Reviewed by Paul T.
In his “Conclusion” Sam Harris writes:
Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. People on both sides of this divide imagine that visionary experience has no place within the context of science – apart from the corridors of a mental hospital. Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms – acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence – our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.
Waking Up is his “attempt to begin such a conversation.”
If you are looking for or expecting a book about secular spirituality with definitions and examples, this book is likely to disappoint. Waking Up is that but will not seem so in the early part nor to the casual reader.
In the very first endnote Harris writes, “I have no quarrel with Hitch [Christopher Hitchens] and [Carl] Sagan’s general use of spiritual to mean something like ‘beauty or significance that provokes awe,’ but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more personally transformative sense.” Hence the inclusion of meditation and use of psychedelic drugs as part of Harris’ narrative.
Religion clearly plays no positive role in this book; consider the subtitle, the author, and his fellow atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins; two of whom are referenced in the book.
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Waking Up is an eye opening, mind expanding book – provided the reader is secure enough to work with another’s definition of spirituality (in this case the atheist, Sam Harris) and to see the world through another’s eyes long enough and clearly enough to understand the message being conveyed. You don’t have to agree with that message, but you must understand it before embracing or discarding it. Harris asks for nothing thing more nor less.
We need to set aside the argument of, “Is spirituality religious, theistic, or the like?” for the purposes of understanding and communicating about the experiences we have which many choose to call spiritual and many others cannot find another satisfactory word and use spiritual as a fall back-word. Twenty percent of Americans (United States) describe themselves as “spiritual not religious.” That’s about 49 million people, each old enough to make this distinction. That is a significant number of people who are comfortable with the word spiritual – at lease comfortable enough to use it. Statistically some of these are agnostics or atheists.
Harris does not share the concern of many about the terms spiritual or spirituality. However, he acknowledges that “millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available.”
A word of caution: The reader would be wise to have an OED (print or electronic) handy. Harris, like Christopher Hitchens, is a master of using exactly the correct word for the meaning he wishes to convey, especially where a more commonly used word might only come close. Sam Harris is not pedantic, he is simply exact.
In only 237 pages, including 31 pages of acknowledgements and endnotes, Harris takes the reader on a truly fascinating and wide ranging adventure of learning, reflection, and mental exercise. In his own words this book is “… 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.’” It will be no surprise that Harris’ distain for religions is evident throughout.
The first chapter, “Spirituality” is 49 pages of background, definition, and preview for the rest of Waking Up. One gets some idea of Harris’ sense of spiritual through his experience on a wilderness program, with MDMA (Ecstasy), a brief comparison of religion East and West, and a brief introduction to meditation (with a simple exercise). Meditation plays an important part of Harris’ message in Waking Up.
A happy little note, buried in chapter 1 is this, “Most of us are far wiser than we appear to be.” I intend to have this ready for the next time I act stupidly. I’ll simply state, “A well-known neuroscientist says that I’m wiser than I appear to be.” You’re free to use it too.
In chapter 2, “The Mystery of Consciousness,” and throughout the rest of Waking Up, Harris explores spirituality becoming a part of science by being integrated with what is known about the world. He states, “It has long been obvious that traditional approaches to spirituality cannot do this – being based, to one or another degree, on religious myths and superstitions.”
In connection with this Harris offers a reminder, “Of course, only 25 percent of Americans believe in evolution (while 68 percent believe in the literal existence of Satan). But we can now say that any conception of our place in the universe that denies we evolved from more primitive life forms is pure delusion.” As with much of Waking Up we have a frightening fact followed by the hopeful truth.
In this chapter Harris’ expertise as a neuroscientist breaks through (one of the many times in the book) to treat us to insights into the geography of the brain and how it affects the mind – as a whole and in its separate parts. Waking Up is worth reading for this alone. I’m still trying to ascertain if I am my right brain, my left brain, or both – and if it makes any difference. (You’ll have to read chapter 2 to understand my quandary. But you may become just as confused.)
“The Riddle of Self” (chapter 3) begins with Harris sharing his reaction while spending an afternoon at the location where it is claimed that Jesus “preached his most famous sermon.” He states that he is “very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from his experience” which he calls “intrinsic selflessness of consciousness” but reports that he can glimpse these every day. It’s interesting to read an atheist making use of an experience at a historically “holy site” for a secular purpose.
This chapter is given over to convincing us “that the conventional sense of self is an illusion – and that spirituality largely consists of realizing this, moment to moment.” During the bulk of the chapter we are treated to explanations and examples supporting this assertion. Including an exercise in “Breaking the Spell of Negative Emotions” through expressing gratitude. “When compared to merely thinking about significant life events, contemplating daily hassles, or comparing oneself favorable to others, thinking about what one is grateful for increases one’s feelings of well-being, motivation, and positive outlook toward the future.” No surprise to us recovering alcoholics, this gratitude thing. But nice to have an atheist neuroscientist make it scientific, not a myth or tradition.
Much of chapter 4, “Meditation,” is devoted to stories of different forms of meditation which Harris has been exposed to, experienced, and practiced. It does include a bit more about brain physiology and three exercises; one about our visual blind spot (easy and fun), one a “thought experiment” on going beyond duality, and the third titled, “Looking for Your Head” which isn’t a bit like it sounds.
Harris very simply makes the case for meditation here with, “We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved.” And, “In the broadest sense, however, meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. How could that not be a skill worth cultivating?”
One might be tempted to skip chapter 5 simply because of its title, “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles.” Harris is not an alcoholic nor a drug addict so his apparent endorsement of psychedelic drugs should be read about with care. His coverage of false or dangerous gurus is instructive. It brought a few “leaders” of AA groups to mind and reminded me of an early sponsor’s caution to avoid any meeting known by a person’s name, as in “Toby’s Meeting.”
Harris’ commentary on near-death experience is worth a careful reading. Especially so for his challenge of Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife as having no scientific basis. Harris focuses on that and makes no ad hominem about Alexander being a neurosurgeon and not a neuroscientist.
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In summary, Harris posits that we become more fully “I” when, through awareness and practice (e.g. meditation), we exercise our inner self – our spirit. In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality Andre Comte-Sponville eloquently describes spirit as “the power to think, insofar as it gives us access to truth, universality or laughter.” I believe that Harris has shown spirituality to be experiencing, moment to moment, life to the fullest. It is fidelity not belief, action not wishing, and love not surrender. As trite as it sounds, spirituality is being oneself to the fullest.
Waking Up is well worth the time and effort of a careful reading and experimentation with at least some of the exercises.
Paul began life in Wisconsin, was married in Ohio, and now resides in New Jersey. Born into a Roman Catholic family, his formal education was in Catholic institutions over 18 years. His doubt about religion and then about “God” began early, at the time of his first communion. The university years brought him to agnosticism and subsequently to atheism. He is retired from an international professional services firm and has instructed organizational behavior at a New Jersey university.
Paul has over 25 years sobriety and has been a GSR and a DCM. At the request of an AA Area, Paul recently made a presentation on the lack of Conference-approved literature about successfully sober agnostics and atheists in AA.
Paul is an admitted fan of Sam Harris and (to name a few) Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Victor Stenger, and deGrasse Tyson.