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On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate

Photo by Sam Harris.

A few weeks ago, on his podcast, Sam Harris interviewed the actor and comedian Stephen Fry. Early in the episode, the conversation took a long detour into the topic of mindfulness meditation.

Harris, of course, is a longtime proponent of this practice. He discusses it at length in his book, Waking Up, and now offers an app to help new adherents train the skill (I’ve heard it’s good).

What sparked the diversion in the first place is when, early in the conversation, Fry expressed skepticism about meditation. Roughly speaking, his argument was the following:

  • Typically when we find ourselves in a chronic state of ill health it’s because we’ve moved away from something natural that our bodies have evolved to expect.
  • Paleolithic man didn’t need gyms and diets because he naturally exercised and didn’t have access to an overabundance of bad food.
  • Mindfulness mediation, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be replicating something natural that we’ve lost, but is instead itself a relatively contrived and complicated activity.

Harris’s response was to compare meditation to reading. They’re both complicated (read: unnatural) activities, to be sure, but they’re both really important in helping our species thrive.

Fry, who is currently using and enjoying Harris’s meditation app, conceded, and the discussion shifted toward a new direction.

I wonder, however, whether Fry should have persisted. Rousseauian romanticism aside, there’s an important application of evolutionary psychology undergirding his instinctual concern.

For one thing, the reading analogy is tenuous. Reading is a technology that radically accelerated cultural evolution — a tool that helped us achieve new goals.

Meditation, by contrast, is more palliative than instrumental, especially in its modern secular applications. It’s meant to soothe mental dis-ease, not to unlock accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species.

This motivates the question of why we need this soothing in the first place. It’s unlikely that our paleolithic ancestors existed in a state of persistent anxiety and stress, so the negative sensations we use meditation to reduce must have a more modern origin.

This is the point I think Stephen Fry was orbiting with his skepticism.

He wasn’t arguing that mindful meditation doesn’t work, as the evidence suggests that it is really quite effective, which is why I think the work Sam Harris (and Jon Kabat-Zinn before him) are doing in promoting this practice to a wider audience is vital and important.

Fry was instead correctly noting that meditation is an unnatural solution to a modern problem. Meditation helps, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues .

What, Fry seems to be asking, is the cognitive equivalent of the natural behaviors like exercising and healthy eating that our species used to enjoy but are now missing in modern life?

I’m not the first to ask this question, and many people have proposed compelling answers (see, for example, Mark Sisson and John J. Ratey).

But something that became increasingly clear to me as I was researching Digital Minimalismand the reason why I’m bringing up this topic in the first place, is that in recent years, our relationship with our screens has almost certainly exacerbated this modern separation from a more natural way of living .

A big part of waking up, in other words, should probably involve powering down.


Speaking of Digital Minimalism, I want to share a few housekeeping notes. First, I’m happy to report that the book debuted as a New York TimesWall Street JournalPublisher Weekly, and USA Today bestseller — so thank you all for your support.

On the same topic: if you pre-ordered the book, but forgot to fill out the form to receive the promised bonuses, we’ve reactivated the form for another week (click here to fill in your info and claim your bonuses).

70 thoughts on “On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate”

  1. I more or less agree with the bulk of your post, but I think you’re wrong about the following part:

    “Meditation, by contrast, is more palliative than instrumental, especially in its modern secular applications. It’s meant to soothe mental dis-ease, not to unlock accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species.”

    I think this view is a side-effect of seeing only the Silicon-Valley form of meditation, or rather focusing on the mindfulness and focus-training versions of meditation, and ignoring the crucial loving-kindness meditation. In “Why Buddhism is True” author Robert Wright shows why this often-neglected form of meditation is so important: practicing and developing compassion and empathy towards other humans, including your friends and family, but also towards your rivals and enemies *is* instrumental, and perhaps key to unlocking accomplishment previously unattainable to our species, as you put it.

    • I would like to add that the western approach to mindfulness is different than the eastern approach in the aspect of your purpose for doing the practice. As our friend here said, Silicon valley version. Mindfulness isn’t supposed to be an antidote to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure etc etc its supposed to be an “antidote” for self liberation from getting wrapped up in your mind. If anyone here has gotten anywhere with this practice they will know what i mean.

      As an example, a car isn’t a car without parts. Once the parts are gone the car is gone. When your able to break down story lines and see the feelings, emotions, thoughts etc your spinning together things appear much differently(welcome the anxiety antidote part)

      The catch is if your not observing everything going on properly and are bent on curing anxiety and thats it, your gonna be Mr. Mindfulness Struggles. Yes it can help alleviate, but not make a major impact the approach has to be more whole.

  2. Excellent points are made here Cal.
    I believe (and live) that ” big part of waking up REQUIRES discipline”.(Mindfulness).
    I truly believe that, the human mind simply was not designed to know everything, from everywhere, from nearly everyone – wherever you go (with an anxiety inducing notification).

  3. Don’t some religions use meditation to increase self awareness, cultivate empathy, and achieve enlightenment? They seem to treat it not as a Band-Aid solution for an unintentional lifestyle, but as a form of self improvement, and in fact an integral component of living intentionally.

    • Indeed. Meditation is hip now, partly, because it’s been gradually stripped of any traces of religiosity.

      Of course it’s quite possible to meditate in a secular way as well. The problem is that most of us (myself included) don’t have a strong enough system in place to replace religion. Then, meditation becomes mostly a palliative measure, or a “feel-good pill”.

      • By system do you mean another belief system? Like Jung says direct experience of what religion points to or hints at is the only meaningful self knowledge. Perhaps meditation helps facilitate this. Choiceless awareness of feelings, emotions and thoughts might be another. With direct experience you are alone.

  4. Hey Cal, just finished Digital Minimalism. Great stuff. I really appreciated the section on cultivating active leisure. I’ve got a whole host of projects that I want to do now!

    I started a meditation practice about 2 months ago. I haven’t listened to the podcast in question, but I wonder if it doesn’t fall a bit between the two positions. As you point out in Digital Minimalism, our brains evolved in a setting where we were not beset by this constant bombardment of information and distraction. As a result, the type of mindspace created through mindfulness meditation was likely much more common. Just like the examples of exercise and healthy eating, meditation is a return to mental state that is harder to achieve in our modern world.

    Ultimately, I think there is a very close link between mindfulness meditation and the walks you advocate. As you probably are aware walking meditation is also a common practice.

  5. Both their statements and approaches have elements of truth.

    I’m obviously not a paleolithic person. But growing up I spent a great deal of time outdoors, in natural environments uncomplicated by people or things. I had time for my own thoughts. Although I wasn’t meditating, I was in a profoundly calm state as I sat beside a stream or harbour, or walked under a slow-moving sky.

    A person who does not live in such an environment does not experience such effects. Your brain is constantly reacting to people, things, sounds, sights, inputs, and experiences. Meditation is a way to recalibrate and detach the brain under such circumstances. Removing the excessive stimulus is another.

    I think there’s a case for meditation, and I think there’s a case for digital minimalism.

    • This hits the nail on the head for me. It aligns with the gym analogy: an unnatural activity to back-fill for a deviation from the way we have evolved to live. There is also merit in the argument of meditation being a tool to enhance living, as with reading.

  6. Harris’s approach to meditation is actually more akin to the spiritual versions of the same (even the subtitle of ‘Waking Up’, namely ‘A Guide to Spirituality without Religion’, makes it clear) – he has said countless times that he views meditation primarily as a tool for gaining insight into the workings of the mind, rather than just relaxing from the stresses of modern life.

    Given that evolution has not fashioned our minds to optimise for happiness, realising the, to some extent at least, futile nature of striving (see also hedonic adaptation) is not something you’re likely to get by eating a ‘primal’ diet or exercising.

    • “Evolution has not fashioned our minds to optimize for happiness” this is great point. In terms of Nassim Taleb meditation is very Lindy, people practice meditation at least since 500 BCE. I wonder what “modern” problems were they addressing when meditating? /s

  7. Fry backed down because his argument is not water-tight. He even admitted a few minutes later that the claim–“Paleolithic man didn’t need gyms and diets because he naturally exercised and didn’t have access to an overabundance of bad food”–is not really true, because we find a lot of evidence of malnourished, badly postured paleolithic men.

    Be careful not to over-romanticize hunter-gatherers. Survival of the fittest hides the fact that many of them were probably not fit, and died young and unhealthy.

    But Cal still has a point about unplugging.

    • Curious, do you have any links to these findings? Not trying to be combative, just have great interest in Paleolithic age. I’m sure there were examples of ill health(famine, lack of modern health intervention) but I can’t help but think on average humans were better off physically during the Paleolithic age.

  8. I agree with powering down, but there are other distractions and noise levels that paleolithic man and woman did not deal with that we do. Paleolithic man and woman had daily connections to nature and quiet. In our modern world the screen is just one of many distractions. Noise and lack of interaction with the natural world also lead to our fractured and tortured minds.

  9. ‘Meditation’ is an umbrella term that includes many different practices with very different goals.

    You’re right, there are types of meditation that can help you handle the stresses of modern digitally connected life. For example Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

    There are types that are intended to help you understand the workings of your mind and consciousness more clearly. For example Vipassana meditation (which is what Sam Harris does).

    There are even practices like Analytical Meditation where you pick a hard problem, focus on it and when your mind drifts you bring it back to the problem. The intention there is to train your ability to maintain mental focus on hard problems for long periods of time. That one is described (under a different name and done whilst walking around a park) in your book Deep Work.

  10. I believe it’s our propensity to overthink that is the problem. We needn’t worry as much about food and shelter anymore, and so we naturally cast our thoughts forward to the future or mull over the past. We sit too much and we think too much.

    If you observe cats, it’s interesting (stay with me here). They nap when they want to nap, and jump around when they want to jump around. And when I see them napping, they seem to really enjoy it, without guilt and with great ease.

    These days, even taking a simple nap can be fraught with anxiety. Shouldn’t I be doing something productive? Should I not listen to my natural inclination and exercise instead? Maybe those tribes who still live alongside nature’s rhythms still sigh and breathe according to its rhythms and seasons. They do not worry so much and do not think about best laid plans to be a high-status, Rolex-wearing executive, ten years in the future.

  11. Hi Cal

    Congratulations on the success of your new book.

    My relationship with meditation is an organized way of creating some space for my mind to be the powerful tool it was meant to be.

    My childhood environment allowed a great deal of alone time in quiet outdoor areas with which I became intimately familiar. In retrospect I can observe how this time purged my mind and and opened pathways for creative thinking and problem solving. Mulling.

    Meditation has a similar influence. I suspect that in much earlier times my ancestors benefited from similar opportunities.

    Taken to intense levels I am confident meditation is much more than a calming or palliative practice. It seems evident that impressive levels of impact on the brain can be achieved.

    Ironically it appears we sometimes overthink the simplicity involved in creating a little time to rest and reset our minds.

  12. “This motivates the question of why we need this soothing in the first place. It’s unlikely that our paleolithic ancestors existed in a state of persistent anxiety and stress, so the negative sensations we use meditation to reduce must have a more modern origin.”

    I am not sure how you have concluded that our ancestors were unlikely “in a state of persistent anxiety and stress”. I claim that the constant threat of being eaten by predators, killed by your enemies or members of neighboring tribe would lead to reasonable amount of stress and fear. Life itself is the source of stress, no matter the environment or time. People tend to search (and consequentially find) problems due to their human nature caused by brain model.

    I think your view became to narrow and you tend to explain every human problem using digital distractions. It is true that digital distractions cause a lot of problems, just not all of them.

  13. Two quick thoughts:
    (1) I think we should be careful about appealing to evolutionary psychology as evidence because it is often quite speculative. The truth is we have no idea what the inner life of our ancient ancestors were like.
    (2) Yes, mindfulness meditation is often offered up in the context of providing a coping mechanism, but so what? Surely our long ago ancestors faced stressors, too. It should come as no surprise that offering strategies for coping with stress is quite ancient (whether it be Stoicism, Buddhism, or whatever).

  14. I disagree with the idea that reducing screen time would lessen our needs for meditation, by addressing the underlying causes behind these needs.

    The use of meditation far predates screen usage (as written records of meditation have been found in ancient India, dating to 1500 BC). That aside, its usage also isn’t just in reducing anxiety. It’s in reducing attachment (e.g. performance anxiety), seeing oneself in the third-person perspective, and reducing one’s ego.

    While it’s true that most modern supporters of meditation do so to reduce anxiety and depression, meditation has played a far richer role in people’s lives, with screen time not playing a factor into these richer benefits.

  15. I suspect our ancestors did live in a constant state of anxiety and stress albeit a different kind (but perhaps not). Constantly searching for food and avoiding predators seems stressful to me. I’m now curious if anyone has compared brain/body activity in a fleeing animal compared to a human enduring some stress.

    I’m also 35 days into the Waking Up app. I’d rather it be on my computer, but I suspect it is less about the constant need to have it and more about the payment model. Either way, I find that it has been helpful and I’m not convinced that it is or isn’t targeting root causes. I’d be curious what another more fundamental solution would look like.

    • “I’m now curious if anyone has compared brain/body activity in a fleeing animal compared to a human enduring some stress.” My understanding is that this very issue is studied by experts on trauma.

  16. I agree! Since I started implementing your advice from Deep Work and now Digital Minimalism, I find my mind is less “noisy”. I’ve been trying to develop the meditation routine over the years but recently I find myself thinking “Should I meditate?” and the answer is often “nah.. I think my mind is calm”.

    Walking in solitude and doing house chores without constant inflow of information is a great form of unwinding for our thinking.

    I find meditation is helpful when I have stronger emotions like anger or frustration. But constant anxiety is not normal and I believe social media and our overall use of technology is a contributing factor.

    • Polina – disagree with you on the need for meditation only when someone is anxious or overwhelmed. Read “The Science of Being and the Art of Living” (pretty cheap online) to get more info. Deep meditation will get directly to the source of your thoughts (which precedes your thoughts since they are directly related to language and experiences) and allows for improved consciousness of the self. However, good job on keeping your mind decluttered!!!

  17. Cal, ask Aristotle about happiness and you’ll have at least the first half of your answer.

    Aristotle is quite clear about what he thinks is the highest happiness in this life. Next to that, mindfulness meditation is a pale shadow, although it is truly is an attempt to relieve a real human suffering/lack. Buddhist “loving-kindness meditation” is another palliative treatment that approaches what is ultimately the same lack from a different angle–and it too suppplies but a pale shadow of what is truly lacking.

  18. I wonder if our long lost ancestors engaged in a more active meditation during the hunt/gather, depending upon the intensity and collective effort (or lack thereof) from their tribe? They may also of had time to passively meditate round the fire each night as things calmed and while remaining awake late or rising early in smaller to guard the larger tribe??

    Like all times, the experience of Paleolithic man, both internal and external, was unique compared to subsequent phases of development leading to modernity. Why then should we assume through the lens of modernity that meditation in 2019A.D. would be remotely comparable to mediation in 2019B.C., especially considering it is an activity predominately focused on intrinsic activity rather than external design??

  19. “It’s unlikely that our paleolithic ancestors existed in a state of persistent anxiety and stress, so the negative sensations we use meditation to reduce must have a more modern origin.” Why is this unlikely? Do you have some science to back this up?

    • I too was surprised at the comment “It’s unlikely that our paleolithic ancestors existed in a state of persistent anxiety and stress, so the negative sensations we use meditation to reduce must have a more modern origin.” Having studied many ancient cultures and even modern tribal cultures, I would say they lived in a constant state of persistent anxiety and stress. They created many cultural “rules” to help them adapt to environments, lives and sometimes constant rivalries with other tribes that they could not control. I doubt they often felt “safe” and most often felt controlled by other people or nature. It was some of these ancient peoples who started this meditation practice so they must have needed it too.

  20. You bring up a great point and something I plan to reflect on. I definitely feel the benefits of meditation, but the question of “Is it required?” comes to mind. Growing up in a religious family, there was always a form of meditation in place.

    I believe the modern version of meditation is an evolution of ancient observance.

  21. Hi Cal,

    I don’t agree with a few things on your post:

    1) “natural behaviors like exercising and healthy eating that our species used to enjoy but are now missing in modern life”

    I agree that the modern human exercises less than the paleolithic one, and that’s why we need to purposely engage in exercise nowadays.

    Then, “healthy eating” is an empty term and when asked, people don’t know how to describe it. Most people refer to “healthy eating” as eating meals prepared with a few raw ingredients (think vegetables, grains and meat) and not a lot of calories.

    As long as you exercise regularly and are not very overweight (waist circumference <40 inches for men and <37 for women, in people of average height), there's not much evidence that points that any diet is superior regarding longevity.

    2) " It’s unlikely that our paleolithic ancestors existed in a state of persistent anxiety and stress"

    I doubt that not knowing when your next meal was going to be, and also not knowing if you would make it back from hunting wouldn't make Paleolithic men and women stressful. I bet their lives were very stressful.

    Life expectancy at that time was 33 years and today is 78. Even though advances in medicine probably explain most of that difference, is hard to make a case that the Paleolithic lifestyle would produce healthier humans today.

    Some people have said here in the comments that we often tend to over-romanticize the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and I agree completely.

  22. Cal – agree and disagree with this article. I think that humans always needed a form of meditation; after all Buddhism is quite a few thousands years old, and most of Christianity had a form of meditation one way or another (the Rosary is a form of meditation, and so are the Eucharistic adoration, or even just a deep series of prayers). I think that XXI century meditation differs only in the formalization of it. As you mention on the book, boredom used to be common, and so was manual labor which can be informal forms of meditation; on this you are right, less input might reduce the need of FORMAL meditation… but not meditation itself in one form or another. As both a Christian and a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation I can tell you that meditation does work on many levels.

    • Sure, but a few thousand years old isn’t very old in evolutionary terms…did Neanderthals need to meditate? But I agree with your point that meditation predates smartphones. 😛

  23. “our relationship with our screens has almost certainly exasperated this modern separation from a more natural way of living”. I think you mean “exacerbated”, not “exasperated”.

  24. Spoken like someone who’s never meditated. 😉 It is most assuredly *not* about soothing anything. It certainly *can* have a soothing side-effect, but to confuse one of many possible side effects with the entire point of the exercise is misguided. And no, powering down is in no way the equivalent of mindfulness meditation. I mean, honestly, the suggesting is breathtakingly—I mean no disrespect—ignorant. Thanks to your research and writings on the same, I have myself powered down quite a bit. No social media, no email app on my phone (if I want to check email, I must do so at my desktop, not my laptop), streaming video limited to 2 hours per week, etc. The powering down reduces anxiety and gives me huge amounts of my time back. Meditation (which I practice) is far more primal. I will sing the praises of Digital Minimalism to all who will listen, but it is categorically not a substitute for meditation. They’re in two entirely different leagues.

    • Holly – I practice Transcendental Meditation, and I have to agree with you. The proof? Meditation precedes digital lifestyle and modern stress by about 3000 to 4000 years.

  25. Fry’s false premise is that evolution shaped our minds to be at peace. It did not. That’s why the “no need for a gym” is a false analogy.

  26. Nice post, Cal. And lots of good comments follow. I’m no expert on meditation. Being simple, I just know it’s good to power down, wind down, and slow down. Just breathe. I do like the practice of mindful meditation, focusing on breathing and the breath and nothing else, to help with anxiety. Minimalism, digital or otherwise, I think falls under the category of Simplicity. I like the simple/slow movement. Our modern life is busy and noisy, frantic and frenetic. So unplug, power down, wind down, slow down, breathe. It helps you calm down. Thanks for sharing.

  27. I would like to qualify your comment, Cal, that meditation is not meant to “unlock accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species.” Meditation comes in many shapes and sizes, including meditation through yoga. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit “yuj”, “union”. Yoga means union of the individual soul with Spirit – it that’s not unlocking accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species, what is?

  28. Meditation mimics hunting — which is very Paleo.

    Consider the Redneck Master. He sits in his deer stand. He must remain still, possibly for hours.

    He must remain Aware. Not of his breathing, but of the forest in front of him. No talking. No internal chatter. Awareness is of the very analog scene before him. Utterly non verbal. And no, he is not allowed to sleep or even phase out. He must be ready to act!

    Meditation is the artificial substitute.

  29. I don’t see meditation, in a broad sense, as especially modern. Most religions seem to include some meditation-like element, which may have grown out of an earlier practice that was itself an evolutionary adaption.

    • That was my thought as well, Jemma. Anxiety and stress may be exacerbated by constant technology use but they not modern problems and meditation is certainly not a modern solution.

  30. Meditation, as taught in the Waking Up Course, is much more profound than just a de-stressor. Real meditation is actually a technique for examining reality at the exact point where it impinges on consciousness.

    Of course, it can also reduce stress and have a host of other positive benefits. It is of a piece with the ideas for living a meaningful life, you express in your excellent books on Digital Minimalism and Deep Work.

  31. Hi Cal, love the website and your books – but I think in this post you meant to say that screens exacerbate (rather than exasperate) modern peoples’ separation from earlier ways of living.

  32. Hi Cal. I’ve been a big fan of yours the last couple of years – love your work. I want to ask a question that you potentially answer in your book. If it’s discussed in your book – then no need to respond here. The question is:

    Do you print out journal articles/books in hard copy when conducting your academic work to enforce ‘powering down’, or do you have a focused way of using digital copies?

    I know there is an ongoing debate about the benefits of retention/learning for both physical and digital print – but I’d like to know how you tackle this subject yourself as my occupation is shifting into more of a research type position (currently a graduate engineering student at the University of Michigan, but about to shift to a corporate engineering job).

  33. You write: “Fry was instead correctly noting that meditation is an unnatural solution to a modern problem. Meditation helps, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues.”

    This seems like an odd take on meditation given the fact that meditation traces it’s origins back thousands of years. It hardly seems like a solution to a “modern problem”. It’s an age old problem. People get stuck in their head, and identify themselves with their thoughts. Mindfulness helps break the ego illusion. This is not a modern problem by any stretch.

  34. “Meditation, by contrast, is more palliative than instrumental, especially in its modern secular applications. It’s meant to soothe mental dis-ease, not to unlock accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species.”

    This reads as if you’ve never really given meditation its due. The practice of meditation is the most instrumental one I’ve encountered in my life. It’s not just a mental stress ball. In fact, I’d suggest that meditation is a keystone habit for deep work — and a deep life. I’m curious: Have you ever attended a silent retreat?

  35. Interesting! I’ve never thought about meditation as soothing anything. But rather, as a reminder to live in the moment. Wouldn’t that way of “being fully present in the moment” and not worrying about the past or the future be very, erm, paleolithic? Like animals do “live in the moment”. If you consider that kind of thinking – not being distracted by worrying or anything else – a natural state, then meditation would be very natural indeed.

  36. I think that meditation is accessing something that we have indeed lost over time. When we think of the natural world (i.e. Nature), what is missing? Automobiles, machines and other loud non-natural noises.
    I believe that just being out in nature (the woods, a pond, by a stream) tends to induce a state of natural meditation that doesn’t necessarily require a certain pose (however the experience may benefit from sitting cross legged and focusing on just the in/out breath).
    When one thinks about some of the non-machine-centric cultures, one may notice that they have a natural sort of meditation about their lives.

  37. It says Cal has an event at WeWork in Washington, D.C., but the link to the details is dead—does this mean that the event is no longer happening?

  38. This is a really thought provoking post. I have been in several PLC’s about mindfulness in the classroom, lately. I have to say, I’m torn! I see first hand how stressed and anxious our kids are, especially around standardized testing time. Mindfulness practices, like breathing exercises, help them cope with that stress. It really works! But it isn’t the magical fix to all the world’s problems. Like, why are they so stressed about standardized tests in the first place? Anyway, thank you for sharing your ideas on the topic. I’m still on the fence, but I feel more informed. Great post, Cal!

  39. I will just throw myself in amongst commenters pointing out that the very premise of Fry’s argument is wrong: “…[Meditation] doesn’t seem to be replicating something natural that we’ve lost…”. In fact, meditation is replacing the higher cognitive processes with pure experience – the state in which our brains spent most of their evolutionary life. Anyone doubting this is welcome to come to a Zen monastery and spend years performing simple life sustaining tasks, and see how similar to modern life it is.

  40. Sorry, you’re absolutely wrong on the meditation point Cal. Like MASSIVELY ignorant of this topic. Meditation is a means of self-enhancement, exploration and deep coming-to-awareness of the true nature of reality.

  41. Meditation has been a practice for the hindu community for over 10,000 years. Meditation has always been about reaching a state of mind that is formless, or of no-thing. The form of meditation that is popular in hinduism is concentrating on the breath or asking the question ‘who am I?’ and this led to interesting realizations. It is worth reading the hindu scriptures to truly understand the depth of meditation or even buddhist texts as the Buddha truly understood the importance of transcending the limitations of the mind.

  42. It seems to me that like psychedelics, meditation can be a revolutionary tool to understand our — honestly — messed up minds. If you believe, as the Buddhists, that life is suffering, then meditation is surely a game changer.
    Just read “A New Earth” to get an inkling of what is possible for our species.

  43. It would be hard to imagine Paleolithic man surviving without a quality of mind know as mindfulness.

    How would you hunt successfully either individually or as a group without a heightened sensory and interpersonal attunement …without mindfulness. A state of mind that is highly focused, sensoraly attuned to the minutest fluctuations in the environment. The ability to function for periods of time without distraction. To cooperate intentionally without conflict.

    If you are hunting over extended areas of ground or time, then these mindfulness qualities for Paleolithic man and woman would have been essential.

    It’s not a ‘modern’ phenomenon. It’s a timeless quality that you can practice and engineer for the benefit of self and others.

  44. “It’s unlikely that our paleolithic ancestors existed in a state of persistent anxiety and stress” – consider the abundance of nonsense beliefs that arose from our ancestors’ collective constant anxiety and stress over poor hunting conditions, natural disasters, competing animals, competing tribes and later, crop failures. Our stress responses and anxiety reactions exist from our ancestors managing to stay alive when total uncertainty and powerlessness over nature was the major theme of any given day. Entire tribes lived in such a state of anxiety, stress and fear that beheading and burning people alive was seen as the logic’s remedy for completely misunderstood natural occurrences and planetary cycles like the weather. Our ancestors conjured up anthropomorphic Gods with the foibles of a spoilt teenager to satisfy with blood sacrifice for some semblance of control over what must have been an otherwise terrifying day to day existence, with constant stress over the next meal. Unlikely? We’re the way we are BECAUSE of our Palaeolithic ancestors.


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