The Book Report series consists of monthly articles reviewing one of the books I read that month followed by the complete list of all the books I read and/or listened to. I disclose my monthly reading list (the good, the bad, and the embarrassing) so my readers can draw from the same resources I do or just get an insight into the many interests I have that I might not blog about. If you have any book recommendations for me, pass them along!
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
By: Sam Harris
So...let's go there. Sam Harris. For those of you not familiar with him, he's a philosopher and neuroscientist with a PhD from UCLA who has written extensively on the subject of religion. I'd seen several interviews of him and felt so frustrated with his misrepresentation of Islam and the Qur'an that I never, ever, thought I would enjoy a book he authored. In full disclosure, this was the first book of his that I read and it prompted me to read his earlier book, End of Faith (which I was sorry I did). But I'm choosing to highlight Waking Up because he accomplishes something in this book that is very hard to do, which is to describe and explain mystical and spiritual experiences in a scientific context without reducing them to mere quirks of the brain.
I appreciate this book precisely because I am interested in the neuroscience of meditation and compassion-based practices and I find there is a lack of balanced understanding of these concepts in the spiritual community. I love that people are starting to focus on meditation and mindfulness, but the new age spiritual community has a lot of quacks in it. It's just as susceptible as any other industry to corruption, narcissism, and manipulation by individuals looking to make a quick buck off of vulnerable people who claim they hold knowledge of the cosmos and other-worldly revelation.
What I've also noticed is that there isn't nearly the self-examination and self-inquiry I'd expect from so called "awakened" people. Most don't seem interested to investigate the nature of the brain and its tendency towards fallacy - recreating false memories, cognitive dissonance, and self-rationalization, all of which pervade normal human thought. Many people's profound spiritual beliefs and insights are somehow immune from critical self-examination merely because they seem to speak to a higher truth and they quickly become generalized to all people. I'm guilty of this thought pattern as well and it's constant work to keep myself in check. I agree with Sam Harris that this can actually be dangerous. It has lead to the formation of cults (enter Scientology) that are based on an absurd collection of unsubstantiated beliefs that nonetheless are followed as indomitable truth.
As the saying goes, "don't believe everything you think."
The value that Sam Harris provides in his book Waking Up is in reinforcing that while consciousness is something beyond brain quirks and that mystical experiences are legitimate, they still need to be put in perspective and examined. He does this at the criticism of his science-minded, atheist peers who tend to write off these experiences as a product of an over-indulgent imagination. Harris does not believe that one needs a religious framework within which to understand mystical experiences; in fact, he blames religion for propagating dangerous and imbecilic myths to the detriment of humanity. But he argues that there is sufficient evidence to show that mindfulness based meditation practices can help one live a better life by creating a healthier, and thus happier, mind.
He writes of a revelation he had while taking MDMA in his early twenties with one of his best friends:
"[I] was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn't have surprised me; he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age, I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now seem pedestrian on the page. I wanted him to be happy. That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance, the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person, seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than could I have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed these gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own."
Reading that passage instills in the reader a sense of awe at the profundity of such an experience. No envy? Only a desire for another's happiness? How can atheists and skeptics not be curious about the brain states that give rise to an insight like this?
He goes on to describe various meditation retreats he's been on and highlight pitfalls and fallacies he's seen others succumb to. He reviews the neuroscience of meditation and offers simple, step-by-step practices that novices and experienced meditators can follow. His approach remains practical and measured even while he admits to having the sorts of mystical encounters that have birthed dominant religions in the past.
In the end, Sam Harris successfully makes a case for spirituality in a secular world by presenting the scientific evidence that supports mindfulness, without over-reaching the implications of what mystical experiences might mean for all of humanity.
To end, I will leave you with this:
"So what would a spiritual master be master of? At a minimum, she will no longer suffer certain cognitive and emotional illusions. Above all, she will no longer feel identical to her thoughts. Once again, this is not to say that such a person will no longer think, but she will no longer succumb to the primary confusion that thoughts produce in most of us. She will no longer feel that there is an inner self that is the thinker of these thoughts. Such a person will naturally maintain an openness and serenity of mind that is available to most of us only for brief moments, even after years of practice."
Have you read this book or will you be adding it to your list? Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below!
Reading List: May
Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Book of Knowledge - Purdue University
Waking Up - Sam Harris
How to Walk Away - Katherine Center
On Love and Loneliness - J. Krishnamurti
I'm Fine and Other Lies - Whitney Cummings
End of Faith - Sam Harris