The Peter Attia Drive – Sam Harris, Ph.D. on The Transformative Power of Mindfulness

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Check out The Peter Attia Drive Episode Page and Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Check out Sam’s Waking Up Mediation App
  • Our default mode, as humans, is to be lost in thought
    • We’re telling ourselves a story all day long, and we’re not always aware of it
  • Almost all your negative emotions, are not rooted in the present moment
  • “There is no prison, like the one between your ears” – Peter
  • Some more great quotes
    • “We suffer more in imagination than in reality” – Seneca
    • “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare in Hamlet
    • “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us from miseries yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries” – Pascal
  • Evolution doesn’t care about your well-being
    • As long as you reproduce, your well-being doesn’t matter to evolution
  • Some good tactics for dealing with anger
    • When anger arises, notice it, and aim to reduce the amount of time you are in fact, angry
      • The difference between being angry for 10 minutes, 10 seconds, and 1 second….is enormous!
    • Frame negative situations, where you are prone to anger, in a different way
      • Stuck in traffic? Ask yourself – “How can I more so appreciate this as a gift?”
        • Maybe the traffic will allow you to catch up on some podcasts
      • Bad airline service? – Realize that most job customer service jobs are very difficult
        • Have empathy – Behind every interaction, there’s someone very human
      • Someone cut you off on the road? – Realize that maybe they had a reason for it. Maybe they’re rushing their child to the ER.
        • Every experience you have, is through your own lens – Zoom out, it’s not all about you
  • Everyone is suffering
    • Every goes through shit – you don’t know anyone’s past or what they’re currently going through
  • Realize that if you are in a well off position in life, there is a tremendous amount of luck that got you there

Intro

What is mindfulness?

  • Our default mode, as humans, is to be lost in though
    • We’re telling ourselves a story all day long, and we’re not always aware of it
  • The two types of meditation
    • Mantra (or concentration) based
      • This involves paying attention to a mantra or repeated phrase, and nothing else
    • Vipassana
      • This is the type of meditation Sam prefers to practice
      • With this, you just try to be aware of everything (sounds, sensations, moods, thoughts), without reacting – if a thought pops up, you notice it, then come back to center
  • “What you discover when you begin practicing meditation, especially intensively on retreat, is that there’s no such thing as a boring object of attention. What boredom is, is simply a lack of attention. We get into these situations where we are convinced we’re bored, because we haven’t found something compelling enough in our experience to capture our attention.”
    • “But what you discover when you learn to meditate is that, what pleases us most in those moments when we are fully captured by experience, is the state of complete attention to the present”
    • It doesn’t matter what you pay attention to – just doing so, is meditative
    • “So anything that you can pay attention to, to the exclusion of anything else, can suddenly disclose what it’s like to have a very concentrated mind.”
    • And that pure concentration = pleasure 
  • A good thing to think about
    • Almost all your negative emotions, are not rooted in the present moment

Meditation Apps

But why bother trying to be present?

  • “It doesn’t matter if you can live to be a hundred. If you’re too miserable to appreciate it, or if you’re constantly in some sort of tormented state, you might as well be dead.” – Peter

Happiness

  • It’s a common misconception, that happiness means being joyful all the time
    • “The narrow conception of happiness that most of us have by default, is something we’re tying to defend, against all of the other things in life that are threatening to undermine it. The one obvious point is that – it’s not a safe play. It’s perpetually under threat. Any joy you can feel, by virtue of it having arisen, based on some causes and conditions, is going to pass away.”
    • You just can’t keep any emotions going for hours at a time
      • Negative emotions don’t last, nor do positive ones
  • Instead of seeking happiness, seek a sense of well-being
  • It’s important to note that you can be happy, but still be talking to yourself/lost in thought all the time, and never notice it

Being Lost In Thought

  • Our “default state” is being lost in constant thought, and identifying with those thoughts
    • It’s almost like we’re dreaming – we’re not aware that we’re dreaming/lost in thought
      • When you “wake up”, you realize you’re lost in thought/dreaming
  • The default state of being lost in thought, is both a blessing and a curse
    • The capacity for thought has given us so much – culture, civilization, language, communication, writing etc.
  • Somewhere around the preteen age, we start to suffer from the “disease of being lost in thought”
  • “The inability to recognize how distracted we are, seems to be one of the greatest drivers of misery” – Peter
  • Some great quotes
    • “We suffer more in imagination than in reality” – Seneca
    • “For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare in Hamlet
    • “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us from miseries yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries” – Pascal
  • Why do humans suffer so much?
    • “Evolution doesn’t care about your well-being” 
      • As long as you reproduce, it doesn’t care

Why do humans suffer so much?

  • “Evolution doesn’t care about your well-being” 
    • As long as you reproduce, it doesn’t care

The Benefits of Practicing Meditation

  • You’ll be better able to respond to problems that arise in life/unpleasant things (like being stuck in traffic)
  • It also allows you to enjoy the pleasurable moments more, and recognize there impermanence 
    • Peter says practicing meditation has allowed him to realize that the moments he cherishes with his 4 year old, truly won’t last forever. Before he knows it, his son will be in college.
    • Mindfulness allows you to slow these moments down, and truly appreciate them
  • The default mode of thinking for humans is “fast forward” – we’re always looking for what’s next
    • Practicing meditation, helps us reverse this just a tad – bringing us ever so more into the present moment

Dealing With Anger

  • There are various situations in life, where we’re all prone to anger – getting stuck in traffic, getting asked a stupid question, when someone’s late etc.
    • Think of these situations like a video game “boss” – you know there’s a right way to deal with those situations
      • Think to yourself – “There’s an art to handling this situation”
      • If you get angry, you lose
      • If you stay calm – you beat the boss
  • “Getting angry is not the measure of having lost. Obviously, you can aspire to a time where you will never get angry again or you never get angry in certain circumstances again, but the real practice is to notice, as early as possible, what’s happening and to let go of it.”
    • The difference between being angry for 10 minutes and 10 seconds, and 1 second….is enormous!
  • Anger can be useful, but for the most part, the key is to let it go as soon as possible
    • “If you can’t be mindful, you actually have no choice. You’ll be angry as long as you’re angry.”
  • Frame negative situations, where you are prone to anger, in a different way
    • Stuck in traffic? Ask yourself – “How can I more so appreciate this as a gift?”
      • Maybe the traffic will allow you to catch up on some podcasts
    • Bad airline service? – Realize that most customer service jobs, are very difficult
      • Have empathy – Behind every interaction, there’s someone very human
    • Someone cut you off on the road? – Realize that maybe they had a reason for it. Maybe they’re rushing their child to the ER.
      • Every experience we have, is through your own lens – Zoom out, it’s not all about you

Silent Meditation Retreats

  • Sam advises to aim for the 7-14 day long retreats, as a minimum
    • The first 3 days are usually the hardest
      • So a 3-4 day silent retreat, won’t really allow you to experience the benefits that come in the 4-10 day window

MDMA

  • As a teen, Sam took magic mushrooms a few times, but “they never signaled anything profound to me about the nature of the mind. They never indicated a path forward, besides the fact that they produced an interesting experience.”
  • Then Sam took MDMA when he was 18, with a friend
    • “I had this epiphany that this is what consciousness was like when it was no longer encumbered by my self-concern, by my egocentricity”
    • While the MDMA was taking effect, Sam says – “I was losing concern with myself”
    • “I started to punch through to this level of connection with my friend, that I had never felt before”
      • Usually, when we’re talking to others, some part of our mind is wrapped up in the concern about what the other person, will think about us/what we’re saying
        • On MDMA this is nonexistent 
    • Usually, there’s a limitation to how much joy a human can experience, for another person (like if your friend won the lottery)
      • On MDMA, even the idea of that, is laughable
      • “My friends happiness, was my own”
  • But be careful…
    • MDMA is illegal
    • It’s potentially neurotoxic – be very careful about taking it, especially frequently (more than every 3 months)
    • It’s often cut with other drugs/fillers

The Loving Kindness Meditation Practice

  • AKA “Metta”
  • With this form of meditation, you’re trying to feel the feeling of “loving kindness” as intensely as you can feel it towards others, and yourself
    • “The same faculty of mind that can become focused on one point, like a mantra, can focused on the feeling of love for all humanity
  • How does it work?
    • Imagine someone you love – (a child, friend, a parent – whoever you want to wish well) 
    • Radiate them love, and happiness, and the wish that they may be free from suffering
    • Then move on to a neutral person
    • Do the same – “May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” – and really FEEL it
    • Then focus on an enemy
  • What can this practice help you realize?
    • Everyone is suffering
    • There is no evil person who invented himself
    • Every goes through shit – you don’t know anyone’s past or what they’re currently going through
    • No one picks their parents – you don’t know how anyone was raised
  • “There is this capacity for love and well wishing, that really extends without limit to every conscious system”

The Concept of Moral Luck

  • If you are in a well off position in life, there is a tremendous amount of luck that got you there
  • Think about this – We all text and drive, what if you hit someone and killed them? How different would your life have panned out? It can, and has, happened to totally normal and responsible people. 
    • Most of everyone reading this, will continue to text and drive
    • Chances are, one of you will eventually hit and kill someone – “The difference between being someone who’s texting, and didn’t notice the danger because nothing bad happened, and being someone who hits and kills someone, is just luck.”
    • Imagine if that happened to you…your life would be ruined
      • In a sense then, you are SOOO lucky to have avoided this so far

Thinking About Death

  • We all have the fear of how we’ll survive when our loved ones (or loved pets) pass away
  • Sam brings up a good analogy:
    • You know what it’s like to exists without that loved one (if they’re not in the room with you, you’re in theory existing without them)
      • “You know what it’s like to be content, in the physical absence of everyone you love in the world” – So it’s certainly possible to be content, once that person dies
      • What scares us though, is the idea that we’ll never see that loved one again

Vipassana Meditation

  • Vipasaana means “insight”
    • You’re having insight into what are thought of as the three fundamental characteristics of all phenomenon: unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and selflessness
    • Unsatisfactoriness 
      • This is often mistranslated as “suffering” 
      • “Life is a circumstance, where there is no unchanging fully satisfactory basis, for one’s happiness, because everything is changing, by virtue of impermanence”
    • Impermanence
      • Everything is fleeting (our pleasures, and our suffering)
    • Selflessness 
      • This is the recognition that the self is an illusion
  • “Vipassana is a practice whereby you have insight into those three characteristics, and mindfulness is the tool you use to have those insights”
    • Mindfulness = “Your not seeking to maximize pleasure, you’re not seeking to make pains go away. You’re just becoming interested in a very open, and focused way, on just what the character of every experience is”
    • You’re merely witnessing sights/sounds/emotions/thoughts, not judging or thinking about them – you’re “experiencing experience”

State Effects vs. Trait Effects

  • For Peter the actual state of exercise is so pleasurable, that even if it didn’t offer any positive traits (or benefits), he’d still do it
  • It’s possible to have extremely pleasant states that arrive during meditation
    • But these experiences, are transitory – they’re fleeting
    • Like drugs, what’s the point if it’s just a matter of getting high and you’re no better of a person in the world as a result of having had that experience
  • With mediation, you want to aim for lasting beneficial trait effects
    • “It really is about having a fundamentally different relationship to experience, in general”
    • Trait effects are the lasting beneficial effects of the meditation practice

Sam’s Commitment to Never Lie

  • Check out Sam’s book – Lying
  • Neil Strauss has said – “Lying is controlling someone else’s reality, for the betterment of your own”
  • “By not lying, you’re closing the door to all kinds of complexity and risk, both impersonally, and reputationally”
    • Why wouldn’t you want to close the door to these?
  • Lying in relationships
    • For Sam’s spouse, the net gain, knowing Sam is never lying, outweighs the possible awkwardness of an uncomfortable truth
    • She knows that Sam will always be truthful – this is invaluable
      • If you know someone is radically honest, their praise means that much more

Mindfulness With Kids

  • We have no idea what the world will look like in 10 years, but there’s always going to be a handful of traits that prove to be valuable – one of those is the ability to be mindful
  • How does Sam like to go about teaching kids to be more mindful?
    • His wife teaches kids as young as 5 to meditate
    • Sam teaches his daughters the power of framing
      • Specifically, he tries to get them to observe the mismatch between the expectation of how something will be (it’s usually a negative expectation), and how far less negative that thing actually was 
        • Example – A doctors visit
      • “All of the time spent suffering in anticipation of this negative thing, was wasted”
    • “Mindfulness for a kid, at the first pass, can just be more awareness over what they’re thinking and feeling” 
      • Young kids can often be sad/angry, and not know they’re sad/angry
      • “That level of awareness, can be a major gain for a kid”

Sam’s Current Book Projects

  • The first one he’s writing is just a digest of podcast conversations, similar to Tools of Titans
  • The second one, has the working title – “Making Sense”
    • It’s going to be a manifesto about intellectual honesty and how we have hard conversations about race, gender, science, religion etc.
    • “We’re paying a price for not being able to talk about the most consequential and taboo and dangerous and divisive things in a way that. . .allows for breakthroughs and changes of opinion.”

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