A guide to meaningful meditation-A book review
Posted on May 5th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

Scientists believe that, with the discovery of evolution (which is the most plausible scientific theory about the origins of life on earth), humanity has emerged from an era of benighted ignorance and false beliefs into a brave new age of knowledge and reason. They predict that the first century of the new millennium will see the end of religions unless they adapt to the science-based modern world as effective ethical systems devoid of dogmatic ideologies that clash with one another as well as with reason. The alternative eventuality of religious ideologies replacing science and turning nation states into theocracies is inconceivable.

It is against this background of a continuing test of strength between reason and religion that I wish to outline here my personal response as an interested lay reader to Dr Sam Harris’s book, New York Bestseller, ‘Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion’(Transworld Publishers, London, September 2014). The book provides ‘a guide to meditation as a rational spiritual practice informed by neuroscience and psychology’. The title, no doubt, rings a bell for those readers who are acquainted with Buddhism. It is likely to remind them of the Pali word ‘bodhi’ which means ‘awakening’. The Buddha is the Awakened One or the Enlightened One. The goal of the Buddhist teaching is ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’. However, by writing this book the author does not mean to propagate Buddhism as a religion. His opposition to all forms of religion is well known, and his impatience with Buddhism interpreted or presented as a faith based religion is as obvious as it is with other religions. But he assures the reader that he ‘won’t ride the same hobbyhorse here’ (i.e., that of criticizing religion). Dr Harris is clearly attracted by the Buddha’s unique teaching about the human mind.

At the beginning of the book, Dr Harris says: Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. …………Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life – you won’t enjoy any of it”.

Echoing the Buddha’s famous advice to the young Kalamas who consulted him about whose teaching to accept among the rabble of mutually antagonistic teachers who visited their township and discounted each other’s doctrines but praised their own, Dr Harris cautions the reader: Nothing in this book needs to be accepted on faith”. What he advocates is an attitude of independent inquiry on the part of the reader. He rejects the religious features of Buddhism as it is traditionally practiced as being alien to its pristine teaching. Dr Harris writes: ‘Buddhism without the unjustified bits is essentially a first person science’. He declares that ‘there is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom’.

The ‘spirituality’ that he talks about is not what the word usually means in traditional religious systems. The book is not about ‘Buddhist’ doctrines and practices, either, though his idea of spirituality is close to the Buddhist concept. Having argued why spirituality should be separated from religion he points out that, nevertheless, profound psychological truths can be observed in the ‘rubble’ (of traditional religion), though he does not agree with the explanations given for them in such belief systems. Dr Harris makes this claim referring to an ‘epiphany’ he had in a drug induced state of consciousness early in his youth, which immediately opened doors to the realization that after all ‘saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds’. He discusses how insights gained in meditation confirm ‘some well established truths about the human mind: our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world’. Actually, he uses the term ‘spirituality’ for lack of a better term for an aspect of natural human experience, which became irrationally mystified in medieval religion.

Dr Harris explains why spirituality must be distinguished from religion. Different religions cannot adduce such spiritual experiences as ‘self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light’ etc as evidence in support of their traditional beliefs because their dogmas are logically incompatible with one another, and also because such transcendent experiences are not the exclusive preserve of followers of a particular religion or of any religion; people who reject religions too experience such states of mind. So he concludes that ‘A deeper principle must be at work’. Spirituality consists in realizing this principle.

What is this principle? The answer to that question is the subject of the book. Elaborating his meaning here, Dr Harris adds that the feeling that we call I” is an illusion. There is no self or soul that is perched in your brain ‘somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself’. This erroneous sense of a non-existent self is a source of the suffering or unsatisfactoriness that is our common lot as humans. It may be that we inherit suffering and confusion by birth, but an escape from it is possible; wisdom and happiness are available. This is through altering or completely extinguishing the sense of I”. Getting rid of the I” illusion is the ‘awakening’ that is meant here. The individual who is lost in the feeling of I” can be considered asleep and dreaming. In that sense most of us are asleep all of the time. Dr Harris explains what is possible: ‘The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields’. He maintains that ‘Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion’. The basis of spirituality according to Dr Harris is ‘Investigating the nature of consciousness itself – and transforming its contents through deliberate training’.

To achieve a temporary suspension or the entire extinction of the feeling of self, strong skills of introspection are necessary, and these can be developed through meditation. Dr Harris turned to Eastern contemplative systems such as Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism for practicing meditation when still young, and he has had many years’ experience in meditation including vipassana meditation taught in Buddhism. Whatever claims he makes for the efficacy of the practice of meditation are based on personal experience. The whole purpose of meditation is arriving at consciousness without the sense of self. The book offers valuable hints for serious practitioners of meditation. It sounds some warnings about the danger of pathological responses to meditation occurring, a field where little research has been done. This is a problem that meditation teachers and students must both be aware of and guard against.

Concern for children in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous due to divisive religious fanaticism accounts for a fair share of the author’s motive in writing this book. He believes that children must be saved ‘from the terrifying ignorance and fanaticism of their parents’. Education is the only way this can be done. In the concluding part of the book, he says, ‘We must decline to tell our children that human history began with bloody magic and will end with bloody magic in a glorious war between the righteous and the rest’. However, Dr Harris qualifies this with: ‘Such sins against reason and compassion do not represent the totality of religion, but they lie at its core. As for the rest – charity, community, ritual, and the contemplative life – we need not take anything on faith to embrace those goods. It is one of the most damaging lies of religion – whether liberal, moderate, or extreme – to insist that we must’.

The author pleads for spirituality in the sense elaborated in the book. According to him, spirituality ‘remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. People on both sides of this divide imagine that visionary experience has no place within the context of science – apart from the corridors of a mental hospital. Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms – acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence – our world will remain shattered by dogmatism. This book has been my attempt to begin such a conversation’.

About self-transcendence, Dr Harris writes: ‘The conventional self is a transitory appearance among transitory appearances and it vanishes when looked for. We need not await any data from the lab to say that self-transcendence is possible. And we need not become masters of meditation to realize its benefits. It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves and, in this way, to become better able to contribute to the wellbeing of others’.

The concluding paragraph of the book is: ‘We are always and everywhere in the presence of reality. Indeed, the human mind is the most complex and subtle expression of reality we have thus far encountered. This should grant profundity to the humble project of noticing what it is like to be you in the present. However numerous your faults, something in you at this moment is pristine – and only you can recognize it. Open your eyes and see.’

Nearly a quarter of the book comprises Acknowledgements and Notes. Informative and comprehensive, these are an integral part of the volume. They together shed light on certain important points in the text that need additional background information for the general reader to understand the central thesis of the book.

Dr Sam Harris is a neuroscientist with a PhD from UCLA and a degree in philosophy from Stanford University. He is a cofounder and the CEO of Project Reason, a non-profit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. His website is at SamHarris.org

 

2 Responses to “A guide to meaningful meditation-A book review”

  1. Metteyya_Brahmana Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Rohana!

    I think the book is miss-titled; it should be “‘Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without [dogmas]”

    A religion free from dogma is not a threat to spiritual awakening, but from your description of the book it appears that the author is asserting that all religions are dogmatic, or like many in the West, he does not consider Buddhism a ‘religion’.

    Nonetheless, his focus on removing the “I am” fetter is spot on, so the book is probably worth reading.

  2. Metteyya_Brahmana Says:

    Rohana,

    Although this does not concern his new book, I just read an email exchange between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky, and I think Harris is in the American Exceptionalism camp – America can interfere anywhere in the world as long as it has ‘good intentions’.

    Like Chomsky, I firmly disagree with Harris’ position on that, as American Exceptionalism is just a euphemism for ’empire thinking is OK’. All empires believed they were acting based on good intentions, but this does NOT give them a right to meddle in and control other countries. In fact, the meddling itself is anti-democratic, as it completely ignores what the people of the country want and IMPOSES the empire’s desires and values either through force, the threat of force, or through softer means like controlling the public discourse by gaining influence over the local media.

    The softer approach is what happened in the January 8th election. For several years the US Embassy in Colombo was touting “good governance, democracy, and rule of law” as central problems they wanted to see fixed in Sri Lanka, and then this becomes the platform of the opposition candidate for president and the ONLY issues the local ‘free’ media talked about in the run-up to the election. A truly ‘free’ media in a country doesn’t just talk about what some foreign country wants to see fixed, they take a truly INDEPENDENT stance and focus on what is best for the country long-term even if this conflicts with what some powerful foreign country wants to see happen.

    The co-opting of the non-government media by the US is the great untold story in Sri Lanka. Hiding behind the banner of ‘free press’ and the frustration of many journalists who felt oppressed by the prior government, the US got the ENTIRE private media in Sri Lanka to promote the US issues in the January 8th election in Sri Lanka. The public discourse then centered on how much power the president had instead of what would be the result and whether this result would be in the best interest of Sri Lanka if you transferred the presidential power to an un-elected prime minister.

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