Category Archives: meme
Something weird is happening in the liberal, interested-in-spirituallity-and-enlightenment world. An in-group purge is occurring that is so ugly and vitriolic that seeing it occur publicly is a bit like seeing a fistfight at a yoga studio. A gathering mob of angry intellectuals and left-leaning public figures is encircling Sam Harris and attacking him with a viciousness rarely seen among progressives.
This got my attention because Harris recently wrote Waking Up, a book about Buddhist meditation and Harris’s own realization of non-self through Dzogchen practice. To say I was interested in this book would be an understatement. I’d always felt that of the new atheists, there was something different about Harris. His style intimates an inner contentment that I only see among people who have experienced deep transformation through meditation. So when a friend gifted me a copy of Waking Up and asked that I share my thoughts, I was excited to do so.
But then Ben Affleck happened.
When Harris made an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher to discuss Waking Up Affleck was also at the table, and was clearly fuming with hatred for Harris. I never got to hear Harris discuss meditation because Affleck began attacking him before he had the chance. He called Harris a racist for his open (and very strident) criticism of Islam. When Harris calmly responded, explaining that Islam is not a race, Affleck’s anger, now mixed with confusion, only became worse. Everyone watching, including me, realized that they had seen something unscripted and very strange.
But what followed in the days and weeks after Harris was Affleck-ted was even stranger. Religious scholars and public figures began piling on the insults and attacks, and the attacks occurred with such vitriol that it was hard to see this as a debate over ideas. It was a character assassination. A mob of bloggers and celebrities gathered to bring the fear of God to Harris for what essentially amounted to thought crimes.
The event reminded me of something I once witnessed as a child. A boy in my second-grade class who was outspoken and a bit of loner, but who was undoubtedly brilliant, had a habit of hurting people’s feelings with his honesty. He won all the spelling bees and science fairs, got the best grades, and even corrected the teacher on more than one occasion in front of the class. One spring day during recess the most popular, most well-liked, and best-looking kid in the school punched him in the mouth for “smarting-off.” What stands out in my memory is what happened next. The nerdy kids emerged from the gathered crowd and took turns punching him while he lay curled up in a ball. Later, my best friend in grade school called it “the day of the nerd-swarm.” It was primal and startling. The rumor mill ground to an uncharacteristic halt for a day, and no one talked about what happened after school. I think we all felt ashamed.
What is happening with Harris is the grown up version of the day of the nerd swarm. Instead of recess it is Real Time, instead of the popular kid it is Affleck, and instead of the teachers pets and grammer geeks it is progressive religious scholars and liberal pundits. Sam Harris is guilty of the crime of sharing his honest insights whether they hurt others feelings or not, and it is clear that there has been a resentment building against him among the intelligentsia. They are seizing the moment to attack.
Leading the swarm is Reza Aslan. Aslan and Harris, I’ve recently discovered, have a history. They had public debates about Harris’s books on atheism and what stands out about the debates is that Aslan is soundly trounced in all of them. Shortly after Harris’s appearance on Real Time Aslan published an op-ed in the New York Times that, without mentioning Harris, argued against him by asserting that criticisms of Islam, or any religion, do indeed amount to a variety of racist hate because religions are not just ideas, they are identities. And besides, he argues, people believe what they want regardless of their religion.
And this is where I decided to hold off on reviewing Harris’s book and write something of my own to defend him. Not that he needs help from someone like me, but because the things Aslan and others are saying are so egregiously wrong that their views could truly harm people. As my grandpa once said “you’ve got to have a lot of education to be that wrong.” These ideas have a direct bearing on awakening. And I would argue that what it means to be liberated from illusion has a lot to do with how seriously one takes propositions like Aslan’s.
While attempting to brand Harris a racist Aslan seems unaware that he is pointing out the very thing that makes ideologies, all ideologies whether they include the supernatural or not, toxic beyond imagining: they take the healthy psychological process of identity formation and hack it like a computer virus.
One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”
If we step back and consider what is occurring here, it is startling. Some ideas, no matter how far outside reality they venture, thrive and spread by convincing those that take the leap of faith and believe them that the thinker has now become the thought. You don’t just think an idea is an accurate reflection of reality, you become the idea. When this happens the idea is sheltered from criticism because to criticize the idea is to attack the person. The person’s sense of identity becomes the idea’s armor from rational inquiry.
It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.
Imagine if we did this with other claims about reality. Is there anyone on earth who has become a “Germian” after accepting the germ-theory of disease? Who changes their identity to become a “Higgsian” after accepting the existence of the Higgs Boson? Where are the converts to Heliocentrism handing out leaflets at the bus stations?
In every other part of our lives we intuitively understand that what we think is true about the nature of reality and who we are as a person are not the same thing. When we operate in this way our internal world is governed by a mix of love and reason. Love in that we recognize in others something real in the here-and-now that is beyond the boundaries of any in-group ideology, reason in that our thoughts are no longer the source of our well being, so we can be free to let them go if they are not true.
But there is a special class of ideas that masquerade as identities, and when we allow them to govern who we are our world is also governed by irrationality of the highest order. It is no coincidence that the ideologies that take over the sense of self are also the most disconsonant with our lived reality. By forcing us to choose the ideology over reality, moment-to-moment, we engage in what psychologists like me call “effort justification”, and reinforce the acquired sense of self. That process is lauded as a virtue by folks like Aslan, who seems oblivious to the terrible nature of the very thing he expertly describes. This process of ideological identity-theft is the reason why Affleck became so confused when Harris pointed out that Islam is not a race. In Affleck’s mind, they are the same thing, and that is exactly how such ideas remain so potent and immune from rational critique.
The truth is this: we are not what we think. We never were. This instant it is possible to be in the world just as you are without being anything in particular except aware. All you have to do is see that you are not what you believe. You simply are. That’s it. To experience this directly and rest in it is to find happiness untouched by the contents of the mind. The closest thing in life people experience to it is being in love.
From a position of just being, without beliefs, it is much easier to think critically about whether ideas are really true. Because you no longer have a dog in the fight, if they are not true, that’s fine. If they are, that’s fine. This is one of the marks of awakening: the contents of the mind are no longer identified with that which holds them.
So, I hope it isn’t taken the wrong way when I say this, but I sincerely hope that Harris continues offending people. By attacking the ideologies that are masquerading as identities, he is, in his own brilliant way, bringing folks a little closer to awakening. And while I didn’t get the chance to hear him discuss his book, I think I got the chance to see him put his realization into service.
Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
In 1976 Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a book in which he proposed that as human beings we are not the pinnacle of the natural world (an idea to which we are comically susceptible) but instead are merely hosts for genes, who are actually in charge. These genes have employed us as their clever and self-obsessed instruments to one purpose: to copy themselves into immortality. The theory was a Copernican-style displacement of our collective egos, and while it is a commonly accepted idea today, Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution opened many minds at the time and created new conversations about what it means to be human. Oddly, one of the most powerful ideas in the book is just a bit of an afterthought toward the end. In a chapter called “Memes: the new replicators,” he proposed that another part our nature behaves exactly like genes: beliefs. Dawkins used the term “cultural unit of information” rather than “belief” and he called these self-replicating units “memes” (from the greek “mimeme,” or “imitator”). Today, memes are usually thought of as pictures of cats with punch-lines written beneath them. However, the serious study of memes emerged as a new body of theory and speculation in the past twenty years. As a discipline it had its coming out party in the 1990s with the first issue of the Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.
The term “meme” is not used as often as it once was, probably because of all those pictures of kitties deadpanning on the internet, but the core concept, that mental constructs are essentially self-replicating agents, has not diminished with time. In fact, it has shown remarkable staying power for such a radical idea. A number of influencial variants on meme theory have arrived on the scene in the past couple of decades, including philosopher Daniel Dennet’s “rough drafts” theory proposed in his book Consciousness Explained, and psychologist Susan Blackmore’s “memeplexes” in her book The Meme Machine. What all the differing theories suggest is that, just as with genes, we are merely the self-obsessed hosts of beliefs that have us unwittingly convinced of our primacy. We think we are using beliefs to navigate the world and thrive, but actually they are using us, or to be more accurate, it is an exchange. To get a glimmer of how profound is this exchange, and how favorable it is for us, think about what the belief in germ theory has done for your longevity. The radical idea that beliefs use us as much as we use them, and those that help us are helped by us, is slowly gaining ground in mainstream science. However, it is still on the sidelines. It is my guess that once we can track and study beliefs in the same way we do genes, through direct observation, then the field will likely explode into a fertile ground for new discovery. By then we will likely call them something other than “memes.” After all, we’ll want to leave something for all those adorable cats.
What Dawkins and some of his colleagues do not delve into (and which meditators face each day) is an existential correlate of meme theory: if my beliefs are using me and I’m using them, then what am I? Taking meme theory seriously, even a little, leaves one in a very uncomfortable position in this regard. Most of us no longer create an identity exclusively based on familial, tribal, city, state or career affiliations. However, most of us do make an unconscious assumption that what we believe in, have faith in, or “stand for” is actually us. We think that some deep version of our thoughts are who we are. Meme theory proposes that this is a tremendous (if adaptive) mistake. Consider the following thought experiment. Someone asks you who you really are. They insist it must be the “real you” beyond what can be seen by other people. It can’t just be something you do or a role you have in relation to others. Who are you in your deepest self? If you are like most people then you would likely answer this question with a worldview, moral code, or religion. In other words, with a belief. I’ve done this experiment with friends, and most respond along the lines of “I am a Buddhist,” “I am an artist,” or “I am an environmentalist.” While we think that these are the deepest expressions of ourselves, meme theory proposes the disconcerting notion that this cannot be the case. Instead, our beliefs have done something remarkable (and a bit crazy if you consider it), they have convinced us that we are them. Through a clever trick that is not fully understood, we not only accept some beliefs to be true, we assume that they are us. This is the default position of the mind, and it is the most comfortable state for us. Therefore, if you pause and consider the implications of meme theory, you should start to feel a bit anxious. If that last bastion of the “real me, deep down” is seen as just another natural process of the mind, then what is left to be me? The psychologist and popular author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw this connection early on in the 1990s when he tied meme theory directly to the sense of self in his provocative book The Evolving Self. This connection between what we think and what we feel ourselves to be is normally hidden from sight, but it is powerful.
Where does meditation fit into all this? If you are a meditator you already see the connection as clear as the words on this screen. As it turns out, insight meditation practice appears to confirm some aspects of meme theory. With meditation you discover that your thoughts are quite independent of your will and come and go as they please. Even just a minute of calmly watching what the mind produces will reveal that very little of its activity is under your control. Sudden images, memories, plans, judgments, wishes, fantasies and internal lecturing come and go as quickly and as uncontrollably as a babbling stream. There are good neurological reasons for this. It is estimated that the brain processes 38 thousand trillion operations per second. If even a tiny fraction of these operations are what we colloquially call “background noise” then hundreds of thousands of them are occurring within a second. Of those, perhaps only a small fraction fire together in a pattern recognizable enough for us to be conscious of them. Of those, if only a small percent survive in our awareness for longer than a second then we are still left with dozens of flashes of cognitive activity each instant. And of that remaining set we may become fully aware of just one or two. Anyone who has sat in serious meditation for even moment can confirm that a quiet mind is actually very noisy. I have often compared it to a clown car at a circus constantly spinning out of control and revealing new absurdities at every turn. When you sit with this reality long enough the resulting insight is unmistakable: I am not my thoughts. They are not me. They happen on their own, without a controlling agency on my behalf. I can nudge them, judge them, hold them in contempt, dispute them, and distract myself from them. If I am a trained academic, I can make the mind follow a disciplined line of thought for a small amount of time, until exhaustion sets in. But what I cannot do is control thoughts in an ultimate sense. There are simply too many and they are rushing in and out too fast. The mind often gets compared to a garden that we cultivate, but really it is more like a dark and riotous jungle into which we have a few inroads provided by civilization, education, and if we are lucky, meditation. If we look deeply at this cognitive ecosystem we see that it is teeming with all manner of phenomena flashing in the dark and disappearing. An earnest look at this can be both disturbing and awe inspiring.
But although a meditator can see that the many thoughts winking in and out of the mind each instant are not “me,” she or he can still take beliefs as self. This is actually common. Meditators can simultaneously hold: “I am not my thoughts” and “I am a believer” in mind, not realizing the the first dismantles the second. This is because beliefs are felt to be special types of thoughts. They are more fixed, stable and make up a kind of internal cognitive architecture. But they only got that way by being copied and recopied. Beliefs are nothing more than thoughts that have found a footing in the mind and have set up dominion there. They did this because they serve a very important function that can be seen clearly, but is often missed. It is seen when, as one watches the coming and going of cognitive phenomena, a signal arises in the noise. The layers of randomness become a background upon which patterns emerge. Some thoughts repeat themselves, or newer drafts of themselves, over and over again. In other words, some of them are “sticky.” Why is this? Meme theory suggests that the stickiest thoughts either fit well into the existing cognitive ecosystem or offer something useful to the meditator. In other words, our “beliefs” act as selectors, winnowing out what is incompatible and recopying what is in harmony with the existing architecture of thought. With continued investigation a new insight becomes unmistakable: all these thoughts and their sponsoring beliefs have to do with… me. If a thought begins with the phrase “I am…” or is just a few links in the chain from “I am,” then it has pride of place in the cognitive environment and is preserved and copied and re-copied. It begins to seem as if the mind is just repeating different iterations of what it perceives to be “me.” This can become very elaborate and intellectual. Very philosophical and deep. But a dispassionate look at the thoughts will show that any new thought that reinforces “I am” is kept, copied, and can even spun out into a story in the mind. If the thought or belief is particularly adaptive it will have encoded in it the instructions for copying itself. You will feel “called” to share it with others.
This is why meditation is such a rebellious act. Through meditation one begins to do something that threatens the constant trance of the babbling mind: you begin to witness beliefs instead of becoming them. Upon awakening, it is as if you realize you have been tricked into believing that you are the main character of a play only to find that you are in a seat in the theater. You begin to see, sometimes to your astonishment and dismay, that beliefs are just scripts, and if you observe them critically you see that they are empty of self. You have no ultimate interest in them. Even more disturbing, meditative investigation will show that the thoughts you took to be yourself do not survive in the mind by whether they are conventionally “true” or “false”, but rather by whether they play well with other beliefs. You begin to realize that your internal compass for belief was not set to look for truth, but for “self.” This insight upsets everything, because now you begin to understand that all beliefs could be wildly off the mark, and often this is exactly the case. The implications for this are astonishing. In the most extreme cases, we can believe things that are not only mind-bogglingly contrary to the world around us, but positively harmful to ourselves and others. This is in no way an unusual thing. Most of us know, or are, the hosts of some patently false and disturbing ideas. Just to cite some of the more vivid examples: there are people alive today who are convinced that the Earth is flat and others that it is hollow. There are those who sincerely think that air can be food. That if they think about something hard enough it will manifest. That sitting inside of a pyramid will cure illness. How can that be? Because those beliefs serve their hosts in some way and have convinced them of their truth. I have met people who literally believe that they have a cosmic karmic bank account in the red. Or that they receive instructions for what to have for lunch from an invisible being. Or that they have a long neck because they were a giraffe in a prior life. They believe these things sincerely and whole-heartedly, and they are no different from myself or anyone else. They simply became host to some particularly strange beliefs. How it happens is still being worked out, but if you would like to learn some of the science behind it look into Michael Shermer’s excellent work on the topic.
Meditation changes everything, because if it is done with sufficient strength and honesty it reveals the process of self-making through belief and therefore makes non-belief, rather than belief, the default position of the person. Seeing the process of identification with thoughts as it is happening is one of the things that meditation does for us, and simply seeing it happen shakes the very roots of belief. You will never see thoughts the same way again. This is something that meditation masters in virtually all the traditions have been professing for thousands of years, and ideas like meme theory may be the west’s initial attempt to catch up. I am not proposing that ideas like meme theory are “correct” or “true” in an ultimate sense. That would simply create another belief to hang the self on. To return to the analogy of the play, meme theory, or the meditative insight that “I am not my thoughts” is like a character walking onto the stage and talking directly to you in the audience about the play itself, “you know you’re not in this play, right?” It is a disrupter, a protester that crashes the show and keeps one from suspending disbelief and getting lost in the drama. Notions like this are nicely described by the Buddhist phrase “skillful view.” Meme theory is not so much an idea as a very skillful way to view ideas, and it is skillful because it supports us in breaking loose of all views. It changes how we think, not just what we think. The more we can view beliefs in a way that distances our sense of self from them, the easier it is to experience the kind of liberation that comes from being free from the constant demands and expectations they place on us and our world. This is the most skillful thing we can do. Ultimately, we come to see that not only is there no self in the play, there was never one in the audience either. The whole theater was a prop.