Waking Up, Chapter 4: Meditation

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.]

So what good does meditation do us? Harris stated earlier that meditation is NOT just about “stress reduction” (although, by my lights that would be enough).

Harris begins by establishing that it is inherent to our minds that they wander. We are, in many ways, subject to wave after wave of unsolicited and often unwelcome thoughts and feelings. And while this may be natural, it isn’t necessarily the best way to live, nor the most productive.

Harris points out that there is enough research out there to support the idea that seasoned meditators have brains less susceptible to the effects of aging, and are more effectively able to respond to pain and deal with stress.

One of the problems with meditation is that, for most practitioners, its effects are sporadic. Even Harris talks about “glimpses” and “fleeting experiences.” How to bolster these occasional drips of enlightenment and achieve the ability to tap into a sense of freedom and well-being on a regular basis?

Now, I have always thought of consciousness as an interface: to be conscious is to be conscious of something. If sensations are unavailable to us, how can we know we are conscious? Harris insists this is a mistake. His experiences of meditation have yielded “periods during which all thought subsided, and any sense of having a body disappeared. What remained was a blissful expanse of conscious peace that had no reference point in any of the usual sensory channels.” Frankly, I have no idea what to do with that.

Harris launches into a discussion of several schools of meditation involving, for example, gradual-versus-sudden realization (the gist of which, if I understood correctly, is that one if one can gradually become aware that there is no self, one already had the ability to become aware of this all at once). He also describes some of the puzzling and seemingly ludicrous ways in which various gurus teach.

Apparently Harris’s favorite school is Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen, which has “handed me the ability to cut through the illusion of the self directly, even in ordinary states of consciousness… It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering…in an instant.” Harris insists that he is making verifiable, repeatable claims that have nothing to do with superstition and supernaturalism. Any secular person willing to spend the (considerable?) amount of time required can achieve the same results that Harris himself has achieved. Perhaps I need to re-read and re-re-read this book, but I still don’t fully grasp the meaning and implications of what Harris is driving at.

On to Chapter 5!

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