My churchlessness was wonderfully energized by Sam Harris' "The End of Faith" when it came out in 2004 -- the same year I started this blog.
Harris has a philosophy degree from Stanford and is working on a doctorate in neuroscience, so he's got a balanced perspective on soft beliefs and hard facts.
This morning I picked up The End of Faith and reread the almost-final "Experiments in Consciousness" chapter. I'd remembered that he'd said positive things about mysticism after trashing religion, and was curious to revisit his thoughts after five years or so.
My conclusion: right on, Mr. Harris.
The challenge for us is to begin talking about this possibility in rational terms....It is difficult to find a word for that human enterprise which aims at happiness directly -- at happiness of a sort that can survive the frustration of all conventional desires.
The term "spirituality" seems unavoidable here -- and I have used it several times in this book already -- but it has many connotations that are, frankly, embarrassing. "Mysticism" has more gravitas, perhaps, but it has unfortunate associations of its own.
Neither word captures the reasonableness and profundity of the possibility that we must now consider: that there is a form of well-being that supersedes all others, indeed, that transcends the vagaries of experience itself.
Harris then launches into praise of "mysticism" that is as strong as his condemnation of religion. And he makes great good sense.
Over on this post we've been having an interesting comment conversation about whether Taoism and Buddhism (Dzogchen variety, particularly) can be considered metaphysical belief systems.
I've been arguing, "no." I'm pretty sure Sam Harris agrees. His description of his bookcase sounds a lot like mine, when he says:
Harris has a lot of evident fondness for Buddhism. Me too, along with Taoism -- writings about which occupy center stage on my own bookcase.
Both philosophies are firmly rooted in the reality of everyday human experience, not some airy-fairy other-worldly metaphysics. The passage Harris found in his Buddhist book talks about manifest awareness and the absence of an observer.
It is psychologically profound. Also, entirely consistent with modern neuroscience.
Similarly, the ancient Taoists grasped the importance of "being in the flow" way before sports announcers started saying excitedly, "Man, Kobe Bryant is out of his mind and in the zone! Forty points at halftime!"
My well-worn copy of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English's translation of the Tao Te Ching says on the back cover:
...If we watch carefully, we will see that work proceeds more quickly and easily if we stop "trying," if we stop putting in so much extra effort, if we stop looking for results. In the clarity of a still and open mind, truth will be reflected.
Likewise, Harris writes:
It is on this front that the practice of meditation reveals itself to be both intellectually serious and indispensable. There is something to realize about the nature of consciousness, and its realization does not entail thinking new thoughts.
A few hours ago I started on my almost-daily dog walk, an event that Serena doesn't let me forget. We have two usual routes: a walk through the woods and around a lake that is a bit over a mile, and a more aerobically challenging two mile walk on a paved road loop.
I felt like going on the lake walk. It was evident that Serena was more in the mood for the road (more interesting smells, I suspect). I flowed with Serena. At first. Because when we came to a path that intersected the road, I headed down it.
Serena happily bounded ahead, off her leash. Heading toward the lake, albeit in a more indirect fashion that I at first intended, I realized that this route would have us avoid a hornet nest that my wife had noticed at dog nose height, near the trail on our property, and had warned me about.
It was the familiar "good news, bad news, who knows?" Taoist story.
I head off in an undesired direction, which ends up leading me to where I wanted to go -- perhaps avoiding a stinging problem that the dog and I could have encountered if I'd stuck with my initial conscious intention.
My unspectacular tale is the sort of everyday experience that Harris finds so interesting. And mysterious.
How does our consciousness guide us through life? How does unchanging awareness relate to the everchanging sensations, thoughts, emotions, desires, and such that continually course through our mind?
If these kinds of questions are termed "mystical," its because the answers are a mystery, not that investigating the nature of human consciousness leads us into some metaphysical realm.
But as Harris noted above, thinking about thoughts won't help in studying how awareness functions thoughtlessly. He adds:
We spend our lives telling ourselves the story of past and future, while the reality of the present goes largely unexplored. Now we live in ignorance of the freedom and simplicity of consciousness, prior to the arising of thought.
Religiosity can't exist without thoughts, concepts, dogmas, beliefs, imaginings.
Mysticism (or "spirituality," if you prefer that term) can. Non-religious Buddhists and Taoists are totally happy just being. No need to give a name to this, though "suchness" is used in Buddhism and the "way" in Taoism.
Science and religion have something in common: they both are focused on what exists within existence, on what consciousness is conscious of, on what knowing is knowledgeable about.
Mysticism is centered on bridging, or even dissolving, these dualities. Harris says:
...The experience of countless contemplatives suggests that consciousness -- being merely the condition in which thought, emotion, and even the sense of self arises -- is never actually changed by what it knows. That which is aware of joy does not become joyful; that which is aware of sadness does not become sad.
...The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.