I’m digging to the groove of this riff by Meera Nanda against reifying mystical insights into rational arguments.
My main disagreement is that I don’t see it as merely reificiation of a non-dual awareness experience that could be cause to have the viewpoint that awareness must somehow be inherent to the universe. Enough non-mystic-serious-scientists consider this at least reasonable to make the notion no longer even out of bounds of mainstream. I’m not saying that ideas such as rocks having awareness, or that we have souls that transmigrate are in any way scientific; I’m saying that the “hard question” is considered by some scientists to be reasonable grounds to speculate that awareness is somehow not merely an emergent property. It may still be an untestable metaphysical speculation, however the grounds for the speculation were logical reasoning, not reification of a mystical experience.
The full article is worth a read, if meditative spirituality has had any impact on your life. One most poignant excerpt:
Harris offers a standard characterization of the mystical/spiritual experience. He describes it as tuning, or focusing, the mind through meditation, fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation or using psychotropic drugs, that enables it to overcome, or dissolve, the sense of the self that stands separate from the objects of its consciousness. The goal of spiritual experience is to “experience the world perfectly shorn of self… to lose the subject/object perception …to continue to experience the world, but without the felling that there is a knower standing apart form the known. Thoughts may arise, but the feeling that one is a thinker of these thoughts vanish.” (p. 212-213) The goal is to dissolve the ego-bound, individuated subject by ending its separation from the object itself. Harris is describing the classic all-is-one and one-is-all experience that mystics and spiritual adepts tend to report.
For Hindus, this attempt to divest the ego by consciously realizing its identity with the ground of the entire macrocosm — what the Hindus call the Brahman — is the very essence of what the Vedas and Upanishads teach: “Thou art That,” “all this Brahman” and the atman (self) in you is the Brahman. Brahman, the Vedas teach, is the sole, truly existing, non-material, eternal reality which is beyond space, time and causation. Once you experience the sense of being beyond space, time and causation through yoga, breath control and meditation, you will realize the truth of the Vedas, namely, the self in you (atman) is identical with Brahman, your consciousness encompasses the entire macrocosm, and that you are, in fact, God. Once you reach this state of mind, you are not held back by fears or tempted by desires: the here and now of the material world become illusionary and lose their grip on one’s mind. Thus, the achievement of the sense of one-ness with the universe is a central commandment of Hindu and Buddhist teachings. While Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions have their mystics, only the Eastern traditions provide a doctrine that can make sense of the mystical experience of unity or one-ness.
I would have no argument with Harris if he were only recommending spiritualism as means for mindful relaxation, and the delight and even ecstasy that sometimes accompany the sensation of losing one’s sense of space, time and self. Indeed “wise mystics” have long realized that the mystical experience does not confer existential status on its content. Rather than construct metaphysical systems, wise mystics have learned to simply enjoy and value the experience itself. There is enough data to believe that meditation, if done consistently and over many years, does bring about a deep state of relaxation, with dramatically lowered heart rate and brain activity. If the goal is to reduce stress, even the most militant rationalist will have to admit that meditation does provide some benefits. (It does not follow, however, that all the claims of yoga and pranayam, must be accepted. There is very little rigorous controlled testing of the more extravagant claims of those who believe in the power of the mind to cure everything from blindness to cancers).
This last paragraph is, I think, one of the main things I try to convey on this blog. This is an anti-materialist blog – a call to see a big picture and have a big party. Mindfullness and compassion training seem to be essential to both seeing the big picture and to partying. I strongly believe in the value of mind training to enhance quality of life for self and others.
I also advocate chi-kung, and do not find that the practice requires belief in prana as a “real” force. Prana may be a psycho-physical kinesthetic visualization. I suggest that such visualizations might be shareable in ways that we don’t yet understand; through hypnotic suggestion, craftily interpreted subtle non-verbal subliminal cues of smells, sounds,sights and pressures, and, just perhaps, by senses that we have yet to discover. A shared orgasm feels very shared. Furthermore, kinesthetic visualizations are phycho-physical – they affect your body and mind. They can be taught and you can train in them, and doing so has effect.
While I applaud pointing out where others make meta-physical errors, I feel it is a mistake to overlook or downplay what are some very real benefits of mind training. The benefits might not cure blindness, but nor do they all relate to stress reduction. Sometimes someone has a valuable message, but pollutes it with errors. I feel Meera may have short-shrifted Sam a bit, in pointing out mostly his errors. But she did such an excellent job of it that I applaud.