Non-Fiction, Print, Self-Help

The Unexamined Mind: A Review of Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

While I have enjoyed Sam Harris’s work both in his writing and in his debates, I’ve found him over recent years to have become guilty of both entrenchment and retrenchment: he doubles down on his “Islam is a religion of violence” rhetoric while at the same time trying to diminish and dismiss critiques of his stance (especially those he’s been expressing on Bill Maher’s Real Time with Bill Maher show recently). This is not to say that I don’t think Harris has, at times, valuable contributions to make. I thought that his The End of Faith was a cogently argued and fairly reasoned approach to atheism, and I have seen him make salient points on a number of related issues over the years.

So what, exactly, is Waking Up, and how does it relate to his previous work? On the surface, it continues with the primary subject of Harris’s public life, which is the refutation of organized religion. He does delve into definitions of religions vs. cults – breadth of acceptance is his baseline, thus making Mormonism a religion whereas Scientology is still a cult – but this is not the main point of the book. Instead, it is to establish what religion is up front, so that he can make claims on the values of meditation without the religious baggage that often accompanies such practices.

Does he succeed? Frankly, not very well. While he does clearly show that, for him, meditation and its benefits are not a religious experience, he can’t avoid the fact that almost everything he understands about meditation has come at the hands of various gurus over the years, most of whom espouse some form of Buddhism or Vedic beliefs. He is able to divorce the religious from the spiritual for himself, and he wants to redefine the latter term in order to espouse spirituality and meditation as a means of understanding the nature of consciousness. In a nutshell, he believes that the true path to enlightenment comes from recognizing that there is no self beyond the fleeting experiences of consciousness, and that once we recognize this, we’ll realize that there is no true Ego, no “I” peering out from behind our eyes at the world.

While I think that this seems an interesting path of exploration, Harris tends to wander a bit in his musings, writing extended sections on the sexual and moral abuses of gurus (though he’s only had relatively good experiences), and spending the last quarter of the book espousing the uses of psychedelics, even questioning at one point, should his daughters not “try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD…whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.” I don’t judge what others wish to do to their bodies and minds, but this is treading on some questionable moral ground here, even for me. Based on his own logic regarding experience and understanding of the self (or lack thereof) that he establishes earlier in the book, it’s interesting that he doesn’t pause to question further whether this reaction isn’t simply due to the way his own mind and consciousness have been altered by years of drug use (in his twenties) and later meditative practices. By it’s nature, the mind in contemplating itself is, necessarily, prone to solipsism and self-blindness even, as Harris would have it, the illusion of self-awareness drops away. Isn’t this oneness with the universe the very definition of Ego? I am the universe, and the universe is me.

Ultimately, the arguments seem to come down to: I’ve had these amazing experiences, and so can you, and then you’ll get it.

Steve’s Rating: 4 out of 10 stars (4 / 10)

Not my favorite work by Harris. The fact it took me three weeks to get through 245 pages is telling. Reads like a self-help manual for meditatives and those thinking about trying psychoactive substances.

Pages: 245 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: September 9, 2014

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