Eyes Wide Shut: Spirituality and Consciousness

Sam Harris’s latest book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, is clearly a follow-up to his book The Moral Landscape. In the latter book he attempted to prove that science could inform our moral world. In this latest effort he is attempting to convince us that religion does not have a monopoly on so-called spiritual experiences.

I have to admit that I preferred The Moral Landscape to this latest treatise, primarily because I think Harris makes the mistake of creating too narrow a case for spiritual experience, which he defines as realizing and experiencing the illusion of the self. In fact, I think Harris makes a similar mistake in both The Moral Landscape and Waking Up, although the mistake is more subtle in the former book.

The mistake Harris makes in both books is in building arguments that are exclusive to other ways to achieving the same result. This might be by design since he is writing for an audience that is probably not well acquainted with history, literature, and philosophy. For example, after reading The Moral Landscape I felt no morally wiser because I had already been led to Harris’s moral conclusions via another route. So, although I found the neuroscience in The Moral Landscape fascinating, his moral conclusions were a bit banal, and they are better addressed by Harvard’s Michael Sandel in his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Of course, one could have come to Harris’s moral conclusions by reading Plato’s Republic, or dozens of other classic books. I would even argue that most religions are internally prone to lead someone to similar moral conclusions, provided that one actually study one’s own religion, which most people don’t. That’s why I agree with Daniel Dennett when he suggests a comparative religion course be taught to those in high school. It would likely be a great prophylactic against fundamentalism, and maybe even against orthodox religion.

Am I being unfair to Harris? After all, we all know what we are getting at this point: an atheist’s view of everything in a world divorced from religion. However, that is not the source of my criticism. My critique is primarily with the notion that science or, in the case of this latest book, meditation are the best non-religious ways to achieve moral enlightenment and spiritual satisfaction. Clearly there are a myriad number of ways to achieve these things–even, as Harris points out, via some moderate drug use.

I suspect that Harris did not mean to imply that Eastern meditation–or drugs–is the best and only way to achieve non-religious spiritual oneness with the universe, but that is how it comes across, especially when he encourages people at the end of the book to seek out their own gurus with no religious baggage.

I see it a bit differently.

Do you want to learn about the illusion of the self? Why not sit down and read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha or Steppenwolf? You will learn all about it. Pick up any classic work of fiction and you will get into the minds of other people, and learn how they are all built on sinking sand. Do you want to experience pathos in all its excruciating detail? Read Tolstoy’s description of Anna Karenina’s mindset as she travels to the train station, just before she throws herself under the wheels of a train. Do you want to experience the journey of a lifetime in pursuit of enlightenment? Well, sit down and pick up Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge.

It is the issue of alternative routes to the same destination that bothers me, especially in this latest book. I suspect Harris knows all about these alternatives, but in his zeal to lay out a path to non-religious moral and spiritual rejuvenation he has relegated to second class status the learning of history, philosophy, literature, and–Yes!–even religion itself.

It is clear that science is showing consciousness, or the self, to be an ethereal construct of underlying hard-wired biological processes. This is the same argument made by Daniel Dennett in several lengthy and well-written books, and it’s an idea I accept as a valid working theory. However, it’s also an idea as old as the hills.

Okay. Yes. Maybe the self is an illusion? Yes, it is very possible that the more we think about the past and the future the less we will enjoy life right now. Of course, Steven Tyler said the same thing when he crooned “Life’s a journey, not a destination.”

I’m not saying that living in the moment isn’t a profound idea but it seems a bit pedestrian and cliched when compared to the modern zeitgeist. Hell, even Joel and Victoria Osteen would argue for living in the moment, although they might add that to do this one must “let go and let God.”

The idea that spirituality can be reduced to diminishing the illusion of the self does not seem to take into account all the other experiences we might have where the self gets magnified, or even absorbed. Mr. Harris would probably know what I’m talking about if he thinks about how it feels to speak to a crowd of well-wishers. Those who do popular public speaking, or write books, do it not just to make money but because it feeds the ego (or the “self”). Those who deal with the public may experience the curious sensation of having their egos both stroked and destroyed at the same time. In these venues the ego might become both distinct and annihilated at the same time; there is always the chance one will experience in these venues a certain level of esprit de corps.

Another problem with Harris’s approach is that halfway through the book I started thinking, “Who the hell is he writing this book for?” I was getting so bored with all the anecdotes about this guru and that guru that I just wanted to put the book down. The subtitle is “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” but it contains all of five pages about meditation techniques and then encourages people to find a duly non-dogmatic personal guru who can train you in the techniques of hard-core Eastern meditation. How many of us are going to do that!? Who has the time, or the money? Also, why would we need to do it when there are so many more accessible alternatives?

The idea of striving to get rid of the self is somewhat paradoxical. After all, isn’t the striving itself an indication that one’s self is still in the driver’s seat. Wouldn’t those truly stripped of self just say, “Fuck it!” and walk away? “Why strive at all?” The whole idea of self-abnegation, whether it be the abnegation of the body or consciousness, has always struck me as a bit nihilistic. Not that nihilism doesn’t have some appeal. I think the idea of absurdity is a great way to get your head on straight–or go mad. However, there’s no need to mediate. Read the New Testament, read Rabelais, read Sartre, and by all means read Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett! Watch Doctor Who. Go to Comic-Con. Do some cosplay. Or, if you really want to blow your mind read through Richard Feynman’s 1963 lectures on Physics.

You do not need meditation to make your self feel small and insignificant. Talk to an astrophysicist. Try to actually imagine a universe that will last trillions of years. Attempt to wrap your head around the tens of billions of miles that separate us from our nearest solar neighbor. Hell, just learn about our solar system if you want to know where you stand as an individual human being. You could die tomorrow and a few dozen people might mourn your death but the other seven billion will go on as though you had never existed. Even those few dozen folks who mourn at your grave will have largely forgotten you a few years from now. Talk to a paleontologist and marvel at the five mass extinctions that have occurred on this planet already, an event that is again not only possible but likely to happen at some point in future human history.

Do you want awe? Do you want wonder? Do you want to know fear or exhilaration? Then look at the world around you, not just civilization–yes, surely a great human achievement–but at all the life and death that surrounds us on this planet and in the universe. It is both horrifying and beautiful at the same time because of the odd relationship between destruction and creation.

In the end, so-called spirituality–the loss of self–should be no more fetishized than a good orgasm, a good meal, or a good concert, not necessarily to be had in that order.

My biggest concern is that Sam Harris in his earnestness to make atheism more appealing to a general audience has fallen into the trap of selling a different type of snake oil. What if spirituality itself is all shit, on par with religion? Sure, it may be a more benign form of snake oil because it is free of religious dogma, but how soon will the world be divided between those who meditate and those who don’t? What of the recent notion that personal empathy is a bad foundation on which to build a societal ethic?

There is no Truth; there are only truths. There is nothing that is being purposely kept secret from us; there is only that which is not yet known and which we can learn if we will. Those who claim you have to go through a long eight-step process lasting years to learn a simple truth are just dealing hokum. Nothing but life itself is that difficult to learn, although Calculus and Physics come close, at least for me.

My own “awakening” occurred in the summer of 1995 as I finished Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. It was not Sartre’s book itself that led to my awakening; it was years spent in emotional and psychological agony rooted largely in my conversion to fundamentalist religion fifteen years earlier. Over that time I went from religious zealot to nihilistic depressive to being horrified at the thought that there was nothing more than the physical world. Then, I stared into the abyss, as Nietzsche once described it, and came away more whole than before. In a way, Harris is right, my awakening did come through a letting go of the self, but that self had been manufactured by my own fears and insecurities, and the expectations of a society full of contradictions.

That summer Sartre’s work was a catalyst. It allowed all the philosophy, science, history, and comparative religion I had immersed myself in over years to become the source of my own personal enlightenment. I closed that book and had one simple thought, “I’m not going to do this anymore!”

It has now been twenty years since I made that decision. I have missed neither religion nor God since. However, it took me years to get to that point. Had Harris been writing in 1990 instead of now I probably would have been pulled into his orbit, convinced he had finally found “the answer.” After all, my first year as an Evangelical Christian found me reading a book about Christian Buddhism. I was always far too ecumenical for my own good, and always willing to believe in a world that could only be known through gnosis.

Now, though, I am finding Harris’s perspective thin intellectual gruel. It cannot compare to being elbow deep in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rahner, Kung, or Niebuhr. It is not as delightful as the works of Dostoevsky, Melville, Hawthorne, or Flaubert. In fact, I’m not even sure Harris’s latest effort has the spiritual force of that great sci-fi series Red Dwarf.

Harris’s suggestion that we take a journey deep into the self so that we can prove to ourselves that the journey was pointless in the first place seems like a grotesque proposition. It seems likely to create a lot of depressed, cynical, and nihilistic individuals with nothing to cling to after the fact, except maybe neuroscience and subjective empathy. Yes, War and Peace might also make one depressed, cynical, and nihilistic, but it will also help you to explore the alternative notion of human meaning through family and duty. Flaubert might do the same, possibly convincing you to just try and enjoy simple domestic pleasures.

In the end, I am uncomfortable with Harris’s latest book because it seems stripped of any intellectual foundation except a scientific understanding of the human brain and paying attention to one’s breathing. While I agree with Harris that it is important to understand the human brain from a scientific standpoint, and that this knowledge can greatly influence how we view ourselves and the world around us, I just can’t help but think this view also has the potential to set us socially, morally, and psychologically adrift.

I am sure it was not Harris’s intent, but this latest book, if read in isolation from his other work, comes dangerously close to encouraging a purely subjective and relativistic view of life. I’ve read all of Harris’s other stuff, and to be honest, I’m not sure this book can be interpreted any other way.

A more cynical person might also suggest that this book was simply the product of a desire to fulfill a multi-book publishing contract, or the silly brainchild of an editor trying to appeal to the market for woo. I truly hope my cynical side is wrong, but either way this book is not worth reading if you are interested in exploring the subject of spirituality outside a religious context.

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