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Sam Harris

“First, let me describe the general phenomenon I’m referring to. Here’s what happens in the generic case: a person, in whatever culture he finds himself, begins to notice that life is difficult. He observes that even in the best of times — no one close to him has died, he’s healthy, there are no hostile armies massing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer, the weather is just so — even when things are as good as they can be, he notices that at the level of his moment to moment experience, at the level of his attention, he is perpetually on the move, seeking happiness and finding only temporary relief from his search.

We’ve all noticed this. We seek pleasant sights, and sounds, and tastes, and sensations, and attitudes. We satisfy our intellectual curiosities, and our desire for friendship and romance. We become connoisseurs of art and music and film — but our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. And we can do nothing more than merely reiterate them as often as we are able.

If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for about an hour, or maybe a day, but then people will begin to ask us ‘So, what are you going to do next? Don’t you have anything else in the pipeline?’ Steve Jobs releases the iPhone, and I’m sure it wasn’t twenty minutes before someone asked, ‘When are you going to make this thing smaller?’ Notice that very few people at this juncture, no matter what they’ve accomplished, say, ‘I’m done. I’ve met all my goals. Now I’m just going to stay here eat ice cream until I die in front of you.’

Even when everything has gone as well as it can go, the search for happiness continues, the effort required to keep doubt and dissatisfaction and boredom at bay continues, moment to moment. If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life.

In this context, certain people have traditionally wondered whether a deeper form of well-being exists. Is there, in other words, a form of happiness that is not contingent upon our merely reiterating our pleasures and avoiding our pains. Is there a form of happiness that is not dependent upon having one’s favorite food always available to be placed on one’s tongue or having all one’s friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or having good books to read, or having something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be utterly happy before anything happens, before one’s desires get gratified, in spite of life’s inevitable difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?

This question, I think, lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. We are all, in some sense, living our answer to it — and many of us are living as though the answer is ‘no.’ No, there is nothing more profound that repeating one’s pleasures and avoiding one’s pains; there is nothing more profound than seeking satisfaction, both sensory and intellectual. Many of us seem think that all we can do is just keep our foot on the gas until we run out of road.

But certain people, for whatever reason, are led to suspect that there is more to human experience than this. In fact, many of them are led to suspect this by religion — by the claims of figures like Jesus… And such a person may begin to practice various disciplines of attention — often called ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation’ — as a means of examining his moment to moment experience closely enough to see if a deeper basis of well-being is there to be found.

Such a person might even hole himself up in a cave, or in a monastery, for months or years at a time to facilitate this process. Why would somebody do this? Well, it amounts to a very simple experiment. Here’s the logic of it: if there is a form of psychological well-being that isn’t contingent upon merely repeating one’s pleasures, then this happiness should be available even when all the obvious sources of pleasure and satisfaction have been removed. If it exists at all, this happiness should be available to a person who has renounced all her material possessions, and declined to marry her high school sweetheart, and gone off to a cave or to some other spot that would seem profoundly uncongenial to the satisfaction of ordinary desires and aspirations.

One clue as to how daunting most people would find such a project is the fact that solitary confinement — which is essentially what we are talking about — is considered a punishment even inside a prison. Even when cooped up with homicidal maniacs and rapists, most people still prefer the company of others to spending any significant amount of time alone in a box.”

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From Sam Harris’s talk on The Problem with Atheism.