Waking Up by Sam Harris

harriss-wakingupA couple of years ago I was listening to a debate by Sam Harris, when he made a remark about consciousness being the one thing that you absolutely cannot declare is an illusion, because consciousness is the very ground from which you come to know everything else. This was not the sort of thing you hear from a typical atheist; atheists tend to be materialists who do their best to ignore the profound mystery of consciousness.

I was similarly delighted to learn about the publication of this book, subtitled “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.” Sounds right up my street. Harris has been a long-term meditator. He has spent time studying under eastern gurus in the past, and has also dabbled in psychoactive drugs. The book is part memoir, part science (neuroscience in particular), and part how-to manual on meditation and its benefits. The one thing it lacks (by Harris’s own admission) is metaphysical speculation. This is unfortunate, because it means that the kind of “spirituality” Harris refers to is rather weak, little more than the use of altered states of consciousness to improve psychological wellbeing. Harris, like most atheists, subscribes to materialism. Unfortunately, he doesn’t acknowledge that materialism is also metaphysical speculation. A little inductive thinking is more than called for when attempting to discern whether the prime reality consists of matter or mind (or indeed something else).

The book will no doubt prove to be divisive among his main audience (atheists), but it will hopefully get many of them thinking seriously about consciousness. As a result of our Christian heritage, we’re all mind-body dualists, but few of us realise this. Instead, we blindly think of ourselves as literal psyches inhabiting bodies. While consciousness is not an illusion, the view of consciousness as an entity sitting between the eyes most definitely is. This is difficult conditioning to overcome, and many are not even aware of it as an issue.

Harris is mostly clear and accurate in his writing, but I did find myself confused in places by the language he chose to employ. When he talks about “the illusion of the self,” it almost seemed like he was denying the reality of consciousness itself. Then I learned to interpret his use of the word “self” to mean “self as a distinct mind/soul” rather than “self in the abstract” (if that makes any sense).

The book tackles some related side-issues, such as the moral failures of guru figures, why Buddhism is better than monotheistic religions, the value and danger of psychedelics, the validity of near-death experiences. All interesting material. There are better books on meditation and spirituality, such as the work of Alan Watts. Harris, I feel, falls for the trap of using meditation as a technique to escape from ordinary consciousness into a state of blissful wellbeing. This is based on the faulty understanding that ordinary states of consciousness are somehow broken. And this is a close cousin to the religious notion that mankind must be repaired from a metaphysical fall from grace. This is a connection that Harris doesn’t see. Without relying on meditation at all, I’ve come to a much more profound realisation that consciousness, in its natural state, is not broken in any way. And so, I don’t experience any of the striving that Harris’s book is preoccupied with.

Nevertheless, Waking Up is a most welcome addition to a growing body of literature on esoteric spirituality, not because it’s especially brilliant, but because of who Harris is and who he has the power to influence.

The Year of the Comet by John Christopher

chistopherj-yearofthecometThis is the first novel by science fiction author John Christopher (although he did publish a short story collection before this), who is most famous for The Death of Grass and The Tripods. He wrote a number of disaster novels, and the title of the book under review would lead you to believe that this is one of them. But it’s not. The story is set in a post-capitalist future where countries have been replaced by huge corporations known as “managerials.” They have names like Telecom, Atomics, etc. Each managerial provides an essential role in the running of the world. The life of a seemingly average scientist called Charles (our protagonist) is thrown into chaos when he finds that his research into diamonds is being very closely monitored. He is soon tossed into a confusing world of kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy. His seemingly unimportant research appears to be of immense value to the various managerials, for reasons that prove to be world transforming. In the background of the story we have the Cometeers, a curious religious cult who are focused on the slow approach of a comet to earth.

For a novel written in the 1950s, the story is quite prophetic in its prediction of the rise of television into a forum of banal entertainment that people consume in a zombie-like fashion. It could also be argued that the replacement of countries by corporations is a legitimate possibility. We already have vast multi-national corporations that are free to operate outside of any one particular country’s laws.

As entertainment, the novel was average. It definitely had its moments of tension and mystery, but there was a distinct lack of conflict going on for much of the story and I felt my attention waning. It looks as if Christopher had some political ideas he wanted to express, and he used a fictional narrative as a vehicle for that.

Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering

beringj-pervPsychologist Jesse Bering first hit my radar in 2012, when I saw an interview with him conducted at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2012 (see below). In this he talks about the case of an unfortunate young teenager who discovered his father’s medical textbook. This book featured nude photographs of women, which the boy used to aid his first attempts at masturbation. However, these women also happened to be amputees. One can understand how the boy may have been able to feel excitement at witnessing the forbidden areas of a woman’s body while also being able to disregard the missing limbs. However, if you know something about the unconscious mind, it tends to forge associations without us being aware of it. This is how the boy ended up with what is termed paraphilia – a sexual attraction towards something outside of the bounds of what is usually considered sexual. And he was seemingly stuck with it for life. Odd as it sounds, amputees turned him on more than full-bodied women.

This is a prime example of how sexual “deviancy” can occur quite accidentally, and have nothing to do with anything immoral or evil. Most teenagers do discover masturbation, except most of them aren’t so unlucky in their choice of erotic stimulation. The question is: how much of what we consider sexually immoral really stems from something that is genuinely morally unacceptable? Unfortunately, the values of polite society tend to view all paraphilia as cause for ethical concern, when they are usually harmless.

Jesse Bering has written a book that tackles paraphilia head on. It is written in a conversational style, with plenty of humour, but also succeeds in being informative. If there is one overall message, it is “Lighten up.” Paraphilias are really not that big a deal, for the most part. The one exception to this might be paedophilia, but even here Bering takes the daring stance of refusing to mimic the demonising stance of the mass media. There is no doubt that actual child abuse is horrific and unacceptable. But one side of this story that is not often heard is the testimony of the closet paedophile, who feels attracted to children but who also feels disturbed about this attraction, who doesn’t understand why he is the way he is, and who goes through life harbouring this dark secret and harming no one. If you’re willing to be dispassionate and objective about hot topics, this book will definitely challenge your preconceptions.

Sexuality is a part of human nature that we’ve only recently started coming to terms with. Over the past century or so, there has definitely been a gradual movement away from repression towards a more balanced and scientific understanding of this part of our lives. The first thirty-five years of my life were filled with a great deal of confusion about sex, thanks to unrealistic Christian ideals. In retrospect, I think a healthy outlook on sexuality is measured by how effectively you manage to ignore the prevailing cultural norms. Thankfully, we now have a growing body of literature to help us navigate these dangerous waters, to get us to the place where we can integrate our sexuality into our lives in a sane, healthy way. Jesse Bering’s Perv comes highly recommended in that regard.

The assumption of the book is that there is a sexual deviant in all of us. This is a statement about the malleability and diversity of sexuality, not a condemnation of the entire human race. How about you? Are you ready to face up to the aspects of your own sexuality that have surprised or disturbed you? With the help of this book, you might actually end up laughing about it.

The attitude of the Christian masses towards sexual minorities has tended to be one of condemnation and a lack of empathy. As rational people come to understand sexually better, instead of relying on the outdated dogmas of a two-thousand-year-old religious text from the near east, then I think we’re going to see a gradual shift towards greater compassion and tolerance. The sooner, the better.

There Is No God and He Is Always With You by Brad Warner

warnerb-thereisnogodEastern philosophy is sometimes erroneously criticised as denying the law of non-contradiction. You can understand why, given the seemingly irrational title of this book. But no contradiction is intended. Language is an imprecise thing. A word is a pointer to something; it is not the thing itself. And when the thing you are pointing to is something that transcends all space-time categories, then you’re in especially deep trouble when you attempt to define it. Such is the problem with the word “God.”

Buddhism has sometimes been called a religion without God. That’s only true if by God you mean deity. When Warner talks about his relatively mild childhood exposure to Christianity, his idea of God was of “a blinding light with a personality.” This struck me as a very memorable image, because there are many Christians who claim to have gotten past the comicbook image of God as a bearded grandfather in the clouds, but it strikes me that any attempt to personify the Transcendent inevitably leads to just the false image that Warner describes. When you make God a person, as all monotheistic religions do, you miss the point entirely.

Brad attempts to make the case that “God” is a useful and necessary word for Buddhists in the West to employ. It’s a way of using our existing religious heritage to our advantage. I can see the value of this, because the denial of the existence of God in the West tends to lead to a form of atheism that is entirely materialistic in nature. In fact, I wasted almost two decades of my life lumbered with this faulty assumption. Such “metaphysical naturalism” is emphatically not the Buddhist position. Buddhism recognises a transcendent reality behind nature, but it is one that defies all categorisation, as mind, matter, or anything else. So, one way to become aware of this third side is to use the word God as a useful pointer to the Ground of Being.

So the first part of Warner’s title, “There Is No God,” really means “There is no divine humanlike persona looking down upon the Universe.” The second part, “And He Is Always With You,” can be thought of as an abstract pointer to the reality of the Mystery of Mysteries that is holding the manifest Universe together. I’m in two minds about whether I like the title. In a sense, I think the words “with you” obscure the more fundamental truth of the absolute non-separation of all things, including your own identity from the whole.

But the content of the book is exemplary. Many of the chapters involve autobiographical material from Warner’s book tours, where he comments on local religious traditions in various parts of the world. I was delighted to see a chapter devoted to the Protestant and Catholic disputes of my own homeland, Northern Ireland. One of my favourite chapters was called “Enlightenment Porn.” You know how pornography teases you with all the magnificant superheated sex that you’re never going to have? Well, enlightenment porn is what the typical spiritual guru projects at you; he wants you to believe that his eternally unperturbed consciousness is something that you can have, too (for a fee). But it’s a lie, of course.

I have now read all of Brad Warner’s books (well, I’m still looking out for Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet – I kid you not!). He continues to be a writer that is accessible to the average IQ, intellectually profound, and deeply honest. Personally, I think of him as the spiritual successor to Alan Watts.

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

wattsa-wayofzenZen Buddhism has become an object of fascination for me in recent years. Fascinating because my personal philosophy happens to be highly compatible with the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism: the realisation that there is no individual self distinct from the Universe. Buddhism, in contrast to Western religions, seems to offer more of an experiential spirituality than a set of dogmas. It’s an approach of “Do x, and y will happen.” Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, appears to be just a regular guy who realised something deep and profound about life; he is not a saviour figure to be worshipped, the way that Christians worship Jesus.

This little book helped to give me greater clarity about the Buddhist pratice of “seated meditation” called zazen – what the specifics of the posture are for, and what the practitioner can hope to achieve (or not achieve) through sustained pactice. Unfortunately, thus far, I have been far too lazy to meditate on a regular basis. But if all this reading has done one thing for me, it’s to make me much more aware of the general “toxicity” of my mind, and what I can do about it.

The Way of Zen also provides some useful historical anecdotes on the origins of Buddhism. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read – which is no surprise when it comes to Alan Watts, a consistently brilliant writer and lecturer.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

kings-longwalkIn a dystopian, totalitarian America, hundreds of sixteen-year-old boys sign up for a contest called The Long Walk, seduced by the prize of being able to ask the government to fulfill any wish. Of all the applicants, one hundred are chosen. All they have to do is walk. If you stop, for any reason, you get a warning. You then have thirty seconds to get moving again. In one hour, your warning will clear. If you stop after accumulating three warnings, you will be shot dead on the spot. The trek will go on for hundreds of miles, with no rest stops for sleeping, eating, or shitting. It only ends, after hundreds of miles, when there is one left standing.

The story is told from the perspective of one contestant, Ray Garraty, charting the walk from its first paces to its finish line. It’s a tale of fast friendships forged in suffering and of the limits of human endurance. You might wonder how a novel (even a short novel) that is just about walking could remain interesting for its entire length. But King really pulls it off. He sucks you right into the psychological state of a walker as if he had been there himself – the horror of being in the contest, feeling utterly exhausted but knowing how far you still have to go.

It’s a dark story – darker than most that he tells. And I imagine the absence of melodrama is not everyone’s cup of tea. King, by his own admission, used the Richard Bachman pen-name when he wanted to release a novel that came from a darker place than usual in his own psyche. If dark is what you’re looking for, this one doesn’t disappoint. The novel is available in a collected edition called The Bachman Books.

Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human by K.W. Jeter

jeterkw-bladerunner2The 1982 film Blade Runner was based on an earlier novel by Philip K. Dick entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. That novel is much quirkier and more upbeat than the dystopian movie adaptation by Ridley Scott. The plot is also significantly different, if I remember correctly. My first question, then, on approaching this written sequel, is whether it is a sequel to the book or the film. The answer is the latter. Jeter’s book captures the dark tone of the movie and makes direct reference to characters and scenes from it.

The story is set in a future Los Angeles, where the sky is abuzz with flying cars set against a backdrop of neon. And the city is even more polluted than it is at present. Signs advertising off-world colonies seduce people into leaving the planet behind for good. Central to the story is the Tyrell Corporation, responsible for creating synthetic humans, called replicants, as a source of off-world labour and entertainment. Sometimes replicants try to sneak away and get to Earth. And that’s where blade runners come in. A blade runner is a police officer tasked with hunting down and killing replicants – only they don’t say “kill”, they say “retire.”

Rick Deckard, our main protagonist, is (or was) a blade runner. The movie concluded with this lovestricken cop running away from his job, and the city, with Rachael Tyrell, the replicant “niece” of the murdered Eldon Tyrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation. The book picks up the story of couple of months later, with Deckard living in a cabin in the woods with Rachael. The authorities locate Deckard, tear him away from Rachael, and ferry him back to the city for one more job. Apparently, there is a sixth replicant, in addition to the five that Deckard retired in the movie. If Deckard ever wants to see Rachael again, it’s his job to track down and terminate this loose end. Only, in a complicated twist, he’s going to have the whole LAPD out to get him at the same time.

Many characters from the movie make an appearance, even some we thought were dead. Resurrecting them is done relatively convincingly. I don’t want to spoil anything here. The book is let down somewhat by the story itself. It’s just not interesting enough. At times I couldn’t tell what was coming next, not because the story was unpredictable in a good way, but because I couldn’t make head or tale of some of the characters’ motivations. Some of the resurrected characters don’t even advance the plot; they’re just there as morbid background curiosities. Fans will probably want to know whether the book develops the matter of whether Deckard is a replicant himself? Yes, it does, but we’re still left with uncertainties.

Ultimately, if you loved the movie and you just want to immerse yourself in the same atmosphere a second time, you may appreciate this. Jeter writes with more artistry than is common in fiction these days, but sometimes it comes off as more confusing than descriptive. Ultimately, I just didn’t find the story interesting enough. In the end, we have fisticuffs mirroring the Deckard-Batty showdown in the movie (a tiresome trend in sequels) and mistaken identity shenanigans (which is rather predictable in a story about clones). The Edge of Human is the first volume in a trilogy, so maybe the plot improves. But I’m not sure I’m willing to invest the time.