Waking up -A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris

waking-upWhy this book:  I’ve been thinking about this topic for years. I heard Tim Ferriss interview Sam Harris and I liked what I heard, so I started listening to Sam Harris’s pod casts.  I find I agree with him a lot more than I disagree with him, and I agree with him on substantive matters.  This sounded like a book that might help me. I was right.

Summary in 3 (rather long) sentences:  Sam Harris takes a look at what spirituality is and can be, and concludes that for him and many others, it is NOT (necessarily) associated with religion, nor with the “mythology” that is associated with most religions.  Harris rejects religion as a pathway to spirituality for himself personally, and argues that spiritual experience is available to anyone through disciplined practice in studying and understanding consciousness, whether a believer in a religion or God or not.  Waking Up talks about the brain and the mind,  the illusion of self, explores what he calls “the transcendent self” and argues that meditation and mindfulness can create a key hole through which we can move beyond being “lost in thought” to tune in to a more “self-less” connection to our world.

My impressions:  Some books I read are interesting, some are well written, some are entertaining, some are enlightening and have a real impact. This one was all of those.  I have been for decades trying to find a spirituality that works for me.  This book had an impact on me – it doesn’t serve as my “bible” nor is it meant to, but Sam Harris provides well explained insights that help me significantly in my search.  And I’m at a point in my life when I want to give this search more priority.

I have become a fan of Sam Harris through his podcasts, in which he explores ideas with some of the great thinkers in the English language, discussing matters related to philosophy, religion, science, reality, the cosmos – and, well –  whatever interests him.   This book expounds upon ideas I’ve heard him share in his podcasts.

He states in the introductory chapter “Spirituality” that, “Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience – self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light -constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work.  That principle is the subject of this book: The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion.”  p 9

Waking Up is not long but covers a lot of ground .  The opening chapter “Spirituality” is a fascinating look at “spirituality” and what he considers it to be.  I offer a number of quotes from that chapter below (those listed up thru the quote on p 51).  This chapter is truly worth reading alone.  For those interested in Sam Harris’s well-thought out take on “spirituality,”  he offers his opening chapter free in written form or as a podcast  here.

The subsequent chapters, entitled “The Mystery of Consciousness,” “The Riddle of the Self,”  “Meditation,” and “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and other Puzzles” offer fascinating discussions of other aspects of spirituality and spiritual practice.

The chapter on The Mystery of Consciousness is an insightful look at this really challenging concept.  In this chapter he explores the relationship between what we conceive of as consciousness, and the brain itself, with some very interesting cases of how injury or medical impairments to the brain have affected this key aspect of who we think ourselves to be.

He continues this discussion in the chapter on The Riddle of the Self, and convinces me that the “self” is indeed a very problematic concept.   Harris seems to say that we are like  a hurricane (this my analogy, not his) but in the middle, where we conceive our “self” to be, the self we believe  ourselves to be,  is the eye – nothing.  Yet we identify with all the clouds and turmoil spinning around – quiet, calm, clear skies, nothing.  He says that while we may identify with our thoughts, our emotions, our personal history, these are like clouds and wind – not stable – and agrees with the teaching of Buddhism, that there is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next. There is no “self” behind our eyes, housed in our brain, which observes the world.  The “self” that we identify with is merely the contents of our consciousness.  And nothing more.  Two weeks ago, I visited two different good friends of mine, both a bit older than I. With them were their wives, who are struggling with Alzheimers and hardly the women I’d known well when I and they were much younger.  This experience drove home the challenges of the idea of an immutable “self.”

In the chapter on Meditation he discusses how meditation can help us to step away from the swirling of the hurricane, find our way out of the storm when we are “lost in thought,”  and at least momentarily get into the calm and quiet at the “eye of the hurricane” more easily.  With practice it gets easier, and we can stay for longer periods.  He shares experiences from his many years studying meditation in India.  He briefly describes different types of meditation, and why he believes that meditation is an excellent means for us to better understand our minds and our consciousness.  Meditation can help us transcend the idea of the self – and when we need to, can help us to become less self-centered and more “self-less” in relating to our world.

His chapter on Gurus, Death, Drugs, and other puzzles was great fun. He described how Westerners have often falsely identified great mental powers and the ability to focus and meditate, with wisdom and virtue. He shared some amusing and occasionally startling stories of Eastern mystics  coming to the West as Gurus and behaving  badly when given access to the temptations of Western affluence – particularly adoring young women.  He is quite transparent in describing how hallucinogens can tell us a lot about our brains and our consciousness, and can give us insight into what is possible. For him, drugs opened a door to allow him to briefly experience what meditation can allow him to experience on his own, and with much less risk.

His concluding chapter sums up a lot, and the journey through the book to get there is very worthwhile. He again addresses what he sees as the tenuous and often unjustifiable link between religion and spirituality.  In his conclusion, he state that “Happiness and suffering, however extreme, are mental events.  The mind depends upon the body, and the body upon the world, but everything good or bad that happens in your life must appear in consciousness to matter…..During the normal course of events, your mind will determine the quality of your life.”  204

I liked the analogy he makes of us living our lives as if we are caught up in the movie of our lives – totally absorbed.  “Waking up” is to to simply become aware that we are watching a movie, and that awareness can take us, at least for a moment, out of the drama on the metaphorical screen.


Where I think I disagree (slightly) with Sam Harris: I say “I think I disagree,” because I’m not sure.  Reading between the lines in his writing, and other things I’ve read about Sam Harris lead me to wonder if  we may be more in synch than I think.  This is the same quibble I had with Sapiens.  (btwSam Harris will be interviewing Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens,  on his podcast soon, and that will be very good.)

My quibble is this:   Sam Harris states repeatedly that our experience of the world – in moments of ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or drug-induced wonder or terror only tell us about the potential of human consciousness, and nothing about the cosmos or metaphysical reality.  Got it. And yet…. the plethora of unexplained phenomena that do not fit a Newtonian understanding of the universe, and that cannot be accounted for by coincidence or chance, indicate to me at least, a reasonable  possibility that there may indeed be a larger principle at work than Newtonian physics can explain, and that spiritual practice may be able to tap into this principle. Though it is true that such phenomena cannot be reliably and repeatedly reproduced in a lab, phenomena which can’t be explained with current theories of physics happen repeatedly.  By such phenomena I include clearly clairvoyant insights, remote viewing, children who claim to remember events from past lives which research validates occurred, telepathy, etc.

I agree with Sam Harris that amazing mental powers are probably amoral, and we need an approach to spirituality that does not depend on an “unseen order of things” (the name of my brief essay on this idea,) and yet,  to not address this other possible dimension of reality in a discussion of spirituality I believe short-changes the discussion.  Where I do agree with Sam Harris is that our lives and how we live should withstand scrutiny (primarily our own) whether there is a God, an afterlife, karma, Jesus, Bodhisattvas, or whether indeed what we experience in this life is all the we get.   We don’t know.  And our lives and spiritual practice need to work for us,  whatever the case.

Some illuminating quotes from Waking Up (page numbers from paperback edition):

Perhaps I should speak only for myself here:  It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance.  My experiences in meditation suggest, however, that an alternative exists.  It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for moments at a time.  11

…what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.  14

On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound that an ability to follow one’s own advice. 15

Seeking, finding, maintaining, and safeguarding our well-being is the great project to which we all are devoted, whether or not we choose to think in these terms.  15

Cognition and emotion are not separate.  The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.  16

Our struggle to navigate the space of possible pains and pleasures produces most of human culture.  16

We seem to do little more than lurch between wanting and not wanting. Thus the question naturally arises:…. Is it possible to find lasting fulfillment despite the inevitability of change?  Spiritual life begins with a suspicion that the answer to such questions could well be “yes.”  17

Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing. 31

There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes.  31

We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy, fulfilling one desire after the next, banishing our fears, grasping at pleasure, recoiling from pain –  and thinking, interminably, about how best to keep the whole works up and running….We crave experiences, objects, relationships, only to grow bored with them.  And yet, the craving persists.  I speak from experience, of course.  34

The problem is not thoughts themselves, but the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking. 37

Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives.  38

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.  43

The traditional goal of meditation is to arrive at a state of well-being that is imperturbable, – or if perturbed, easily regained.  The French monk Matthieu Ricard describes such happiness as “a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind.”…The near goal, therefore, is to have an  increasingly healthy mind- that is to be moving one’s mind in the right direction.  44

I have never met another person who denied that some of us are stronger, more athletic,  or more learned than others. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists, or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.  46

It seems to me that a healthy spiritual life can begin only once our physical, mental, social, and ethical lives have sufficiently matured.  46

Some people are content in the midst of deprivation and danger, while others are miserable despite having all the luck in the world.  This is not to say that external circumstances do not matter. But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life….Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.  47

In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening.  If you can do that, you have a already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.  49

Investigating the nature of consciousness itself -and transforming its contents through deliberate training is the basis of spiritual life.  51

…it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.  The moment I am lost in thought however, I’m as confused as anyone else.  137

It is important to realize that true meditation isn’t an effort to produce a certain state of mind….The deeper purpose of meditation  is to recognize that which is common to all states of experience, both pleasant and unpleasant.  140

…meditation requires total acceptance of what is given in the present moment….it is important to  distinguish between accepting unpleasant sensations and emotions as a strategy – while covertly hoping that they will go away – and truly accepting them as transitory appearances in consciousness.   149

One of the first things one learns in practicing meditation is that nothing is intrinsically boring – indeed, boredom is simply a lack of attention.  156

The truth is that, whatever happens after death, it is possible to justify a life of spiritual practice and self transcendence without pretending to know things we do not know. 186

As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to draw conclusions about the nature of the cosmos on the basis of inner experiences – no matter how profound they may seem.  192

Changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world. 204

….there is no compelling reason to believe that the mind is independent of the brain..A middle path exists between making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all. 205

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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3 Responses to Waking up -A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris

  1. Pingback: Super Consciousness, by Colin Wilson | Bob's Books

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