Sam Harris is a best-selling author who writes about neuroscience, free will, religion and morality. He is a dedicated atheist of the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens variety, but nonetheless believes there is something to be said for spirituality. He has studied Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and has found within these faiths some practical exercises, which do not rely on supernatural beliefs.
I believe that there are many elements of Harris’ work which echo with the teachings of the Stoics. His position is that there is no such thing as free will, that it is merely an illusion; an idea summed up by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who said: “the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak”.
In short, according to this concept, every decision of the mind is determined by some cause, which is in turn determined by some other cause. We may feel that we are making a free decision, but external conditions and the unconscious machinations of the brain dictate we never had any real choice. It’s a difficult idea to grasp (and one which many people reject), but it chimes perfectly with the determinism of the ancient Stoics. Just as I have previously used Ray Mears’ love of nature as a secular inspiration for those uncomfortable with the pantheism inherent in stoicism, I think that Harris’ argument about free will, argued from a neurological standpoint, may be useful to any budding Stoics who are uncertain about determinism. Some elements of stoicism are difficult, and sometimes we need to look to people outside the philosophy to give us a better insight into particular aspects.
The main reason, however, that I wrote this post is to mention an entry from Harris’ blog, entitled “How To Meditate”, in which he explains a simple meditation technique called vipassana, which is derived from Buddhism (The similarities between Buddhists and Stoics are readily apparent). According to Harris: “The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.”
Here is an extract from his blog:
1. Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
5. Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
6. As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
7. The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves—as they arise and pass away.
9. Don’t fall.
I am new to meditation, and was surprised to find that’s not as easy as it seems. My mind races with so many thoughts throughout the day that it is hard to ignore them. I look forward to giving this technique more practise. Meditation is a highly recommended exercise for anyone wishing to be stoic, and I believe Harris’ piece serves as a very good introduction. Just as a person can meditate whether they are religious or not, so to can a person be a stoic regardless of their beliefs.