“You are not the first journalist I have taught to meditate,” Sam Harris told me, “but you are the first journalist I have taught to meditate after first strangling.”
Harris, 46, is the youngest of what the late Christopher Hitchens called “the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse,” a group of nonbelievers who around 2006 each published a best-selling book arguing that religious belief is pernicious nonsense. These “New Atheists”—Harris, Hitchens, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and the zoologist Richard Dawkins—went on to devote a good chunk of time to forums in which they squared off against religious believers (though at last count, their efforts had failed to convince even one debate interlocutor to publicly renounce his faith). In addition to being younger than the others, Harris is more open to esoteric arts such as meditation, which he has practiced daily for nearly three decades. He claims that certain types of meditation, such as the Buddhist practice of metta, or “loving-kindness,” so overwhelm him with compassion that their effect can closely resemble that of Ecstasy, the club drug that makes users want to hug strangers.
Less well known is Harris’s other enthusiasm: cutting off the blood supply to other people’s brains by using techniques learned in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ. BJJ was first developed nearly a century ago in Rio de Janeiro by Carlos and Helio Gracie, brothers who adapted its techniques from Japanese jujitsu. It has since become the martial art of choice for those who wish to make other people physically submit without dabbling in any of the ritual or spiritual froufrou sometimes associated with judo and other Asian martial arts, like karate and aikido. To this day, it remains a Gracie-family production, carried on by the brothers’ lean and terrifying descendants, many of whom have names that start with R—among them Renzo, Ralph, Rener, Rodrigo, Roger, Ryron, Ralek, Rolles, and Rhalan.