Everything Changes

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Ben Casnocha recommends Sam Harris’s hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:

Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses.


For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:

Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.

Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within.


  1. Dave says:

    I suppose returning to their parents’ or grandparents’ church is off the table.

  2. Josh says:

    Christianity contains and corrects Buddhism.

  3. Aretae says:

    “true happiness and purpose must come from within”

    I think this is pretty aggressively wrong.

    Inward facing-ness is just about the worst direction you can go for happiness. The better buddhist line is: “true happiness comes when you don’t allow the ego/self to get in your way.”

  4. S says:

    True happiness can only be found when true sadness and false happiness are defeated.

  5. Handle says:

    I’m a fair-weather Harris fan — good when talking sense about Islamism, bad when trying to reinvent ‘scientific’ morality. The Moral Landscape had him bobbing and weaving in some sketchy maneuvers to try to avoid the fundamental philosophical question, and in Waking Up he’s not even trying anymore. I gave up about halfway through: not worth it.

  6. Graham says:

    I am not wholly opposed to the distinction between spiritual and religious, but I do think it has become too much of a cliché and depends on a pre-established definition of religion [hierarchical, doctrinal, usually Christian]. Most of what travels under the rubric of spirituality strikes me as either imported from another specific religion [Buddhism for preference] or generalized but still inherently religious in the sense of implying things about the nature of man and the universe that are outside the realm of science.

    Worse, I do wonder at a strong advocate for not only an atheistic [narrowly defined as lacking a God-figure] but a secular/scientifically-based worldview now advocating as vigorously for concepts and in terms that cannot be situated purely in materialistic/scientific/naturalistic contexts.

    I am not opposed to the idea that there are these things. I hope and sometimes believe there are. But I marvel at the cognitive dissonance in the Harris position.

  7. Palamas says:

    Mr. Harris betrays his own level of spiritual development when he writes, “the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives”.

    Beginners (or dabblers or dilettantes who never invest enough time into it) perhaps may believe that the goal (or a goal) of contemplative spirituality (at least as articulated in the religions with established contemplative traditions) is a non-ordinary state of consciousness.

    If the so-called “spiritual but not religious” folks are expecting to experience nirvana or theosis or whatever as a million hits of acid forever and ever they will be sorely disappointed.

    If instead these folks were told that the end of the trail is an utterly and completely ORDINARY state of consciousness, would they rush en masse to the exits?

  8. Space Nookie says:

    Sometimes I use a post-apocalyptic metaphor — after the “death of god”, the shell-shocked survivors must survive using whatever they can scavenge from the wreckage.

    I don’t want to be too critical of Mr. Casnocha, but it’s as if he stumbled onto an Apollo space capsule, and he feels it might be useful as some kind of small hut if only it didn’t have all those extra parts attached.

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