A program of the Center for Inquiry
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, ISBN 978-1451636017) 256 pp. Hardcover, $26.00.
Since the publication of The End of Faith (2004), Sam Harris has been using the empirical method to refute supernatural and paranormal religious claims. However, even in that book he extolled the virtues of Eastern forms of meditation. In his latest book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris makes exceptional claims for what can be achieved by meditating. He attempts to validate much of what mystics have proclaimed throughout history. This review argues that, notwithstanding the benefits of meditation, the empirical evidence just isn’t there to corroborate Harris’s assertions that our sense that we are each a separate self is an illusion and that the meditation disciplines he recommends are the most reliable method for eliminating or reducing human suffering.
Harris has spent more time meditating than I have. I have practiced since 1969 but can’t equal him in actual sitting time. However, even numerous hours of formal “tush on cush” are not sufficient to constitute convincing empirical arguments if objective proofs are otherwise lacking.
From an empirical standpoint, Harris’s two most problematic contentions are that: (a) our conception of being a separate self is an illusion (129), and (b) beginning with Buddhist vipassana (insight) meditation and Advaita self-inquiry methods (23), learning to be present in the “now” is the most important thing for us to understand if we “want to be happy in this world” (34).
Harris says Buddha “was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self” (30). Having awakened, did Buddha view himself as now merged with everyone else so that he could no longer eat, speak, or sleep as an individual? When Buddha approached, did his disciples see one man or an uncountable number of people mushed together so that no individual Buddha could be discerned? If we are not truly separate selves, why does everyone still see each one of us as an individual person, even after we overcome the illusion?
Harris writes that “the true goal of meditation is more profound than most people realize—and it does, in fact, encompass many of the experiences that traditional mystics claim for themselves. It is quite possible to lose one’s sense of being a separate self and to experience a kind of boundless, open awareness—to feel, in other words, at one with the cosmos” (43). If we lose our sense of being a separate self, who is it that experiences oneness with the cosmos? Is there a part of us that is not the “self” but still sufficiently “us” to be able to experience this? There is still an individual person who has this “open awareness” and sensation of cosmic merger. Why can’t we still describe the one having the experience as a “self,” instead of as an underlying consciousness in which “the self or ego is an illusory appearance within it” (129)? What is the difference between experiencing a feeling of being at one with the cosmos as a consciousness, rather than experiencing it as a “self”?
Harris, rightfully, argues that even this consciousness is a product of a functioning human brain (55), “just as the rest of the human mind is” (75). So, if my individual consciousness exists only because of my individual brain’s activity, it is still my consciousness manifesting as an emergent property of my brain and not someone else’s. My consciousness is operative and is part of the individual self that manifests only because of how my individual brain functions.
While gazing at the surrounding hills at the Sea of Galilee, Harris describes a feeling of peace that developed into a blissful stillness that silenced his thoughts. He writes that the sense of being a separate self vanished: he no longer felt that he was separate from the scene or a separate self peering out at the world from behind his eyes (81). Obviously, he really was still separate from his surroundings. He did not literally become a hill in Israel, not even for a second. He writes that this experience started “as I gazed at the surrounding hills” (ibid.). He refers to that part of himself that was gazing as “I.” He didn’t write “as my consciousness gazed.” Practically speaking, when we gaze at something, such as the hills of a landscape, we are peering out at the world from behind our eyes. As even Harris writes, it is the self, the “I” of each of us, doing the gazing. Anyone looking at him during this experience would have still seen Sam Harris, the individual man, regardless of what sensations Harris was feeling at the time.
In arguing that the concept of a separate self can evaporate, Harris says that the surgical division of the two hemispheres of the brain, removing the corpus callosum, would create two independent conscious minds (88). However, he immediately says that these two minds would be “psychologically continuous” with the person that existed before the corpus callosum was removed (ibid.). Considering that Harris also says that “the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next” (89), he is, by his own definition, admitting that even with each hemisphere of the brain’s having independent mind qualities, resulting from an absent or nonfunctioning corpus callosum, there is an ongoing personal identity of one individual that can be called one “self,” in one body with one brain. Though Harris says that consciousness is divisible (71), he also writes that once we get the separate sense of self to disappear, we will experience a field of consciousness that is undivided (129). Adding up everything Harris says here, he is now locked into affirming that surgically removing the corpus callosum would divide consciousness into two independent minds, even in the case of those who have already attained a sense of undivided consciousness through the process of overcoming the notion of existing as a separate self. This shows that the states of mind that Harris claims we can achieve through meditation are ultimately dependent upon the condition of each of our individual physical brains. There is then no reason to regard whatever type of awareness this is as something other than the awareness of a “self” that is playing out as a by-product of the activity of an individual brain, physically separate from other brains.
The question of what kind of awareness persists to experience these states also appears in classic Indian yoga. Among the supposedly very high meditative states, there is a distinction between savikalpa samadhi and nirvikalpa samadhi. The former is used to describe a state that still has “form” or “seed” and involves mental activity.1 The latter is used to describe transcendental awareness without mental activity.2 Who is it, or what part of ourselves is it, that experiences what Harris calls “a blissful expanse of conscious peace” that exists after all thoughts have subsided (127) or after the cessation of mental activity in nirvikalpa samadhi? Thus far, Harris has not empirically demonstrated that the part of each one of us that is having these experiences cannot be described as an individuated self.
The same dilemma affects the Buddhist concept of nirvana. Noted Buddhist author Walpola Rahula writes: “Nirvana is definitely no annihilation of the self, because there is no self to be annihilated. If at all, it is the annihilation of the illusion, of the false idea of self.”3 So, after the “false idea of self” is annihilated, what part of our awareness remains to enter nirvana? Are we already, while still in our present condition, anything like what we will be when we overcome the illusion of self in order to experience this state? To add to the confusion, Rahula, in his glossary, presents nirvana as literally meaning “blowing out, extinction.”4 We still have no reliable evidence regarding how much of ourselves, as we currently know ourselves, will survive this loss of our sense of being a separate self. This reminds me of the topic of meditation in Jewish Zen: “If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?”5
Harris writes, “Altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions” (203). People do experience them. However, there is still no empirically established evidence as to what altered states can accurately teach us about our true nature. Harris admits that psychedelic drugs were indispensable for him to initially be convinced “that profound changes in consciousness are possible” (198). He doesn’t provide any verifiable evidence as to whether these drugs cause mere illusions or bona fide experiences of transcending the sense of self.
He further writes: “We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible” (206). Since he is presenting his meditation experiences as empirically valid, what would Harris acknowledge as falsifying his claims? Does he admit that there are discoveries or states of awareness that, if they occurred, would falsify what he currently believes about meditative states and their implications? He doesn’t mention any.
Harris greatly admires the Indian guru Ramana Maharshi. He appears to accept the claim that Ramana “spontaneously became a spiritual adept” at the age of sixteen (127). How can Harris know this? What is the empirical test that would yield reliable information about whether this claim is true? Harris also writes that Ramana “was said to grow so absorbed by his experience of transfigured consciousness that he remained motionless for days at a time” (128). As credulous as many followers of gurus are, can we trust that those who reported this were dispassionately and accurately describing what really happened?
In more than forty-five years of meditating, I have periodically experienced blissful states. However, I have never gotten the impression that my sense of being a separate self is false. It has always been I, the individual that I know myself to be, who feels these sensations. Even today, I love meditating in the Anza Borrego Desert while listening to Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack for the 1983 science-fiction movie Wavelength. Meditating like this fills me with a wonderfully satisfying sense of joy. Yet, it’s still the individual “self,” which I have always known as “me,” who is experiencing this blissful interlude. The Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga claims there is a mechanism for sensing the existence of God called the sensus divinitatus. If we can’t believe in God, it means that this mechanism, which is supposed to exist within each one of us, is malfunctioning due to sin.6 Would Harris say that my inability to see the illusory nature of believing that I am a separate self, even after decades of meditation, is because I have a defective sensus meditatus, which, if functioning properly, would provide me with the same experiences he has had?
If Harris and I both sat down for a lengthy meditation session, there is no question that I would fidget before he would. However, the ability to sit still for long periods of time does not, in and of itself, empirically validate any claim about what ultimate experiences mediation can yield.
Harris writes that our failure to recognize thoughts as appearances in consciousness “is a primary source of human suffering” (100). He also writes that “Western psychological science” has only recently begun to explore how to become more focused, patient, and compassionate than one naturally tends to be (47). Wait a minute. Modern Western psychotherapy has always taken into account how a well-adjusted person will be more focused, patient, and compassionate.
Even Jack Kornfield, one of Harris’s favorite meditation teachers, recognizes that people frequently suffer continuing emotional pain from prior experiences that mediation alone will not heal. The additional help of psychotherapy is needed.7
My mother, an emotionally devastated Auschwitz survivor, lived with vivid nightmares and excruciating flashbacks. She obtained some relief through sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and some psychotherapy. Sitting with an erect posture and focusing on “the present moment, prior to the arising of thought” (38) most likely would not have reduced her suffering from concentration-camp memories in a more effective way than what she obtained from modern medicine. At a minimum, then, the quest for greater emotional equanimity should make use of both meditation and Western psychological science, without any automatic assumption that mediation will most often be more effective.
Harris writes: “In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life” (206). Excuse me? Play it again, Sam. So, there is a principle that brings value to the universe, identical to ourselves, that we can experience directly, over and above thinking about it? Either prove it or provide us with a surefire technique so we can all experience this.
Harris does not successfully demonstrate that it is more likely than not that our day-to-day awareness of ourselves as a separate being, a “self,” is incorrect. Regardless of what we may experience in meditation, we are still separate human beings in our own separate bodies. Otherwise, how could we say that Sam Harris spoke at the university tonight and not Richard Dawkins? If the notion that we are separate selves is false, how could we ever tell Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris apart?
Harris does not convincingly show that his recommended meditation practices are the most effective means of reducing or eliminating human suffering. However, even if these techniques yield only a modest amount of the benefits that Harris claims for them, they are still worth exploring.
Harris says that nothing he writes “needs to be accepted on faith” and that all of his “assertions can be tested in the laboratory” of our own lives (7). Sam, help me have these experiences in a way that I will have no choice other than to regard them as objectively verifiable by anyone who meditates as you recommend. Then, I will be happy to revise what I have written here.
1. Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga (Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc., 2003) 358.
3. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada (New York: Grove Press, 1974) 37.
4. Ibid., 145.
5. “Jewish Zen,” accessed October 6, 2014, at http://www.jr.co.il/humor/humor674.txt.
6. “Calvin’s Sensus Divinitatis,” Holloway Quarterly, accesssed October 6, 2014, at http://www.hollowayquarterly.com/2013/02/calvins-sensus-divinitatis.html.
7. “Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal,” Jack Kornfield, buddhanet, accessed October 6, 2014, at http://buddhanet.net/psymed1.htm.
Edward Tabash is a constitutional lawyer in the Los Angeles area and chair of the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. He is recognized for his expertise in legal issues pertaining to the separation of church and state. He is also a well-known atheist debater in the United States.
Tabash’s father was an Orthodox rabbi from Lithuania and his mother a survivor of Auschwitz. After Tabash abandoned conventional religion, he spent twenty-five years as a New Age seeker. He became an atheist and a skeptic after realizing that even the most lofty meditation experiences were still only the result of his having a physical body and brain.