Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014, 237 pages
Spiritual Adventures: Aesthetical, Ethical, and Pharmaceutical
“I am often asked,” Sam Harris writes, “what will replace organized religion. … Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines … [its] terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness and self-transcendence?”
It’s plain enough that love and compassion are felt and valued outside of religious teaching. And many who are not religious value moral goodness, and may even practice it, no more or less than the religious do. But self-transcendence – what is that? And what religion speaks of it?
Sam Harris believes self-transcendence can replace religion as “spiritual” satisfaction; that the achievement of it brings love, compassion – that is to say, feelings of love and compassion – with it. He tells us that he has sought it earnestly throughout his adult life.
“I studied with a wide range of monks, lamas, yogis, and other contemplatives, some of whom had lived for decades in seclusion doing nothing but meditating. In the process, I spent two years on silent retreat myself (in increments of one week to three months), practicing various techniques of meditation for twelve to eighteen hours a day.”
The techniques he practiced were derived in part from Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism, without his accepting any other teachings of those religions. To what end?
His book, he says, is “by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call ‘I’.” His “purpose in writing this book”, he says, “is to encourage you to investigate certain contemplative insights for yourself.”
As a memoir it is entertaining. Sam Harris’s writing is never dull. Descriptions of revolting things that yogis do and anecdotes of gurus being embarrassed – indulging their desires and appetites against their own teaching – are as amusing to Harris as they are to us (though the skeptical reader may react to them with a touch more Schadenfreude).
As an introduction to the brain it is interesting. From Harris’s biographical note on the cover we learn that he has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, so readers might feel reasonably sure he knows what he’s talking about when he shows us that in this field (as in all?) science discloses more mysteries than it solves; and that it does not solve “the mystery of consciousness” – which is to say, it cannot define what consciousness is.
As a manual of contemplative instruction, it suggests one or two experiments you may try by yourself to bring you to “self-transcendence”. But it advises you to find a master, a teacher, a guru to help you to the goal. This might take a very long time; or, alternatively, a very short time, since different masters teach different approaches. You may never get there at all. But one thing the author is certain of: the goal is worth achieving.
What is the goal? To discover you have no “self”; to find that what you have taken to be your own consciousness is not yours, but that an immeasurable consciousness is out there, pervading the universe, and you are one with it. Discussion of this is the “philosophical unraveling of the feeling of self we call ‘I’.” (His discourse on the non-existence of the self is similar to David Hume’s.) You may also experience intense happiness, a vision of ineffable beauty, and an all-embracing love for humankind – indeed, for everything that is; an understanding, with extraordinary “moral and emotional clarity” that “love is a state of being”, as “mystics and crackpots have advertised through the ages”.
To “cut through the illusion of self” and have “a clearer understanding of the way things are” is what the author means, he says, by “spirituality”. (He notes that some atheists do not like the word. Indeed, I don’t care for it myself. I use the word “spirit” in an adverbial or adjectival sense. I might say: “I do this or that in a spirit of fun”; “I had a spirited reaction to this or that idea”. I do not believe there is such a thing as a “spirit” any more than I believe there is such a thing as a “soul”. But I suspended my disbelief to follow his exposition.)
“Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally,” Harris writes, “separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn” (a point on which I am emphatically in agreement with him) “and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.”
The understanding that he sought is of a kind that religious contemplatives seek, but it can be sought, he asserts, without the risk of falling into religion. “I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions,” he writes. (Transcendental mental experience gave rise only to some of them – Buddhism, for instance.)
His goal is, he says, profound: “The true goal of meditation is more profound than most people realize – and it does, in fact, encompass many of the experiences that traditional mystics claim for themselves. It is quite possible to lose one’s sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless open awareness – to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos. This says a lot about the possibilities of human consciousness, but it says nothing about the universe at large.”
He attained this feeling. He felt at one with the cosmos. He lost himself. He felt extraordinary happiness. He felt full of love. If you too want to lose yourself – to escape, as he did, such hampering and destructive burdens of the mind and emotions as anxiety, confusion, discontent, anger – and experience ecstatic feelings, his book might help you do it.
I confess I have no wish whatsoever to lose myself (though I’ve nothing against ecstatic feelings). Is it not the fear of losing oneself that makes one fear death, or being in a coma, or in a permanent vegetative state? (Trying to “find oneself”, or “one’s true self”, is a more commonly announced spiritual quest than losing oneself. Though how does one know which is one’s true self, the one that does the seeking or the one that is sought?) But it can be good to stop thinking about oneself and concentrate on something else. It is easy and common to “lose oneself” in an occupation; learning, working, playing, striving. When our thoughts are engaged in some absorbing activity, we don’t think of asking ourselves if we are happy or not. We may realize later that we had been happy then.
And what about feeling “at one with the cosmos”? Is it worth the vast expense of time and effort, the years of brooding, that the author lavished on the enterprise? He thinks so. I don’t.
The achievement when it comes – the convincing experience of enlightenment – is, he admits, ephemeral. At best, it may last for a few hours. But what if an important insight is achieved, a truth discovered? That would be a lasting gain. What might such a truth be? Might it be, as Harris tells us, an understanding of what consciousness is? An answer to the question that science cannot answer? For such an insight to be a contribution to human knowledge and understanding, it would have to be transmittable to other people; it would have to be put into words. But apparently it cannot be precisely described in words. It remains in the felt knowledge of the one who experiences it, as “truth “ does with Gnostics. For others to know it they too must experience it. It remains private, personal. At most it may bring the contemplative who has made his “break through” – has achieved ”nirvana” in the language of Buddhism, “satori” in Japanese Zen Buddhism – to try teaching others how to do the same. And he can say that it feels marvelous. But he cannot tell what the “truth” is except in vague suggestive terms. He has learnt it directly, he knows what consciousness is, but he cannot define it for us. The one who experiences ecstatic revelation brings back from his enlightenment nothing but the news that it felt good.
Even the “ludicrous doctrines” of the religions are more interesting. The revelations handed down by the founders and prophets of the so-called “revealed” religions are visions of the past and the future,; messages from speaking gods; moral laws; myths that incorporate lessons in right behavior. They make great reading. But they are not true. They certainly do not define the nature of consciousness. Neither does Sam Harris.
His book is also a good read. But I was irritated by his message, which I think is quite as dangerous and wicked as any religion, or even more so. “Surely that’s an exaggeration,” you may protest. “Meditation may be a waste of time, but it does no harm.”
I say it is dangerous and wicked because it tells you that there is another way to reach the goal of “self-transcendence”, the accompanying feelings of joy, love and compassion, and even a conviction of gaining revelatory insight. That other way is the ingestion of psychedelic drugs. The author recommends them even to his own daughters.
I don’t want the law to forbid people to take drugs. But I think they should understand what they are doing to themselves when they swallow mind-altering substances. Even Harris admits that a “bad trip’ can be hell. I’ve known people ask to have a limb cut off, or even to be killed, rather than be forced to swallow lysergic acid (LSD) a second time. LSD literally drives you mad. To take it is to put yourself into a state of clinical psychosis. Some take months to recover from it. Some lose their sanity permanently. Some commit suicide. True, some have told me that the stuff gave them a “good trip”, and I have to believe them; but still it is a state of psychosis. There is no way of knowing in advance what it will do to you, but it will change your mind, and that is harmful. And what would you be doing it for? It can give you nothing to help you live your life. Finding out that you “have no self” as Harris insists is the case, will not banish anxiety, confusion, discontent, disappointment or anger. We need sanity to deal with our burdens. We need to be sane to survive. And even if it is true that we have no self, that the self is an “illusion”, we have to act as if we have it, as if it is real; and that means that to all intents and purposes we do have a self, and it is real.
Yes, the self desires and suffers. It also triumphs, it laughs. It may want to deny itself, transcend itself, even convince itself that it is an illusion. It may spend years achieving what it calls its own transcendence. But it would be better occupied with cooking the dinner, inventing an app, or writing a book.
Feeling love and compassion may be very pleasant and satisfying for the one who feels them. But pleasant and satisfying to what if not that very self which has come to feel them by being dissolved away? So much time devoted to the self by the self for the self to prove that the self does not exist! The contradictions are stark.
And the exercise is useless to anyone else. So, even without the drugs, it is not morally good. Moral goodness lies not in what one feels but what one does. Love and compassion must surely be demonstrated in works if they are to have any value at all. That is the whole difference between the moral religions of the West and the contemplative religions of the East. Much is said about love-and-compassion in Buddhism, because to feel it – or to acquire a deeper understanding of its value, as an enlightenment-seeker might prefer to put it – is of benefit to the soul of the seeker only, not to others. Judaism teaches – and taught uniquely among the religions of the ancient world – that justice is the highest value, an impersonal good for everyone. Christianity teaches that love is the highest value, not as an emotion but as an ethical principle directing what you must do – without a guarantee that your doing it will get you to heaven. The Christian doctrine of love contradicts Judaism’s doctrine of justice because, embracing as it does the doer of evil as well as to the doer of good, it is manifestly not just. So yes, they are “divisive doctrines”, but both are concerned with “moral goodness” as no Oriental religion is. On the other hand, Buddhism does not have their “debasing fiction” of a vengeful God, which might be reckoned in its favor.
Finally, I wonder if Harris is deluding himself when he thinks his spiritual exercises are separable from religion? He says that what is to be learnt through meditation or LSD is not about the universe. However, by his own account, the cosmic consciousness that the successful contemplative discovers when he loses his “self-consciousness” is, he says, universal; it is a fact of existence, a transcendental “truth”. As such it is surely the same as that numinous “other” reality, beyond this phenomenal world, that Plato taught was “higher” and perfect? In its numinousness, its ineffability, its impersonal vital force, it could be the very same malignant thing that Schopenhauer called Will. And it could even be what many call “God”. Spirituality and religion ride the same broomstick.