A review of Sam Harris' Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion



Sam Harris, the second-most-famous atheist in the world, is an unusual sort of atheist. On the one hand, he’s a neuroscientist who reveres the scientific method and despises the superstitious dogma of religion - so far, so normal. On the other hand, he’s spent many years meditating in spiritual retreats in Asia, and taken a lot of mind-expanding drugs, all of which has convinced him that at the core of spiritual experiences are important truths about human consciousness.

His new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, insists that spirituality ‘remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism and atheism’. Scientific accounts of spiritual experiences tend either to reduce them to pathologies or to compare them to the mild awe we might feel looking at a sunset. As a result, people who have ego-shattering spiritual experiences can only find a positive explanation in the dogma of organized religions or in New Age quackery. Therefore rationalists - and the world at large - needs a better science of spiritual experiences.

Spiritual experiences, he says, tell us ‘empirical facts’ about human consciousness. Harris thinks he has come across two such facts. Firstly, an experience on MDMA in his twenties gave him a sense of ‘boundless love’ for all beings - something many mystics and contemplatives have felt. Secondly, he has had glimpses of the non-existence of self, particularly through the Tibetan teaching of Dzogchen. If the illusion of self is the cause of all our suffering and restlessness, then the blissful experience of non-self is the solution to our problems. And we can get this experience without signing up to any supernatural dogma.

The best insight in Harris’ enjoyable book is this: everything we do is for conscious states, particularly for the conscious state of happiness, joy and bliss. Yet we go about seeking these conscious states in foolish and roundabout ways - striving for money, power, endless sensual gratification. These bring us little hits of pleasure and comfort, but they always have to be topped up, and often bring suffering in their wake (not to mention environmental devastation).

What the great contemplatives have discovered is that bliss is available right here, right now, in our minds, for free. There is an incredible renewable source of happiness in our minds, which we ignore in favour of toxic external substitutes. This is what the mystics mean when they talk in parables about forgotten inheritances, buried treasure, secret gardens, kingdoms within and so forth.

Harris thinks Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta most clearly express this core experience of the non-existence of self. Yes, there is still some supernatural woowoo in these traditions, but the empirical insights can easily be detached from any silly stories, unlike in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

He admits that some contemplatives in the Abrahamic faiths also discovered inner bliss and the non-existence of self, like Meister Eckhart, Jalal ad-Din Rumi or Thomas Traherne. But such mystics tended to be on the fringes of their religion, and were often imprisoned, excommunicated or murdered for their insights.

In fact, the Abrahamic faiths are a positive ‘impediment’ to spiritual insight, because they insist on the existence of a separate self which will be judged by a terrifying God for eternity. Western culture in general is embarrassingly ignorant of the interior world. We must humbly turn east, and find a Buddhist or Advaita guru to teach us. Harris warns, however, of the danger of seeing gurus as perfect, and is amusing about the grotesque moral failings of teachers like Osho, who owned 95 Rolls Royces, drugged prospective funders with Ecstasy, and ‘demanded fellatio at forty-five minute intervals’.

His denigration of western contemplative wisdom is somewhat harsh. There is no mention of Greek philosophy as an guide to transforming consciousness, although modern cognitive behavioural therapy was inspired by it. There is no mention of Plato’s sublime guides to waking up from the trance of unconsciousness, or his influence on later mystics like Augustine, Rumi and Ficino. There is no mention of the rich contemplative tradition in Orthodox Christianity. There is no sense that Christian compassion was an influence on the evolution of democracy, which flourished in the West and not in the East. There is no sense that the Christian path is all about dying to the self and opening to a deeper spiritual reality.

There is no hint that we might be so incredibly ignorant of the interior world in the west partly because of the one thing Harris most celebrates: the rise of western science and industrialism, and the decline of Christianity. Did not this turn our gaze from the 'kingdom within' described by Christ, and instead make us look for our gratification in the material world, at enormous emotional and environmental cost?

There is no mention of the arts as a means to spiritual experience. We get several pages exploring the bicameral theory of the brain, and not a word about three millennia of the arts. That’s a fairly stark omission in a guide to spirituality. But Harris, the son of a Quaker, is an ultra-Puritan - he just wants ‘facts’, shorn of any ‘stories’. There is no interest in how stories, symbols, poetry, music, dance, architecture and ritual help us move beyond ordinary consciousness to reach a more expanded consciousness.

Harris’ spirituality seems to me quite individualistic, like other scientific accounts of spirituality in the works of Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow or William James. In Harris’ spirituality, you jet off to Nepal for various retreats, and then eventually arrive at the insight that there is no such thing as a permanent you. This hopefully feels blissful. But the insight doesn’t connect you to other people, as it does in, say, Stoicism, Christianity or Hinduism. We are not One. Nor does it connect you to the cosmos or God. It simply means you have no permanent self. Well, so what?

Harris has a more relational experience of boundless love for all beings, while on MDMA. But is this state of boundless love an ‘empirical fact’? Why should it be? Why should we scientifically and rationally feel boundless love for all beings?

Harris insists that such experiences tell us nothing about the cosmos or matter, they only tell us things about human consciousness: that it exists, that ordinary consciousness is just one type of consciousness, that we can reach an experience of boundless consciousness which may involve a sense of infinite love for all beings.

But even that tells us something about the cosmos - it’s a cosmos in which such experiences occur, where the mind can alter the physical structure of the brain, where experiences of bliss are freely available, right here, right now. Why should Darwinian evolution in a material cosmos have left us with this foundational state of inner bliss? Just good luck?

Surely it’s at least possible that the great virtuosos of contemplation are right when they insist spiritual experiences do tell us something about the cosmos, and that the experience of infinite loving-consciousness is a glimpse of the very ground of being, also sometimes called God, Brahman, Allah, the Logos, the Tao, the Buddha-realm.

Harris says he is open-minded about the many reports from people who’ve taken the psychedelic drug DMT, who say they visited another dimension where elves passed on futuristic technology. Well and good. I don’t see why he is not also agnostic about the much more credible possibility that infinite loving-consciousness is the ground of being.

Still, this was an enjoyable and insightful book, particularly his accounts of his own spiritual explorations via psychedelics and meditation. You come away with a respect for his willingness to undergo retreats involving 18-hour meditations, and a sense of his refreshing humility about his own spiritual progress. I think he is ignoring what his spiritual experiences point to, but then as a theist, I would say that.