No body - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.10.14



Sam Harris

There is no body as such at the level of experience

This is somewhat counterintuitive. Why is there "no body as such"? What else is there at the level of experience?


The "what else" is explained by another frequently used instruction by Sam Harris:

Let your body dissolve into a cloud (or field) of sensations

The equivalent instruction for the visual sense is

Try to gaze upon your visual field as a a unified space of color, and shadow.

Sam Harris refers to a level of experience that is below (or precedes) what one normally holds to be experience: Sam Harris talks about the level of (more) elementary sense percepts. He implies, that the experience of "the body" is a mental construct, that it represents a concept rather than (sense) experience.


In reality what we feel to be "the body" is the result of myriad of filtered, aggregated and interpreted external and proprioceptive (internal) sense percepts such as pressure, temperature, motion, etc. It is worth noting though, that even these percepts are the result if prior processing from even more fundamental levels that do not reach consciousness as experience (Culadasa 2017)


In the meditation tradition, the felt sense that there is a thing called "body" (or, actually, any self-existing object out there) is called "the initial sense of the meditation object" (Culadasa 2017). It is called "initial", because it is as yet not analysed and broken down through meditative self-observation. It is, so to speak, the naive interpretation.


When, through meditation, we have learned to experience closer to the elementary sense-perceptions , it is called "the acquired sense of the meditation object". It is acquired because we had to learn to recognise the elementary percepts, rather than taking the surface experience for granted. At this stage, the feeling of a solid body may disappear.


Sam Harris very often uses pointing out instructions such as "let your body dissolve into a sphere of sensations". This kind of instruction help to deconstruct the feeling of solidity of the body. In some advanced states of meditation, the body may even appear as light-filled vase, may extend very large, as empty etc.


Here is a sculpture representing such an appearance of the hollow body:



Sukhi Barber, Ebb and Flow, 2015, from Zig Zag Zen


Daniel P Brown calls this process "pattern recognition in reverse" in his 1981 dissertation (Brown 1981)


Culadasa , in his "The Mind Illuminated", uses the breath as an example how to distinguish between low level sense percepts and higher level concepts.


The idea of “the breath” is a complex concept built from other concepts: that we’re a separate being; we have a body; we have a nose that’s part of our body; our body is surrounded by air; air moves through the nose in two directions; and so on. The very idea of “the breath” is really a complex concept built from many other concepts: that we’re a separate being; we have a body; we have a nose that’s part of our body; our body is surrounded by air; air moves through the nose in two directions; and so on. It’s not until we start observing the subtle details, the sensations that repeat themselves with every in- and out-breath, that we actually begin experiencing sense-percepts directly (Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p 224)


Full Culadasa quote

To fully explain Sam Harris "there is no body as such at the level of experience", here the full Culadasa quote as a longer text. Culadasa uses the breath as meditation object, but the same could be demonstrated for the body.


Change in Perception of the Meditation object

When we start meditating, our experience of the breath is mostly conceptual, although we don’t know it at the time. In fact, during the early stages, we’re hardly aware of the actual breath sensations, just enough to trigger the arising of concepts related to the breath. These concepts (“inhaling,” “pause,” “exhaling”) are our real objects of attention. The conceptualizing begins as we breathe in, when air first strikes the skin at the nostrils. The somatosensory mind projects a small number of mind moments into consciousness that have these breath-related sense-percepts as their objects. The discriminating mind immediately assimilates those sense-percepts and interprets them using concepts it already has, like “nose,” “touch,” “air,” “beginning,” and “in-breath.” When this purely conceptual view of what’s happening is projected into consciousness, we subjectively perceive the “beginning of the in-breath,” hardly noticing the actual sensations. The same thing happens again when a few more moments of attention provide another “sample” of sense-percepts produced by air flowing over the skin of the nostrils. The discriminating mind generates another conceptual construct, such as the “first part of the middle of the in-breath.” In other words, as we engaged with the breath, we were following concepts more than actual sensations. The idea of “the breath” is a complex concept built from other concepts: that we’re a separate being; we have a body; we have a nose that’s part of our body; our body is surrounded by air; air moves through the nose in two directions; and so on. The very idea of “the breath” is really a complex concept built from many other concepts: that we’re a separate being; we have a body; we have a nose that’s part of our body; our body is surrounded by air; air moves through the nose in two directions; and so on. It’s not until we start observing the subtle details, the sensations that repeat themselves with every in- and out-breath, that we actually begin experiencing sense-percepts directly. What is true of the breath is also true throughout our lives: our everyday experience isn’t one of sensations so much as of mental constructs built on top of those sensations. The simplest mental constructs are the sense-percepts themselves. These in turn are used to build increasingly complex conceptual formations. This process has been unfolding since you were born. Your mind has accumulated a huge mass of increasingly elaborate conceptual formations in an attempt to organize and simplify the enormous variety of sensory experiences you’ve been exposed to. Like in the movie The Matrix, we inhabit a virtual reality built from concepts and ideas, except that—as far as we know—we’re not all plugged into a central computer. To put it bluntly, not only don’t we experience the world directly, but the “reality” we live in is a massive collection of conceptual constructs that takes a unique form in each of our minds. Let’s return to our experience of the breath. The conceptual experience just described is traditionally called the initial appearance5 of the meditation object. It’s only slightly more refined than a non-meditator’s perception of the breath. But for the first time, as we start pacifying the thinking/emotional mind, we can experience the breath purely as a sensory phenomenon, relatively free of conceptualizations, and move past the initial appearance. As you start pacifying the thinking/emotional mind, you can experience the breath for the first time purely as a sensory phenomenon, relatively free of conceptualizations. Your meditation object has finally become the sensations of the breath. You experience a repeating series of sensations arising and passing away, always within a clearly defined scope of attention. First, one sequence of sensations arises and passes away, followed by a brief interval of faint or no sensations. Then a second, different sequence arises and passes away, followed by another brief interval. Then the first series begins again, and on it goes. Since concepts no longer obscure the sensations, you can focus your full conscious power on them, observing with great clarity. This transformation in your experience of the meditation object is significant enough that tradition gives it a label: the acquired appearance6 of the meditation object, so-called because it is acquired through diligent practice. As we become better at single-pointedly observing the acquired appearance, increasingly subtle bits of conceptual processing become evident through their absence as they drop away. For example, at some point you may suddenly realize you no longer know whether the sensations you’re currently observing correspond to the in- or the out-breath. You also realize that you could know in an instant, but would have to intentionally shift attention away from the sensations to the conceptual formations of the mind. Other times, you may suddenly realize that the place where the sensations seem to occur no longer corresponds to where your nose is. The breath seems way off to the side, or above or below where it should be. Normally, breath sensations and our overall awareness of the body are fused together in binding moments of consciousness. Now, breath and body are perceived separately—breath sensations in attention, and body shape and position in peripheral awareness. To recombine them, you would just need to momentarily shift your attention to the shape and position of your body. The result of experiences like these is profound Insight into the relationships between attention and awareness, sensory experience and conceptual thinking, and the role of binding moments. Still, such Insight can’t happen unless you have completely overcome subtle dullness and cultivated mindfulness with powerful introspective awareness. By pacifying the mind, through exclusive focus, you achieve the acquired appearance and non-conceptual perception. This gives you the kind of direct experience of your own mind these models are based on. By practicing experiencing the whole body with the breath, you pacify the mind, leading to the acquired appearance of the meditation object. Together, exclusive focus and non-conceptual perception give you the kind of direct experience of the mind that the models we discuss are based (Culadasa 2015, p 214)

Resources


Badiner, A., Grey, A., & Batchelor, S. (2018). Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics (English Edition). Synergetic Press.

https://www.amazon.de/dp/B078N8S9G6


Brown, Daniel P. (1981). Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology (Dissertation). http://abhidharma.ru/A/Tantra/Content/Raznoe/0028.pdf

This dissertation is a free download. It is a massive, highly technical volume that nevertheless gives an unparallelled insight into the education of a yogi.It draws on the knowledge of cognitive science as of the late 1970s, so it is not the newest in this regard.As compensation, Daniel P Brown gives some insight into the experiments with tachiscopy. to which he still referred in his retreats in 2021.The Universits of Chicago library entry:

https://catalog.lib.uchicago.edu/vufind/Record/470630


Gebel, T. (2021h, September 5). Pattern recognition in reverse: Emptiness through drawing, meditation, psychedelics. Till Gebel. https://www.till-gebel.com/post/meditation-pattern-recognition-in-reverse-how-to-have-a-taste-of-emptiness-fast


Yates (Culadasa), J., & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.

https://www.amazon.de/Mind-Illuminated-Meditation-Integrating-Mindfulness/dp/1781808201





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