A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

I just read Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. I liked it a lot, and it’s relevant to the topics I talk about on this blog, so here’s a brief a review.

In Waking Up, Sam Harris cuts through a lot of the confusion to be found in religion, philosophy, and science regarding the nature of the mind, as well as a lot of the confusion regarding the relationship between spiritual experiences and our view of the world.

Regarding the latter, Harris makes the important point that while “spiritual” experiences are true in the sense that you actually experience them, they don’t reveal anything about the cosmos. This effectively breaks the connection between religion and spirituality: while the metaphysical claims that contemplatives within various religious traditions have offered as a result of their spiritual experiences are unfounded, their subjective experiences are true. And much of what they learned about the self is valuable. So it’s worth paying attention to what they had (and have) to say.

On the philosophical side, Harris shows that careful introspection and meditation (a “spiritual” practice) will reveal that you don’t really have a self. You have consciousness – in fact all you can know for sure is that you have consciousness – but on careful reflection you will realize that there is no unitary “self” behind the eyes receiving sensory input and thinking thoughts. “You” don’t have sensations and “you” don’t think thoughts; rather, there are sensations and there are thoughts in your field of consciousness. This is one of the key insights of Buddhism, and Harris offers some interesting neuroscientific data to support this insight.

Importantly, the idea that consciousness is not the self clears up a lot of confusion in the various scientific and philosophical attempts to explain consciousness. One of the biggest issues in the study of consciousness is that people tend to conflate the sense of self with consciousness itself. As Harris points out, and which others like David Chalmers never tire of reminding us, this is a category mistake. The sense of self is one of the “easy” problems of consciousness in that it can, in theory, be explained by an advanced neuroscience. The “hard” problem of consciousness, on the other hand, is how experience itself arises from physical matter at all. Consciousness is not the self.

Finally, Harris relates how realizing this subjective truth is conducive to wellbeing. This is another fundamental idea of Buddhism. Realizing that your consciousness is fundamental but that your sense of self is not allows you to detach from your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Attachment to – or, more precisely, identification with – these mental processes is what leads to discontentedness even among those who live a “good” life. When you are no longer attached to your thoughts, when you no longer see your consciousness as a unitary “self” behind the eyes, then you will “wake up.”

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One thought on “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

  1. Sam Harris is referring to the Buddhist belief in skandhas, the five aggregates of all human beings: bodily matter; sensations; perceptions; mental formations; consciousness. “They are constantly in the process of change and do not constitute a self.” Most Buddhists in daily life accept continuity of self, while acknowledging changes in the emotions, mind and body of each person.

    In “Waking up” Sam Harris says he uses the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ interchangeably. Chapter one has many mentions of each. You do not have to believe in God or be religious to be spiritual or to be a mystic.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “The Greatest Achievement in Life,” I summarized many similarities, and some differences, among the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

    Ironically, the man who personally introduced me to mysticism was an atheist who once wrote “God is man’s greatest invention.” Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was also a Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.

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