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East vs. West: Which Holds the Key to Finding True Happiness?

From the Show: Naturally Savvy
Summary: Introspection is a huge part of Eastern schools of thought. Learn how it could be the key to a happier, healthier life.
Air Date: 10/22/14
Duration: 10
Host: Andrea Donsky, RHN and Lisa Davis, MPH
Guest Bio: Sam Harris, PhD
Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, Free Will, and Lying. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA.
  • Book Title: WAKING UP: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
  • Guest Twitter Account: @SamHarrisOrg
East vs. West: Which Holds the Key to Finding True Happiness?
When you think about East vs. West, you might do so in the context of medicine; which, is a very valid conversation to have.

They certainly have their differences; differences which Dr. Sam Harris has been researching for years.

Science did not arise or evolve in the East as it did in the West. "Western medicine" encompasses medicine in its entirety. Eastern medicine, insofar as it works, has had to conform to the principles of biology as we've come to understand them in the West. Theories behind Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine don't always map on to biology as we've come to know it. For instance, if you have cancer, or something like appendicitis, there are very structured, medical ways we deal with that in the West.

Not that Eastern medicine doesn't have a place in treatment plans, nor does it mean there aren't problems with Western or conventional treatments.

Another East vs. West argument often encompasses the concept of spirituality versus religion.

In terms of spiritual practices, the East has a very sophisticated set of methodologies and vast amounts of literature on the topic, that really has no analog in the West; certainly not in the West's philosophical and scientific tradition.

Introspection, which is huge in Eastern schools of thought, basically reached a dead-end in the West more than a century ago. Philosophers were trying it, but it more or less petered out around the time of William James.

Why has this been the case?

It may have something to do with the faith-based conception of Western religion; the "Abrahamic" traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In principle, these religions are dualistic and start with the notion that we all have souls that are in a relationship with an invisible god, who we now must pray to and hope that our soul goes to heaven as opposed to hell. Again, in terms of introspection, these traditions bring introspective thoughts and ideas to a dead end.

In Buddhism, there is a very different conception of the human mind, which has facilitated a kind of empirical rigor around the contemplative life. This conception is actually very well designed for export to scientific conversation.

You can practice a Buddhist style of meditation or mindfulness, without taking on any of the beliefs of the religion of Buddhism. You don't have to believe in karma or re-birth or anything else that may seem entirely spooky and unfounded in that tradition. Which, alternately, you can't really say about praying to Jesus, for example. You can't take the practices of the Judeo-Christian religion into the lab, because they presuppose the truth of many highly suspect claims.

What does all of this have to do with well-being?

Many of us spend our time lost in thought, most of which is quite painful. You might be worrying about the future while simultaneously rehashing painful episodes from the past... all while viewing the present moment through this scrim of language and concepts that keep you from connecting with a form of well-being discoverable in the very nature of your conscious mind and the present moment. You might be constantly hoping to find a "good enough" reason to just be happy now, but you're basically unable to be truly happy because you're so distracted by this automaticity of thought.

Meditation is a technique that can be used to bring your mind into the present and break that spell, so that you CAN discover a basis for well-being in the now -- well-being that is not contingent on what happens in the future.

That's not to say that you don't want good things to happen in the future; meditation is compatible with all types of efforts to improve your life and improve your relationships. But, it is a way of finding well-being before anything good happens.

And, that's almost a super-power in terms of operating in the world today. If you're already happy, you're free to just do wise and useful things as opposed to feeling desperate to be satisfied by the next moment of experience.

Tune in to learn more about Dr. Harris's thoughts on the East vs. West schools of thought, medicine and religion, as well as how you can use Eastern practices to potentially become a happier, healthier individual.