In Conversation With Sam Harris On Christmas Eve
Ending the year with talking to my hero about meditation, suffering, and fantasies.
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It’s a snowy Christmas Eve in Vancouver, and I’m sitting in my car waiting for a phone call. I’ve crammed myself into two jackets and turned on the seat warmers to shield myself from the frosty wrath of mother nature as best as 21st century technology allows. Finally, the phone rings, a Los Angeles number. I pick up, and a dry, reposeful voice says, "Hey Rav."
It's Sam Harris.
I don’t usually experience startling awe when speaking to people I admire. But in this case I’m overwhelmed. I greatly admire Sam for his teachings on mindfulness, the mechanics of negative emotion, mysticism, and altered states of consciousness. In my teens, I experimented with different forms of meditation and contemplative practices before coming across Sam's meditation app Waking Up — a gateway into a fundamentally new way of responding to the world. The idea of applying the principles of meditation (such as nonreactive awareness) to every waking moment of one’s life was a revolutionary concept to me — something other meditation teachers never emphasized.
I tried to professionally avoid revealing my feelings of starstruck, but it seemed unnatural and disingenuous. I dropped all pretense from the start and told Sam, "If there's one public intellectual that's influenced me the most over the past couple of years since I graduated high school, it's you."
The novelty in Sam's teachings is his rational, lucid, and seamlessly pragmatic philosophy. His ability to untangle and demystify the complexities of spiritual life and human ethics can feel revelatory. Some of the concepts he discusses, such as the “illusion of self,” seem impossible to understand at first, but he does a remarkable job of forcing the listener to confront their own conditioned self-perception.
In his meditation instructions, Sam strikes a perfect balance between the secular and the spiritual. He avoids both boiling down the practice to mere “stress reduction and anxiety management” or some kind of supernatural phenomenon (“communion with your eternal soul”) — both extremes I’ve encountered in various contexts.
(When I'm feeling mystically explorative, a newer trend in my journey, I dabble with Russell Brand's fantastic meditation podcast Above the Noise which incorporates traditional mantras, chanting, prayer, and somatic release techniques)
Ironically, I've become a proselytizer of the Waking Up teachings. Anytime a friend or family member gets ambushed by some personal earthquake (breakups, unrequited love, fired from work, failed an exam, etc.) with no clear external solution in sight, I try to convert them by way of Sam's 28-part introductory meditation course. For Christmas, I bought a 3-month subscription to Sam's app for my 16-year-old brother, and I gifted one of my best friends a copy of Sam’s book Waking Up - A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.
The description for Sam's course reads, "explore the deep end of practice from the very start." This is where Sam's approach, influenced by Dzogchen Buddhism, is distinctively lucid and accessible. Throughout the course he continually reminds the listener, "consciousness is already free," dispelling the illusion of some future utopia of enlightenment (though getting to the place where you cease to identify with every neurotic thought pattern and emotion can take years or decades to reach — and perhaps needing a pharmacological catalyst).
At the start of the call, I briefly tell Sam how surreal it is to converse with the voice that guides me through my daily meditation and that I frequently hear in my own head, gently admonishing me to be mindful. Over the course of an hour, we discuss a range of topics, including my essays on rising violence in Minneapolis, the record-breaking homicide wave in Philadelphia, and the fallacies of white privilege.
I had not expected Sam to expatiate on mindfulness philosophy over the phone. But when I share some of my struggles with meditation practice, he offers some profound insights that I've carefully reflected on since. As I told Sam, I have a tendency to view the present moment as stale, uninteresting, and mundane — something to be endured rather than fully experienced. Both consciously and subconsciously, I find myself postponing happiness to a future desired state. I tell myself that when I achieve professional, financial, romantic, spiritual, and familial harmony, then I’ll finally be “present.”
You can see the problem.
The following is a lightly edited portion of our conversation. Enjoy:
Rav: I have a really hard time connecting with the present moment unless I'm engaging in intellectually or creatively stimulating activity. What’s the utility of being in the present when you can think ahead or reflect on the past? When I’m driving, eating, walking, and even meditating I’m always lost in thought, thinking about some future project or task to accomplish.
Sam: You can let suffering be your guide...it's not wrong to be multi-tasking — when you're driving and you're thinking about something creative or planning ahead. It becomes interesting when your thoughts are clearly making you unhappy to no real purpose, which happens a fair amount of time for most people. That's when you might become interested in just breaking the spell…
It's a skill virtually no one is good at [in] the beginning. You're not uniquely distracted. It's the default state for almost everyone. Thoughts just keep arising. But if you're suffering, you can be sure that you've suddenly been caught thinking without knowing how that process started. It wasn't inspected; in the next thought you just seem to become what you are, and that's when mindfulness can be applied as a kind of antidote.
[He later invokes the constructive idea of the “mindfulness alarm” from his teachings]:
Sam: There's a lot of relief that comes from [applying mindfulness as an antidote]. And then when you begin to suffer over something, suffering becomes a kind of mindfulness alarm...that's when you're goaded to pay attention.
Rav: To put a finer point on it, my mind is always in some future fantasy...as soon as I shut down my laptop, a wave of misery, inferiority, and drabness kicks in. I feel like I can only be happy once I achieve a series of things, whether it's career-related or tied to my personal life.
Sam: That is a recurring pattern that everybody experiences, and it takes a while to become disillusioned with that process. Most of our thinking about the future is unnecessary. Even if we're going down that path, we realize most of what we've been fantasizing either never comes to pass or, when it comes to pass, it's different than what we imagined.
Most of the ideation around the future is wasted….it can be a relatively pleasant waste of time but it’s still a kind of delusional dream adventure which is not actually serving the purpose of equipping you to do anything differently when the future finally arrives. It’s amazing how little thought about the future is actually required to successfully plan for the future.
[This TV metaphor is quite interesting]:
Sam: Your mind becomes a kind of inner TV that you can watch...the 'daydream channel' is not doing much work beyond your initial conception of what you're putting on the calendar and what you need to do before that day arrives — the pragmatics of getting things done. Once you get that out of the way, there's very little to think about.
Rav: Specifically, I have a hard time overcoming mindless wandering into the future when I sit down and meditate. I have a strong tendency to vividly visualize my dreams — a blessing at times but it’s become an all too common pattern of thinking.
Sam: If you're sitting with your eyes closed and visualizing stuff, just be on guard for it and note “seeing” every time a visual image appears. You can take a period in meditation where you're kind of like a cat watching a mouse hole for any appearance of a mouse...it can be useful to try to catch thoughts the moment they appear. Don’t give them any energy; just watch them appear and disappear.
Rav: I want to return to the future thinking problem. What if your present state is mundane, boring, and dull? In my case, since graduating high school (and not being able to do in-person classes) and with the onset of the pandemic, I've been feeling quite isolated, bored, and unengaged with anything real outside of the online world....So I'm always fantasizing about moving to a big city, meeting new people, finding my soulmate, and achieving future success.
[He started by responding with some powerful wisdom that runs completely contrary to the typical, action-oriented Western mind]:
Sam: It's not that making any of those changes would be a bad thing. It might make total sense to move out and find a partner and do all kinds of things that are different from what you're doing now. All that's fine, but there's nothing intrinsically boring about being in a room in your house either.
[He went on to make a radically counter-intuitive claim about boredom and a wise recommendation]:
Sam: Sitting on a meditation retreat [m]akes you recognize that boredom isn't real. Boredom is just a failure to pay attention...there's nothing more boring than feeling the breath or the sensations at the bottom of your feet. But once you have enough concentration, those things become profoundly interesting. You can disabuse yourself of boredom for all time on a silent retreat. So that’s something you might consider doing at some point.
Rav: That's a really good idea. I had already thought about doing a silent meditation retreat. I will sign up for one as soon as they're available again (due to Covid).
Sam: Rav, it was nice to meet you by phone...I wish you the best of luck with further adventures in psychopharmacology…you have some interesting weeks ahead of you.
Soon after, the conversation wrapped up.
Well, that's one way to spend an hour on Christmas eve: talking to my biggest spiritual inspiration — someone who has altered the course of my previously predictable, drab, and miserable youth years. Listening to Sam's teachings during some of the darkest moments in my life after graduating high school in 2019 — when I had no plan for a career or education and all my relationships seemed to be crumbling — gave me a glowing light of hope I cannot forget.
But it is still a light — one that often seems farther away than it perhaps is. I always remind myself when I feel behind in life, my journey has only begun. At 20 years of age, this is the starting point. There’s plenty of time for growth.
As I told Sam at the end of our conversation, he is also the inspiration behind my upcoming mind-expanding adventures in psychedelia (psilocybin, ketamine, and MDMA particularly). The insights and revelations I will hopefully gain from those experiences — as my psychotherapist has assured me — will only advance the course of my spiritual journey. Regardless of what peaks, valleys, hills, and volcanoes I come across in my voyage, I intend to document my findings in this inner travelogue in real time.
Rav Arora is a 20-year-old independent journalist widely published in The New York Post, The Globe and Mail, and Foreign Policy Magazine. He has appeared on The Ben Shapiro Show, Sky News Australia, Jordan B. Peterson podcast, The Dr. Drew Show, and other programs.
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