The self is an illusion.
That's the theme that stands out in Sam Harris's latest bestseller. This idea is usually confined to books on metaphysics, but Harris firmly roots his case in neuroscience. If that's too dry for you, he also embellishes his arguments with insights gained from his extensive experience with meditation. The result: A much needed and fascinating reconciliation between science and spirituality. In Waking Up, Harris distances himself from virtually all other "atheist" writers by offering the first stone in the bridge between science and spirituality.
What unifies science and spirituality is the common ground of reason. At it's core, spirituality attempts to better understand reality through direct, transformational experiences. It boldly attempts to find truth behind the veil of normal perception through a variety of practices that anyone can experiment with. He cites the core principles of Buddhism as the prime example, while separating meditation practice from unnecessary Buddhist dogma such as karma or reincarnation. If you practice technique X you will get result Y. This removes the faith aspect from spirituality because nothing need be believed without direct, personal experience. With this in mind Sam argues that spirituality is essentially the scientific method applied to transcendental human experience.
Both science and spirituality require an open mind and an a relentless passion for discernment. And the self is one of the first causalities of this discernment. Harris suggests that there is really no individual "you" that "witnesses consciousness and lives somewhere in your head." There are only experiences themselves. His most compelling arguments for this come out of his expertise in neuroscience (he holds a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA). Sam blows minds by citing research that demonstrates that our brains are independently and simultaneously conscious in multiple areas. "What is most startling about the split-brain phenomenon is that we have every reason to believe that [they] are independently conscious. ...in such cases, each hemisphere might as well have its own beliefs." If that's not enough, he also explains that if we were to cut my brain in half and each hemisphere went on to survive, there would become two of me with the same memories and presumably the same identity. He eviscerates the idea that the self can be pinpointed in any exact location and suggests that it's neurologically more accurate to say that there's many versions of you contained in your brain. He makes a strong case for the idea that consciousness emerges from specific biological organization and is also physically divisible, which pokes an uncomfortable hole in the idea of a soul.
Waking Up doesn't only challenge those of us that believe in a soul. It also challenges the rigid materialists and skeptics that see no value in spiritual practices such as meditation. Sam suggests that the selflessness revealed by neuroscience is reflected in insights gained through many different styles of meditation practice, especially Dzogchen. He describes this process of tying to describe mediation insights to a skeptic:
"Imagine that you want to show another person how a window can also function like a mirror. As it happens you friend has never seen this effect and is quite skeptical of your claims. You direct her attention to the largest window in the house, and although the conditions are perfect for seeing her reflection, she immediately becomes captivated by the world outside. What a beautiful view! ...In every moment, it is clear to you that your friend is starting directly through the image of her face without seeing it."
To Harris, spiritual practice absolutely has a role to play in the lives of reasonable, scientific people. Ignoring the benefits of such practices because of some of the outrageous and occasionally hilarious claims made under the guise of spirituality is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Waking Up is ultimately a reclamation of the word "spirituality." Spiritual claims do not have to be unverifiable, nor accepted on blind faith in gurus or strange rituals. To this end, Harris finishes the book with a critical look at some of the claims of meditation masters and spiritual gurus. He highlights the distinction that between meditation and morality- just because someone is a master of meditation or a spiritual leader does not mean that they will always behave morally or should be blindly followed. The emphasis here is on personal exploration and self determination in one's spiritual life.
Other Mind Teasers from waking up
- Self transcendence, oneness, and other spiritual feelings are universal human experiences, regardless of culture or religion. The interpretation of these experiences is the result of one's culture and religion. As a result, these experiences are explained in whatever religious terms an individual knows and used to legitimize religious beliefs.
- Psychedelics- particularly LSD, DMT, psilocybin, and MDMA- have therapeutic and transcendental potential but are widely misunderstood largely because they are stigmatized and categorized as "drugs."
- This definitely doesn't mean that all psychedelic use is beneficial: "For every insight of lasting value produced by drugs, there was an army of zombies with flowers in their hair marching towards failure and regret."
- Harris offers bold criticism of the hugely popular book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife and the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences (NDEs).
- Consciousness is still a mystery. It probably can't be explained by describing physical states alone, and might not even be comprehensible to humans at all.
Waking Up is excellent. It's well-written with very clear language that is difficult to misinterpret. Rarely do you find a book with the potential to simultaneously engage and piss off both rigid skeptics and loose spiritualists. No matter where you fall in this spectrum, Waking Up promises to challenge your preconceptions. If you're interested in meditation or in starting a meditation practice, this book provides a great overview of the often forgotten goal of spiritual practice- seeing through the illusion of the self. Once again, Harris entertains and enlightens.