IN WRITING WAKING UP, Sam Harris’s promise is to provide a rational approach to spirituality, a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain and a manual of contemplative instruction. He keeps his promise with a book that is meaningful for secular thinkers bringing, as he does, philosophical rigour and scepticism to topics like consciousness and self-transcendence. The result is eye-opening, mind-changing, life-awakening.
Why bother with spirituality, Sam? Aren’t you the ‘vocal critic of religion’ who regards all the world’s faiths as overgrown cults and ‘intellectual ruins maintained at enormous economic and social cost?’
It turns out that Sam Harris is a serious student of the Buddhist mystical tradition and of meditation. In his 20s he spent 2 years in silent retreat in increments of 1 week to 3 months, practising for 12 to 18 hours each day. From these experiences, and from his continued practice, he has interrogated the nature of human subjectivity and arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing irrational about certain classical spiritual phenomena. Contemplation, self-transcendence and spirituality can be explored in the context of our modern understanding of how the brain works and bring with them a new freedom from quotidian misery: ‘Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available.’
How? By finding release from what Harris calls ‘the juggernaut of the self’, that ruminating, querulous, dissatisfied character who seemingly inhabits our heads. You know — ‘me’. The true subject of the book is dispensing with conventional notions of the self and recognising them as illusory: ‘The sense we are unified subjects is a fiction.’
This viewpoint is commonplace to mystics and contemplatives of various traditions through the ages, but counter-intuitive, even unsettling, in a culture of finding your purpose, living your passion and expressing your best self far and wide. A sense of self throughout life is surely one reliable existential fact. Whatever else, I am uniquely and continuously me. And I’m special! But Harris numerates examples from neuroscience and medical science that challenge our common sense apprehension of ‘me’-ness. Where is it located? Where do thoughts arise and where do they go? There is no region of the brain that can be the seat of a soul. When we start to search for where ‘I’ reside in my head, it proves elusive. Like that old Irish mystic, Yeats, asked, is the chestnut tree the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
As Harris demonstrates, there are multitudinous neural processes, networks and structures that give rise to consciousness. And it is consciousness that gives rise to thinking and subjective awareness. Taking ourselves to be a separate self living in our heads, the thinker of that ‘ceaseless string of words’ is merely the product of a living brain. Thinking is still indispensable, of course. You couldn’t stop anyway, no matter how many years you spent in silent retreat — but failing to recognise our thoughts as nothing more than transitory products of consciousness is the source of much human suffering.
Sam Harris says: ‘A condition of selfless wellbeing is there to be glimpsed in each moment,’ moments when we are not lost in a miasma of our own making. And the means of such glimpses, Sam? Mindfulness and meditation ‘to the point of stability.’
MUCH OF WHAT we know about mindfulness from a thousand upbeat listicles is predicated on a strengthening of the sense of self. It’s about paying attention to your thoughts, savouring the moment, listening carefully, chewing with more appreciation. Calmer! More focus! Weight loss! Longevity!
This is not Sam Harris’s view of the purpose of mindfulness and self-awareness.
In a blog post on his website he defines mindfulness as ‘the careful non-judgemental attention to the contents of consciousness in the present moment.’ Those contents are what we see, hear, feel, notice – not just what we think. We tend to think that our thinking is all there is, but it constitutes only part of our subjective reality. And not a happy part. Our merciless self-dialogue is more often than not unproductive and repetitive. We are usually mildly unhappy and at odds with ourselves, despite the many privileges of our first-world lives.
Harris points out that ‘we can use our thoughts as an antidote’. We are free to look on the bright side in any given moment, or at least remember that more awful things could be happening. And we can give thanks. Being grateful for the good things in life may sound trite, but it does ‘increase one’s feelings of wellbeing, motivation and positive outlook towards the future.’
For many people, the attentiveness required to notice and interrupt miserable thought patterns and replace them with sunnier ones is what mindfulness is all about. But we still haven’t arrived at Harris’s more subtle understanding of the word as that condition of selfless wellbeing. To glimpse that is to seek self-transcendence by noticing the contents of consciousness.
Consciousness exists prior to thought. Thoughts are like little mushrooms poking up from the ground. What we are trying to do is touch the soil. Harris says: ‘Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents.’
There is no world out there that we witness and report back to the voice in our heads. The world and all the objects of experience exist in the context of our consciousness. Where else could they exist? He says: ‘Anything that is unique to your experience of the world must appear amid the contents of consciousness.’ We do not understand the mechanics yet, but ‘these contents depend on the physical structure of your brain.’
Consciousness is intrinsically free and does not feel like a self. That persistent feeling of me-ness is a product of thought. Mindfulness allows us to experience thought as another product of consciousness, as impermanent and evanescent as clouds we can see scudding across the sky. Grasping on to thought closes the blinds. Being freely aware, moment to moment, of the flow of life lets in the sunshine.
THE HABITS OF being distracted and lost in thought are hard to shift. Meditation allows us to train our minds and disrupt the misery of rumination. If we want to understand the way our minds work, it is worthwhile sitting quietly and observing them. Harris says: ‘meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. How could that not be a skill worth cultivating?’
There are many benefits to physical and mental health from cultivating a meditation practice, such as:
- improved immune function
- lower blood pressure and cortisol levels
- reduced anxiety, depression, neuroticism and emotional reactivity
In those upbeat listicles, these are the point. But with Harris as our guide, we are seeking the deepest goal of spirituality: freedom from the illusion of the self. There is a paradox here: ‘to seek such freedom as though it were a future state to be attained through effort is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment.’ I am reminded of TS Eliot in ‘East Coker’ — ‘I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope; For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.’
Sam Harris has explored this paradox in his studies with Burmese and Indian meditation masters. It encompasses dualistic and non-dualistic understandings of consciousness.
Dualistic mindfulness is exemplified by meditation techniques like counting breaths or reciting a mantra to calm the monkey mind and focus attention. This proceeds on the illusion of the self. Harris says: ‘One feels one is a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, that can strategically pay attention to the breath or some other object of consciousness because of all the good it will do.’
Dualistic mindfulness is often ‘in order to’ mindfulness — meditating in order to improve memory or sleep better or break a bad mood etc etc. The danger of practising with a self-improvement agenda is that you are back to grasping on to thought.
Non-dualistic mindfulness seeks to close the gap between the observer and the observed, between ‘reality’ out there and ‘me’ in here. We do not witness the flow of life: we are the flow of life. There is no self behind it. All you have to do when meditating is to notice the character of experience as it appears in consciousness. This apprehension is always available, but it must be practised ‘to the point of stability’ and without ‘succumbing to the dualistic striving that haunts most other paths.’
It may take years of observing the contents of consciousness — or it may take only moments — but it is quite possible to realise that consciousness itself is free, no matter what arises to be noticed. Meditation is the practice of finding this freedom directly, breaking one’s identification with thought and allowing the continuum of experience, pleasant and unpleasant, to simply be as it is.
AND SO, BY realising that consciousness is free, we are released from the juggernaut of the self and arrive at selfless wellbeing. Not all-day, every-day as this freedom cannot be found ‘without looking carefully into the nature of consciousness again and again’. But the practice wakes us up to a richer life, greater equanimity and a more visceral understanding of our true nature.
That word selfless troubled me while I read and reread this book. It hints at self-abnegation, self-effacement. Accepting that the self (me!) is a non-unified fiction and that freedom is selflessness seems counter-intuitive. Self-transcendence sounds pretty blissful, until you consider it means existing beyond normal experience, which sounds a little … extreme.
Besides, personality is stable over time. I was conscientious and tidy at 11, and I remain so in mid-life. And what about all my memories! But Sam Harris is ready for this resistance. He admits that we are physically and psychologically continuous over time, even though we mature, develop and change significantly in response to life’s circumstances. It is convenient to ascribe these changes to the self, but that entity is not the spiritual self he refers to. He says: ‘Most of us feel that our experience of the world refers back to a self … to a centre of consciousness that exists somehow interior to the body. This feeling can be altered.’
This is my favourite passage in the book:
When I pay attention it is impossible for me to feel like a self at all: the implied centre of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows. That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not fearful.
In order to discover the ‘happiness and wisdom’ that can be awakened through a non-dualistic spiritual practice, my difficult first step is acknowledging that ‘me’ in all my infinite variety is, after all, an ‘implied centre of cognition and emotion’.
But the idea of consciousness not being confined by what it knows resonates, bell-like. I recognise that; I can come to know that. It hints at an energy that is sometimes faintly intelligible to me now. It shimmers with meaning of — what? Eternity? Mystics seek a communion with the divine, and perhaps this communion can be made with ourselves. Perhaps to do so is to apprehend our deepest sentience before and between the birth of each new thought.
While reading, I found myself drawn to my ancient copy of The Four Quartets. The pages are covered in the tiny, precise writing of my 18 year old hand. I recognise that the consciousness that produced that handwriting is not the same now — I am not who I was, as Sam Harris says. But I am newly struck by the longing, the humanity and the truth of these words:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Quote: TS Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, The Four Quartets
Image: Cortical Columns, Greg Dunn