Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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Johnny Dangerous
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Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

Post by Johnny Dangerous »

https://decoding-the-gurus.captivate.fm/

This is generally a great podcast, a psychologist and (I think) a cultural anthropologist review and deconstruct the arguments of various public intellectuals and Gurus.

The latest episode is them discussing some of their criticisms of Sam Harris (including his Buddhist-influenced ideas) with Harris himself.

If you want the background you have to go back a bit and find the most recent long episode where they critique Harris.

The discussion is interesting in particular because it is two non-Buddhists misunderstanding some Buddhist concepts (anatta/sunyata) and a “secular Buddhist” in the form of Harris trying to clarify them.

It’s fascinating because both the hosts are very intelligent and well-educated, but they fundamentally cannot grasp what Harris is saying in terms of experience, I think largely because they don’t meditate. One of them (the psychologist, funnily enough) doesn’t seem to understand 1the difference between discursive self-reflection and meditation.

I’m not a fan of Harris’ denatured Buddhism, but he is a real meditator, and it was interesting to hear a discussion where two of the people simply don’t have the meditative experience to understand how “inwardly empirical” Buddhist meditation is, and assume it always involves the same sort of metaphysical claims of other religions.

It also gave me some more respect for Harris than I’ve had in the past, though I also strongly disagree with some of his political views. One of the things you can detect if you listen to a lot of Harris is that his biggest blind spot is an almost complete failure to recognize his own neoliberal bias of contemporary Western culture and political structures as being incapable of the same level of atrocity as other cultures, even though they already have done.

Anyway, it is interesting to listen to, especially when they get Harris on his heels about the Israel/Palestinian conflict, and when Harris goes over their head on meditation.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

Post by sphairos »

Thanks, I am listening to the "big" Harris "decoding" right now. So far they don't strike me as particularly intelligent.

I am not Harris' fan, BTW.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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Johnny Dangerous wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 2:02 amIt also gave me some more respect for Harris than I’ve had in the past, though I also strongly disagree with some of his political views. One of the things you can detect if you listen to a lot of Harris is that his biggest blind spot is an almost complete failure to recognize his own neoliberal bias of contemporary Western culture and political structures as being incapable of the same level of atrocity as other cultures, even though they already have done.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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sphairos wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 2:12 pm Thanks, I am listening to the "big" Harris "decoding" right now. So far they don't strike me as particularly intelligent.

I am not Harris' fan, BTW.
Ok. It surely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

Post by Genjo Conan »

I've tried listening to the DtG guys a couple of times and couldn't get into the format (the hosts themselves seemed fine), but I do listen to Conspirituality sometimes and they suffer from the same blind spot. If you believe (correctly, I think) that a lot of grifters cloak themselves in spiritual mantles, and if you believe (incorrectly, I think) that materialism is not only a priori true but obviously so, then it's an easy leap to "spirituality is a grift."
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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Genjo Conan wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 5:33 pm I've tried listening to the DtG guys a couple of times and couldn't get into the format (the hosts themselves seemed fine), but I do listen to Conspirituality sometimes and they suffer from the same blind spot. If you believe (correctly, I think) that a lot of grifters cloak themselves in spiritual mantles, and if you believe (incorrectly, I think) that materialism is not only a priori true but obviously so, then it's an easy leap to "spirituality is a grift."
It’s true that the hosts of both shows have a materialist/physicalist/atheist bias. It’s a constant with both shows and as someone who isn’t a materialist, I just prep myself for commentary which is lacking in that area.
Media and cultural criticism and talk is what they are good at, they falter IMO when it comes to anything philosophical or contemplative. Sometimes their knowledge of meditation, Buddhism etc. is pretty amateurish as well.

I’ve listened to a fair amount of both though, and I don’t feel like either claims spirituality in general is a grift.

It’s definitely true that both have views of spirituality colored by their materialist views… but that is a big chunk of society, so to me this difference is helpful, because I’m getting a detailed explanation of how most of my (non-Dharma) friends and family see the world.

To provide a bit more detail on why I posted it:

Again, the most interesting part of the latest episode to me was listening to the back and forth about meditation and the mind.
It reminded me a lot of my own experiences talking (usually unsuccessfully) to friends and family about meditation. Just like in this conversation, there is a gulf there because the basic assumptions of a non-Buddhist, non-meditating person around "the mind" are very different than the experiences of meditators with any experience.

In that latest episode, there is one point where one of the hosts (Chris) talks about how he thinks Anatta is a straw man of sorts, and proceeds to explain how it's just common sense that there is no consistent self. I would say the reason he thinks is that he is coming at it primarily from the point of view of someone studying these things intellectually - as ideas. I've heard similar things from friends.

This gets into interesting territory because I would argue to a materialist that (as one example) the basic reward system that powers human (and other beings) behavior basically needs a reflexive sense of self to function, so anatta is not just an intellectual proposition. Both these guys made the mistake in the podcast of thinking this sense of self is simply something on the level of ideas and concepts - something you believe or not, but in fact it is baked in a lot deeper than that and directly relates to a sense of lack and craving that is completely pre-verbal- a thing which meditators can experience directly.

I would contend that what is going is that non-meditators cannot discern the difference between intellectually accepting the reality of anatta and actually experiencing it. it. Due to this, they do not realize that they, in fact, are regularly operating from deeper, more visceral assumptions of an enduring self all the time. I'm basing that on my own experiences prior to meditating, but studying Buddhism.

They think that simply having the thought "the self is not real" is equivalent to having the experience. In my opinion, someone who has seriously meditated would be less likely to have this misunderstanding. It's also (of course) totally related to their materialist/physicalist view which rejects the primacy of direct experience of the mind, and (at least tacitly) insists that only empirical data beyond subjective reporting is valid.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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Johnny Dangerous wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 5:49 pm It’s definitely true that both have views of spirituality colored by their materialist views… but that is a big chunk of society, so to me this difference is helpful, because I’m getting a detailed explanation of how most of my (non-Dharma) friends and family see the world.
Yes, I've listened to a few of the Decoding and Conspirituality podcasts and as you say it's worth seeing well thought out analyses. It is also worth considering whether one is falling into some of the mindsets that they (rightly) criticise. I listened to their Harris analysis when it came out, so I'm looking forward to listening to them interview him.
They think that simply having the thought "the self is not real" is equivalent to having the experience. In my opinion, someone who has seriously meditated would be less likely to have this misunderstanding. It's also (of course) totally related to their materialist/physicalist view which rejects the primacy of direct experience of the mind, and (at least tacitly) insists that only empirical data beyond subjective reporting is valid.
LOL, you get that even with some Buddhists, especially early-text-fundamentalists who go on and on about the necessity of having Right View (which usually means their particular interpretation) before one can actually do any practice...
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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Gave it a listen.

They think meditation is just natural xanax.

They've clearly never seen through their sense of self. "Thought as thought" went right past them. Just something unintelligible that Buddhists say.

Give them credit for at least giving a reasonable hearing, but I can't imagine they have anything particularly interesting to say.

Harris tries to relate to them but he struggles to explain stuff himself. He's too stuck in Buddhist vocab and ideas. He needs more time marinating. Probably should stop his public Buddhist persona and go back to practicing in private, but seems he's heavily invested in being Sam Harris, so...
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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Queequeg wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 10:29 pm Gave it a listen.

They think meditation is just natural xanax.
I think the tacit assumption of most materialists is that there is no way for the mind to directly perceive reality, we are basically in a version of samsara from which there is no escape, that lasts one lifetime. So for them, natural xanax is about as good as meditation can do, as minds can only indirectly perceive reality through empiricism.

Harris is actually a little different in this regard as he seems to believe that meditation can deliver direct insights about reality. Materialists like Daniel Dennet do not.

They've clearly never seen through their sense of self. "Thought as thought" went right past them. Just something unintelligible that Buddhists say.
I’ve heard these exact things from friends, they think they’ve really looked at their mind because they do some kind of very basic “self examination” about their personalities, etc. They don’t understand how different this is from seriously pursuing meditation.
Give them credit for at least giving a reasonable hearing, but I can't imagine they have anything particularly interesting to say.

Harris tries to relate to them but he struggles to explain stuff himself. He's too stuck in Buddhist vocab and ideas. He needs more time marinating. Probably should stop his public Buddhist persona and go back to practicing in private, but seems he's heavily invested in being Sam Harris, so...
Yeah, not sure what to think about him teaching Buddhist meditation to others.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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A friend of mine is into Sam Harris and has developed a serious and disciplined meditation practice. He seems to have gotten a lot out of it and have to say he's probably gotten more insight than many practitioners I know in more traditional systems. I also don't think my friend could fit himself into more traditional systems, so its wonderful that he does have this avenue. I imagine many are in similar boats, and the kind of sciency/secular version of Buddhism will likely proliferate. It seems what Harris teaches is not going to challenge many sensitive modern secular beliefs but is focused in one discrete area. The people who are into that kind of Dharma probably aren't coming through the looking glass into the wilder devotional or Vajrayana paths - too many sacred cows of secular orthodoxy need to be killed to get here.

By the way, I am sure you'd be a perfectly good instructor for many.
There is no suffering to be severed. Ignorance and klesas are indivisible from bodhi. There is no cause of suffering to be abandoned. Since extremes and the false are the Middle and genuine, there is no path to be practiced. Samsara is nirvana. No severance achieved. No suffering nor its cause. No path, no end. There is no transcendent realm; there is only the one true aspect. There is nothing separate from the true aspect.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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I was able to listen to the first couple minutes today, where they make fun of Joe Rogan's perspective (always satisfying), but I am really intrigued to hear their (seemingly bad) take on meditation. I have listened to the podcast before and enjoyed it, a lot. I also at one point listened to Sam Harris a decent amount and, while I currently can't stand him and think he misunderstands and misrepresents important things, he clearly has meditated a lot, and seriously.
It's actually weird (to me at least) but while I had some exposure to Dzogchen when I was younger (via an even stranger route than Harris) it was a podcast conversation between him and Joseph Goldstein that lead to mind-blowing experience that sought me to seek out teachings with ChNN. So, I probably owe him more respect, at least in some areas, than I tend to extend to him.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

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Johnny Dangerous wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 5:49 pm
In that latest episode, there is one point where one of the hosts (Chris) talks about how he thinks Anatta is a straw man of sorts, and proceeds to explain how it's just common sense that there is no consistent self. I would say the reason he thinks is that he is coming at it primarily from the point of view of someone studying these things intellectually - as ideas. I've heard similar things from friends.
I've had that happen too, and it's also been a little vexing when they're kind of like "yeah. so?" I have occasionally been able to communicate a little of why it's different than what they're talking about, but even then it's usually just kind of a polite "oh, yeah, I guess that makes sense. Interesting" and then on to something else.
Queequeg wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 10:29 pm but seems he's heavily invested in being Sam Harris, so...
:rolling: :rolling: :rolling:
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

Post by Genjo Conan »

Johnny Dangerous wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 5:49 pm
It’s true that the hosts of both shows have a materialist/physicalist/atheist bias. It’s a constant with both shows and as someone who isn’t a materialist, I just prep myself for commentary which is lacking in that area.
Media and cultural criticism and talk is what they are good at, they falter IMO when it comes to anything philosophical or contemplative. Sometimes their knowledge of meditation, Buddhism etc. is pretty amateurish as well.
No, I think that's right. I still enjoy Conspirituality, and while I don't listen to every episode, I listen to a lot of them. My mom was a New Age book publisher, so I have a family history with this stuff: the "well-meaning but kinda kooky self-help guru to dangerous crackpot" journey is one that I've been very familiar with for a long time. I think they're quite good at picking apart some of the various threads that go into that. I tend to tune out when they get out above their skis but in general I think they're good.
I’ve listened to a fair amount of both though, and I don’t feel like either claims spirituality in general is a grift.
I haven't really listened to DtG so can't speak to them. With the Conspirituality guys--at least one of their hosts (I honestly can't tell them apart, but I think it's the one who was in a cult, which would make sense) is quite dismissive of any form of spirituality and, at least in the early days of the podcast, tended to throw in a dig when the subject came up. IIRC they actually did a meta-podcast where they addressed some of their issues with tone. I think it was this one: https://www.conspirituality.net/episode ... ing-at-all. But I'd have to go back and re-listen.
It’s definitely true that both have views of spirituality colored by their materialist views… but that is a big chunk of society, so to me this difference is helpful, because I’m getting a detailed explanation of how most of my (non-Dharma) friends and family see the world.
That's fair.
In that latest episode, there is one point where one of the hosts (Chris) talks about how he thinks Anatta is a straw man of sorts, and proceeds to explain how it's just common sense that there is no consistent self. I would say the reason he thinks is that he is coming at it primarily from the point of view of someone studying these things intellectually - as ideas. I've heard similar things from friends. <snip>
Yeah, I think it's a fairly easy concept to grasp intellectually. I tend not to talk about meditation much with friends and family, but I have had a few conversations about "basic Buddhism," and I think everyone I've talked to who didn't practice some sort of eternalist religion was pretty quickly like "yeah, no persistent self, that makes sense"--while of course continuing to act as if they possessed a persistent self. I mean, me too: I can't say I've realized it outside of glimpses here and there.

Thanks.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

Post by Genjo Conan »

Queequeg wrote: Sat Feb 24, 2024 1:33 am I imagine many are in similar boats, and the kind of sciency/secular version of Buddhism will likely proliferate. It seems what Harris teaches is not going to challenge many sensitive modern secular beliefs but is focused in one discrete area.
I think that's right. In Western Zen we tend not to discuss rebirth much, for example, because too many Zen practitioners--and to be clear, these are otherwise devoted Zen practitioners who will earnestly take the Four Vows, chant the Heart Sutra, etc.--seem locked into the notion that Buddhism is essentially a kind of sophisticated secular therapy. Not all, of course, but enough. And the degree to which Zen is able to accommodate that take without falling apart probably goes a long way toward explaining why it's more popular in the West than, for example, Shingon.
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Re: Decoding the Gurus - Sam Harris

Post by mikenz66 »

Johnny Dangerous wrote: Fri Feb 23, 2024 2:02 am It’s fascinating because both the hosts are very intelligent and well-educated, but they fundamentally cannot grasp what Harris is saying in terms of experience, I think largely because they don’t meditate. One of them (the psychologist, funnily enough) doesn’t seem to understand 1the difference between discursive self-reflection and meditation.

I’m not a fan of Harris’ denatured Buddhism, but he is a real meditator, and it was interesting to hear a discussion where two of the people simply don’t have the meditative experience to understand how “inwardly empirical” Buddhist meditation is, and assume it always involves the same sort of metaphysical claims of other religions.
Yes, it was interesting to see them stumbling so badly. I thought Chris had actually done some meditation at some point. They seemed strangely obsessed with the idea that Sam was talking about metaphysics, and even ended the section with that...
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