Waking Up, Chapter 1: Spirituality

Chapter-by-Chapter thoughts on Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

[Waking Up is available September 9, 2014 in hardcover, for Kindle, and as an audiobook. For more about Sam Harris visit SamHarris.org.]

From time to time, one chapter at a time, I’ve blogged my reactions to new books written by notable freethinkers. (See Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love, and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.) I really should do this more often, as it forces me to take frequent notes and to engage with the work as it unfolds.

I’m always very excited when Sam Harris puts out something new. His arguments are concise and his use of language make him a joy to read. And he can usually be counted on simultaneously to piss off religionists and provoke some of his secular fellow travellers. I’m sure Waking Up will be no different.

A couple of caveats before we move forward. I am neither a neuroscientist, nor a person well-read in Eastern philosophies. Harris is undeniably the former, and certainly more qualified than me on the latter. Nonetheless, I don’t think I am unqualified to digest Harris’s analyses and conclusions, and decide if his arguments retain internal logic.

Going back as far as The End of Faith (his first book), and on many other occasions, Harris has encouraged the nonreligious to give a second glance at spirituality. I must admit I fall squarely in the mainstream of infidel subculture in finding discomfort in words like “sprituality” and “mysticism.” Part of my discomfort is in the incredible difficulty of creating suitable working definitions of such terms. If I don’t think anything called “spirit” exists, then I’m going to be a tough room for anybody selling “spirituality” as a legitimate concept. But that’s exactly what Harris sets out to do in this first chapter.

I think part of the problem is that a semantic void exists to describe exactly what Harris is getting at. Had humanity developed with far less religion and far less superstition, alternative traditions might have developed to address the concepts we’re trying to describe. But here we are: religious and psuedo-philosophical baggage surround “spirituality” so thoroughly that a great deal of effort is required to strip away the nonsense and expose the kernel of truth (if any) at the center. For my money, terms like “introspection” and “contemplation” are as good as any, but Harris insists on “sprituality,” because he’s gunning for bigger game.

First, he decouples spirituality from religion, stating that he believes that “mystics” from many sects have been onto something altogether separate from what is described by the tenets of their faiths. In other words, contemplators and meditators from various times and places–even though each may have thought their internal experiences were connected to the religions they embraced–had rare states of consciousness that were really just part of a shared human nature. There’s nothing paranormal about it, but this rare experience–whatever it is–is a state of mind achievable by any normal homo sapiens. And Harris chides scientists and intellectuals who deny that this human ability exists, or that if it does exist, the mental states it creates aren’t worth achieving.

Second, Harris points out that the current understanding of science is that the “self” is an illusion. Presumably he’ll delve deeper into this later in the book. For now suffice it to say that Eastern meditative traditions have long intuited that the “self” does not exist, and that neuroscientific research has failed to identify an autonomous, discrete “self.” Whether this ancient, mystic intuition and the 21st century hypothesis are one and the same remains to be seen.

Ultimately, Harris sums up his purpose in this book and his definition of spirituality as follows: “There is no discrete self or ego living like a minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain… Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by ‘spirituality’ in the context of this book.”

Harris certainly embraces what I would consider undeniable truths: that life is full of suffering, that pleasures are fleeting, that we are often buffetted helplessly by our emotions, and that it’s all too easy to find ourselves on an unending treadmill of appetite and satiety. Everything is a distraction. Our minds are in chaos from morning to night, and we never take time to look inward, to see what’s really inside our own heads, and perhaps be better off for it.

To remedy this lack of introspection, Harris provides a one-page instructional guide on “How to Meditate.” I must admit with some embarrassment that my self-guided meditations have failed miserably. I last about a minute before becoming bored of attuning myself to my own breathing, etc., etc. Still, I think with more patience, and perhaps some in-person guidance by someone I trusted, I could learn to enjoy and benefit from extended periods of quiet contemplation. Harris points out that there are people who focus for years–decades–on perfecting their technique and breaking through to enlightenment (whatever that might be), but I find myself unwilling to spend (potentially) YEARS to find out if these people are onto something or not. It’s a conundrum. Especially since Harris assures us that meditation isn’t just “stress reduction.”

My first red flag goes up in reading Harris’s description of his first experience, which he had as a teenager, of taking Ecstasy. My initial reaction is that it’s a bad idea to ingest a mind-altering substance of unverified provenance, one that was manufactured in some demimonde laboratory unaccountable to any regulation or formal quality control. But for blind luck, “Sam Harris” might have ended up as a footnote on page ten of the local newspaper: LOCAL TEEN DIES FROM TAINTED DRUG. I don’t mean to sound too preachy or judgmental. I wouldn’t mind trying it sometime myself, but I would really need to be convinced of the safety of the product, and the reliability of my surroundings, before I’d take the plunge.

But the plunge Harris did take. What he describes is a sense of “euphoria” but at the same time “absolute sobriety.” He found himself tapping into a feeling of unbounded love, not just for his friend, but for any theoretical stranger he might encounter; a love removed from any experiential context: “I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all… Love was–as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages–a state of being… Now I knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds.”

Harris still rejects religion and superstition, but how he makes the leap from having the love-switch temporarily short-circuited in his brain to thinking that Buddha might’ve been onto something isn’t clear. There’s no doubt Harris had a powerful experience, but how is it any any way reliable, even to himself? He attests that the friend with whom he shared the Ecstasy experience confirmed his newfound theory of love. But what does that prove, other than that Ecstasy can have the same effect on two people? How does it prove Universal Love, much less a connection to questionable religious mystical accounts from thousands of years ago.

My experience with marijuana is admittedly very limited, but I have heard more than one regular user say that ideas they had while smoking pot seemed like genius at the time, but seemed much more mundane–even ridiculous–when reconsidered in sober moments. How is Harris’s experience with Ecstasy qualitatively any different? (Perhaps the only difference is that the drug also affected that part of his brain that convinces him that he was convinced?)

So, a bit of a rough start from my perspective. Still, if Harris’s point is that we can achieve new and productive states of consciousness (whether by purely mental techniques or by use of pharmaceuticals), I am willing to continue the exploration.

On to Chapter 2!

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