Dan Harris on mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism

Dan Harris on mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism April 13, 2015

While mindfulness and meditation have taken off in the popular media in the last couple of years, it has been a while since I’ve seen a celebrity openly acknowledging a conversion to Buddhism. But this week in a CNN article, ABC anchorman Dan Harris does just that, writing:

If you had told me as recently as a few years ago that I’d ever become a Buddhist — never mind that I might even admit to it publicly — I would have coughed my beer up through my nose.

I was raised by secular scientists in The People’s Republic of Massachusetts. (I did have a Bar Mitzvah — but only for the money.) I’ve spent my career as a proud skeptic. My favorite part of being a journalist is the right — the obligation, really — to doubt everything and everyone.

And yet, here I am … a Buddhist.

In the article, a re-write from the video linked below, Harris describes his journey from a staunchly secular-Jewish upbringing through workaholism, drugs, a panic attack, therapy, and, eventually, mindfulness meditation and Buddhism.

Harris makes a growingly common claim at the outset. He says, “Buddhism is not really a faith — at least not as I understand or practice it.” In studying religions today, we try to avoid using the word “faith” as a synonym, even though it may have been in the past and is still used as such in popular speech. This is because the link of faith and religion comes from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions where  (for many) to be “inside” the religion is a matter of what you believe, or where your faith lies. It’s much more complicated than that, especially with Judaism, but I digress.

With the arrival of non-Western religions on the academic scene, especially in the 1950s-70s, the definition of “religion” grew and twisted and contorted. In the textbook I used for three years of teaching World Religions, the definition given (after a great array of quotations ranging from Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Marx to Mark Twain and Goldie Hawn) is:

Religion is a pattern of beliefs and practices that expresses and enacts what a community regards as sacred and/or of ultimate value.

Buddhism fits well into this and is generally regarded as one of the “big 5 (or 7 or 10….)” world religions. However, many people today are taking up Buddhism without:

a) much sense of community; these ‘nightstand Buddhists’ read the books, perhaps meditate and maybe every so often go to a sitting group or retreat, but they don’t find themselves in the sort of ‘religious community’ imagined and studied by academics

or

b) much sense of a shared beliefs or an “ultimate value” with other Buddhists. The Buddhism of many today is perfectly compatible with neo-liberal capitalism, while for others, Buddhism demands socialism, anarchism, or a profound commitment to social activism.

So scholars like myself are left scratching our heads. Is Buddhism becoming an even more amorphous category (perhaps it long has been!)? Can a person who has zero connection with any Buddhist community really be a Buddhist? Can books and perhaps an online chat experience count as community? Can Buddhism be used as a tool for or adjunct to another set of ultimate values?

Harris certainly seems to think that Buddhism escapes the category of religion altogether, as he writes:

… this “religion” is not, in my view, really a religion.

As the writer Stephen Batchelor (author of the excellent book, “Buddhism Without Beliefs”) has said, Buddhism is “not something to believe in but something to do.” (Emphasis mine.)

The Buddha did not claim to be a God or a prophet. And to the extent that he espoused ideas such as karma and rebirth — he explicitly told his followers to take them or leave them. He didn’t even envision something called Buddhism; he was just teaching his followers to meditate and behave ethically.

Ethics, Meditation, and…  What important part of the path is Harris leaving out here? Wisdom. There is a philosophical structure to the Buddha’s thought that did differentiate it from other religio-philosophies of his day. Just as with other aspects of Buddhism, how obvious you find this structure and how important you think it is to your own practice will vary from person to person. Harris continues:

It is certainly true, though, that in many parts of the world, people do practice Buddhism as a religion — complete with elaborate metaphysical claims. But again, you are under no obligation to accept these. And if you are worried that practicing Buddhism will erode your preexisting religious beliefs, it’s worth noting that many people of faith say Buddhist meditation has helped them cut down on the mental noise and thereby feel closer to God. One theologian even wrote a book called “Without the Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.”

The author of that book was Paul Knitter, and you can read more about a short movie featuring him, Jesus & Buddha: Practicing Across Traditions, from my review here. Harris concludes on why he named his book 10% Happier:

While I’m clearly a big fan of Buddhism, I hasten to add that it definitely won’t solve all of your problems.

I’ve learned the hard way that it won’t make you taller or regrow your hair…

Obviously [10% Happier is] an absurdly unscientific estimate, but I like it — because it’s true enough, and it sounds like a good return on investment. It’s also a way to counterprogram against the reckless overpromising I’ve seen in so much of the self-help world.

After six years of meditating, I am far from enlightened. (If my wife were writing this article, she’d call it, “90% Still A Moron.”)

But mindfulness has dramatically cut down on my levels of useless rumination, mindless misbehavior, counterproductive crankiness and general distractedness.

As a long-time practitioner I can certainly concur with these observations. And as a student/scholar of the religion, I’ll be interested to see if this grows into a larger wave of celebrity convert-Buddhists, openly declaring their non-religious religious affiliation in CNN and elsewhere, or if it will fade in obscurity in contrast to the continued growth of mindfulness and meditation stripped of its Buddhist ethical foundations and philosophical framework.

Below are a couple clips from the full video Harris gave at Google last fall and the full clip below.

Speaking of the self-help world, in the video we see his response to interviewing Eckhard Tolle:

Here, Harris describes his first impressions of meditation:

At the end of that clip  you see Mattheu Ricard, who was famously termed “the happiest man in the world.” Here is the full 50 minute video:

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  • I suspect that what we might be seeing is the continuing integration of Buddhism into a new cultural milieu. Paths are wide open and options of practice and belief haven’t yet crystallized to any significant degree.

    That said, belief and practice are always vague matters, so it may be unrealistic to assume that all patterns will necessarily fit standard textbook definitions.

    Many of us practice and believe based on a more or less explicit secular Buddhist path; as you say, they will say that Buddhism (or at least their approach to it!) “escapes the category of religion altogether”. I’m not sure about Dan Harris, but his appreciation of Batchelor may indicate he does as well.

  • Duck_of_Death

    One of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is the universal law of impermanence. Even the teaching of Buddhism is subject to it, as we are witnessing today. Buddhism has no pope so there is no one authority to declare that someone is “Buddhist” or not. People all over loosely call themselves Buddhist and seem to have little or no interest in the core teachings of Buddhism, which besides impermanence includes karma, rebirth and enlightenment, not to mention the precepts. Harris is free to call himself Buddhist as are others, but if anything, he and his ilk qualify as “cafeteria Buddhists”. They are free to pick and choose, but they should recognize that not only are they picking, they are also choosing to bypass 99% of the Buddha’s teaching. So the question is, in what sense are they really Buddhist?

    • Carmien

      In the sense that they took what resonated with them and disregarded the rest, as the Buddha suggested?

      For my part, I’d sooner look to personal happiness and equanimity with life as the barometer of success for a spiritual path, than a classification and labeling of a path based on what another declares are or are not the “core teachings of Buddhism.” Quite how anyone could read an article and conclude any percentage as to what was, or was not, bypassed is as mysterious to me as how the Wheel of Life itself came to be.

    • Kevin Osborne

      I’d say 1%.

  • Wayne Lively

    I’ve come to a peaceful resolution of what has everyone stumped. We are at the end of religion’s usefulness, but we don’t have anything to replace it. I don’t have any suggestions. People will figure it out in time, but not so far. Religions failed us, but we haven’t found a substitute. Someday. We are unfortunately living in the confusion of rapid change. I’m cursed to living in interesting times.

    • Kevin Osborne

      Religion is sociality. It is women walking their strollers in the park with other women, men bowling and golfing, the bingo club and shuffleboard for the aged. WE are individuals who find our way through to the end as ourselves. Religion will continue as a social club and individuals will continue to find their own truth, because that is the way this place sets up. My opinion.

  • Kevin Osborne

    Buddhism is search in the purest sense when optimally performed, which is when one completely denies and spits upon and grinds into dust any idea of being a Buddhist. Then one can safely be a Buddhist and reach.
    I am not a Buddhist, but appreciate the Buddha’s dilemna.

    • That sounds a lot like aversion! Ouch!

      • Kevin Osborne

        That’s only getting started.