The phrase “spiritual but not religious” irks believers and atheists alike. Sam Harris’s latest book Waking Up is subtitled A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. He gained fame with books bashing faith and promises he won’t do it in this one (but is unable to refrain).
Harris says most of us see life in terms of pleasure versus pain – but there can be more – a deeper contentment grounded not in transitory well-being but rising above that. The key is that the self is an illusion, and only by getting out of it can one access that more fundamental state. We must break from “being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves”* and wake up from the dream of being a separate self.
How? By mindfulness meditation. Harris says that “how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes.” Recently I similarly discussed how happiness is shaped by how you choose to allocate your attention and contextualize experiences. Harris goes further and prescribes “overcoming the illusion of the self by paying close attention to our experience in the present moment.” In other words: not just choosing which aspects of experience to focus upon, but stepping out of the whole web of experience as mediated by a seeming self.
Despite calling the self an illusion, Harris is emphatic that consciousness is not illusory; even thinking about the question proves the reality of the conscious experience. (Cogito ergo sum!) But it’s hard to see how the one can be deemed illusory and the other not. Our (present) inability to understand how consciousness arises, Harris insists, does not gainsay the phenomenon’s reality. (Consciousness must arise somehow from the information processing among the brain’s neurons; there is no other possibility that makes any sense.) We know consciousness is a real phenomenon because we all experience it. Why wouldn’t that apply to the self as well?
But I do recognize how problematic the concept of the self is, and have written about this. Harris argues that one can be conscious without a sense of self, and that while consciousness is undeniable, any penetrating effort to put one’s finger on the self ultimately fails. He strangely omits quoting philosopher David Hume that introspection could never enable him to catch hold of his self. The problem is that he was using the self to search for the self. Similarly, one can’t see one’s own eyes (except in a mirror). But we know they’re there because of the perceptions we get through them. And such perceptions must of course somehow be registered. Consciousness enables that. And a sense of self is a kind of meta-consciousness enabling us to perceive and experience that which is registered.
After all, we evolved a self for logical adaptive reasons. A self that cares about what happens to it is more motivated to act for its survival than a bare consciousness more neutral toward its existence and experience.
And the sense of self, the internal chatter, is not as continuous as Harris says. In fact, it disappears in many circumstances, not just meditation – when one is absorbed in a book, or drama, or task. Indeed, we even speak of “losing oneself” in them!
Furthermore, when Harris asks you to step out of your normal mode and view your experiences from a place apart, as it were, what actor would be doing that if not your self? What “you” is he talking about? This is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Harris’s book: the contradiction between the idea that “an egoic self doesn’t exist” and the idea that we can attain some desirable state (“happiness,” “contentment”) by grasping this – when it can only be the egoic self that does the grasping and, moreover, experiences the desirable state. If the self is an illusion, wouldn’t the contentment be equally illusory? If there is really no self, why does it even matter whether that illusion feels good or bad? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.
Harris acknowledges that no human being can actually achieve the detachment from self that he prescribes except, at best, on a fleeting, momentary basis. Thus he says the goal “is not some permanent state of enlightenment . . . but a capacity to be free in this moment.” Do that, he asserts, and “you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.” Really? I don’t think so. Nirvana for a brief moment might be nice, even eye-opening, but what about the zillions of other moments during which one remains trapped in what Harris reckons to be an unsatisfactory state? He acknowledges this problem but seems to think that even momentary glimpses of the alleged deeper reality somehow change everything.
But in any case, I don’t see the basic point. Even if Harris is right about the self being an illusion, I don’t understand how grasping this helps us live better. I’m not rejecting the evidence Harris presents that meditation somehow can make practitioners feel good. But I question whether something is happening other than the changed understanding he stresses. How, exactly, does seeing the self as an illusion, and (briefly) experiencing consciousness without it, enhance the experience of life? Harris keeps saying it’s so, but never actually explains why and how. Frankly, I very much like having a self.
And as for spirituality without religion, I quite simply prefer life without religion.
* Harris questions why we’re always announcing our thoughts to ourselves. Reading that at an airport, I looked up from the page and saw a pretty girl. “She’s cute,” I duly told myself. Why, indeed? Obviously I already knew it before putting it in words. But words are the medium by which we register and process thoughts. That’s just how our brains work.