In a recent mini-episode of his Making Sense podcast, intellectual influencer Sam Harris explains to his large listenership that:
- 99% of them do not understand what “meditation” is, which is unfortunate, because…
- …it’s not enough to understand the scientific ideas he presents in his content. One must meditate to sense their full truth, and their implications. Which is what Harris has also done to…
- …come to a lived understanding of what Jesus was talking about. Also:
- Harris’s political positions cannot be understood by people who don’t meditate as he does. Positions such as…
- …identity politics — left undefined here by Harris—is a “dead end”, and that over-identifying with one’s race (whatever that means, and however it might be measured) is a form of mental illness that can be cured by meditation. But luckily…
- …everyone can get over such errors by understanding their minds (and the minds of others) through meditation, which is why they should download Harris’s Waking Up meditation app.
Harris’s mini-manifesto conceals its cruel grandiosity with a soothing, ASMR delivery — the audio equivalent of intrusive eye contact. Anthropologist Chris Kavanagh and psychologist Matthew Browne have picked this and other aspects apart on their podcast Decoding the Gurus. Below, I’ll expand on their points and make them text-searchable by isolating excerpts from the Harris transcript for brief commentary.
My interest in this is as a researcher of conspirituality, an online movement of New Age, wellness, and Buddhist-type influencers, charismatics, and bullshitters who, as a rule:
- conflate the categories of spirituality and science, usually bullshitting about both,
- propose that most people in the world are “asleep”, but that they have the herbs, exercises, tools (or apps) for “waking up”,
- collapse the boundary between professional identity and private religion,
- create charismatic feedback loops with their followers,
- position intuition as the final arbiter of truth, even while appealing to “science” and “evidence”,
- offer access to that intuition through their own products and services, the value of which they nimbly inflate to capitalize on any cultural trend or event, from social justice to COVID.
Some of the most effective conspirituality influencers I report on with my colleagues are scientists or doctors who have jumped lanes to now present themselves as priest or shamans who can soothe a weary public’s disillusionment with technocapitalism or for-profit medicine. As a cognitive neuroscientist who now opines on anything that interests him, Harris is not doing the damage that conspiritualists do with their COVID-denialism or moral panickry. But in this sales pitch he is using their key hook, which is to imply that the vast majority of people in the world are asleep or deluded, and that he has special access to the pill for sanity.
I’m also a journalist covering cultic dynamics and have to note: I have not studied a single religious cult leader who has not made the same gambit that Harris makes here, which boils down to: My internal experience taps a universal truth that validates reality. You can’t understand reality without adopting my experience. If you want to be near me, you will.
I’m not saying that Harris is running a cult. But if he wanted to, he’s got a leg up: this podcast episode would be an effective induction ritual.
Quotes and comments
Harris in-group, Harris out-group
I’ve had a few encounters recently on other people’s podcasts and on social media that have made me think that many people are confused about some of the views I express on this podcast. Those of you who are using the Waking Up app probably have a better understanding of what I’m up to, but I get the sense that many Making Sense listeners really don’t know where I’m coming from much of the time. So, clearing up this confusion requires that I say a few things about the role that meditation has played and continues to play in my life.
Harris opens by dividing his audience into Waking Up users, and Making Sense listeners: an in-group and out-group. The out-group of listeners cannot evaluate his public positions correctly. Content provided to the Waking Up in-group can provide experiential proofs for these public positions.
Harris’s Making Sense positions don’t stand on their own. They run on a precious secret, plus a shared experience with Harris, who, in the app, guides listeners into meditative states.
Listening to Harris is not enough; that’s just transactional. Ergo, Making Sense is not enough. Waking Up is participatory. In the app, Harris provides more than just talk. He delivers induction into awakened states. This Waking Up in-group experience is monetized at $99/year per person.
Harris knows more than 99% of his listeners
First, let me say that unless you’re deep into it, the term “meditation” almost certainly conjures the wrong ideas in your mind. Meditation has no necessary connection to Eastern religion, say, and much less to beads or incense or any of the trappings of New Age Spirituality. Unless you’re unusually well-informed about it, when I use the term “meditation” as I do from time to time on this podcast, I would bet that 99% of you get the wrong idea.
Here Harris switches to the Second Person Intrusive Omniscient voice, intensifying the intimacy of the address, to make gross assumptions about what his listeners know or think, and to insult all but the favoured 1%.
Kavanagh and Browne have noted that many online-based gurus who use intimate formats like long-form podcasts often flatter listeners, speaking as if they are part of a special club. They write:
We’ve noticed that gurus tend to act in a manipulative fashion with their followers and potential allies. This often takes the form of excessive flattery, such as intimations that their followers are more perceptive, more morally worthy, and more interested in the pursuit of truth than outsiders. A guru will often put some effort into signalling a close and personal relationship with their followers — essentially encouraging the development of parasocial ideation.
Harris seems to be taking an opposite approach here by insulting his listenership — albeit in a very subtle, almost tantalizing way. It could be that his confidence in their loyalty is so high that the insult acts as a dare. Perhaps listeners imagine themselves amongst the 1%.
As the manifesto unfolds, however, the insult morphs into a carrot as Harris suggests that those who want to learn to meditate in order to understand his arguments, and the world more fully, are people who are willing to do the hard work. They want to stop “pretending” to integrate their intellectual, political, and ethical lives.
Here, Harris also starts in on his first grandiose claim: that he has an objective and universally applicable understanding of what meditation is, stripped of religious and cultural baggage. He’ll return to this after a short detour into why he is so certain of things.
Harris knows the minds of his listeners, and can merge with them
Meditation is just a bad word for the recognition of specific truths about the mind. It’s a process of discovering what is already true of your own mind… But the benefits aside, more and more, I’m realizing that many of you can’t understand the positions I take on this podcast without understanding your mind, and these are positions which on their surface have nothing to do with meditation. My experience here is often the key to understanding my criticism of specific scientific and philosophical ideas, like the debate about free will or the nature of the self, or the hard problem of consciousness.
Yes, a person can follow the purely philosophical or scientific arguments and arrive at some of the same conclusions. For instance: someone can understand how free will and the conventional notion of self don’t make any sense in terms of ongoing neurophysiological changes in the brain. But even most people who understand and accept those arguments don’t really have the courage of their convictions because they still feel like selves that enjoy free will, most people don’t have the introspective tools to discover that their experience is actually convergent with what makes the most sense scientifically and philosophically.
Here, Harris plays the hero of his own content, and establishes that the argument from authority — his own—is his guiding principle. If the content is not comprehensible to the listener or reader, it’s not because he hasn’t been clear, but because the consumer does not have his special insight.
Harris distils the narcissism of this position with the following dazzling line:
I’m realizing that many of you can’t understand the positions I take on this podcast without understanding your mind…
Note the double-whipsaw between subject and object in a single sentence: I realize that you don’t get me because you are not self-aware.
The content of this sentence proposes two grandiose things that he cannot know: 1) that his positions are beyond his listeners’ understanding, and 2) that his listener is not self-aware.
But the form of this sentence is even creepier, because its grammar pressurizes a merger — in a highly intimate medium—between Harris and his listener. I, you, I, you. This is on the pathway to explicit cult leader diction. Charles Anderson, the leader of the cult I was recruited into from 1999 to 2003, used to say: “I know you can’t understand my revelation, because you don’t know who you are.” The implication was that Anderson’s revelation was not just about him, but about the devotee. His revelation was universal, and allowed him to know the minds of all people. As Harris keeps talking in this manifesto, I see less daylight between what he’s saying, and how, and what Anderson —and countless other cult leaders— say.
Harris is announcing here that his best evidence for a scientific position does not come from science that can be shared, but from internally generated wisdom. There’s a high bar for who is authorized to generate that wisdom. Those who need not apply are those that “still feel like selves that enjoy free will” — an allusion to those who have not grasped axioms central to the same Buddhist tenets that Harris says he is inspired by.
The subtext thunders: Harris does not “feel like a self that enjoys free will.” Perhaps his episode felt like it wrote and produced itself while Harris floated serene and helpless above. It was an inevitable episode.
Matthew Browne breaks down Harris’s epistemic boondoggle:
You cannot refer to [meditation] as a science of the mind, and that’s simply because it is entirely based in subjectivity. It is entirely based on revealed truth, ineffable truths that can only be phenomenologically experienced, and cannot be externally and objectively measured and verified. This is just the nature of any claims that you want to make about some special state of consciousness. We don’t have the technology to verify any of those claims. So it may well be the best thing since sliced bread, but you cannot refer to it as a scientific enterprise. It has to rest on revealed truth that the person who has experienced it reveals it to you. So in that sense, it is just like a religion.
Harris’s religion is not religious
Meditation is also the key to understanding my criticism of specific religious ideas, how can I say with confidence that most religious doctrines are not merely scientifically implausible — many people can say that —but they are also a perversion of a very real opportunity to experience self-transcendence.
I can say this because there’s nothing hypothetical to me about the kinds of experiences that people like Jesus were rattling on about to anyone who would listen. And when you’ve had these experiences and can have them on demand, it’s not just a matter of having taken LSD a few times and dimly remembering how different things were. When it’s absolutely obvious to you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion, then it’s also obvious that our spiritual hopes need not be pegged to the idea that some historical person might have been the son of God who died for our sins.
Here Harris claims that the “on-demand” self-transcendence he has obtained through meditation is a correction of the religious and philosophical cultures through which meditation evolved. He has dispelled the perversions of old.
While arguably true that “Meditation has no necessary connection to Eastern religion”, Harris’s meditation history has Indo-Tibetan religious roots. In response, Kavanagh gives a concise refutation of this secularizing turn, with additional comments that spotlight Harris’s ahistorical flattening of a diverse cultural landscape. Kavanagh describes how, after an initial personal interest in meditation, his academic study of meditation cultures relieved him of a popular belief that Harris uncritically presents, which is that meditation is —or should be —a culture-less “science of mind”. He also describes the colonial aspects of this process, by which Asian spiritualities are cherry-picked and commodified in the era of globalization to specifically appeal to modern audiences who crave religious feelings without religious baggage. Commodifiers are very quick to claim that they have found the essential truth of things they have recently encountered.
Meditation has shown Harris the correlation between identity politics and mental illness
My experience in meditation largely defines my politics too. First: how can I be so sure that the explosion of identity politics that we see all around us isn’t a sign of progress? How can I know that it’s an ethical and psychological dead end to be deeply identified with one’s race, for instance, and that all the people who are saying that there’s no way to get past race in our politics are just confused? Well, because I know that a person need not even identify with the face he sees in the mirror each day. In fact, the deeper you examine your experience, the more you discover that freedom ultimately depends on not identifying with anything, even with how you look in the mirror. How much more so is it unnecessary to identify with millions of strangers who just happened to look like you and that they have the same skin color? In light of what’s possible, psychologically and interpersonally, in light of what is actually required to get over yourself and to experience a genuine compassion for other human beings, it is a form of mental illness to go through life identified, really identified with one’s race. It’s just a bad dream.
What does “really identified with one’s race” mean? How would it be measured? Who is Harris talking about? Is a Black BLM activist guilty of this? Or could they be “deeply identified” with a yearning for justice? Is that a dead-end too, because “activist” is also an ephemeral identity? Who would decide? And just who exactly says: “There’s no way to get past race in our [American] politics”? Isn’t it rather: “If we ignore race in politics, we’re not doing politics?”
Also: is Harris implying that he knows what it means “to get over yourself”? And that he experiences “a genuine compassion for other human beings”, while those who do not meditate as he does do not?
Broken down, Harris presumes that:
- He knows the internal lives and values of the political actors he disagrees with, and
- A person who is Black, for instance, isn’t really Black, but only identifying with being Black. If they see their Blackness in the mirror they are missing the glory of their raceless essential non-faces. Harris proposes that this is a cognitive error that can be fixed through, you guessed it, meditation.
The assumption of #2 relates a common metaphysical position in many renditions of Indo-Tibetan religion. It tracks back to a rejection of all material identifications, and the premise that all souls are performing temporal roles in suits of flesh. In the Bhagavad Gita for example, Krishna teaches Arjuna about the ephemerality of the human body, comparing it to a suit of clothes donned by the soul at birth, laundered or soiled by a life a karma, and discarded at death. (BG 2:22)
I’ll leave aside the ugly and ableist subtext of implying that certain actors in the culture wars are mentally ill. When Harris refers to the “mental illness” of being “really identified with one’s race”, he echoes centuries of Indian wisdom literature that speaks of conventional understandings of reality as being “illusory”. When he references the “bad dream”, he echoes centuries of Buddhist texts that preach melancholic detachment from ever-changing material circumstances—including one’s sense of self. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha is said to have said:
So should you see all of the fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
Serendipitously, Harris’s meditation app is called “Waking Up”.
Above, I stated that conspiritualists typically “conflate the categories of spirituality and science, usually bullshitting about both”. Browne’s comments on Harris’s anti-scientific framing here put his appeals to science in doubt. But when Harris speaks of the spirituality of meditation as offering a post-identity politics of enlightenment, or an exit ramp for an individual’s experience of racialization, he doesn’t seem to be aware of the growing scholarship — produced by people who stay in their humanities lane — that is pointing in the opposite direction. Harris seems unaware of the emerging literature that specifically interrogates the cynical dumpster fire of white meditators using Asian spiritualities to float above the battlefield of social justice. It’s not surprising that Buddhist scholars of Asian heritage are telling a different story about living in this battlefield.
Harris’s preference that the essential gifts of meditation be both depoliticized but also offered as curatives to culture war issues runs parallel to reactionary strains in global convert Buddhism, which is overwhelmingly white, and predominantly male. “The #BuddhistCultureWars: BuddhaBros, Alt-Right Dharma, and Snowflake Sanghas”, an article forthcoming in the May 2021 issue of Journal of Global Buddhism, Ann Gleig and Brenna Grace Artinger show the growth of “right-wing sentiments and populations in American convert Buddhism, largely as a reaction to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in these communities.” Gleig and Artinger seem to have Harris’s number when they describe how their subjects “both de-legitimate DEI as political rather than Buddhist and naturalize their own position as Buddhist rather than political.”
Current leaders in the study and practice of traditional and contemporary Buddhist and meditation cultures do not see social justice issues as distractions from the essential mind-nature that Harris claims to have seen. They show that owning the material conditions of class and racial inequality is an integral pathway to an honest and regenerative experience of life. Joy Brennan, a scholar of Chinese Zen, points out that Harris-types attempts to cancel identity — or bypass political complexity —with on-demand, Jesus-like transcendent experiences, is to miss the boat on generating compassion through meditation.
The rest of the Harris manifesto fumbles through IDW-sounding straw men with a protesting-too-much vibe, but some statements that show Harris’s charismatic overreach are worth noting. They show his willingness to collapse categories, speak with a forked tongue, and make bizarre claims.
“So when I’m talking about racial politics on this podcast,” he says, “I am also talking about meditation, even though the topic would never come up in that context.”
In other words, Harris’s investment in racial politics is inseparable from an ineffable fascination. Meditation is a stealth participant. Perhaps it’s good that he’s disclosing this now, because those who would wish to discuss racial politics with him as its own category and discipline can now be clear that Harris will have only half of his attention on the topic at hand.
Near the end of the manifesto, Harris dangles the carrot again, this time questioning the integrity of his listeners, and the bravery of those who aren’t up for the challenge of his app, and joining with him in reveries he swears are non-religious.
You can pretend to want to integrate your intellectual and ethical and political life, or you can really want to do it and to discover all the ways in which you have failed to do it so far. Again, I’m not claiming to have everything figured out, I’m very much in the process of still figuring things out. Everyone has to negotiate the terms of our disenchantment with who we were yesterday and with the ways in which culture distracts and misleads us. And that’s what I’m doing over at Waking Up. So if you haven’t checked it out recently, I just want to invite you to do that, especially if you think you know what meditation is and you think it’s not relevant for you, I can virtually guarantee that you’re mistaken about that. And if you can’t afford a subscription you need to only send an email to email@example.com and ask for a free one. So please do not let money be the reason why you don’t check it out. As always, thanks for listening.
So kids: don’t be pretenders. Download the app. And it’s nice that Harris has a freebie option. Most recruiters do.