As always, I hope you are all doing well. In this letter, I would like to say goodbye. Well, at least for the time being. Tomorrow I will be leaving for a five-week-long meditation retreat and will not be in touch with anyone. So this will be the last letter I send you in a while.
My interest in meditation
It all began in 2012, I was a university student back then and I was becoming increasingly interested in the topic of religion. Much to my parents' distress, I had revealed to them that I didn't believe in a god and no longer wished to attend church with them.
In the spirit of open-mindedness, I searched the internet for debates and conversations between Christians and Atheists, I felt like I had to be sure there wasn't anything I was missing. Unfortunately, time and again the arguments put forth by theologians remained unimpressive.
This was when I started thinking about the problem one's desires leaking into their worldview. I have been careful to try and prevent this in myself, to this day. Have I succeeded? I will let you be the judge of that.
There was something quite amazing about this experience. I discovered gems that I may never have found out about otherwise. Those that have been dubbed by the media as The Four Horsemen of New Atheism. Namely; Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.
I watched countless videos of their talks and lectures of them. I've read many of their books and pieces online. I grew to love each of them and still do to this day.
One day, I found a specific talk given by Sam. It was controversially titled: The Problem with Atheism
In this talk, he bravely put forth the case in front of an entire hotel room full of committed atheists that we shouldn't identify ourselves as such. Both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett were in that very room.
His reasons mirrored those that I used in my piece Insert Label Here, which was largely inspired by the talk.
But it was the end of the talk that truly captivated me. He talked about the spiritual experiences people from various traditions have had, and how atheists tended to discredit those. That there have been sincere and reasonable efforts to gain insight into the human mind and its capacity for well-being under the banner of spirituality.
Please watch this ten minute excerpt from the talk:
For those of you that aren't so keen to click out to a YouTube video, I have typed up a transcript. I really want you to be exposed to this. It isn't an exaggeration to say that by getting me interested in meditation, these words completely changed the course of my life:
First, let me just describe the general phenomenon I am talking about:
A person - in whatever culture he finds himself - one day notices that life is difficult.
He notices that in the best of times, even in the best of times - no one close to him has died, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer and the weather is just so - even when things are going as well as they can go, he notices that at the level of his attention moment-to-moment he is seeking happiness, and only finding temporary relief from his search.
We have all noticed this. We seek pleasant sights and sounds and tastes and sensations and attitudes. We become connoisseurs of art and music and literature, but our pleasures are by their very nature fleeting. The best we can do is merely reiterate them as often as we are able.
If we enjoy a great professional success, this remains vivid and intoxicating to us for maybe an hour, or a day, but then people start asking "what are you going to do next?"
Notice that at this juncture, very few people say "Oh I'm done, I've met all my goals and I am just going to eat ice cream until I die in front of you."
Even when things have gone as well as they can go, the search for happiness, the effort required to keep boredom, and doubt and dissatisfaction at bay continues.
Is there a form of happiness that isn't contingent on always having one's favourite food to be placed on one's tongue? Or having one's friends and family within arms reach? Or having good books to read? Or having something to look forward to on the weekend?
Is it possible to be happy before anything happens? Before one's desires are gratified? In the very midst of life's vicissitudes? In the very midst of old age, disease and death.
We are all living our answer to this question, and many of us are living as if our answer is no.
"No, there isn't anything more profound than seeking satisfaction moment-to-moment. There is nothing more profound to reiterating our pleasures, sensory, emotional, intellectual."
So many of us are living as if there is nothing to do but keep our foot on the gas until we run out of road. But certain people, for whatever reason, wonder if there is another strategy to be adopted than this. And many of them are led to wonder this by religion. By the example of people like the Buddha and Jesus and the literature that has grown up around these figures. And they are led to practise various techniques of introspection, often called meditation or contemplation just as a means of training their attention on their moment-to-moment experience to see if there is a deeper basis for well-being at all. They may even go to a cave for months or years at a time, or an ashram or some other secluded spot - why would a person do this?
Well, it's actually a simple experiment.
If there is a form of happiness that is not contingent on merely reiterating our pleasures, it should be available in a circumstance where all obvious sources of pleasure have been removed. It should be available to someone who has gone to some secluded spot in a desert or a cave, who has declined to marry her high school sweetheart, who has denounced all of her material possessions. It should be available in a condition that is deeply incongenial to the satisfaction of ordinary desire and ordinary aspiration.
One clue as to how daunting would find such a project, is that solitary confinement - which is essentially what we were talking about - is considered a punishment even inside a prison. Even when confined with homicidal maniacs and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others than to be alone in a box for a significant stretch of time.
And yet contemplatives - for millennia - claimed to have found extraordinary depths of well-being in circumstances very much like solitary confinement.
Now it seems to me, as rational people - whether we call ourselves atheists of not - we have a choice to make in how we view this whole enterprise:
Either the contemplative literature is a mere catalogue of psychopathology and deliberate fraud and religious delusion - or - people have been having interesting and sometimes normative experiences under the banner of mysticism and spirituality.
Now let me assert on the basis of my own study and experience that I have no doubt, that certain people have improved their self-understanding, and their ethical intuitions and even made genuine discoveries on the nature of subjectivity itself through traditional practices such as meditation.
Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, contemplatives and mystics claim to have found is that there is an alternative to living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by this conversation we are having with ourselves.
Most of us think that if a person is walking down the street - talking to himself - unable to censor himself in front of other people; he's probably mentally ill.
But if we talk to ourselves all day long, silently, thinking, thinking, thinking - rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we could have said, should have said, might yet say - but we know enough to keep this silent, then this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with basic sanity. But the experiences of contemplatives suggest that this is not so, that there is another way of looking at this phenomenon.
Our habitual failure to recognise thought as thought, our habitual identification with discursive thought is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this thought, an extraordinary relief is available.
Does this resonate with you as much as it did with me? I feel like I owe Sam a lot. He has done tremendous work in communicating the value of these practices to many like myself.
Why go on retreat?
As Sam said, the logic is fairly simple. If there is a form of well-being that does not depend on the pleasures we are accustomed to, then it should be available in a context far from them. I have now gained a level in confidence in the practice and can say first hand this is invaluable. As you should all know by now I am quite enthusiastic about this.
The levels of happiness and well-being that most of us experience regularly in our lives are like a drop compared to the oceans available.
I am confident that it is possible to reach lofty peaks of happiness that remain uncharted territory to most of us. I am confident that our day-to-day lives can be experienced as far more profound than we tend to treat them. I am confident that our most treasured emotions; bliss, self-transcending love, reverence, awe, wonder and gratitude can be felt with a far higher frequency than we tend to feel them and that we can train our minds to do so. And I am confident that none of these requires even a trace of self-deception.
Nothing needs to be believed in on bad evidence to unveil this way of being in the world. The practice is simply training ourselves to pay more attention to what is already the case.
In fact, the Tibetan sgom which we translate as meditation, literally means "familiarisation", or "getting accustomed to", or "getting used to".
By taking part in retreat it provides me with a context away from all the usual tasks and distractions of day-to-day life and gives me the chance to devote all of my time to this. To find the well-being intrinsic to consciousness itself and to learn to rest there.
At the start of Sam's guided meditations on his app Waking Up, he often tells you to put aside the concerns for the rest of the day and devote the ten minutes to simply paying attention.
Well in retreat, I will be putting aside the concerns in the rest of my life... and I will see what remains!
Needless to say, I will not be able to respond to any replies or comments in the next few weeks (but would be happy to see them when I return).
If you have been reading these letters each week I truly thank you for listening to what I have to say. Writing up these letters each week throughout the year has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
I will write again by year's end, but for now;
Please live happily,