observing and experiencing and yet distinct from one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories.

    At the street-talk/popular level, most would call this the ‘soul’ – no doubt while imagining a shadowy, platonic ‘ghost’ type ‘thing’ that floats around after you die (which many Christians have mistakenly assumed to be a biblical concept!)… I, however, would reach (albeit with a deep sigh) for the over-used, mis-understood and abused term ‘spirit’…

    Anyway, must run… bed time.




  2. Actually, I don’t think there’s any need to bring in concepts like ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, etc. I know philosophical (and scientific) concepts around consciousness and sense of self are complex. However, having practiced this aspect of Buddhist meditation and read about (and personally used) ACT I see this as recognising different concepts of self. It’s about utilising one’s observing self to look at ones thinking self – one’s thoughts.
    Most people don’t use their observing self and are hence ruled by their erratic thoughts.
    Mind you, one could go too far with this. Meditating in a cave for years may develop these skills, and the evidence is that it has a beneficial effect on the brain, but great benefits to humanity come from thinking.


  3. Thanks Ken.

    [a general note: when I use (carefully and hesitantly) such words as ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, I am doing so primarily to be conversant with popular culture. If/when I use such words, I intentionally try to (if time/setting permits) challenge a platonic connotation (a ‘soul’ as an ‘immortal’ dis-embodied ‘thing’ that is ‘inside’ you), and suggest (big surprise) a more hebrew one (human being = human soul. ‘soul’ in reference to the entire person).]

    Interesting distinction you’ve suggested – the ‘observing’ self, and the ‘thinking’ self… I’d like to hear more detail here, because in conversational context, an ‘observation’ is often the same thing as a ‘thought’ – Yes, another semantic problem, but the perspective you are trying to articulate rests heavily on it…



  4. ACT seems to suggest that we have 3 “selves”, or 3 aspects of the conscious “I”. I have not yet been able to get my head around the 3rd self. Perhaps they are just different aspects of what we call thought. However, it seems to be easy enough to stop what we are doing and beginobserving ones normal erratic train of thought. Specific meditation helps, but I don’t think it’s required. Observing one’s thoughts, and recognising that they are thoughts, and only thoughts, does defuse them (perhaps we are thinking about the thoughts?). Recognition of a thought as just that removes it’s emotional linkage. I am sure that this could be measured physically (heart rate, blood pressure, galvanic skin response?). What it means though is that rather than trying to modify “self-talk” or replace negative “self-talk” with positive “self-talk” (which usually just reinforces the original thoughts)as in behaviour therapy we just accept the thought but recognise that it is only a thought. This does defuse the original thought, removes its power to emotionally effect us.

    This may just be a convenient way of describing the process (many theories only operate at that level). I don’t know that one could identify operation of different parts in the brain. Maybe development of the skill could enhance parts of the brain. (These would be fascinating areas of research). I wonder though if the “observing self” thoughts are the more “conscious” aspects of thinking we use when trying to work around an external problem (as in trying to understand a physical phenomena) while the erratic, random, emotional thoughts are the less conscious ones (when the brain is out of gear?) which are highly linked to the emotional centres of the brain.


  5. Interesting…
    I think the value of ‘meditation’ (yet another word that can mean lots of different things!) is pretty straight-forward from a very practical angle… It’s just nice to slow down and relax from our (often) busy lives! Nothing like breathing slowly and ‘detaching’ for a while… This is why, I think, (especially in western culture) many are so interested in things like ‘yoga’, ‘T.M.’, ‘tai chi’, etc., etc. For me, it’s quite basic – it’s relaxing and good to just ‘be still’ for a while!
    Like you, I do think we often take ‘meditation’ too far. I think it often serves as a way of ‘escaping’ life – which I think is not good. These dreams of ‘escape’ are suggested to us (for example) in much advertising, instructing us that if I can just achieve this, or gain that, or go here, or experience this, etc., I will be ‘happy’… Further, our dreams of ‘happiness’ set us up, I feel, for many disappointments in life, because life just isn’t like that… We’re not detached from one another. Our choices affect others in very real ways, and like it or not, we are responsible for the choices we make…
    Still further, I think it’s best to work out these tensions within the various kinds of relationships we have – family, friends and community. These things serve to keep us balance, sane and responsible. I’m not wanting to bash the ACT approach (I do think that such reflection is important), but I would say it’s only a part of what is needed to cope with life…
    Finally (trying to keep this short…), I would say that emotions aren’t necessarily bad, and they are quite naturally are ‘linked’ to many of our thoughts. Am I making sense here? I just see all of ‘us’ as an inter-twined, integrated thing… Our emotions need to be tempered by our thoughts, and our thoughts need to be engaged with our emotions, etc.


  6. In short – inward, introspective, individualistic navel-gazing can only make things worse. I’m a strong advocate for supportive and corrective community – people supporting, sharing, thinking, feeling, caring, correcting, studying, etc. together. Yes, we all need time out from others – no doubt – but I think we value privacy far too much in western culture. It’s a luxury that an amazingly low percentage of humans have had in human history…



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