A Strange Loop found in some of Sam Harris's teaching on meditation from Waking Up
Philosophy

Sam Harris and Strange Loops

August 8, 2019

Sam Harris taught me something important:  something eye-opening happens when you actually look at the inner workings of you mind. 

After (partially) reading Douglas Hofstadter’s wild, masterpiece of a book, Godel, Escher, Bach (GEB for short), I recognized an even stranger phenomenon than Sam had initially shown me:  

Strange loops.  

They exist in everyday consciousness.  I have no idea the ramifications of this, but here’s what I noticed.


First, what are strange loops?  I’d highly recommend at least reading the introduction of GEB to learn about strange loops in Hofstadter’s own words.  

In my own words: strange loops exist as a string of patterns.  These patterns can create meaning out of something without inherent meaning, describe existing patterns with evermore patterns, and describe phenomena where as you move away from your existing starting pattern, you ultimately find yourself back where you started.  

A painting from Escher, a depiction of a strange loop

Hofstadter likens consciousness itself as a strange loop; an emergent property of patterns in the brain that build on top of themselves.  The emergence of cognition remains a critical theme of his book, and strange loops help paint that theme.     

Okay, so what do strange loops have to do with what Sam Harris teaches?  In his meditation course Waking Up (which I highly recommend and have learned a lot from), he focuses on teaching about the nature of consciousness and the mind.  As an example, he urges his listeners to focus on focus itself. Not just focus on the breath or body, but on the phenomenon of focusing on when you notice anything.  

And Sam’s teaching helped me recognize the strange loops in my own mind.  

Think of this: first, you focus on something, anything.  Then, instead of that object, you focus on your focusing of that object.  Now you become interested in that higher level picture of focus, so you try to focus on that. And already now you find yourself three layers deep.  But the entire time, you remain in the space of consciousness, as Sam likes to say.  

This continuous focus on your focus and moving further and further away from your initial object of focus is like a strange loop you can recognize yourself.  No matter how deep in your own mind you get, you end up back at the same place: within consciousness itself.  

This recognition barely scratches the surface of how Hofstadter argues strange loops created the emergent property of consciousness; however, I found it mind-blowing to actually experience such an abstract concept and potentially the method in how we evolved with consciousness.  

I can imagine a myriad of other techniques exist to actually recognize and experience this phenomenon of strange loops as it relates to consciousness and the mind. I’d love to hear of any other techniques or ideas around this that you or others have written about or experienced.  

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