Waking Up by Sam Harris

waking up

When I was a child I used to get travel sick. Just travelling a few miles along winding roads was enough to make me vomit into the pot we used to take along for the purpose. After being sick I used to lie down across the back seat, now feeling better for having emptied my stomach, and would either close my eyes and listen to the snippets of conversation that went backwards and forwards between my family, or stare up at the ceiling of the car and at the branches of trees and the sky going by above me.

Perhaps it was the odd perspective – we don’t usually see life from upside down or notice the sound of a voice rather than the content of the conversation – but there was something pleasant about just lying there, listening and watching. There was no need for me to do anything. At that moment I was no longer feeling sick and I was going somewhere with my family. That was enough.

After reading Sam Harris’s new book Waking Up I was reminded of those moments because that is how I pictured his idea of ‘selflessness’. Harris is convinced that we don’t have selves. This is not the same as saying we don’t have bodies, or memories or anything else that we usually associate with being a person. He just believes that there is no separate self inhabiting the body and brain.

This is hardly news to most people. I think a lot of us have dropped the idea that there is a little person living inside us making all the decisions and generally directing us. Some religious people perhaps still cling to the idea of an immortal soul inhabiting the body but even this, I suspect, is just a way of talking rather than it being their actual belief. Most of us feel as though ‘we’ were living just behind our eyes, staring out at the world, but many of us suspect this is an illusion, just as we know a rainbow isn’t physically there. I doubt that anyone believes that if you cut a person open and scrabble around in their innards you will find a self in amongst the blood and guts. No one thinks the self is a physical thing.

Quite a while ago I came to believe that I have a sense of self that was really the sum total of everything happening in my body. This sense is my body’s way of orientating and keeping track of itself. A sense of self is useful for making sense of the world. Many animals also probably have a very rudimentary sense of self, otherwise they would eat their tales and paws whenever they got hungry.

Even so, realising it is a sense of self rather than an actual self can, I suppose, be an important discovery. And once you let the sense of self drop for a moment all that remains is a consciousness of what is going on both around and inside you at that moment. Then even the rumblings of your stomach seem just one more thing that is happening in the world. At such moments you probably look at the world with more equanimity.

When I am on one of my long walks and something gets my attention – a loud car goes by, something blows across the path, a bee flies by – it is only then that I realise I have been lost in thought for the past few minutes. According to Harris, we use the same part of the brain for these automatic ruminations as we do to build our sense of self. This kind of thinking is our default mode and it strengthens our sense of self. But I don’t need my sense of self strengthening any more. I want it reducing and so in that sense I agree with Sam Harris. I just think there might be other, better ways to stop getting lost in thought than meditating.

I think I probably wanted to say more but just ran out of steam so I’ll leave it there.


6 thoughts on “Waking Up by Sam Harris”

  1. In “Waking up” Sam Harris uses the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ interchangeably. Just as he says that you do not have to be religious to be spiritual, so too you do not have to believe in God or be religious to be a mystic.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “The Greatest Achievement in Life,” I summarized many similarities, and some differences, among the mystics of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.

    Ironically, the man who personally introduced me to mysticism was an atheist who once wrote “God is man’s greatest invention.” Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was also a Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago.

    1. Hi Ron,

      Two things. First, I think it is odd that an atheist should think that ‘God is man’s greatest invention’. This is like saying, “Caviar is the best food in the world, though personally I detest it’.

      Second, though you and I both share an interest in the book ‘Waking Up’, nothing in your comment refers to anything I wrote, which is strange in a comment section. Instead you pointed me to your own free e-book. It’s almost as if this were a generalised, copy-and-pasted comment you post on all sites, regardless of what the blogger has written. I always understood that an interest in the spiritual led to a diminution in self-importance. Maybe I was wrong.

      1. You are right in both your first and second responses.

        First, even people who do believe form their own conception of ‘God.’ I use ‘divine’ as a superlative adjective for ultimate reality, regardless of how you name it.

        Second, my reply has been repeated on other reviews of ‘Waking up’ just as my much longer response to Sam Harris’ book on Free Will. In both cases I felt that my comments were relevant to the books, if not directly to the reviews of them.

      2. Selfless moments are wonderful. I remember lying in a melon field, at age 11, looking up at the sky. Gradually, I merged with the clouds, with the field, with everything. There was no sense of ‘me’ and ‘them’ – not even ‘us’ – it was just oneness.

        in the summer of 1959, at age 20, Chandra invited me to visit to discuss astronomy as a career. He told me to come to the Yerkes Observatory just before midnight, when there was less ground light and the sky was usually clear. He had trained their telescope on the Orion Nebula, which is the birthplace of the stars in our galaxy (on the cover of my ebook).

        I viewed the nebula for only about 15 minutes before feeling that I was absorbed in it. 30 minutes later Chandra called out to me, but I didn’t hear him. Apparently I had gone into a trance, something he recognized from his own prior experiences. He stood beside me and gradually talked me down from it.

  2. Yes, but unlike clouds and stars, I tend to lose myself in a good movie or book. Yet I suspect this is not what you are talking about. The feeling of merging with something else and losing our sense of separateness is something I have never felt, nor can really imagine. Either my concentration is on something, at which times I forget myself completely, or I am aware of myself as being separate from my surroundings. At no time do I feel I have ‘merged’ with anything. I either disappear off my radar altogether or I am here and separate. Until I experience such a ‘merging’, I will remain deeply sceptical of other people’s claims to have done so. I see it more as a momentary trick of the brain brought on more than anything by wishful thinking.

    Personally, I prefer to act as naturally as I can (while still remaining within the laws of a civilised society) and feel that if selflessness came naturally to us it wouldn’t be necessary to spend 10,000 hours in the lotus position, cajoling our consciousness into feeling something it doesn’t feel. Even so, I am willing to believe I am wrong on this. It is just that someone (who I don’t know) claiming to have felt his self merging with the galaxy isn’t going to be what convinces me.

    1. The sense of oneness just happens, it cannot be forced even with 10,000 hours of meditation. I know you don’t want to hear about me ebook, but here are two related paragraphs:

      Devotees of mysticism can accept, intellectually, the absolute unity of all existence and ultimate oneness with the divine. Most other people either doubt these concepts or reject them altogether. Suddenly, consciously being in the One can transform some of the aspirants into confirmed mystics or shock a few non-believers into amazement. Each of them may emerge from that direct awareness enlightened; it might just result in their ego inflation or neurosis.

      Many of us have had a brief absorption in universal unity, with no sense of separateness. Unless we were advanced in spirituality, or actively engaged on the mystical quest, the awe of oneness which had we felt was as inexplicable as it was profound. It was impossible to sustain it when we tried to understand it; sometimes it may even have been frightening. We had seemed to have lost hold of “reality.” We actually had a glimpse of true Reality, the nature of being itself.

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