May 2nd, 2015

Books!

An unexpected seeker's memoir ...

I think it is very fortuitous that I hadn't read Sam Harris' Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion prior to a book I reviewed a week or so back, as had Harris' book been “fresh in mind”, the other would have suffered more in the reviewing. Just as I was hoping in my review of that other book that there might be someone “who will take the useful concepts of this and run with them”, this comes close to providing the sort of narrative for a “rational religion” (or, as the sub-title would have it: spirituality without religion). However, upon further reflection, I believe that I found out about this book when doing some background research for the review of the other ... so there's a timeline involved.

Given that I've read and reviewed most of Harris' books, I ended up chastising myself that I hadn't recalled some of the notable bits of his biography. Admittedly, I read The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation more than seven years ago, but I very clearly was commenting in my review of the former about the author's spirituality … yet this was something that rather blind-sided me in the current book. Who would think that the clear-headed Atheist of “Letter” would have been a life-long seeker of things spiritual? But, there it is, the author is another inquisitive mind digging into psychology, brain science, and practicing Buddhism … hardly what one would expect for somebody whose name rolls off the tongue with “Dawkins”, etc. This is hardly a “Pilgrim's Progress” for the Atheist camp, but Harris does define it thusly:

This book is by turns a seeker's memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I”. I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. … Just as a modern treatise on weaponry would omit the casting of spells and would very likely ignore the slingshot and the boomerang, I will focus on what I consider the most promising lines of spiritual inquiry.
I'm sure that the author could have produced a tome many times this one's length had he indulged in a fine sorting of gems out of dung, but he does keep this moving along on a particular heading ... which can be reasonably triangulated with notes such as “many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception” which is countered with “millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available” … i.e., there seems to be something happening out there (or, more to the point, in here), but the valuable bits are hard to isolate when encased in the deposits of bronze-age belief systems churned through millennia of power-hungry control freaks.

Waking Up takes the reader through a journey across five specific sections, each covering several sub-topics … the main chapters are “Spirituality”, “The Mystery of Consciousness”, “The Riddle of the Self”, “Meditation”, and “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles”. His first steps are to sort out the bits from the other bits of religion, and how these can't (or shouldn't be) seen as equivalent (please pardon the extensive quote, but I found his analogy quite on-target, along with its surrounding contextifying material):

Devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that theirs is the one true and complete revelation – because that is what their holy books say of themselves. Only secularists and New Age dabblers can mistake the modern tactic of “interfaith dialogue” for an underlying unity of all religions.
I have long argued that confusion about the unity of religions is an artifact of language. Religion is a term like sports: Some sports are peaceful but spectacularly dangerous (“free solo” rock climbing); some are safer but synonymous with violence (mixed martial arts); and some entail little more risk than standing in the shower (bowling). To speak of sports as a generic activity makes it impossible to discuss what athletes actually do or the physical attributes required to do it. What do all sports have in common apart from breathing? Not much. The term religion is hardly more useful.
The same could be said of spirituality. The esoteric doctrines found within every religious tradition are not all derived from the same insights. Nor are they equally empirical, logical, parsimonious, or wise. They don't always point to the same underlying reality – and when they do, they don't do it equally well. Nor are all these teachings equally suited for export beyond the cultures that first conceived them.
As opposed to some of his previous books, Harris doesn't spend a lot of time picking apart specific religions (although he does have a few zingers strewn throughout the text!), but he walks through the various chapters in a fairly logical (albeit, frequently from a Buddhist perspective) progression. The “Spirituality” chapter covers “The Search for Happiness”, “Religion, East and West”, “Mindfulness”, “The Truth of Suffering”, and “Enlightenment” … an arc which is obviously informed by Buddhist thought, but the specifics are hardly doctrinal, with his looking at ancient Greek philosophy, the lens of Theosophy in popularizing Eastern thought, the mysticism indulged in by Newton, and the phenomenon of the Dalai Lama. At one point he is contrasting the east and west version of medicine and spirituality … with the West being clearly the place you want to find your medical care, but things are flipped around when it come to spiritual traditions:

As manuals for contemplative understanding, the Bible and the Koran are worse than useless. Whatever wisdom can be found in their pages is never best found there, and it is subverted, time and again, by ancient savagery and superstition.
Much is made here of meditative states, and there's even a box with how-to instructions, with the Cliff's Notes versions on Suffering and Enlightenment, which gives an opportunity to criticize his stances, if one is coming from the hard-core Atheist camp.

The second chapter looks at Consciousness from both philosophical and medical standpoints … asking questions about “transporter” tech (if the transportee has appeared at the destination before the de-materialization of the traveler at the source, is the subsequent removal murder?), with fascinating materials about patients whose corpus callosum is severed, rendering the two halves of the brain virtually independent, creating a situation where there is, for all intents and purposes, two people in the one body. Indeed, other studies show that the corpus callosum can't sufficiently transmit enough data to “synch” the two brain halves in even undamaged brains, leading to the assumption that there are always multiple “consciousnesses” operating (an example he gives in this section is when you can't remember a name that you know you know … one part of the brain knows the name is known, but the operative part can't, for whatever reason, access that data point … a frustration that I frequently have!).

In the third chapter,”The Riddle of the Self”, where he contrasts what he calls “the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness” with the general feeling “that our experience of the world refers back to a self … a center of consciousness that exists somehow … inside the head” … and tries to pick out what it is that we call “I”. His aim here is to argue that “the conventional sense of self in an illusion – and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment” … and he posits that “the selflessness of consciousness is in plain view in every present moment – and yet, it remains difficult to see.”, which leads him to discuss (and instruct a self-guided demonstration) the “optic blind spot” as an example of a similar “not noticed” but clearly evident (once one finds a way to see it) reality. He goes quite a bit into the “Theory of Mind”, and material related to that, from Jean-Paul Sartre to V.S. Ramachandran.

The chapter on Meditation is largely grounded in the author's own practice, and the studies he made with various teachers from a number of traditions. There is also a basis here in more brain biology, examples of perceptive quirks (negative space being “filled in” as an actual present element, etc.), some general philosophy, and even some art … which leads to a sidebar called “look for your head”.

The final chapter, “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles” gets into the crunchy bits … in talking Gurus, he notes how Alan Ginsberg was strident in his defense of some of the more extreme (and challenging to justify) actions of “crazy wisdom” Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa (whose books I've read, and who I had the chance to hear speak once … an engagement he arrived at several hours late), he paints G.I. Gurdjieff as a “gifted charlatan” (despite the popularity with “smart successful devotees” in his lifetime, and the on-going influence of his writings), discusses Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and rattles off a string of others, ranging from Joseph Smith to L. Ron Hubbard, and even Charles Manson. He does almost a side-issue section on Near Death Experience reports, focusing largely on the Evangelical Christians who have grabbed on to the NDE stories as “proof” for their version of Heaven (frequently with details as ridiculous as Hubbard's DC-8 space planes) … based on reports that “seem especially vulnerable to self-deception, if not deliberate fraud.” This does allow Harris to transition to the drug discussion, as (in opposition to the insistence of the Evangelicals that these visions are unique and have no parallel in other contexts) they are almost exactly like DMT experiences, and he even throws in a long quote from psychedelic adventurer Terence McKenna to give a first-person narrative to the comparison. He discusses various psycho-active compounds, some from his own experiences, others from related literature, and looks at how various drugs interact with the brain's chemistry. One interesting bit goes back to Aldous Huxley, where it's suggested that the main function of the mind is to act as “reducing valve” to filter down what ends up actually being part of our awareness … Harris argues against this on a number of functional and medical bases, but he gives the concept its due.

His conclusion wraps things up pretty well (given as open-ended a subject as this), with at least one good jab at religion: “sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, but they lie at its core”, which sets up what could be viewed as a closing statement:

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. … Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms – acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence – our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.
Needless to say, I found Waking Up both a surprising (the “seeker's journey” that I hadn't expected), and delightful read. While I'm certainly “in the choir” to which Harris is preaching, I'm also hoping that others will read this and (in the last words of the book) “open your eyes and see”. This just came out last fall, so should be out there in the surviving bookstores. I got mine through the new/used vendors (“like new” copies are going for about 1/5th of the cover price), and the main on-line guys have it at a substantial discount (oddly, this is only available in the US in hardcover, although there's an export paperback available via the used channels – at twice the price you could get the hardcover – go figure). I highly recommend this to anybody who has an open mind about what it means to be conscious.


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