Training the Mind
Newsweek has an interesting article showing Sam Harris to be more religious than you’d expect. I remember, a little while back, a few of his right wing Christian critics uncovered his affinity for Eastern philosophy, suggesting him a hypocrite or fraud. I’m not so sure; Harris may be a defacto Buddhist which is not inconsistent with atheism, or atheistic rationalism.
This passage on Harris’ approach to the mind interests me on a personal level:
Harris says he became interested in spiritual and philosophical questions while an undergraduate at Stanford University. At 18, he experimented with the drug ecstasy and was struck by the possibility that the human mind—his own mind—might be able to achieve a state of loving unselfishness without the help of drugs. So he left college and traveled to India and Nepal, where he studied with Hindu and Buddhist teachers who could help him attain a kind of peace and selflessness through meditation. Over the next 10 years, he read religion and philosophy on his own and spent weeks and months—adding up to two years—in silent retreat.
He finally returned to Stanford to complete a philosophy degree. Though he prefers the Eastern mystics, he sees some wisdom in the Western mystical tradition as well. “If I open a page of [the 13th-century Christian mystic] Meister Eckhart, I often know what he’s talking about.” Harris pursued a doctorate in neuroscience because he hoped science would give him the tools to rationally explore human experience.
Harris’s true obsession, then, is not God but consciousness, the idea that the human mind can be taught—trained, rationally—to be more loving, more generous, less egocentric than it is in its natural state. And though he knows that he can sound like a person who believes in God, he thinks that God is the wrong word to describe his beliefs.
I’m interested in the ability of adults to retrain their mind. Contrary to a line of thought popular among various Enlightenment philosophers, the mind, especially the adult mind, seems hard wired at an early age, not of infinite plasticity.
“Why is he that way? Why does he say and do those things?” “That’s the way he’s always been and probably always will be.”
The mind of a child certainly seems more plastic. Think of how easier and more natural it is for children to learn languages than adults. That might be the proper analogy; adults can change the way they think and in turn how they feel and behave, boost their IQs, unlearn their neuroses; but it may be akin to learning and mastering a new language. Not easy for adults. How many folks have the will and discipline to stick with it?
Or perhaps once one has the discipline to break through an initial rut — indeed a mind lock that can last decades — it’s smooth sailing from then on.
I doubt the ability of psychiatry to change people without chemicals; psychotropic drugs like SSRIs seem more effective or at least easier for most folks in a rut.
A good talk therapist, to me, seems not much different, in principle, from a good bartender. Though I have been admonished to check the claims of the cognitive emotive therapists.
And there is a guy named Dr. John Sarno whose theories seem enticing. A lot of self help, psychology and psychiatry is pseudo-religious woo woo (as Michael Shermer has termed Deepak Chopra’s excesses). I’m looking for something serious beneath the woo. I want something that has credibility with hard nosed skeptics, not likely to be swept up in a con. And philosophical literature that is not “light weight.” Chopra and the Mararishi Mahesh Yogi, I’ve heard, are like the Joel Osteens of Hindu/Eastern philosophy. There are more serious sources to the ideas they sell for which Western audiences seem to have an appetite.
But what intrigues me about Dr. Sarno is that his methods have actually worked on a number of famous people — indeed no dummies — with hard nosed skeptical kind of minds. Two names are John Stossel and Howard Stern. And when I say “worked,” I mean something objective and verifiable, not, “oh he makes me feel better.” Dr. Sarno cures middle aged folks of crippling, chronic back pain and shows them it’s all in their head. Not just a little pain, but pain so severe it reduces patients to wheelchairs, and for which MDs have suggested operations.
Anyway, something about meditation — the various kinds — seems, if not extremely helpful, key to this kind of mind retraining. And it’s something that needs to be done religiously, two three times a day, everyday. Like the person who physically exercises religiously five times a week, it’s not easy. Or at least not seemingly, at first, easy, rather something that takes discipline.
But I’ve heard, once in the zone, it’s effortless.