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.

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