Sam Harris has finally acknowledged his spiritual side. Now, before you throw down your Darwin fish in disgust — or wave your rosary in triumph — you should know that the name-brand atheist still doesn’t believe in god. What he does believe in is humans’ capacity to achieve the levels of awareness, clarity, and wonder that the faithful so often attribute to a deity.
In his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris, a neuroscientist, explores how meditation can help nonbelievers strive toward enlightenment (or at least a more satisfying state of consciousness), and then offers a somewhat disjointed roadmap for doing just that.
Anticipating blowback from all sides, he starts off by defending his use of the term “spiritual”: “The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning ‘breath.’ Around the thirteenth century, the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth.” In Harris’ hands, it is brought squarely back into the realm of the empirical.
Having set the semantic stage, he moves onto a frequently hard-to-grasp treatise on the principle of “self” and the nature of consciousness. “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished.”
Were he a believer, Harris could shorthand 50 pages by dubbing these inner workings “the soul,” but he were not. Instead, he labors to define consciousness and the duality of the brain, occasionally losing me in the process.
The one description that resonates? Imagine a mirror. Now picture an angry reflection and then a happy reflection in it. Those reflections, like feelings, come and go, while the mirror — consciousness — remains constant. Consciousness is irreducible; it’s a state of simply being, one that offers tangible benefits for those able to quiet their minds long enough to experience it.
Harris is among the lucky. A longtime student of meditation, he recounts many seminal moments where he achieved such a state, including during a trip to the Sea of Galilee.
“As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished…Only the world remained.
“If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms…If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the eternal Self…If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the ‘dharmakaya of emptiness,’ in which all apparent things manifest as in a dream. But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being.”
Alas, he doesn’t always make his best effort when focusing the scope of this book. Although its subtitle suggests a secular self-help guide, Waking Up is really more of a memoir-cum-scientific-text-cum-hearty-endorsement-of-meditation. Each of these topics has merit, but strung together, they feel, well, strung together.
For example, along with protracted discourses on Eastern meditative practices — Harris has studied under several teachers — and Western brain physiology, the author throws in a Meditation 101 how-to box. After long stretches devoted to squishy, esoteric topics, he shifts to a nuts-and-bolts look at choosing the proper guru, the fallacy of near-death experiences, and the risks and rewards of seeking enlightenment via LSD and other mind-altering drugs.
Spoiler alert: Bad trips are bad.
Overall, Harris’ book has much to recommend it, but not so much that it should be anyone’s first stop on the road to secular spirituality. Atheists will cringe at his sometimes woo-woo accounts of transcendent states; the churched will bristle at his refusal to credit a god’s hand in those states; and English majors will struggle to keep up. But few will disagree with his assertion that reaching a place of pure consciousness is challenging.
“An ability to examine the contents of one’s own consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and nondiscursively, with sufficient attention to realize that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill,” Harris writes.
By the end of this book, I still didn’t possess that skill, but I understood it a little better. It was kind of enlightening.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.