Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
New York 2014
Reviewed by Laurie Chisholm
There is evidently a change under way in the Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age). While recent years have seen numerous best-selling books by the ‘New Atheists’ that frontally attack religion, we are now seeing books with a different tone and direction.
There is Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, Andre Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, and now this new book by Sam Harris
Instead of attacking religion, these books are looking to find a constructive alternative, extracting something of value that underlies religion. Seven people are queued up to borrow the library copy of Sam Harris’s book that I am using —just one little sign that people are tiring of anti-religious polemic.
Harris’s aim in this book is to get talk of spirituality “off the ground” — to establish its truth and validity, without disabling his “bullshit detector” i.e. without making claims that do not stand up to scientific scrutiny and without degenerating into vague psychobabble. In this way, he hopes to fill the gap left after all religious views that do not stand up to rational and scientific scrutiny have been excluded.
“Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all the other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith.” (p.202).
Spirituality is what you begin to be aware of when you realise ...
“..there is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention as we shop, gossip, argue and ruminate our way to the grave.”
In Harris’s understanding, spirituality is basically about the practice of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, leading to the recognition that the self is an illusion. Consciousness is an irreducible given of experience, but there is only a moment-bymoment, ever-changing awareness, not some continuing entity that is the subject of that awareness. He knows that we Western people will find this a strange, unbelievable notion, so he takes a broad approach, carefully softening us up before coming to speak of mediation itself. First he explores the mystery of consciousness and then the notion of the self. Modern brain science is generally subversive of the idea that we have a soul; there is no “command module” in the brain that is in charge of the other parts of the brain, no homunculus inside our head. In particular, he argues, for example, that surgery done to cut the corpus callosum joining the two hemispheres of the brain results in the subject having two centres of consciousness, undermining the notion that there is a single “T”’ somewhere behind our eyes.
Practising meditation and discerning the illusory nature of the self is, as Harris freely acknowledges, classical Buddhist teaching. A good case can be made that far from articulating a spirituality without religion, Harris is serving up core principles of Buddhist religion. Those who are aware of Sam Harris’s anti-religious polemic will be surprised to learn that he has spent a considerable amount of time in meditation retreats and travelling to be with various gurus. He even draws us into the debate between rival Buddhist schools on whether Enlightenment is something that you must work hard to achieve or whether it can be instantly realised in a flash of insight. However, for him Buddhism is quite different from other religions. At its core is a teaching about experience, free of all supernaturalism and dogma. There is nothing you have to believe; instead you are invited to try out the teaching and test its truth in your own experience.
The book is a guide to the extent that he provides a few guided meditations and tips on how to realise that your “I” is an illusion. These are supported by personal stories and analogies that illustrate the points he is trying to make. What I valued most was the way he described ordinary human experience in such a way as to point to the need for enlightenment. He tries to explain what spirituality is about from the bottom up, from experience, not from the top down, by beginning with concepts or teachings.
There are, I assume, those who are deeply antireligious and who will be inclined to derisively dismiss his foray into spirituality in a similar way to Harris’s own debunking of God and religion. In the book he gives one such example, as if to anticipate such a reaction. Douglas Harding’s book On Having No Head articulates a similar perspective to Harris’s own.
Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett were dismissive of it. Harris suspects that they just didn’t understand what he was talking about, defends Hofstadter, and concludes (p.145):
“This illustrates a very common phenomenon in scientific and secular circles: We have a contemplative like Harding, who to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of selftranscendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity; we also have a scholar like Hofstadter, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind, who dismisses him as a child.”
Myth, ritual and symbol play no role in the book. And surely there are other lines of thinking that also deserve consideration. The Abrahamic religions, or at least some aspects of them, stress the unique and irreplaceable importance of the individual person and conceive of the divine as personal. Psychotherapy is about strengthening someone’s identity as a person, an individual in their own right, and not merely the crystallisation of social expectations. For Jungians, it is about setting aside our persona and discovering your Self, integrating the conscious and the unconscious. These ideas are almost a direct contradiction of what Harris is saying, yet they deserve our attention.
Sam Harris has argued for a spirituality that is really only a single strand. It is no small achievement to clearly articulate even one strand in our overly rationalistic and scientistic age, but we need many strands, woven together, to build a contemporary spirituality.