Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

waking upSam Harris is the co-founder and CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading science and secular values. Many of its members speak openly against the dangers and evils of religion, so I find it significant that in 2014 Harris released Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

It’s significant because it’s a risk. It doesn’t play to a large audience. According to the jacket, Waking Up is for the “20 percent of Americans who follow no religion but who suspect that important truths can be found in the experiences of such figures as Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history.”

Most of Harris’ fans are hardline atheists and anti-theists who probably wouldn’t deign to admit that there is such a thing as “spirituality.” Even Harris’ brilliant contemporaries like Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens haven’t entertained “spirituality” with much respect, and I suspect that a large number of people simply never will. So this book is not for them, and Harris has risked alienating himself from some of his own team.

There are also a number of other public meditation advocates who portray reason and rational thinking as an enemy to spiritual progress. Shunning reason has left many of these gurus open to absurd beliefs about consciousness and the cosmos. I assume advising against critical thinking is one of the reasons some of them remain so popular.

When I first became interested in meditation, yoga, and various techniques for the manipulation of consciousness, I went to the beginning. I read several ancient Indian yoga books, doing my best to account for cultural differences. I took claims about conquering death and walking on water with an arched eyebrow, and tried let the exercises and proofs of experience speak for themselves.

As I worked my way through history, things clarified slightly, becoming more contemporary and palatable, but even now the amount of pure garbage written about consciousness is staggering and time-consuming. I wish I had found Waking Up years ago when I first began.

Harris’ writing is clear, his claims based on evidence and experience, and he adds no metaphysical nonsense to the completely practical, physical, real-world exercise of meditation. He also expresses many of the philosophical issues about consciousness in a tidy fashion, peppering in humour and sharp skepticism along the way.

Much of the opening explains what he means when he says “spiritual.” Transcendent experiences are valid, he says, and they have long been misinterpreted through the lens of religion. Granted, some people may never have these experiences, and many will confuse transcendence with moments of aesthetic contemplation or ecstatic bliss (both of which may be extremely valuable), but for Harris, transcendence is the subjective experience of consciousness in a state prior to thought, when the illusion of the self is annihilated.

Of course, we’re all thinking all the time, so getting to that state can prove quite difficult. With years of meditation training, a firm grounding in philosophy and a PhD in neuroscience, Harris gives straightforward advice, tips about the snags and traps one can find on the path of meditation, and ample evidence that meditation is for most people an entirely beneficial practice.

Harris has successfully written a brief but engaging overview of meditation from scientific, philosophical, and personal perspectives. At 237 pages, Waking Up provides ample explanations and citations in the endnotes from a wide variety of sources. Waking Up will hopefully serve as an olive branch to people searching for peace without the usual religious baggage.

Dry Sci-Fi

These past few weeks I’ve been frustrated with science fiction movies. There is no shortage of new ones, but almost none grab my attention. Why would I go to the theater for Transcendence when I didn’t even go see The Matrix? Neither trailer grabbed me. Integrating consciousness with a machine isn’t new, and I’m guessing that’s what Transcendence is about. When I saw The Matrix eventually, I was satisfied that it was basically Star Wars meets Lawnmower Man meets Tron meets church, and I saw all that when I was young.

Science fiction may seem the ripest genre for the film industry, as special effects now allow for so much that would have previously been impossible. But far out gadgets and alien planets have never been the pull for me; they are eye candy, the stuff of trailers. What draws me into science fiction are ideas that excite me because I’ve never thought of them before.

These ideas should form a world that I can recognize, though it is different from the world I occupy. That world should give rise to characters I can relate to, but who are different from the people I know. And these characters should guide me through that world and show me something meaningful. I should come away from a great science fiction story questioning the established models of my own world. In short, my mind should be blown.

Great sci-fi is tough because a lot of great ideas have already been taken. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and remains the all-time champion. The absorbing world of Bladerunner was created in 1982, and in 2009 new 3D technology and a $250M budget didn’t bring Avatar even close. Alien and Terminator were solid, but didn’t blow my mind.

Are we running out of good ideas? No. There are more ideas out there than ever, and new ideas come from novel combinations of previous ideas. Inspiration shows us ideas from a new angle. Primer, Children of Men, Moon and Upstream Color are all great modern sci-fi movies that got me excited about the genre again despite the fatuous Hollywood remake of Solaris. Looper was pretty decent too.

But no matter how enthused I get about sci-fi, there’s still something that turns me off from going to the theater for blockbusters like District 9 (which I eventually saw and did not enjoy) or Gravity or Oblivion or Transcendence. Maybe it’s the trailers that turn me off, or the word of mouth, or maybe it’s the audacity of studios putting hundreds of millions of dollars into old, mediocre ideas, but I have no desire to encourage them by seeing their movies at the theater.

I must be missing some gems, so if anybody out there wants to enlighten me, leave me a list of your favorites in the comments.