Review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, June 2, 2015)

I recently finished Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and found it a welcome addition to the literature on mindfulness. It also adds to the growing literature that tries to find alternatives to the antiquated religions which are slowly losing their appeal for millions of people. (Just this week a new Pew study chronicled the decline of religion in the USA.)

Anyone familiar with some of Harris’ other works (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and Letter to a Christian Nation) knows that he is an atheist, but readers of this book will find out, surprisingly perhaps, that Harris spent many years learning meditation techniques from Buddhists masters. This insights derived from his meditative experiences leads to his basic prescription for attaining spirituality without religion—Buddhist based mindfulness meditation. Such meditation leads to realization that what we call the self or the ego is essentially an illusion. (I have written previously about some of these topics herehere and here.)

Harris claims that while anyone can experience the insights derived from meditation, “Only Buddhists and students of Advaita Vedanta … have been absolutely clear in asserting that the spiritual life consists in overcoming the illusion of self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.” Harris believes that eastern religions are clearly superior to their western counterparts for attaining spiritual insight. By contrast, “As manuals of contemplative understanding, The Bible and Koran are worse than useless.” Of course Harris notes that not all “Buddhists and Hindus have been sophisticated contemplatives,” for those traditions “have spawned many of the same pathologies as we see elsewhere among the faithful: dogmatism, anti-intellectualism, tribalism, otherworldliness. ”

But the differences between western and eastern religion can’t be overstated. Interest in controlling the mind and understanding the nature, cause, and the ways to end suffering are enough for those who want to travel the eastern paths—no supernaturalist beliefs are needed. Buddhism and Advaita Hinduism are mere lab manuals that help one explore human consciousness. And, as Harris puts it, “My purpose in writing this book is 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.” This journey of self-understanding is one that we should all attempt.

(Disclaimer – I have tried to judge this book on its own merits. I know that Harris is a controversial figure, and I disagree with many of his political and philosophical views.)

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