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.

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.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

suzukis-zenmindbeginnersmindThis short book is a transcription of several talks given by author on the rights and wrongs of Zen meditation practice. It’s very simple and non-intellectual. No attempt is made to qualify assertions with arguments. Suzuki often just says, “This is the right understanding,” or “This is not the right understanding,” and he doesn’t explain why. This is a little irritating for a reader like me, but I also undersand that Zen is about doing, not thinking. I imagine the author is speaking with a “try it and see” attitude.

I definitely got some clarity about Zen practice as a result of reading, particular on the notion that Zen is not goal-oriented. You don’t do it to get something specific out of it. Enlightenment (a word I hate), according to Suzuki, is not something you achieve through the practice; the practice itself is enlightenment. I think I sort of get what he means. In meditation, you just let whatever happens happen. The mind takes care of itself without conscious intrusion. So, there are results from meditation, but you can’t set out with an idea of what those results should be beforehand.

I’m fascinated by Zen meditation, but I’m still not convinced that it’s any kind of necessity. I think the same results can be obtained by simply going for peaceful walks regularly. Ultimately, one should make room in one’s life for periods of non-thinking and non-stimulation. It seems to restore psychological wellbeing and channel creativity.

Letters from the Devil by Anton Szandor LaVey

laveyas-lettersfromthedevilAnton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, wrote five books over the course of his life, expounding his philosophy of essentially atheistic Satanism – where the mythical character Satan is used as a potent and meaningful symbol for individualism and rebellion against common religion. I’ve read and reviewed all of LaVey’s works on this blog, and I found parts of his philosophy very useful for my own life. I consider him something of a visionary, having a penetrating insight on what it means to be human. Sadly, he died in 1997, and I had to content myself with the knowledge that Satan Speaks! (an essay collection published posthumously, not long after his death) would be the last words of Anton LaVey.

Not quite! In the very early days of the Church of Satan (the late 1960s and early 1970s), LaVey wrote a weekly column for the newspaper The National Insider and later The Exploiter. It was called Letters from the Devil. The public was invited to write letters to the infamous Black Pope. The most interesting ones were published, accompanied by LaVey’s responses.

Despite the dubious reputations of these tabloid publications, it appears that LaVey took his job seriously. His responses have all the insight and wit of his books. Some of the letters are hilarious, often assuming LaVey to be a devil worshipper, or treating him like a genie in a bottle, able to dispense wishes. LaVey’s responses were equally funny, as he exposes the letter writers’ shortcomings to them. There are also more serious letters, genuinely asking for advice with a difficult life situation. LaVey gives respect where it is due and provides his unique perspective.

When the book arrived in the mail, I was surprised to see that it was roughly A4 in size. This is because the editor has chosen to reproduce scanned images of the original newspaper pages, rather than reformat the text to suit a typical paperback book. I like the authenticity of this approach. The only drawback is that A4 is smaller than the original newspapers, and the originals have had to be shrunk to fit. The text is extremely small. It didn’t irritate me too much, because I wasn’t intending to read for extended periods (I wanted to draw out the experience of having new Anton LaVey material), but I think some readers might find it annoying.

There are just under 70 articles in the volume. They are chronologically organised, but sadly there are gaps. Since most people throw newspapers out, I imagine this small collection took a lot of time and effort to compile. It’s nice to think that some more gems from the mind of Anton LaVey might still be waiting out there, stored away in someone’s attic. One small gripe: most of the pages in the volume feature the name and date of the newspaper, but some do not. This makes life slightly difficult for anyone wishing to track down missing issues on eBay.

My thanks to Kevin Slaughter (and Chris X, who collected the issues) for putting this volume together. It was a most welcome surprise.

Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner

warnerb-sitdownandshutupBrad Warner is a Zen Buddhist priest who runs a group called Dogen Sangha in Los Angeles. Dogen was a monk who lived in the 12th century and authored a Buddhist book called Shobogenzo. This work is Warner’s primary reference point for his own philosophy. And Sit Down and Shut Up is his attempt to write a commentary on excerpts from Shobogenzo.

Shobozgenzo should not be understood as a Buddhist equivalent of what the Bible is to Christians. There is nothing divinely inspired about a 12th century text (nor about the teachings of Gautama Buddha himself). It just so happens that Warner agrees with the bulk of Dogen’s philosophy, and so it becomes the main reference point for his life. He is also not averse to poking fun at some of the more culturally irrelevant aspects of the ancient book. Warner’s commentary is not dry and technical. He often defends Dogen’s insights by drawing from his own life experience – both as a priest and a punk rock musician.

Sit Down and Shut Up is the second book in Warner’s canon – a follow-up to his highly successful Hardcore Zen. Having read several later books by Warner, I can see that the volume under review here contains essays that are the genesis of themes that the author later expanded into whole books. The essay “Sex and Sin” provides the basis for his book Sex, Sin, and Zen. In the essay “Zazen by Alone,” Warner discusses the holier-than-thou personality that spiritual teachers have a tendency to project; this was destined to flower into his book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. And although I have yet to read Warner’s book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, I have a feeling that his essay “God” is where that book germinated.

There isn’t really one overall theme to Sit Down and Shut Up. The book’s title is a reference to the importance that the author places upon the practice of zazen meditation – something that I don’t often practice and I’m not convinced is a necessity for my life. Although I will say that psychological health is certainly maintained by any practice where one sits down and shuts up. In other words, you stop busying yourself as a means of running away from yourself. Give your mind the breathing space it needs to sort itself out. Warner’s elaboration about zazen allowed me to see parallels in my own life, even in my past as a Christian where I would go off somewhere quiet to be alone with God. It didn’t matter that this “personal God” was a figment of my imagination. The practice itself had a healing effect of its own. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by zazen in particular, and I have a mind to try it out more seriously, to see what all the fuss is about.

In summary, this is an excellent book. In comparison to Warner’s other works, it’s hard to say where it ranks, because they’re all worthy of your attention. If you’re looking for diverse content, this is a particularly good one to read. But I would read everthing written by Warner (and I plan to), which is the highest praise I can give to an author.

Time, Space, and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku

tulkut-timespaceknowledgeThis book was recommended to me as a means of getting to grips with the philosophy non-duality. The author, a Tibetan lama living in California, approaches it from the Buddhist perspective, although he does not use any Buddhist terminology.

The book places a heavy emphasis on visualisation exercises as a means of getting past our conditioned understanding of the world. For the most part I didn’t pause to try these out, as I’m already accustomed to viewing life in non-dual terms, but the exercises did strike me as useful to newcomers. I’ve even developed a few of my own in the course of writing my own book on esoteric matters.

Tulku suggests a model of reality that views it as consisting of three fundamentals: space, time, and knowledge. These are not really separate, as each cannot exist without the others. Scientifically minded readers will already be familiar with the term space-time and will know that we cannot properly consider time without space, nor space without time. Tulku suggests a “trinity” of inseparable elements: space-time-knowledge. This is very similar to my own personal view of reality as mind-space-time.

The real drawback of the book is in how technical it becomes. It is very easy to become confused when reading. And yet I would not accuse the author of being pretentious. There were sufficient cues in the text that let me know he a man of considerable insight. As an effective communicator, however, he fails. Alan Watts, for instance, has communicated similarly stunning insights with far more straightforward argumentation and vocabulary. If Space, Time, and Knowledge had been my first step into non-dual philosophy, I think I would have given up in frustration.

In the end, Tulku also commits the great error of so many spiritual teachers: a lack of realism about life. He asserts that life can be lived with a drastically different sense of awareness from what is common. While that is true to an extent, I always like to remind myself that one day I might find myself being chased down an alley by an assailant. In such a situation, does the philosophy of this book help me in any way? No. That’s the real acid test. So all this talk about every experience being an unending feast of beauty is mere talk.

Overall, Tarthang Tulku communicates much less fluff than Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. Time, Space, and Knowledge is a deep but unnecessarily difficult book. It has its moments, but I would not consider it essential reading.