<link rel="stylesheet" href="//fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Open+Sans%3A300%2C400%2C600%2C700">On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate May 2019

On Sam Harris and Stephen Fry’s Meditation Debate

  • March 17, 2019

Photo by Sam Harris.

A few weeks ago, on his podcast, Sam Harris interviewed the actor and comedian Stephen Fry. Early in the episode, the conversation took a long detour into the topic of mindfulness meditation.

Harris, of course, is a longtime proponent of this practice. He discusses it at length in his book, Waking Up, and now offers an app to help new adherents train the skill (I’ve heard it’s good).

What sparked the diversion in the first place is when, early in the conversation, Fry expressed skepticism about meditation. Roughly speaking, his argument was the following:

  • Typically when we find ourselves in a chronic state of ill health it’s because we’ve moved away from something natural that our bodies have evolved to expect.
  • Paleolithic man didn’t need gyms and diets because he naturally exercised and didn’t have access to an overabundance of bad food.
  • Mindfulness mediation, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be replicating something natural that we’ve lost, but is instead itself a relatively contrived and complicated activity.

Harris’s response was to compare meditation to reading. They’re both complicated (read: unnatural) activities, to be sure, but they’re both really important in helping our species thrive.

Fry, who is currently using and enjoying Harris’s meditation app, conceded, and the discussion shifted toward a new direction.

I wonder, however, whether Fry should have persisted. Rousseauian romanticism aside, there’s an important application of evolutionary psychology undergirding his instinctual concern.

For one thing, the reading analogy is tenuous. Reading is a technology that radically accelerated cultural evolution — a tool that helped us achieve new goals.

Meditation, by contrast, is more palliative than instrumental, especially in its modern secular applications. It’s meant to soothe mental dis-ease, not to unlock accomplishment previously unobtainable to our species.

This motivates the question of why we need this soothing in the first place. It’s unlikely that our paleolithic ancestors existed in a state of persistent anxiety and stress, so the negative sensations we use meditation to reduce must have a more modern origin.

This is the point I think Stephen Fry was orbiting with his skepticism.

He wasn’t arguing that mindful meditation doesn’t work, as the evidence suggests that it is really quite effective, which is why I think the work Sam Harris (and Jon Kabat-Zinn before him) are doing in promoting this practice to a wider audience is vital and important.

Fry was instead correctly noting that meditation is an unnatural solution to a modern problem. Meditation helps, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues .

What, Fry seems to be asking, is the cognitive equivalent of the natural behaviors like exercising and healthy eating that our species used to enjoy but are now missing in modern life?

I’m not the first to ask this question, and many people have proposed compelling answers (see, for example, Mark Sisson and John J. Ratey).

But something that became increasingly clear to me as I was researching Digital Minimalismand the reason why I’m bringing up this topic in the first place, is that in recent years, our relationship with our screens has almost certainly exacerbated this modern separation from a more natural way of living .

A big part of waking up, in other words, should probably involve powering down.


Speaking of Digital Minimalism, I want to share a few housekeeping notes. First, I’m happy to report that the book debuted as a New York TimesWall Street JournalPublisher Weekly, and USA Today bestseller — so thank you all for your support.

On the same topic: if you pre-ordered the book, but forgot to fill out the form to receive the promised bonuses, we’ve reactivated the form for another week (click here to fill in your info and claim your bonuses).


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