Sam Harris Saved by Ecstasy

Harris was asked: Was it the drug Ecstasy that opened up spirituality for you?

And he replied:

It definitely was. I wouldn’t call that the true experience of self-transcendence that is the focus of the book, but it was profoundly liberating. It convinced me it was possible to have a much better life and be a much better person, and some action was required to figure out how to be more that way more of the time.

It amuses me to watch Harris attribute such great significance to getting high. But I’m left wondering why meditation, and not mind-altering drugs, are considered the “true experience.” What criteria does Harris use to determine what is the “true experience?”

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8 Responses to Sam Harris Saved by Ecstasy

  1. Kevin says:

    So is he basically saying that rational thought cannot show one how to be a better person? Interesting.

  2. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > “I wouldn’t call [the Ecstasy experience] the true experience of self-transcendence that is the focus of the book…”

    Likewise psychedelics — see his “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” blog (which I gather has been copied-and-pasted into his “Waking Up” book: “…I view most psychedelic experiences as potentially misleading.”

    Looks like none of Harris’ drug experiences was the real enlightenment experience, and that neither will anybody else’s drug experiences be the real enlightenment experience. For the sucker who falls for Harris’ recommendation to take drugs, the experience will be instead a sort of taster of an experience vaguely similar, an enticement to continue as he has done with the years-long hard work of developing and expanding the fleeting gaps between thoughts.

    What I wonder is whether the vipasyana meditation that Harris is promoting might also not be the real enlightenment experience; whether it, too, might not lead to “the true experience of self-transcendence that is the focus of the book”; whether it, too, might be “potentially misleading.”

    I think it is misleading: from “Waking Up” readers’ reviews, it looks like Harris nowadays promotes encounters with a Dzogchen master as the preferred route to enlightenment.

  3. Ilíon says:

    It definitely was. I wouldn’t call that the true experience of self-transcendence that is the focus of the book, but it was profoundly liberating. It convinced me it was possible to have a much better life and be a much better person, and some action was required to figure out how to be more that way more of the time.

    But, ‘better person’ is a meaningless concept if atheism is the truth about the nature of reality.

  4. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris (in the interview) > “The idea that something like Ecstasy is illegal is a travesty.”

    Note that that’s unqualified: what Harris here claims, and unreservedly, is that Ecstasy should not be illegal at all.

    He does say that Ecstasy is “certainly something you can’t recommend without serious caveats”, but to assume that is a health warning is a mistake: in context it is obvious that refers to the Ecstasy experience not being “the true experience of self-transcendence that is the focus of the book.”

    You can find an unequivocal warning of the dangers of Ecstasy in a YouTube video, “MDMA Caution with Sam Harris”, which Harris made in June 2011. I have failed to find a link to this warning on his website, and I discovered it pretty much by accident, so his Caution – a “caution”, I note, not a warning – is not something he means you to find and to be aware of; and in view of his interview’s, “The idea that something like Ecstasy is illegal is a travesty”, it’s plain Harris doesn’t intend the video’s caution to be a warning to actually heed. It probably exists as a legal disclaimer: Harris did indeed warn them; they can’t say they weren’t warned of the dangers.

    However, his August 2011 blog, “How to Lose Readers (Without Even Trying)”, Harris tells us, “I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society.” And he gives as one of the things he has written but which has not caused such outrage, “… you can argue that all drugs should be made legal …”, these words being a click through link to “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” – Harris is therefore saying here that he has argued in “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” that all of those drugs, Ecstasy, and the psychedelics, too, should be made legal. Let’s see what “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” did and now does say about Ecstasy.

    A “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” blog reader (which is under July 2011 in his index, despite being updated mid-2014, and which I gather has been copied-and-pasted wholesale into “Waking Up”) will find a half-sentence saying, “some evidence suggests that [Ecstasy] can be neurotoxic”, and a footnote which links to six studies which found neurotoxicity, and which explains that those six linked studies are “the tip of the iceberg” of neurotoxicity-finding studies; but Harris has recently amended this in the blog – and presumably in the book as well, by adding, “There are credible claims, however, that many of these studies used poor controls or dosages in lab animals that were too high to model human use of the drug.”

    This addition rather muddies the original 2011 version’s unequivocal warning against Ecstasy: the six links to the Ecstasy studies finding neurotoxicity are still there, likewise the “tip of the iceberg” warning, but he seems to claim that all of the studies are invalid, based on unspecified “credible claims”. Harris does not provide a link to even one of these “credible claims” so that we can check them out, nor does he identify who has made these “credible claims” – the guy he spoke to in the pub? Harris himself?; nor does he identify who they are credible to – the scientific community? Harris himself? the guy he spoke to in the pub?; if you look again, you realise Harris does not actually claim his “credible claims” are based upon even one scientific study.

    Harris, it seems to me, is a master of misdirection: he presents solid evidence that Ecstasy is harmful, is neurotoxic, while leading you to speculate, and suppose, that the plentiful solid evidence for that is all of it unsound. The mistake is yours, of course; he has a legal disclaimer: he told you plainly that the many scientific studies all – all, he gives no exception despite insinuating there might be one – show that Ecstasy is proven harmful.

    The “Drugs and the Meaning of Life” blog reader, and “Waking Up” reader, will find that Harris claims that Ecstasy has “remarkable therapeutic potential” – Harris having actually made that “remarkable therapeutic potential” remark, I suppose the potential must actually be “remarkable”, because he’s remarked, so he’s definitely not lying, is he, even if he might be misdirecting you; this ties in with his specious argument there that because some of the psychedelics have some genuine medicinal uses, they should be made legal.

    I can accept Harris’ ‘genuine medicinal uses’ argument in part, with caveats, and can accept that assessing each of them for their potential for use as prescription-only medicines, for treating specific medical problems, under medical supervision, might well be a reasonable course of action; but Harris is not agitating for their controlled medical use: he claims, “The idea that something like Ecstasy…” by “like Ecstasy” he means the psychedelics, too (else what does he mean), “… that something like Ecstasy is illegal is a travesty.”

    That is, for Harris, who deliberately does not so much as mention the middle position that Ecstasy and the psychedelics might, after clinical trials, be made legally available as controlled prescription-only medicines, but who wants to misdirect his readers to think only of the false binary of fully banned versus freely available, the “travesty” is that they are not freely available ‘over the counter’ as recreational drugs.

  5. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris (in the interview) > The line between spirituality and religion for me really comes down to the former making claims about the nature of human consciousness and its possibilities, and the latter making claims about the nature of reality.

    So… Harris’ neo-Buddhist spirituality, he is saying, makes no claims about the nature of reality. Perhaps he is hair-splitting here, for I am sure he (and his spirituality) denies self and free will, asserts determinism, and asserts a version of reality which — consciousness excepting — is quite congenial to the philosophical materialist; these sound like claims about the nature of reality.

  6. Ilíon says:

    It seems so post-modern, doesn’t it?

  7. Dhay says:

    With a look forward to a response TFBW has just made in the 10 October “Tough Year for Dawkins” blog entry:

    That universal love which people like Sam Harris need MDMA to get a taste of, then take decades of struggle with meditation to master very imperfectly — if “brainwashed” can indicate mastery of universal loving-kindness towards Muslims and other religious people, rather than an unthinking, habitual nastiness — that universal love which people like Sam Harris need MDMA to get a taste of, people with Down’s syndrome seem to express naturally and abundantly.

  8. David says:

    Looks like I’m five months late, but I’ve just come across this page, and as someone who has read Waking Up and is very familiar with Sam Harris’s views on meditation and drug use, I wanted to answer your question and clarify what Sam Harris was talking about. Your question was:

    “But I’m left wondering why meditation, and not mind-altering drugs, are considered the ‘true experience.’ What criteria does Harris use to determine what is the ‘true experience?’

    That’s actually not his claim, but I can see how you interpreted your quote of his the way you did. Unfortunately, while Sam Harris tends to be highly precise when articulating specific arguments, he often makes throwaway comments for which the meaning is only clear to readers or listeners who are already familiar with whatever body of his work that the comment invokes.

    Sam Harris isn’t arguing that states of consciousness arising from meditation are truer experiences than those arising from mind-altering drugs. In fact, he’s not comparing drug use to meditation at all, but rather MDMA to other experiences. He simply means that the particular state of consciousness arising from MDMA use is a different state of consciousness from the one that the book Waking Up is about. “Self-transcendence” is simply one of the names he uses for that latter state of consciousness. In fact, the first time he entered the state he calls “self-transcendence” was not from meditation but from LSD. Conversely, he mentions that there is a particular meditative practice in certain Buddhist traditions that induces an empathogenic state of consciousness much like that of MDMA.

    I’m going to keep this brief at the expense of some linguistic technicalities, but not at the expense of accuracy. If you want to explore the topic more in depth, I highly suggest reading Waking Up, which is a great introduction to what meditation and hippy notions of oneness are actually about.

    Anyway, the empathogenic state of unconditional love (arising from MDMA and similar drugs, as well as from a highly specific form of meditation) and the state of self-transcendence are two fundamentally different states of consciousness. Many believe that the former helps one become a better person by helping them experience what it means to care about others at a very deep and literal level in which notions of envy or “misery loves company” are impossible to identify with while experiencing that state of consciousness. To my knowledge, Sam Harris doesn’t speak or write at length about this particular state of consciousness.

    What Harris calls the state of “self-transcendence” refers to the experience of “ego loss”–of momentarily experiencing oneself in the third person, thereby severing one’s enslavement to the thoughts and emotions we typically ascribe to our own volition. Sam Harris explains that being able to induce this state at will (generally as the end result of practices of meditation such as Vipassana/”mindfulness” but also through more direct approaches) is a central principle of Buddhism and certain forms of Hinduism, and he asserts that it is one of the most valuable skills one can develop, period. We’re talking solving-the-issue-of-death degree of valuableness. He asserts that when practitioners of Abrahamic religions believe they’ve had a religious experience with God, they are often not speaking metaphorically or delusionally, but rather have had this precise experience, but with conclusions colored by their religious beliefs.

    Waking Up might seem like a very strange book coming from an author who became famous for his atheism, but it might very well change your life for the better, and I hope that his reputation as the most skeptic of skeptics might allow the book to even reach some of the more closed-minded rationalists and expose them to the idea that there can be meaning in life. It did for me. The first chapter is available for free online. It can’t hurt to read it.

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