“Waking Up” by Sam Harris: Spiritual Atheist, Meditation Advocate

It is always now. This might sound trite, but it is the truth. It’s not quite true as a matter of neurology, because our minds are built upon layers of inputs whose timing we know must be different. But it is true as a matter of conscious experience. The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world. Sam Harris, Waking Up

Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris is not religious—and he’s actually well known for that. But just because he’s an atheist doesn’t mean he’s not interested in spirituality—so interested in fact that he’s now written Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

Why write this book? From Chapter One:

Twenty percent of Americans describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. One purpose of this book is to give both these convictions intellectual and empirical support.

How does Harris view spirituality? Kirkus Reviews: “The author recognizes that the term “spirituality” comes with loaded meanings, but here he uses it to refer to the transcendence of self. Early on, Harris describes his book as “a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the sense of self we call ‘I’…my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.”

His emphasis? Buddhist-based mindfulness meditation.

Kimberly Winston, Washington Post: “…Harris is a long-time practitioner of Buddhist meditation… (E)veryone can, through meditation, achieve a ‘shift in perspective’ by moving beyond a sense of self to reach an enlightening sense of connectedness — a spirituality.”

More explanation from Publishers Weekly: “Expanding upon concepts posited in The End of Faith and Free Will, neuroscientist Harris draws from personal contemplative practice and a growing body of scientific research to argue that the self, the feeling that there is an ‘I’ residing in one’s head, is both an illusion and the primary cause of human suffering. Through meditation, this illusion can be extinguished, resulting in a deep sense of personal well-being regardless of circumstances, and also in compassionate and ethical behaviors toward others.”

What kinds of things might interfere with mindfulness meditation? Harris: “The principal enemy of mindfulness [is our] habit of being distracted by thoughts. The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing that we are thinking…[T]he difference between ordinary experience and…‘mindfulness’ is not very clear, and it takes some training to distinguish between being lost in thought and seeing thoughts for what they are.”

SELECTED BOOK REVIEWS

A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically: “I recommend this book regardless of your belief system. As befits a book called Waking Up, it’s an eye opener.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Since the author is primarily a philosopher and a scientist, not a lifestyle counselor, readers expecting a user-friendly how-to manual on becoming more spiritual will no doubt be perplexed and disappointed, but they will come away having been warned about unethical gurus and bad drugs.”

Daniel Goleman, author Emotional Intelligence and Focus: “Sam Harris ranks as my favorite skeptic, bar none. In Waking Up he gives us a clear-headed, no-holds-barred look at the spiritual supermarket, calling out what amounts to junk food and showing us where real nutrition can be found.”

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