Review of Sam Harris’s “Waking Up,” Chapter 1

To put Sam’s intentions in my terms, he wants people to learn to access experiences most people’s brains are capable of, but that aren’t widely promoted in western culture. He thinks this will be good for them, and for anyone they might encounter, and given the values with which my history has provided me, I agree.

Unfortunately, he thinks that describing such pursuits as “spiritual” adds something to the discussion, while I see it as adding a “woo” element that does nothing except widen its appeal among “spiritually inclined” folk at the same time that it mangles clarity.

Take this passage, for example:

The promise of spiritual life—indeed, the very thing that makes it “spiritual” in the sense I invoke throughout this book—is that there are truths about the mind that we are better off knowing. What we need to become happier and to make the world a better place is not more pious illusions but a clearer understanding of the way things are.

The phrase, “there are truths about the mind that we are better off knowing,” makes perfect sense all by itself. To add that the pursuit of such truths is “spiritual” gives it a label that doesn’t add any greater clarity of meaning than it already has. The same is true of his expressed need for “a clearer understanding of the way things are.” Such an understanding can have ethical implications and make us happier without labeling it “spiritual,” and giving it that label doesn’t make “the way things are” any clearer.

Clarity is further undermined by a loose usage of “consciousness.” In some cases, consciousness is described as having different “states”—ordinary and non-ordinary. At other places he talks about observing the contents of consciousness, as if consciousness were a kind of container that remains the same while its contents change.

I think consciousness only has two states—on or off, conscious or unconscious. Being conscious requires a certain minimum level of activity in certain parts of the brain. What one is conscious of is determined by where that activity is concentrated—what neurons and neurochemicals are involved. Sam’s MDMA experience thus would not involve a particular state of consciousness, but a particular level of activity in certain parts of the brain involving dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

Rather than think of consciousness as something that has states, or as a kind of container, it may be more accurate to think of it as analogous to waves in that both require a certain level of activity in a medium—liquids, gasses, or electromagnetic radiation for waves, and neurons for consciousness. Waves and consciousness are not “things,” they are particular activities of things—no activity, no waves, no consciousness. To paraphrase Dogen, one of those Eastern guys, consciousness in certain parts of the brain is seeing, in other parts of the brain is hearing, in other parts of the brain is love, and in other parts of the brain is euphoria. It’s all just brain activity, but some of it can be fun, good for you, and have ethical implications. Calling certain areas of activity “spiritual” doesn’t make them any more fun, or better for you, or alter their ethical implications.

Sam has the same problem that all the religious folk have, except that while he recognizes it in them, he doesn’t seem to see it in himself. Here’s the problem:

. . . the terms spiritual and mystical are often used to make claims not merely about the quality of certain experiences but about reality at large. Far too often, these words are invoked in support of religious beliefs that are morally and intellectually grotesque.

The universal problem with talking about feelings or emotional experiences is that we have no alternative but to use the concepts we’ve been provided with by our personal history within a given culture. By the time Sam had his MDMA experience, he had already acquired certain ideas about love, anxiety, envy, etc., and by the time he came to describe his memories of the experience to us, he had acquired many more, which color his recollections. Someone with a different background would likely describe the same brain phenomena in different terms.

Thousands of people have taken MDMA since Sam did, and their brain chemistry was altered in similar ways, but I doubt that all of their lives were transformed in the same way. How we interpret any experience depends on the context we bring to it, and everyone’s context is different. It seems unlikely that telling all those people they had had a spiritual experience would bring their interpretations into line with Sam’s.

Under the influence of the drug, it occurred to him to imagine a stranger entering the room and being engulfed in the feelings he was having, which suggested to him that love is fundamentally impersonal. I would add that his interpretation of such feelings could be extended much further. If it had occurred to him, he could have looked at the couch he was sitting on, the walls of the room, the floor, a light fixture, and included them all in his feeling of love. That feeling can encompass any thought or object of perception, depending on one’s predisposition—context is crucial.

Sam seems to know the value of context when he talks about the pain of lifting weights:

Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.

In his descriptions of the value of meditation, and the possibility of having different experiences than we may have imagined, he is attempting to describe such experiences—and to give them a context—that will make us think of them as desirable. It’s like convincing a weight-lifter that, “No pain, no gain.”

The difference between meditators and non-meditators is a difference in awareness of it and beliefs about it, which Sam is trying to change:

Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. Until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists, we are entirely at the mercy of appearances.

You have to believe such an alternative exists before you’ll be motivated to work toward it. Sam wants to give you such a belief, and yet he says,

. . . the difference I am describing is not a matter of achieving a new conceptual understanding or of adopting new beliefs about the nature of reality.

Our beliefs about the nature of reality affect how we view meditation and what we expect from it. Meditation may reinforce certain beliefs, and what it reinforces is likely to be what we’ve been led to expect. Consider these examples:

Both Eckhart and Al-Hallaj gave voice to an experience of self-transcendence that any human being can, in principle, enjoy. However, their views were not consistent with the central teachings of their faiths.

The term, “Self-transcendence” sets up expectations about what meditation may reveal about the nature of reality. The brain can produce many strange experiences, with or without drugs, but whether these have anything to do with objective reality can only be determined by recourse to reason and evidence.

Hopefully Sam will clarify what self-transcendence and the illusion of self mean at some point, but putting them aside for the moment, the two people he’s referring to did disagree with the mainstream, and yet their religious backgrounds led them to connect their experiences with god. Some Indian traditions consider similar experiences to be merging with the Self, capital “S,” while Lao Tsu refused to describe it: “The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.” Some Zen traditions deal with the problem of translating “self-transcendent” experiences into language by saying that as soon as you open your mouth you are wrong. Our preconceptions determine our interpretations.

The problem with the  kind of meditation one encounters in silent retreats, of which Sam admits to a cumulative experience of two years, is that any insights one has in them are context specific. Once the retreat is over, the meditator must translate the insights they had in that specialized environment into the diverse circumstances of the everyday world, and one hears the complaint that after years of such meditation, their lives are hardly different. As Sam says, “it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.”

There are other kinds of meditation one can do while out and about in ordinary life, and that have their effects in that context, which is where most people want them. Perhaps Sam will get to those in later chapters.

In my view, meditation can educate our brains about abilities they have that are not taught as part of general education. Attention can be shifted from language processing areas, which our social existence gives high and sometimes unnecessary priority, to other areas that can be beautiful, entertaining, and euphoric, but which are often neglected. Access to these areas can make our lives much more interesting, and can alter our views of our selves and our fellow humans for the better, depending on the attitudes we bring to them.

Sam’s first chapter gives a “spiritually” tainted view of such possibilities, but readers who can see past his biases will find some useful information. I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

In the meantime, I’ve put together a book of my own which covers some of the same territory, although with a very different perspective—the word “spiritual” doesn’t appear once. It consists of slightly edited transcripts of audio recordings I made starting in 1981 under the influence of speed, pot, caffein, nicotine, and alcohol, and following an LSD experience I’d had the day before. The last recording was made in 2008 after 24 years drug-free, except for caffein.

I’m hoping to have the ebook published in a few weeks, but the original recordings are available on my web site now. I rearranged them for the book, so if you want to listen to them in the book’s order start with Episode 7, then 8, 9, 10, 11, 2, 3, 4, 1, 5, 6, 12, and 13. I’ve added an introduction and afterword, and inserted some contemporary comments in the text.

Book Cover
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