When I visit the Amazon page for a forthcoming book by Sam Harris, "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion," Amazon helpfully reminds me that I pre-ordered way back on March 7.
Ooh, ooh! Release date is September 9! Just 25 days and I'll be on my way to waking up!
Maybe. But I doubt it.
I admire Harris, because he is a noted atheist critic of religion who also is expert in neuroscience and has a fondness for meditation, Buddhist variety.
So I'm confident that I'm going to resonate with his new book. It should sell well, given Harris' reputation and his extensive marketing strategy -- which includes three lectures in major cities where attendees will get some bonus waking up.
In these public talks, I will discuss a range of psychological insights that have traditionally been considered “spiritual.” Although they tell us nothing about the origins of the cosmos, these experiences confirm some well-established truths about the human mind: Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and serenity, are teachable skills; and the way we think can profoundly influence our lives and the lives of others.
There is no discrete “I” or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are.
A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism—and from the lives of most people I meet. My goal in these talks will be to offer a compelling and useful investigation of the human mind and to show how deepening our understanding of it can transform our experience of the world and our relationships with other human beings.
Sounds good. Difficult to disagree with much, if anything, Harris says.
Well, unless you're a Christian with a fundamentalist view of your religion. This guy thinks Harris is lying when he puts "spirituality" in his book title, because naturally any conception that differs from the traditional Biblical notion just has to be wrong.
Thus it's a good sign that religious types are criticizing "Waking Up" already. That makes me more confident I'll enjoy it.
Reading a few reviews, though, made me more uncertain. This one, by a member of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, says that Harris is big on Dzogchen meditation. Now I've only read some books about Dzogchen; I've never practiced it.
But my impression is that Dzogchen is just about as filled with unnecessary mumbo-jumbo as other forms of Buddhist meditation.
I could be wrong about this, though. Hopefully Harris is able to show how Dzogchen and modern neuroscience are both pointed at the same secular realization of, as Harris says, no "I" perched behind our eyes.
Another review is quite a bit more scholarly. I didn't feel like reading it closely enough to figure out the reviewer's problem with the book. Harris doesn't agree with Hegel is one complaint. Seems to me this would be a good thing.
On the plus side, it sounds like Harris does his usually great job of making an esoteric subject understandable to a general reader. He did this with "Free Will," a book I liked a lot. Also, of course, in his widely read "The End of Faith."
If more people understand why the notion of a self or soul makes no sense, Harris will have done the world a service. Whether they really "wake up" after reading his book, that's another question.