In this episode of the “On Purpose” podcast, Jay Shetty introduces his guest, Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, philosopher, and author of several New York Times bestsellers.
Harris’s work covers various topics such as neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, meditation, and rationality.
Being vs. Becoming
There is a tension between “being” and “becoming” in our lives. Harris told Jay Shetty: “Most of us spend time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present. We’re trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied.”
Harris explained to Jay Shetty that spirituality offers an answer to how it is possible to find fulfillment in the present moment amidst the ever-changing nature of experience. Being at peace with the flux of life and embracing a mode of being allows one to find fulfillment without solely relying on the subsequent desirable outcome.
Harris told Jay Shetty that while being at peace in the present moment is significant, aspects of becoming also involve our ethical lives. He emphasizes the importance of considering what is positive and pro-social and how we can improve the world. He explains, “The healthy mode of becoming, at least one part of it, really subsumes our ethical lives. How can we make the world a better place? How can we raise our kids to be wise, honest, and content? All of these are projects that take work.”
Living in the Moment
Harris shared with Jay Shetty that finding peace in the present moment does not negate the need for effort and goal-setting. He suggests that true peace arises when one recognizes that happiness is not solely dependent on achieving those goals. He, therefore, emphasizes the importance of loving the process and being fully present.
Harris highlighted the necessity of finding peace with the existential challenge of impermanence. He suggests that a contemplative life can help individuals be at peace with impermanence and embrace the present moment fully.
Spirituality and Religion
For clarity, Sam Harris shared his definition of spirituality and religion with Jay Shetty.. Harris believes in having a 21st-century conversation about human wisdom and happiness. He suggests that we can choose to engage with the best ideas and insights available to us, regardless of their historical origin. Harris emphasizes the value of human conversation, intuition, and understanding in navigating reality.
Regarding religion, Harris argues against dogmatic attachment to a specific religious tradition. In his opinion, it limits our understanding and fails to acknowledge the richness of human knowledge and possibility.
Harris envisions a typical human project that transcends cultural boundaries, where spirituality is understood as an approach to well-being beyond the usual pursuits of happiness, wealth, and health. He sees spirituality as an exploration of paying attention to the present moment and alleviating unnecessary suffering.
Ridding Ourself of Misery
Harris delves into the mechanics of psychological suffering. He identifies the role of thought and identification with thoughts in perpetuating unhappiness. He explains to Jay Shetty that meditation offers a way to break free from this cycle and awaken from the dream-like state of constant inner dialogue. By recognizing the qualities of consciousness and experiencing the peaceful and gratifying nature of being in the present moment, you can overcome the tendency to view every moment as an emergency that requires immediate reaction.
Harris defines spirituality as exploring well-being that transcends cultural and sectarian boundaries. He explains to Jay Shetty the importance of human conversation, insights, and practices such as meditation in cultivating peace, breaking free from suffering, and fully experiencing the present moment.
Spirituality in the 21st Century
Harris acknowledges the need for a 21st-century version of spirituality that aligns with our evolving understanding of reality. He cautions against adopting superstitious and unfounded beliefs often associated with spirituality that is incompatible with a scientific worldview. However, he recognizes that certain fundamental aspects of spirituality, such as the possibility of unconditional love and the illusory nature of the self, hold value and can be supported by scientific and neuroanatomical insights.
Harris points out to Jay Shetty that exercising discernment and critical thinking is crucial when exploring spirituality. The process involves:
- Recognizing anachronistic beliefs.
- Adapting ancient wisdom to a modern context.
- Identifying timeless principles that hold ethical significance, like the golden rule.
Moreover, Harris highlights the challenges of navigating our rapidly changing world, driven by technological advancements and an overwhelming influx of information. He warns of the dangers of misinformation and the role of social media in amplifying divisive content.
As we face profound choices, such as genetic modification and ethical dilemmas, Harris stresses the importance of being open to new evidence, better arguments, and continuous learning. He advocates for an intellectually flexible and non-dogmatic approach that integrates the best available information while maintaining skepticism and a conservative attitude toward well-established institutions and norms.
The Transformative Potential of Meditation
Jay Shetty and Sam Harris explore the idea that consciousness, in its normal state, witnesses all thoughts, emotions, and sensations that arise. Harris explains that through meditation, one can cultivate a non-dualistic awareness where one recognizes no fixed center or ego in consciousness. This recognition allows freedom from being identified with negative emotions like anger, fear, or sadness.
Harris describes the dualistic approach to meditation, which strategically focuses on awareness of sensory experiences and thoughts. This initial stage of mindfulness practice enables individuals to differentiate between being lost in thought and witnessing thoughts and emotions from a vantage point outside them. It provides a degree of freedom and helps in disengaging from negative emotions.
Feeling Your Emotions
Harris also notes that while emotions like anger or fear serve as salience cues to pay attention to, they are rarely the states of mind that facilitate problem-solving. Psychological health and wise living involve the ability to unhook from negative emotions and not dwell in them for prolonged periods. The goal is not to eliminate these emotions. Instead, it is to develop the capacity to recognize them, disengage, and navigate circumstances with greater freedom and understanding.
Jay Shetty shares that despite his spiritual practices, he still experiences anger, sadness, and envy for shorter durations. He states, “I still feel all of these things just for less and less time… I won’t ever get to a point where I’m able to deal with it in zero seconds.”
Harris adds that certain emotions, like moral outrage, have a purpose and can be valuable in responding to grave injustices. However, he suggests being cautious and skeptical of our emotional reactions to balance anger and personal suffering. He emphasizes distinguishing between compassionate engagement with the world and self-centered responses.
What Is Luck
Harris compares people to forces of nature. Just as we don’t hate hurricanes despite their destructive nature, we should view individuals with a similar perspective, even the worst among them. He emphasizes the need to acknowledge the influence of luck in our lives and advocates for reducing the disparities caused by good and bad luck.
Harris shared with Jay Shetty how to deal with anger and outrage healthily. If actions are to be taken, such as using a platform to make a difference, then the fury has a practical outlet. However, if there’s nothing to be done, it’s essential to let go of the anger.
Harris also discusses the importance of changing incentives at the system level rather than solely focusing on individual improvement. He uses the example of climate change and the need for well-designed systems that make it easier for people to make ethical choices.
Be the Positive Change
Jay Shetty and Sam Harris discuss the significance of doing good and creating positive change. They acknowledge the role of individuals and the systems they establish in perpetuating certain behaviors or decisions. For instance, they mention the example of companies resorting to child labor or other unethical practices in their production processes. They believe this results from decisions made by leaders within those systems and the failure to rectify such issues.
Sam Harris proposes an alternative approach to taxation, suggesting that carbon should be taxed instead of income. People’s interests would align to reduce environmental harm by incentivizing environmentally friendly choices and penalizing pollution. They consider this one of the many potential solutions to address systemic issues.
Sam Harris committed to donating 10% of his income to effective charities, irrespective of personal attachment or emotional appeal. He emphasizes the importance of supporting causes thoroughly analyzed and proven to make the most significant difference. He told Jay Shetty that the commitment to allocate a specific portion of his income to effective charities has brought clarity and consistency to his decision-making process, allowing him to focus on causes that will create the most significant impact.
Considering the widespread anxiety and stress caused by media coverage, Harris recently changed his news consumption habits by deleting his Twitter account. Previously, he used Twitter as a filter to discover recommended articles from intelligent individuals he followed. However, he found the platform toxic and misleading, leading him to question the authenticity of people’s behaviors showcased on Twitter.
Harris shares with Jay Shetty that spending excessive time on Twitter was akin to being trapped in an unhealthy relationship. He realized it distorts his perception of reality and amplifies specific stories that misrepresent the world. The constant exposure to negative emotions and misrepresentations took a toll on him, making him feel drained and polluted. Ultimately, he decided to detach himself from the platform, acknowledging that clarifying misunderstandings on Twitter was an unrewarding and futile task.
By eliminating Twitter from his life, Harris experienced a significant positive change. He now prioritizes how he wants his day-to-day life to be and how he wants to interact with his loved ones. Rather than being caught up in the unhealthy cycle of Twitter, he seeks to spend his attentional budget on activities that align with his values and contribute to his personal growth.
Harris emphasizes that while others may have positive experiences on Twitter, his unique position as a podcast host, where he criticizes both the right and left politically, exposed him to a constant stream of dishonest criticism. He shared with Jay Shetty how he encountered misrepresentations, out-of-context clips, and false narratives, which created confusion and compelled him to correct the record. This further reinforced his decision to distance himself from the platform.
Sam Harris’s decision to delete his Twitter account was a transformative experience. It allowed him to break free from the negative emotions and misleading information that had consumed him. Harris has created a healthier and more fulfilling approach to news consumption by focusing on what truly matters to him and his relationships.
Not Fearing Death
Harris shared with Jay Shetty his take on death. There are two aspects to consider: one’s death and the deaths of loved ones. He acknowledges the mystery of death that we cease to exist. Yet, it’s possible to be happy and at peace even without the presence of those we love.
Harris compares the experience of death to sleep, where we willingly relinquish our hold on the world and desire to be ultimately “zeroed out” each night. He finds it paradoxical that death is often feared and seen as the worst thing in life. Yet, we routinely experience analogous situations of being alone in a room or falling asleep without fear.
Harris believes it is possible to be okay with death from both perspectives. However, he expects to grieve when someone close to him passes away. He told Jay Shetty he sees grief as an expression of love and an appropriate response to the loss experienced.
Harris raises the question of whether one would want a pill to eliminate grief immediately after the death of a loved one. He suggests that feeling the gravity of the loss and allowing oneself to grieve is a way to honor the significance of the relationship, and the shared life lived together.
More From Jay Shetty
Listen to the entire On Purpose with Jay Shetty podcast episode on “Sam Harris ON: How To Break Your Social Media Habits & Ways to Master Your Anxious Thoughts” now in the iTunes store or on Spotify. For more inspirational stories and messages like this, check out Jay’s website at jayshetty.me.