Waking Up, Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Self

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.]

Harris begins by describing a blissfull experience he once had near the Sea of Galilee. “In an instant, the sense of being a separate self…vanished.” A Christian, or a Jew, or Muslim, or Buddhist might have interpreted this experience through his or her religious lens. Harris naturally dismisses any supernatural interpretations, instead seeing this as a glimpse of the “intrinsic selflessness of consciousness.”

Right away I might ask, what is it that can glimpse intrinsic selflessness? If not the self, then what? I’ll grant that finding the physical organ that generates the self may be impossible, and that perfectly defining what the self is may be incredibly difficult. Harris readily admits that concepts of “self and ego and I…appear less than scientific.” But if Harris is going to explain at great length about glimpsing, cutting through, altering, interrupting, and abolishing, isn’t it crucial to concede that something is doing the glimpsing, etc.? What is that something, but Self? When Harris discusses allowing thoughts and feelings to appear and vanish without becoming distracted by them, to cut through the illusion of the self,” what exactly is doing the cutting?

Harris cautions that achieving this mental state takes many years of persistent practice in the disciplines of meditation. I am faced with the choice of taking his word for it, or of spending years of effort to either confirm or deny his assertions. Of course, this is the choice I’m faced with when confronting the assertions of anyone with years of experience (claimed or actual), so I can’t really hold that against him.

Harris goes on to discuss the plastic nature of the self. I am not the same “self” as I was yesterday, much less when I was 10 or 20 or 30. My self is whatever state “I” am in at any given moment.  Harris also discusses the sometimes terrifying reality that we can no more deny the functioning of our brain than we can control the functioning of our kidneys. (How many prisoners and victims over the millennia would have welcomed the opportunity to turn off their thoughts, even for a moment?)

According to Harris, “the practice of meditation is a method of breaking the spell of thought.” The sense of self is generated by the undisplined rise of one thought after another. Ultimately, through meditation, “One must be able to pay attention closely enough to glimpse what consciousness is like between thoughts…Consciousness does not feel like a self.”

Harris also discusses recent experimentation in “self awareness” with various animals, and devotes a section to “Theory of Mind” (our, and some other animals’) ability to attribute thoughts to others. These are key pieces in the ongoing puzzle of self and consciousness.

I am still not so sure I can fully agree with Harris when he states that “the sense that we are unified subjects [i.e. that each of us is a “self”] is a fiction, produced by a multitude of separate processes and structures of which we are not are and over which we exert no conscious control.” Re-read that last sentence without the words “a fiction” and see what you think. Is something a fiction merely because it is an emergent or cooperative property of multiple, independent processes?

On to Chapter 4!

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