The following is a review of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris.
I generally consider Sam Harris to be the right kind of intellectual for our generation, even if at times I do not agree with everything he says. The reason for this is that the subjects that he chooses to cover are relevant and important, and he takes the conversation on morality where it needs to go. He is standing on the shoulders of people like Nietzsche, Sartre, and other recent philosophers who demystified morality and sought a naturalist approach to it. Harris focuses on a scientific approach based on his neuroscience research and on his vast experience with contemplative practices, as they relate to therapeutic philosophy and to the cultivation of wellbeing.
For all these reasons, Harris resonates deeply with the work of the Society of Friends of Epicurus, and in fact the chapter on meditation in my book Tending the Epicurean Garden was inspired, in part, by Harris’ assertion–in his piece Killing the Buddha–that we need a “science of contemplation”.
Harris: a Secular Buddhist
Waking Up is entirely committed to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self, no-soul): the theory that the self is imaginary and non-existent. Two first verses in the Dhammapada, the Gospel of Buddha, teach that all good and bad things are derived from mind. Harris says:
Our minds are all we have.
Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.
While reading this book, it became clear that Sam Harris is really a Buddhist, is committed to Buddhist doctrines–like the aforementioned teaching of no-self–and is teaching Buddhism. He also gives a nod to the Advaita school of Hindu philosophy, which he says is heavily influenced by Buddhism, and even elaborates on the four Noble Truths, particularly the first truth on suffering. Harris will not admit this outright: he toots the atheism horn and labels himself a secularist and an iconoclast who decries all doctrines, but in reality he is philosophically a Buddhist and a defender and teacher of Buddhist doctrine.
This is not meant in any way to be an accusation or derogatory. Buddhism can be a perfectly acceptable secular philosophy, and in fact books such as Buddhism Plain and Simple present a highly gratifying and intellectually honest approach to it as a therapeutic, secular humanist philosophy. My remark on how Harris is defending Buddhist doctrine is only meant to clarify, for the reader, what the book Waking Up is about. It defines spirituality mostly in terms of gaining insight into anatta, a quintessentially Buddhist doctrine.
Buddhism is–in its less religious expressions–in all likelihood the most empirical of the eastern philosophies. Harris is aware of this, and justifies his commitment to Buddhism by saying that it gives “empirical insights about the nature of consciousness”. He says:
… engaging a faith-based (and probably delusional) practice, whatever its effects, isn’t the same as investigating the nature of one’s mind absent any doctrinal assumptions. Statements of this kind may seem starkly antagonistic toward Abrahamic religions, but they are nonetheless true: One can speak about Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions. The same cannot be said of Christianity or Islam.
Despite the superstitions that many Buddhists cherish, the doctrine has a practical and logical core that does not require any unwarranted assumptions.
The teachings of Buddhism and Advaita are best viewed as lab manuals and explorers’ logs detailing the results of empirical research on the nature of human consciousness.
Harris defines spirituality as the “efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness”. He equates spirituality, it seems, with learning to be comfortable sitting in solitude, and therefore being able to have introspection and an inner life. He also, interestingly, incorporates shamanic techniques into it.
Investigating the nature of consciousness itself–and transforming its contents through deliberate training–is the basis of spiritual life.