Sam Harris: Mindfulness vs. Happiness – The School of Greatness (Part I)

Check out The School of Greatness Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • “Evolution has not designed us to maximize our well-being. Evolution has designed us to be fairly paranoid.”
  • Much of religion is putting iron age fictions (that got codified in books that can’t be edited) in place of real curiosity and a real search for answers 
    • Religion holds people in the present hostage to what their great-great-great-great-great grandparents though about the nature of reality
  • “For me, the most concerning thing about our world is not that there are a lot of bad people doing bad things, it’s that there are a lot of good people doing bad things under the sway of unfounded and dangerous and decisive beliefs”
  • Anxiety, anger, whatever negative emotion you want to name… is no different than a physical sensation in the body (like a pain in the knee)
    • Those feelings have no more meaning than the pain, which you can completely contextualize and has no implication for who you are as a person
      • Realize: “You don’t feel pain in the knee and abstract from those unpleasant sensations back upon yourself and think, “I’m such a f*cking schmuck.'” – (but nearly EVERYONE does this with feelings of anxiety)
  • “To truly be indifferent between a good though and a bad thought, that’s the real superpower”
  • A simple happiness hack:
    • Whenever something “bad” is happening (anything that’s causing you stress), just think of all the worse things that aren’t happening and how much you’d pay to return to the present circumstances if any of them were occurring
      • Ask yourself – “Whatever I’m stressing about today, if instead I found out I had a brain tumor, how much would I pay to get back to this present moment?”
  • Worry is pointless
    • At each moment, there’s either something you can do to solve a problem or there isn’t
      • If there’s something you can do – just do it
      • If there isn’t – there’s actually nothing to worry about (and worry adds nothing to the situation)
  • “Whatever is happening, you have this moment and then your thinking. Your thinking about the future and your thinking about the past is the mechanism by which you will truly suffer in each moment.”

Intro

An Experience with MDMA That Changed Sam’s Outlook on Life

  • While he was 18, Sam had his first experience with MDMA (back in 1985-1986) 
    • “It amounted to a total firmware upgrade of my brain”
    • Sam talks more about his experience with MDMA in his book, Waking Up, and this podcast episode
    • “MDMA showed me a landscape of mind and a way of being I didn’t realize was possible”
    • During the experience, Sam says he felt unconditional love for the first time
      • “I felt layers of self-concern that I didn’t even know existed get stripped away and what was left was a state of being that was wide open and had as its ethical core unlimited good intention towards other people, whether they were friends or strangers”
      • “I just wanted everyone to be happy and the desire for that was turned up to 11”
      • “You realize the sense that there’s a zero-sum contest between your well-being, your happiness, and that of others is an illusion”
    • “It was actually the first moment of my life that I felt sane”
  • Sam adds:
    • It’s a problem we use the word “drugs” to cover a wide class of psychoactive compounds
      • Some drugs are awful and are intrinsically bad for you
      • Other drugs, like MDMA, have immense therapeutic value and are worth taking under the right conditions

Humans Are Not Optimized for Happiness (happiness and evolution)

  • “Evolution has not designed us to maximize our well-being. Evolution has designed us to be fairly paranoid.”
    • We’re not optimized at all fpr happiness
    • “All we’ve evolved to do is maximize the likelihood that we will successfully spawn and stay around long enough to see that our progeny survive and spawn”
    • Once you’re 40 years old, evolution really doesn’t care about you
  • “The sense of self is an illusion. This is a construct that can be felt through and discovered to be false.”
    • There’s an immense amount of benefit that comes with this discovery, but when you really think about it, this realization might actually be hostile in regards to evolution
      • How so? – A sense of self probably helped us to survive millions of years ago on the Savannah 
  • To add – “Most of humanity, even at this moment, doesn’t have the free attention to think about what it means to be happy”

The Problem With Organized Religion

  • Sam is a known criticizer of organized religion:
    • Much of religion is putting iron age fictions (that got codified in books that can’t be edited) in place of real curiosity and a real search for answers 
  • “Every religion is an insistence by a certain group of people that we anchor ourselves to a conversation that was held hundreds or thousands of years ago”
    • This is a problem because the main tool we have to navigate humanity is conversation
    • Religion holds people in the present hostage to what their great-great-great-great-great grandparents though about the nature of reality
      • If you go back far enough, it’s easily conceivable that a sixth grader today knows more about pretty much every topic compared to people who populated that era
    • “It’s insane that we’re captive to doctrines that just were never in contact with the knowledge base we have currently”
  • Another issue:
    • Every Christian looks at the discourse around Islam and finds it completely untrue, and vice versa
  • In defense of religious people – “It’s true that there are these core needs in life, emotionally and socially, that secular culture has been very slow to meet and in certain cases has almost nothing to say”
    • If you experienced something like “unconditional love for all sentient beings,” only religious language existed to help understand that epiphany
      • (If you walked into a church to speak about this feeling, they’d surely be able to link it to religious doctrine)
  • Religion has survived partly because it gives humans a story to believe surrounding death
    • “It’s true that if you can believe a sufficiently consoling story about what death means or doesn’t mean, a lot of the stress of life goes away”
    • Certain beliefs of Islam provide the means for a mother to celebrate a suicide bombing perpetrated by her own jihadist son because she knows he got into paradise as a martyr
      • I mean think about it – it should quite literally impossible to convince somebody to carry out a suicide bombing
  • “For me, the most concerning thing about our world is not that there are a lot of bad people doing bad things, it’s that there are a lot of good people doing bad things under the sway of unfounded and dangerous and decisive beliefs”

What does Sam think happens when we die?

  • He’s not sure
    • Knowing would require we understand exactly how consciousness arises (which we don’t)
  • Sam doubts the idea that consciousness persists after death
    • “There’s certainly good reason to doubt that you as you experience yourself most of the time… that that entity floats off from the brain and goes elsewhere”
      • It’s similar to how people use near-death experiences to justify a belief in an afterlife
      • It just doesn’t make sense how destroying the brain at death allows everything about yourself that’s familiar to persist

The Nature of Consciousness

  • Consciousness is the fact that it’s like something to be associated with that information processing
    • It’s is still deeply mysterious
    • Isn’t it weird how our brains unconscious processes (hearing, decoding language, seeing, etc.) deliver the content of consciousness in each moment?
  • “The good thing about this universe is consciousness”
    • If consciousness didn’t exist – there’d be no distinction between biological systems and normal objects like a table or a rock
      • Consciousness provides the means for things like happiness and creativity
    • “Your life is as your consciousness is each moment.. All you have is your experience and your possible experiences.”

Mindfulness 101

  • Mindfulness is really about understanding the mechanics of your own mental suffering and being able to put yourself in a position to cease to it
  • “You’re lost in thought almost every moment of your life and much your thinking has this mediocre character of causing you to worry about the future and regret the past and just feel a baseline dis-ease with life… So much of our life is this steady hum of that kind of thinking… We’re plunged into thought in each moment and we don’t notice it and until you learn to be mindful you can’t notice it.”
    • Without a basic understating of mindfulness, thoughts come along freely and capture our attention, making us hostage to the emotional and behavioral imperatives of that thought
  • “It’s possible to recognize thought as a stream of appearances in consciousness and to recognize that consciousness is the prior condition of their arising. When you can do that, you can break the link between thought and psychological suffering.”
  • “Once you can become mindful, which is to just be aware of what’s arising in consciousness without judgement, without reaction, and without resistance… to be able to notice anxiety as just a pattern of sensation in the body… when you can do that, you realize anxiety is not that bad and under a different framing it’s a sensation that’s often pleasant”
    • (like right before going on a roller coaster)
    • “The anxiety you might feel before going on stage in front of a thousand people… the physiology of it, that is importantly similar to something that can have a positive frame which you seek out, like excitement”
  • Anxiety, anger, whatever negative emotion you want to name… is no different than a physical sensation in the body (like a pain in the knee)
    • Those feelings have no more meaning than the pain, which you can completely contextualize and has no implication for who you are as a person
      • “You don’t feel pain in the knee and abstract from those unpleasant sensations back upon yourself and think, “I’m such a f*cking schmuck.'”
        • But nearly EVERYONE does this with feelings of anxiety

On Thought

  • Think of thoughts like thieves who are entering an empty house – there’s just no possible problem
  • “To truly be indifferent between a good though and a bad thought, that’s the real superpower”

Happiness Hacks

  • When someone cuts you off in traffic and you feel anger, you need to realize:
    • You DON’T know what’s going on in that person’s life and 9 times out of 10, if you could know it, you’d probably feel a bit of compassion
  • Whenever something “bad” is happening (anything that’s causing you stress), just think of all the worse things that aren’t happening and how much you’d pay to return to the present circumstances if any of them were occurring
    • Ex. – Whatever you’re stressing about today, if instead you found out you had a brain tumor, how much would you pay to get back to this present moment?
  • Worry is pointless
    • At each moment, there’s either something you can do to solve a problem or there isn’t
      • If there is something to do – just do it
      • If there isn’t – there’s actually nothing to worry about (and worry adds nothing to the situation)
  • “Whatever is happening, you have this moment and then your thinking. Your thinking about the future and your thinking about the past is the mechanism by which you will truly suffer in each moment.”
    • “99% of our suffering around everything.., is our thought about past and future, is our regret, is the story we’re telling ourselves”
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