Author: Sam Harris
Type: Non-fiction, single subject
Full title: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
I read it: January 2015
The boldness of this books rests in the subtitle. Sam Harris may be one of the few public intellectuals who can raise the ire of not just the right, but also the left. Or closer to the point in this case, not just the religious, but also the staunchly atheist.
I remember after plowing through a good chunk of the modern atheist literature how I too came to bristle at words like “spirituality.” One essay I enjoyed claimed that the word could only really be used unironically when discussing music. I also seem to remember someone like Sagan describing the problems of a word such as this by pointing out how it can mean anything, and so, in effect, it means nothing.
To put his fellow non-believers at ease, Sam Harris goes to lengths to explain why he chooses to use “spirituality” and related terms. He succeeds in his explanations because he is, still, the wizard of clarity. To read or listen to Harris is to find oneself beginning to understand the mental reliefs of a converted disciple.
So how persuasive is the book as a whole? Quite, for a couple reasons. For one, I’m a fan of the author and knew the angles of the argument well before reading this work. (Plus, he’s a wizard. See above.) Secondly, I’ve been vaguely interested in meditation for a couple years. I’d always enjoyed the slow, deliberate, and calming aspects of the few yoga sessions I’d attended. We had also recently introduced a meditation session at Camp Quest, and I was as curious as a potential camper about what it might hold.
“Even if your life depended on it, you could not spend a full minute free of thought.” This is a true yet puzzling statement by Harris. Why can’t we get out of our heads? Why would we want to? Harris claims that we can’t because we simply haven’t trained our minds to do so, and we want to because there is value in not being enslaved to the pull of your mind. Moreover, we are constantly under the illusion that there is a singular “I” inside ourselves, which is unhelpful and the source of much of our mental suffering (which is, of course, all our suffering).
Mindfulness meditation, which Harris presents as a science-friendly brand of Buddhism-derived practices stripped of their goofiness, is “not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves.” Meditation is a way to train the mind to be in the present moment. As Harris points out in one of his best talks: “It is always now.” Sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Are you, like me, not very good at paying attention to someone during conversation? At truly enjoying bites of your food? At being in the moment while involved in a supposedly favorite hobby? The book is presented as a guide to getting better at those things.
In that same talk, Harris points out how “atheism doesn’t offer real consolation.” This specific issue has occurred to me more and more with each passing year. When you give up religion and all its tentacled philosophies, the vast emptiness of eternity is beyond frightening. I’ve heard some secular folks say that this can be assuaged with art and beauty, or the stereotypical natural landscapes of a sunset or a night sky. This is bogus. I just don’t buy that these fleeting moments of aesthetic, or even intellectual, appreciation can replace the fact that we live short lives and often live them badly. What is left?
I don’t know what’s left. Being content during more minutes of the day is not a bad start. I’ve only tried the meditation practices described in this book a couple times. The first time I fell asleep (I probably shouldn’t attempt a session in our heirloom La-Z-Boy). The second time, I made a decent effort but struggled against the constant tide of inner thoughts. I’d like to try again, and then maybe again. I think there is something valuable here. We all need to calm our minds, right? Otherwise:
My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.
I remain curious about strategizing against the monster. Can I succeed in stepping outside myself? To just be? The simplest mountains remain the steepest.
DIY corner: If you are curious about these concepts but cannot devote time to a whole book, this 27-minute guided meditation by Sam Harris is useful for a beginner like myself. It’s strictly the practice without preamble, so you can jump (well, sit) right in with nothing more than willingness. For those who want to consider the weight of the world we live in and hear about why a secular spirituality might be needed, consider watching this 45-minute presentation on the topic. It’s blunt to an almost grim degree, but it’s the ultimate in intellectual honesty. It also includes a brief meditation session if you would like to play along at home.