Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris (Simon & Schuster), $26
The popular characterization of New Atheism has drawn enough attention to how its members convey their ideas (they’re “outspoken”) to somewhat occlude what those ideas are. For those who know the New Atheists as their media personae, Sam Harris’s Waking Up stands to radically disrupt the simple portrayal. Though the book is “without religion,” it is nevertheless “a guide to spirituality” – something New Atheists aren’t supposed to have, even if many atheists do.
But to anyone who has followed Harris’s writing career, this is a book that’s not entirely unexpected. Among the best known critics of religion, Harris is uniquely willing to engage spirituality, including in his bestseller The End of Faith,where in the final chapter he begins the argument that Waking Up continues: religion sometimes features genuine spiritual experiences, and just because it often interprets them mythologically rather than rationally, it doesn’t follow that the experiences themselves aren’t occasions for profound insight.
On his website, Harris writes that he has “been waiting for more than a decade to write” this book and that his interest in human consciousness long predates his desire to criticize religion. This, then, is the book for which his previous work has tried to clear the way. What fruits does Harris’s rational spirituality deliver?
Waking Up is a short book comprising several shorter books. Harris refers to it as “a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unravelling of what most people consider to be the centre of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call ‘I.’”
Of all of this, the memoir sections are the most engaging, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them. Harris’s prose has always been distinguished by its clarity, which he maintains even when turning his attention to the kinds of inner experiences that often produce overly flowery writing. His cool approach to his past drug use, meditation, and esoteric studies earns him significant credibility when he goes on to explore their philosophical implications.
First-person writing can also be more effective than third in examining the nature of consciousness. Harris’s “I” – because of the intimacy of reading – feels more compelling to the reader than does the abstraction of “the self.” Writing a self-help book – which Waking Up becomes at points – Harris must convince his reader of both an affliction and a cure, something that’s best accomplished through testimony.
But Harris is content to lean lightly on memoir before moving into his preferred mode of third-person writing. Demonstrating his vigorously commonsensical thinking and usual authoritative tone, his scientific and philosophical arguments are forcefully advanced. The illusory nature of the “I” is rigorously supported by research both scientific and introspective, to the extent that proving the soundness of this position – rather than guiding the reader in meditation – comes to be the book’s primary function. The instructions for meditation that do appear are simple and nicely stripped of jargon and metaphysics, but the book emphasizes meditation as a way to confirm the illusion of self more than as a way to increase human flourishing. While Harris might say these are effectively the same thing, the question raises an important challenge to the project: Do the subjective rewards of spirituality depend on their correspondence with the real?
Harris describes his purpose for writing the book as being “to encourage you to investigate certain contemplative insights for yourself, without accepting the metaphysical ideas that they inspired in ignorant and isolated peoples of the past.” Though he does invite the reader to employ the scientific method, he is nevertheless offering a substitute metaphysic, one in which the self is seen as illusory. It could be that he is right on the subject (I, for one, think he is), but the fact remains that Waking Up has to be read as a work of intellectual advocacy rather than as a practical guide. The experiment you run on your meditation pillow merely confirms or disproves the hypothesis that the “I” is an illusion.
Nevertheless, Harris does think meditation can improve the quality of our lives. Western culture assumes the stream of thoughts running through our minds is who we are and that this is a normal, even healthy, state of affairs, but Waking Up attests that identifying with the contents of consciousness is just one way of experiencing, not the way things are, and argues that it’s a way that can be improved upon. In this, Harris joins a tradition as old as meditation itself. Of course, arguments for meditation do not meaningfully bear on anyone’s subjective experience except insofar as they convince some to pursue a practice. Waking Up could be not like the raft that you abandon once you’ve crossed the river but like an easy-to-read map guiding its follower right up to the river’s edge.