I recently watched a video from Big Think featuring author, philosopher, neuroscientist, and rising mindfulness expert Sam Harris. In the video he discusses an experience he had at age 18 while on MDMA, and what caught my ear was that his account is perhaps one of the most perfect descriptions of unconditional love I have ever heard.
You can hear it from the 4:20 mark in the embedded video below.
Sam Harris on a transcendent experience of unconditional love:
And what was revelatory about it was that it was an experience of absolute sobriety. It was not – there was no druggy component to it. We just became clearer and clearer and clearer in our thinking and feeling. And the crucial component of this was a loss of any feeling of self-concern. I was no longer looking at myself through my friend’s eyes. I was no longer worried about what he was thinking about me. I was no longer subtly correcting course based on changes I saw in how he was perceiving what I was saying. It was a whole veneer of fear frankly that I didn’t know was there that got stripped away. And there was just kind of naked awareness of the present moment and what came into that void was a very clear understanding that I loved him, that I – here I was, you know, 18 or 19 and I was not in the habit of, you know, thinking about how much I loved the men in my life. And here’s one of my best friends and I just realized with a, you know, it sounds absolutely pedestrian to say it but I realized that I wanted him to be happy in a way that was just – it was like, you know, a lightning bolt. And the – what was truly revolutionary about this insight was that the feeling that came crashing down to that point was just, you know, boundless love for one of my best friends and absolutely no egoic self-concern, no possibility for feeling envy, for feeling any kind of petty emotion that separated myself from him. But then I realized in the next moment that I would feel this way for anyone who walked through the door. There was nothing contingent on our relationship about this feeling. It was not a – it was not justified by my friendship with him. This was the way I felt for every other conscious being. So this is the way I would feel for the postman if he walked through the door. And that suddenly opened my mind to the possibility of being like Jesus, whoever he was.
Finding and Chasing Oneness
Having experienced this kind of self-transcendence and pure abundant love myself, I knew exactly what Sam Harris was describing. At some level it’s probably the greatest feeling I have ever felt. And it’s very easy to get caught up in the spiritual search to repeat this experience, because it’s easy to feel a sort of void without it. This [chasing oneness] is something spiritual teacher Matt Kahn speaks on in his video Emotional Oneness.
Matt Kahn’s approach to the spiritual journey is about bringing the mind and the heart back into alignment for an internal realization of oneness for an inside out approach to oneness with others. This is achieved by reconnecting to your inner child, or as Matt Kahn calls it – “the innocence of your consciousness” and “the guardian of your soul”. Matt Kahn’s idea here is that until you give the attention to your innocence that your ego demands, it “won’t allow the things that you’re here to create and experience in your life to be recognized in your present moment reality”.
Matt Kahn on taking a heart-centered spiritual journey in Emotional Oneness:
So someone could say the most beautiful words, “all is one”, and if they’re not in the ‘all is one experience’, I would say “that’s not true” – and people would go “what is he talking about? All isn’t one?” No, all is one – when you’re in that space. And so, what I want to teach you is what’s the doorway that brings you into the space of the experience that you’re hungry for. Because when you’re in the space, the joy is: what your freed of is the hunger. The oneness doesn’t satisfy your hunger – you become satisfied by becoming freed of your hunger. So by chasing oneness you don’t get freed of your hunger, you just become hungrier.
…Emotional oneness is internal alignment; your mind and your heart are soul mates, and emotional oneness is when the soulmates of mind and heart have reunited in holy matrimony. And when that is disproportionate or imbalanced, your mind seems to be in the way of your heart, or your mind and heart are saying two different things – it’s almost like your mind and heart seem to be competing for attention – and you seem to be in the middle of this battlefield. Or you’re the one trying to keep your mind silent so you can focus on your heart, or you’re trying to ease the fearful heart, because of how noisy the mind’s being – and you’re in the middle of a battlefield, a spiritual battlefield, and it’s all because the mind at the heart are not on the same page.
So what brings the mind and the heart into holy matrimony – what reunites the mind and the heart as sacred soulmates is you deepening the relationship with your own innocence, your own inner child. In a lot of spiritual traditions the focus is on “understanding, unraveling, overcoming, transcending – the ego”. And ego gets a real bad wrap; in fact, in some spiritual traditions if you have confidence people think you have an ego – confidence is actually an aspect of your soul.
And when you take the heart-centered journey you realize ego is just a character, an inflated character that your inner child concocts as a way of getting the attention from others it didn’t feel it gained from the past. So ego is an attention seeking device on the psychological level that the inner child employs, and if you’re trying to unravel your ego – destroy it and get away from it, you’re sending messages of abandonment, resistance – isolation – to your inner child, and then your inner child has to get even darker to get your attention, saying – “I’m not going to be loved by them, but they’re never going to ignore me” – then the inner child becomes what’s called ‘the shadow’.
…Because it doesn’t matter if you’ve heard somebody say “We’re all one” and you just repeat that, what matters is if you have gone deep enough to extinguish the hunger. Cause once you extinguish the hunger then you can feel the one that you are, not just know the one that you are, or repeat the one that you are.
Note: Having spent ample money on therapists, I found massive value from Matt Kahn’s teachings in Emotional Oneness and I highly urge you to set aside a FULL Hour to watch the video. It’s something I watch every week. It always helps bring me into alignment. Keep in mind, this is a live talk and not scripted – and sometimes Matt Kahn says things that make me laugh or even shake my head, i.e., some of his more new agey, cosmic / starseed prophecy type stuff, but he delivers therapeutic and self-compassion oriented teachings that provide me with a deep sense of inner security, similar to how I feel after a really great therapy session.
So having found this experience of unconditional love that Sam Harris described, and having begun to work to consciously reconnect to my inner innocence and cultivate an internal sense of emotional oneness as Matt Kahn teaches, I’ve become far better at getting out of my own way and experiencing oneness with others. And this is important to me. My highest spiritual value is “Unconditional love and heart-centered living”. My affirmation for this value is: You are unconditional love for self and others at all times and live a heart centered life.
As anyone on this same journey of unconditional love knows, embodying this value requires dedicated, conscious effort on many levels – from meditating and maintaining your health, to being mindful of the conversation happening in your own head.
Unconditional Love is Not Exclusive to the Psychedelic Experience
It’s easy to think that it would be great if I could just be an enlightened trust fund baby and take pure MDMA whenever I needed to reconnect to that deep sense of oneness, but that’s not a viable option – for anyone. And although Sam Harris states that his experience with MDMA was ‘indispensable early in his inquiry’, even he knows not to dismiss the dangers.
Returning to the content of the Big Think video in the beginning of this entry, Sam Harris references his own pursuit to recreate this original experience through meditation and spiritual study abroad, and he also acknowledges that this experience is possible without MDMA:
And it prompted me to seek to have this experience in other ways, you know, for many, many years. I spent years studying meditation in various contexts, mostly in India, Nepal. And, you know, I can say you can have this experience without MDMA. It’s not, MDMA isn’t the only way to have it. And the truth is virtually any experience you can have with psychedelics you can have without psychedelics because all psychedelics do is modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain. They’re not doing something that the brain can’t do on its own. You’re just playing with neurotransmitters or mimicking neurotransmitters. I have had the same experience to more or less a similar degree just through meditation. But it’s clear to me that I would never have suspected that such an experience was possible but for my experimenting with MDMA in the beginning.
I appreciate that he does not dismiss the value of MDMA as an initial catalyst for his journey, but had he not believed this experience were possible through natural means – he very well may have gone on to become another burnout who eventually took too many drugs and had too many bad trips, eventually abandoning his spiritual journey altogether. Thankfully this was not the case, but I have encountered numerous anecdotal stories from people for whom this was the case. I can think of nothing more of a nightmare to me than losing my spiritual identity – this is in essence, my connection to my intuitive self.
Psychedelics are a Key to The Door Guarding the Path, Not The Path Itself
I’m glad Sam recorded the original video for Big Think, because it’s difficult to be “pro psychedelics”, while maintaining a rational and grounded perspective. Unfortunately, their illegal nature has prevented mental health professionals and university researchers from establishing a safe and well studied framework for facilitating these experiences. In my eyes the psychedelic experience is merely one key that opens the door to the self, but it [the psychedelic experience] is not the path itself.
Long before I ever ingested a psychedelic in a spiritual context I had read something from Deepak Chopra that essentially said ‘the same experiences are available through meditation’. So, for me I inherently understood this could be attained through natural means.
I tried to located the exact quote [from Deepak], and could not – but interestingly, I did learn that his awakening came from an early experience with LSD, and I did find the following, from Deepak:
If your only experience of spiritual unity has come through hallucinogens, you are more inclined to think you need them in order to have that experience, instead of recognizing that higher states of consciousness are your natural developmental birthright and can be awakened through the meditation practices.
Having heard this at an early age gave me the foundation to respect psychedelics as agents of change and not ways of being.
Edit: 11/3/2014: Terrence McKenna on Meditation vs. Psychadelics
Just came across this video clip with Terrence McKenna discussing meditation vs. Psychedelics. I tend to take the view that McKenna was more of a psychedelic lover than a spirituality lover, simply based on the impression I get that McKenna was not very self-aware, but nonetheless this short clip does provide an additional perspective on the matter. Particularly of note is McKennas assertion in the beginning of they video that the key difference between meditation and psychedelics is that with meditation you don’t hallucinate.
Anyone who has taken LSD knows that it’s an intense experience – one that will invariably provide you with a dramatically different perspective on life. Asserting that the same thing is available without taking LSD seems a major stretch; although, I would say it is not – sure, you aren’t going to be blown away by the glowing colors of Pandora’s user interface like you would on LSD, but you can go deep below the self and into your own unconscious awareness without the use of psychedelics. And this is where the real magic happens – what people call ‘connecting to source’ or ‘higher consciousness’. It should also be noted that my meditation practice is still in it’s relative infancy, and someone like Deepak Chopra or Sam Harris has far more experience traversing the meditative plane than I do, so when they say the same thing is available, they may likely have had deeper experiences within their minds than I have yet had with mine.
Note: If I have one complaint about the new age community it’s that those who seem to have abused psychedelics as a path to spirituality dilute both the meaning of spirituality, and the purpose of psychedelics. For me, spirituality is about optimizing my mental health, rather than jeopardizing it. I keep in mind the fact that Steve Jobs did LSD, but he most certainly did not abuse it, nor center his life around it; however, he did delve deep into Zen principles, but according to an article on Jobs’ spirituality: “he didn’t stay long enough to get the Buddhist part, the compassion part, the sensitivity part”.
Keeping it Simple: It’s About Spiritual Practices, Not Spiritual Experiences
I want to continue to mature spiritually; however, I know that it’s important to keep the path simple – and that’s why I’m writing this. It can be very difficult to distill the spiritual path into something that’s simple, yet effective – something that doesn’t rob you of the other aspects of your identity. To me this is the danger of those like Eckhart Tolle who advocate a very hard line approach to “enlightenment” that can lead followers to dive head first into full on dissociation from who they are.
I enjoy some of Tolle’s ideas, but I do not place others on pedestals, nor do I subscribe to the cult of personality. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy those like Sam Harris who promote a kind of psycho-spiritual approach to spirituality. which melds ancient truths with modern neuroscience and psychology.
To me, the spiritual path is about spiritual practices, not spiritual experiences.
So, when I heard Sam Harris define unconditional love for his friend as ‘wanting him to be happy’, something made me want to look deeper into this simple phrase.
The Four Immeasurables
The True Impetus for this entry was when I began googling ‘love is wanting others to be happy‘.
The Four Immeasurables Meditation referenced in the video above is available for free, if you join as a guest of GoBeyond.org (I have no affiliationn with this organization.)
The Four Immeasurables from Wikipedia:
- Loving-kindness: the hope that a person will be well; “the wish that all sentient beings, without any exception, be happy.”
- Compassion: the hope that a person’s sufferings will diminish; “the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.”
- Empathetic joy: joy in the accomplishments of a person—oneself or another; sympathetic joy; “the wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings.”
- Equanimity: learning to accept loss and gain, good-repute and ill-repute, praise and censure, sorrow and happiness all with detachment, equally, for oneself and for others. Equanimity is “not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind—not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation.”
The source wikipedia cites has much more information on the Four Immeasurables than included above, and obviously there’s much more to Buddhism than a few paragraphs, and I certainly do not claim to be an expert on Eastern Philosophy, but I am a firm believer in increasing your quality of life through the knowledge and timeless wisdom available via the study of ancient texts – as I have done with Stoic philosophy.
While it’s too early to offer an educated opinion on The Four Immeasurables, I immediately love that these tenets are not only a powerful set of paradigms for relieving suffering, but also a set of very healthy, humanistic principles for living gently. It blows my mind that at 29 years of age I have never been exposed to this. This is precisely the information our society should be teaching the next generation – lord knows I could use it.
However, even without exposure to The Four Immeasurables beforehand, I already had a preexisting understanding and appreciation for these virtues individually as a result of my interest in mindfulness and my own inquisition into my soul and the soul of the world.
Putting it All Together
I’ve covered a lot in this entry – and please keep in mind that 7Saturdays is very much a personal, non-commercial blog, and as such is a living record of my own journey through life.
Ultimately, my spirituality is central to my identity – but I am not a spiritual teacher; although, these entries are designed to profit you too, my dear reader.
At the end of the day, I truly want to embody unconditional love – and I know that it doesn’t come from taking drugs, or watching hours of spiritual videos, but living in a way that’s harmonious with my own nature, and the nature of the world.
I’m a heart warrior and an idealist, and that means I will always hold dear to the principles of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. While these are among a myriad of virtues I value, unlike many of the other virtues I desire to embody, I know these things come from within. Unconditional love, and oneness, and connection is what you are, and provided you have been blessed with good mental health, these things are all naturally in your nature, whether you know it yet or not.
Being born into the complex world of modern society is not conducive to unconditional love, but it’s not prohibitive either. You just have to dive a bit deeper to find it.
Bonus: Tara Brach on Unconditional Love
Psychologist and Buddhist meditation expert Tara Brach gives a compassionate and wisdom-rich talk unconditional love.